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You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Isaiah 55:12

The desire for joy is universal. One thing that unites everybody here today is that we all want to be happy. Blaise Pascal said it well:

“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” [1]

The desire for joy is never more intense than when we experience sorrow. Some of us carry great burdens, absorb great pressures, endure great disappointments, experience great struggles and live with great sorrows.

The champion for your joy

Over time, this fatigues the body and it drains the soul. So when you experience sorrow you need to know that God is for your joy. You may say, “If that’s true you’d better give me a good reason to believe it.”

We saw last week that the cross is your reason to believe it. Christ carried your sorrows, and He did this for the joy set before Him. He did it so that there would be a joy set before you.

If you believe that the Son of God loved you and gave Himself for you, you know that God is totally for you. And if God is totally for you, it must follow that He is for your joy. In fact, God is more for your joy than you are. CS Lewis says this about our desire for joy:

Our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half hearted creatures fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. [2]

Joy in Unlikely Places

Isaiah identifies three scenes of human sorrow:

The barren woman

“Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child” (v1).

To understand this you need to know that in the ancient world the family was the key to survival. Sons and daughters would work your land and bring you food. They would care for you when you were old.

So the key to survival was to have children–lots of them! Without them, you would be destitute. In the ancient world, the barren woman had a bleak future of loneliness and poverty.

The deserted wife

“’You were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit–a wife who married young, only to be rejected,’ says your God” (v6).

There are folks here today who know what this is like. You married young. Some guy told you that he loved you. It seemed that things would work out well, but it wasn’t long before he lost interest in you.

All your dreams of joy were shattered. You were “distressed in spirit.” You lost confidence. You felt that your life was at an end. There will be some folks who are right there today.

The ruined city

“O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted…” (v11).

What a picture that is for us this weekend, when so many have lost their homes, their property, and must begin the long, painful process of rebuilding their lives.

There’s more here than storms of violent weather. One writer translates Isaiah’s words as “a tempest-driven city” [3] not comforted. That’s the world in which many of us live—cut-throat business. It brings relentless pressure, and it drains your soul.

Eyes that see through loss

The choice of these three scenes is very significant. The natural inclination of the human heart is to seek happiness in three places: Children, marriage and money.

Our pride, our joy, our sense of value, our happiness and our security get wrapped up in the children you raise, the person you marry, and the possessions you have. So if your children go off the rails, or your marriage is on the rocks, or your career is in ruins, you will feel that your life is a total loss.

Therefore you would expect that the most unhappy people in the world might be the barren woman, the deserted wife and the people who live in the ruined city.

But Isaiah sees joy in these most unlikely places. The barren woman is singing! The abandoned wife knows she is loved. The ruined city is rebuilt, not with brick and mortar but with rubies, sapphires and precious stones (v11, 12).

God says to the barren woman, the abandoned wife and the people of the ruined city: “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace and mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands… This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign which will not be destroyed” (55:12, 13).

God’s unlikely methods

How can this happen? How can these people, who have known great sorrow, find joy? The barren woman is singing because she is surrounded by a community of people who love her like their own mother. And she finds joy in them as if they were her own children.

“’Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 54:1). The barren woman finds joy in God’s people.

The deserted wife, who has gone through such emotional trauma, has become confident. She has dignity. She is not ashamed, and she knows that she is loved. God says to her: “Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood” (v4).

Isaiah tells us why: “For your Maker is your husband–the Lord Almighty is his name–the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth” (v5). So, this deserted woman finds joy in God’s love.

The ruined city is being rebuilt, but it is infinitely better. “O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones” (v11-13).

John takes up this theme in Revelation 21, and makes it clear that Isaiah is talking about the New Jerusalem, the home of righteousness: “In righteousness you will be established. Tyranny will be far from you; you will have nothing to fear. Terror will be far removed; it will not come near you” (v14).

These folks who have endured such sorrow are finding joy in God’s people, joy in God’s love and joy in God’s city. The fullness of this joy will be ours when Jesus Christ comes in power and glory. But in Christ, the beginning of this joy is yours already.

You don’t have to be a barren woman, a deserted wife, or live in a ruined city to experience this joy. I can think of single people who have this joy and single folks who don’t, married folks who have this joy and married folks who don’t. There are business folks who have this joy and business folks who don’t, and desperately poor people who have this joy and others who are desperately poor and don’t.

Don’t wait for a disaster in your life to pursue this joy. Joy in Jesus Christ frees you to savor all other joys and strengthens you to face all other sorrows.

How Can I Cultivate This Joy?

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” (55:1).

It begins with a deep thirst. The people who find this joy, the people who will “go out in joy and be led forth in peace” (v12) are people who have discovered a deep thirst in their own souls. They feel they are bankrupt. “No money!” They realize that they do not have what it takes to get what they need.

You can’t ask God to restore your soul until you know that your soul needs restoring. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:3,4,6).

