I am more and more sure that the path to joy is both simple and certain. We have entered into a new year, Christmas is passed, the first week of 2014 is almost over as I write. How wonderful it would be if we could take, with diligence, the pathway to a glad heart throughout the upcoming years! “And everlasting joy shall be upon their heads” is the climax of a glorious pilgrim chapter in Isaiah (Isaiah 35:1-10), ten verses that encompass salvation history. They begin with wilderness and exile and end where the Book of Revelation concludes, “where sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Revelation 21:4-5).
Isaiah thirty-five reminds me again of two men, Adam and Christ. Throughout the book of Psalms we see the unmistakable threads of two kinds of men as well. This theme commences in the first Psalm and we see the godly person is rooted by waters, and delighting in God, meditates day and night in His law, whilst the ungodly is like the chaff the wind drives away (Psalm 1-6). The first man, Adam, had a divided heart, was expelled from Paradise and found himself exiled from the delights of Eden along with his wife and sorrow and sighing became commonplace and has been our lot ever since; thankfully, not overwhelmingly so, but every little joy proves to be fleeting and tinged with its opposite. The pursuit of joy was implicit in the lead up to Christmas, and then, it is passed, over and gone. Yet, almost forgotten in the celebrations of most people, is the Second Man, Jesus, though some rejoice with glad hearts as they are reminded of His coming at yet another Yuletide.
Yule is an archaic word and refers to Christmas Day itself, although, originally it celebrated a pagan festival which the Christians ‘took over’ and used as an opportunity to remind themselves of the advent of the Lord. So, we look at Jesus and see that He came into the wilderness place and when He did there was rejoicing even there in the wild places of exile (Isaiah 35:2). That Isaiah chapter is certainly a poetic, prophetic and picturesque way of describing the incarnation of our Lord Jesus! “God will come” (Isaiah 35:4). “He will come and save you.” So, the chapter begins and ends with joy. There was joy at the birth of Jesus, is that not so? “Good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10). And we ought not to stop there, “FOR, unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” He Himself, the Savior, Christ the Lord, is the source and secret of joy! Thus did the shepherds who heard that message hasten to Bethlehem and found the babe lying in the feeding trough surrounded by domestic animals no doubt, and gazed upon Him with wonder as both Joseph and His mother were surely doing.
And, I think that it is right here that we find the place from which a joy filled life emanates. Gazing at Him Who is the fountainhead of gladness and happiness, Jesus. I cannot conceive that those shepherds entered that rude and possibly smelly barn like place and spent their time looking at the décor. In my heart I am sure that the creatures in their places were watching, their eyes upon the babe in the manger also. Then, when the magi came, probably months later, they were not preoccupied with anything other than that which had gripped their hearts on their long journey, “we have seen His star in the east and are come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2). The wise are those men and women who walk and pilgrim through life’s journey with their eyes fixed on Jesus; and they taste of eternal joy on their way and their path leads to joy that passes not away. What a simple secret this is, a single-eyed looking unto Jesus no matter what comes is sufficient for us to gain perspective and the sense that that which underlies all of history is the exuberance of God in what He is accomplishing in His creation! The shepherds were the rough and the poor of humanity, they came and they saw Him. Amazed, they were transfixed at the sight, and the wise men, the cultured of the earth, the intelligentsia, came, saw, worshipped and departed with joy.
The divided heart is the pathway to tension, weariness and a kind of unremitting sadness. People who are looking both ways get worn out in their looking. The double minded drinks a cup that dissatisfies. I read the other day a humorous statement that said, “Being a Presbyterian may not save you from sinning, but it will take the joy out of it!” A bit unkind to Presbyterian folks and doubtless we could put in ‘Baptist’ or “Charismatic’ or whatever, but it does describe the experience of partly changed lives; those who are trying to look both ways at once. If we live with a divided heart pulled this way and that, our eyes being constantly drawn to other things we shall be miserable Christians and not joyful ones. Perhaps some of us have got just enough of Christ’s things to make sinning miserable but our very half-heartedness is what defeats us as we attempt to walk with God. He must be one hundred percent Lord of our lives and not even ninety-five percent. Remember, we can gauge our heart condition by where our eyes are constantly gazing. If we hold back five percent, that tiny percentage is sure to get us in the end, it will be the little crack into which the wedge of sin is driven that will split us into bits later on. Where are we looking? Back in that cattle shed the eye of every creature was upon Him, in the grip of the wonder of what was taking place as the Invisible and Incomprehensible God chose to become visible and to make Himself known.
The well of our hearts must be emptied of earthly cares because these become clogs in our inner man. Perhaps we can picture these ‘earthly cares’ somewhat like the animals in the stable that day, they are present, part of the creation but we do not get the impression that they crowded into the wrong place. There are earthly ‘animal like’ beasts of burden elements that are part and parcel of what it means to be human and live on earth, but these must find their appropriate place and not be primary but secondary matters and so they will not spoil our increasing gladness as our eyes are fixed on Jesus. When we contemplate the coming of the Lord Jesus we should understand that He desires to be known and to be looked upon. He Who was hidden behind a veil in the Old Testament is now revealed in flesh and through the veil of that physical frame diffused the glory of God. We, with single eye must look upon Him, lying in a manger and resting in the lap of His mother Mary, with rich understanding conversing with the religious leaders in the temple when He was twelve years old, returning to Nazareth and fulfilling His responsibilities as a son to His mother and siblings, emerging to accept His vocation publicly in His Jordan baptism by John, battling and overcoming the adversary and his temptations in the wilderness place. And so we could go on, there is so much to contemplate about our Lord Jesus. He is preaching on a hillside, unfolding the laws of the kingdom of God, announcing that it is here, He never says that it needs to be built, the Kingdom of God IS, it has ever been, it is the realm of God, that life in which God the Eternal has ever dwelt as Three Persons.
