“2016 end already.”
“I hate you 2016.”
“Worst. Year. Ever.”
I’ve seen and heard a lot of this, this year, and I’ve felt it too. In some ways it feels like pieces of my childhood were progressively being buried with the passing of Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). A lot of people that made music I wasn’t allowed to listen to growing up passed away (Prince, George Michael, David Bowie) and it wasn’t until the montages I realized they were the soundtrack to life in America.
In some ways I think we felt the losses in pop culture even more because we turn to pop culture to escape the culture around us—and boy did it feel like we needed an escape this year. I argued with people about the election, said harsh things, apologized, heard harsh things, forgave, wrote about it all, and found myself the target of internet trolls.
Racial tension spilled out into the headlines and made us all feel powerless, and angry, and discouraged, and numb. Zika knocked on our doorstep in Florida. Civilians were massacred in the Middle East while we squirmed in our seats and looked at our phones instead. (And those phones—our favorite refuges—either caught on fire or made it impossible for us to plug our headphones in.)
But many of the posts and words I hear about 2016 weren’t about any of these things. Instead, they were about a phone call in the middle of a fun project that told a friend that her sister-in-law was in critical condition.
They were about cancer test results that came back with the minor-percentage outcome everyone feared and came back again with more of the same. They were about relationships splintering and words that couldn’t be taken back and jobs being lost.
But 2016 wasn’t the worst year ever.
I’ve spent a lot of time recently in the beginning of Isaiah and it’s given me new eyes to see my own age. The people in Isaiah’s day living in the kingdom of Judah felt like they were riding in a paper boat during a hurricane. The great world powers around them shook and the whole world trembled. To make things worse, even the smaller nations are ganging up on Judah. The result, “The heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isaiah 7:5).
But to this fearful people, Isaiah’s message is meant to bring conviction, hope, and encouragement. We need the truths of Isaiah just as much today as they did.
God Was on the Throne in 2016 and Will Be in 2017
When we think of Isaiah’s powerful vision in Isaiah 6 we often forget how it starts: “In the year king Uzziah died…” (6:1). The nation was in mourning and uncertain about the future. They’d just lost a king and part of the point of Isaiah’s vision is that God is saying, “No you haven’t lost your real king.”
Isaiah sees “the Lord sitting upon the throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (6:1). The temple, the most sacred and beautiful and holy place can’t even contain the glory of the train of God’s robe. Later God says not to fear what everyone around them is fearing, “But the Lord of Hosts…let him be your fear…” (9:8). God’s people should be far more concerned with who God is and what he’s doing than they are with Assyrian politics.
The outcome of the Presidential election isn’t what’s going to rule your life. The outcome of those medical test results isn’t what’s going to rule your life. Your company’s growth or downsizing plan isn’t what’s going to rule your life. Your relationship status isn’t what’s going to rule your life. God is on the throne. He ruled in 2016. He will in 2017.
God is Working His Redemptive Plan in 2016 and Will Be in 2017
Isaiah doesn’t show us a small God intimidated or pushed around by Assyrian or Egyptian power. This is a God who is pushing Assyria and Egypt around. He’s moving them like pawns on a chess board. Even God’s people are being prepared to go into exile and reemerge. Why? To accomplish his redemptive plan. Quietly, away from the halls of power, God is doing something that will change history for centuries after we forget the names of the kings of the ancient world.
Even amidst the dark times of Isaiah here’s what he has planned:
- “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14)
- People in darkness will see a light and the nation will rejoice again and all warfare will be done with forever because “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder” (Isaiah 9:6).
- From the line of David, a descendant will come: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jessee, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him” (Isaiah 11:1). And this descendant will bring peace forever.
Consider this: Every year in Isaiah’s time was a year in which God was slowly, carefully, perfectly, advancing his plan. Not one year was wasted or was a setback to the plan.
And we have the amazing privilege of not just looking forward to these promises but back to the fulfillment of so many of them: The virgin did conceive and bear the son of God. The light shone out into darkness. The Messiah king from David’s line came. And he did far more than God’s people could have even dared dream or hope in the Old Testament. We still wait on this king Jesus to bring to pass the fullness of all Isaiah prophesied, but we wait with hope, knowing he is working.
This year was a good year because it was a year God worked his plan: in our world and very personally in your life. No geopolitical event will stop what he’s doing, and the things we fear are only tools in his hand. No personal crisis can destroy God’s purpose in your life if you are in Christ. God is working: slowly, carefully, perfectly, for your good and for his glory (Romans 8:28).
God Was Purifying His People in 2016 and Will Be in 2017
One of the most unexpected themes in Isaiah is the theme of the judgment of God’s people—which often doesn’t fit with the verses we pull out and place on coffee cups and Christmas decorations. But this is in fact how the whole book starts: “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me…Ah! Sinful people laden with iniquity…” (Isaiah 1:1-2).
Passage after passage calls out the sin of God’s people: “cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:16-17). But God’s purpose is not to completely crush his people, instead to bring repentance: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.”
Now applying passages like this to ourselves and our day we have to make a complicated leap. God was doing many unique things in Judah’s day that we can’t apply to ourselves: the progressive revelation of the sin problem, and unique redemptive purposes for that specific nation. But in our lives, God still works to purify us today.
In the New Testament Hebrews 12:6 tells us that “the Lord disciplines those he loves.” And that word “discipline” is a little broader than it sounds in English. It can definitely be corrective but it can also be “training.” Even on the other side of Christ, God still works to purify and train his people—to help them put off sin and put on righteousness. 1 Thessalonians 4:3 tells us what God’s will is for us: “your sanctification.” God wants us to look more like Jesus.
Maybe in 2016 circumstances revealed some things in your heart: maybe you don’t trust God the way you thought, maybe a sin issue runs deeper than you expected, maybe you’re not as patient as you like to think. These things may not feel pleasant, but they are good if you remember that ultimately God desires to make you more and more like Christ.
Maybe you have less money, but more trust in God. Maybe you have fragile health, but a deeper joy in God. Maybe you have less faith in American institutions, but more faith in God. Those can all be good things.
Looking Forward to 2017
I’m naturally oriented to do two things: I live in the future, and I’m a pessimist. When I peer into 2017 I’m naturally fearful, but I shouldn’t be. Isaiah is putting his hand on my shoulder and telling me what I need to hear:
“I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him” (8:17).
Next year here’s my plan: I will wait, I will hope.
Next year here’s His plan: he will work, he will act, he will rule.