When you know your soul needs restoring, you will ask God to restore it. This is why sorrow is often the back door to joy. That’s why it is the barren woman, the deserted wife, and the folks in the ruined city who discover joy. The woman with children, the happily married couple, and the successful businessman in the city often do not seek it.

Their lives were so full that they never asked: What are children for? What is marriage for? What is the city for? Is the end for which God created the world that you and your spouse should snuggle up together on your couch? Or is there a higher purpose for your marriage, a greater joy for you and your spouse to pursue together?

Is the end for which God created the world that the kids should play soccer and ride horses? Or is there a higher purpose for your children, a greater joy for your family? Is the purpose of this great city in which we live that thousands of people should make millions of dollars, or is the city for something more than this?

The back door to joy

The default mode of the human heart is to seek our joy in children, in marriage and in money. The Bible has a name for this. It is called idolatry. And idolatry always fails.

The reality of life is that in every continent of the world you will find men and women who are quietly disappointed in marriage. Many have found that their children brought them more grief than joy. Millions live in poverty, carving out an existence in cities devastated by war, or homes destroyed by floods.

But in every generation and in every culture, men and women have found that sorrow is the back door to joy because in your sorrow you become aware of a deep thirst in your own soul. In losing lesser joys they began to thirst after greater joys.

One man who knew about this was John Newton. He had lived a wretched life as a slave trader. He came to a place where he longed for God to restore his soul, and he was marvelously converted.

He wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, that speaks about conversion. But he wrote another hymn about his experience of the Christian life. It’s not nearly as well known as Amazing Grace, but it is profoundly helpful. Here is John Newton’s experience:

I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.

I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He’d answer my request,
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yes more, with His own hand He seemed
Intend to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds[4], and laid me low.

‘Lord, why is this?’ I trembling cried,
‘Will you pursue this worm to death?’
‘’Tis in this way,’ the Lord replied,
‘I answer prayer for grace and faith.’

‘These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set you free;
And break your schemes of earthly joy,
That you may seek your all in Me.’ [5]

If you have this deep thirst in your soul, you will want to have greater joy in God’s people, and in God’s love and in God’s city.

Cultivating Your Joy in Jesus Christ

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
Seek the Lord while he may be found” (vv. 1, 6).

Notice the four keys words Isaiah uses here: Come. Listen. Seek. Turn. We’ll look at them in pairs:

Come and Seek

700 years later, our Lord Jesus took up these words of Isaiah: “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink’” (John 7:37).

This is something for you to do. You come to Christ. Last week we saw that restoring your soul begins when you believe that God is totally for you in Christ. It begins with believing but it does not end there.

Because you believe, you come. Ask. Seek. Knock. And you will receive. Ask God to give you new joy in His people. Ask him to forgive you for moaning and complaining and fault-finding with His people. Ask Him to forgive you for loving the politics of the church more than the people of the church. Ask Him to give you eyes to see his redeeming work in the lives of other people, and to rejoice in this.

Then ask God to give you new joy in His love. This is how David prayed when he longed for God to restore his soul “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12).

Then ask God to give you new joy in His city. Ask Him to help you to see beyond the disappointments of your life right now. Remember that while there is a future that you don’t know in this city, there is a future that you do know in God’s city. Ask the Lord to give you joy in that city and you will find that your joy grows in this city.

These heart cries for revival are prayers in which we come to God in faith and ask Him to do something. Imagine the impact of 2,000 people coming with faith to Jesus Christ this week and asking Him to ‘Restore Joy!’

Listen and Turn

“Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live…
Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:2-3, 6-7).

The people who “go out with joy and are led forth with peace” (v12) are folks who develop the habit of hearing God’s Word and receiving it with faith and repentance.

Isaiah has a wonderful promise from God about what His Word will do in your life, if you will listen to what He says to you: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth… so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (v10,11).

This is one reason why it is so important for you to be in a church where you hear the Word of God applied to your life every week. This is how God speaks into your life. Over time His Word will accomplish His purpose in you.

This is why any ministry that wants to bear lasting fruit must have the Word of God at its center. God accomplishes His purpose through His Word. You might accomplish your purpose without the Word, but you cannot accomplish His purpose without the Word.

The Bible warns us about hearing the Word and not doing what it says: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves” (James 1: 22). Do what it says!

“Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:23-25).

Come and seek. Listen and turn. This is a way of life, but it can begin for you today. Will you join me in asking God to restore your soul? Lord, restore faith! Lord, restore joy, that Your people may rejoice in You.


[1] Pensees, Blaise Pascal, Section VII.
[2] The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis, pp. 1-2, Eerdman’s, 1965.
[3] Isaiah, Allan Harman, p.372, Christian Focus, 2005.
[4] The gourd was a vine-like plant that gave shade to Jonah. “Blasting the gourds” means taking away comforts.
[5] I Asked the Lord that I Might Grow, John Newton, hymn, 1779.


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