We are quite wrong to sing that we are “Building His kingdom.” His realm has ever been we are to be born into it and enter more fully into it as we receive and maintain a child-like heart and disposition. The proud do not enter therein but remain in the smallness of their self-importance. Gods’ kingdom is an immense kingdom; it is at hand, always, and shall come in its completeness when its King returns in His glory. Do we contemplate the Lord Jesus, with single eye and do we continue to do so in all adversity? This is the great secret of the joy that strangely comes to the soul that looks and keeps looking, even when times are hard. We follow Him with our hearts attention as He moves through Gethsemane, in an agony of prayer and watch as He is abused of men of high degree and low until He is hung upon the tree. But we must also follow on and behold Him free among the dead and ruling in Hades, a strange mystery to which Peter possibly alludes (1 Peter 3:20). The “harrowing of hell” as some of the poets have put it. One thing is sure, Jesus was not held by death, His soul was not left in Hades (Acts 2:27). He was victor there as everywhere. Yet we must not stop, for we behold Him raised on the third day, appearing to those chosen beforetime with this first word on His lips, “ Fear not, rejoice and be glad” and showing them His nail pierced hands (Matthew 28:5-9, John 20:20) “then were they glad when they saw the Lord,” they were amazed and gladness and joy flooded their souls (Luke 24:41, 52). And while we linger in our ponderings around the events of the cross and resurrection can we possibly believe that every eye was not upon Him? He had said, “and I, if I be lifted up, will draw all unto Me” (John 12:32). Every eye beheld Him there, some were drawn to mock, others were drawn to weep, others to believe, still others gambled nearby, drawn to display their callous and casual attitude toward such suffering, He, upon that gibbet was the focus of all attention. Turning our eyes to Him, considering Him and fixing our eyes upon Him is the key.
Our divided hearts attempting to gaze in two directions at once must perish. “Unite my heart to fear Thy Name” (Psalm 86:11). “Teach me Thy Way,” the songwriter cried. We must become people of ‘the one thing.’ One thing I DESIRE AND SEEK (Psalm 27:4), one thing I KNOW (John 9:25) and one thing I DO (Philippians 3:13); here is the pathway to the increasingly joy filled life. Thank God that Jesus says, “I will DRAW unto Me” and “The Father draws” (John 6:44). Let no one resist those strong urgings by which the hearts of His people are drawn to live looking unto Jesus! We are not alone, left to our own energies; His Spirit is constantly at work to glorify Jesus (John 16:14), to turn our eyes upon Him so that we look full in His wonderful face. This reminds me of the short prayer sometimes known as ‘the Jesus prayer.’ There have been multitudes through the centuries that have used it, repeating it over and over again, sometimes to the rhythm of their inhaled and exhaled breath. I wonder if anyone reading this has attempted it, almost like a mantra, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” It is simple, profound and rich with truth. It is a confession, but sometimes I have wondered if it is sufficient. In it, repentance of heart appears to be elevated into a place not really appropriate. We are left, looking at ourselves; our guilt seems to be what still occupies a dominant place. A long time back I read somewhere that on his deathbed John Wesley was heard to make a confession that turns this around, apparently he said, “I the chief of sinners am, but Jesus died for me.” At times, I have talked with both men and women who, in their childhood, lived under the shadow of parental disapproval, almost as though they were saying to their father and mother “have mercy on me.” Does God want us to constantly talk to Him this way? I am certain that He wants us to fix our eyes upon His Son, not on our guilt but on His grace and goodness. Not upon our failure (though we will recognize it the more we see Him) but on the complete salvation He has accomplished for us. The language of forgiveness and pardon will fill our vocabulary and the result will be fellowship unto a joy-filled life.
Thus the parched ground of our hearts shall become a pool and our thirsty souls shall become places of springs of water, and where the ancient dragon had his lair shall be a fruitful place (Isaiah 35:7). Is it by chance that the writer to Hebrews, in His letter and in the very chapter where He exhorts his readers to run the race “looking unto Jesus,” and, telling us to “Consider Him” (Hebrews 12:2-3) he also exhorts us all to “therefore lift up the hands that hang down and the feeble knees are to be strengthened” (Hebrews 12:12) a direct quotation from Isaiah 35! He even writes of the danger of being turned out of the way and surely that Isaiah chapter is still in his mind (Hebrews 12:13&14 cf Isaiah 35:8-10) when he is thinking of the path the redeemed are to walk, the road to a joy filled life. And so we who are attentive and growing in wisdom live “looking upon Him,” and we sense Him say, “fear not for all things shall be well.” Then, every eye shall see Him, whilst we who see Him now with the eyes of faith, taste the first-fruits of His victory and drink His cup of joy and look with increasing expectancy for His coming in glory.