Sunday, August 8, 2010

Behold Your God!

We looked, last week, at the first part of this chapter, Isaiah 40. Today, we are going to finish it. By the time that we do finish it one thing will certainly be clear. This is a chapter that is dominated by one question. What is God like? There are different ways that someone might deal with such a question. One can approach it academically, and there is a time when that is what is needed. But that isn’t the case here. Isaiah’s approach is anything but academic. And there is a good reason why. He isn’t lecturing a bunch of scholars. Isaiah is speaking to a group of people who have questions and doubts and fears. They are struggling with life. So, Isaiah doesn’t begin by saying something like, ‘I’d like to explore with you some of the theological implications of various attributes of God.’ Isaiah goes about it much differently. He fairly shouts to the people, ‘BEHOLD YOUR GOD!!’ This is not a class in theory. In this chapter Isaiah paints a vivid picture of God for the sake of these struggling saints so that they might know their God better. All of the questions, doubts and fears that a Christian stumbles over are dealt with as he gets to know his God better. There will be no doubts in heaven. Isaiah wants the people of his day to experience more of that in the here and now. And the Spirit wants you to experience more of that here and now. And the language of ‘experience’ is appropriate. To be sure, you need to spend time pondering ideas. That’s one reason why you have a Bible. But pondering ideas is not the goal. It is a means to a goal. The goal is to know God, to experience Him more and more. It is my hope that we’ll all be able to make some progress at that this morning.

A popular book of the last generation was titled, Your God Is Too Small. Isaiah wants to make sure that this cannot be said of his audience. So, he stresses that God is big. The God of Israel is the majestic one who is over all things. This is the transcendent God. Isaiah works his way through a series of images to attempt to convey something of the grandeur of this God. So, let’s go through the chapter a section at a time to see how he does this.

The first section takes some things that what we normally think of as big and impressive, and compares them to God.

‘Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?’

Mighty oceans fit into His cupped hand. The sky, from horizon to horizon, can be measured between His pinky and thumb. And the earth, with its dust and hills and mountains, fits into God’s measuring cups. God has created all these, the oceans, the sky, the Alps, to remind us not just how small we are, and how magnificent He is.

In the next section things are seen from another angle. God measures you and the rest of His creation by His standards. Would you try to measure Him by yours?

‘Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?’

So, when it comes to God’s ability to know and understand, His sense of justice and all of that, did He get these things from someone else? Did He learn these from someone like you? No? So, how is it that He knows all of this? Try to imagine someone who understands everything exhaustively but never learned it. Pick the smartest and wisest person you know and compare him to God. Is there a comparison? Does it even make sense to suggest such a thing?

The next thought is about how small our world really is.

‘Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.’

So, says Isaiah, when you go to the well with a couple of buckets and fill them with water, do you care that a drop or two splashes out? Do you even notice? What do you do, says Isaiah, when you get out your scale to weigh something important? You first get rid of the annoying dust that has accumulated. That’s what the nations are to God: a couple of drops of water, some dust. Consider the fearsome ‘superpowers’, the Assyrians, the Babylonians and yes, even those odd Americans. ‘All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.’

What we find next is Isaiah’s sarcastic side coming out. He mocks the popular religion of his day and its silly idols.

‘To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains. He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.’

It’s as if Isaiah were saying, ‘Idols. What a joke! Let me know when you’re ready for a real God.’

I think that you’re getting the point. So, I’m just going to read the rest of this section without any comment. Isaiah’s words are powerful enough on their own.

‘Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? [He’s talking about the stars.] He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.’

Here is Isaiah’s single point to the people of Judah: Behold your God! And what a God He is. Consider His grandeur and His majesty. Do you see how awesome He is? He is the transcendent God over all things. He is the great and glorious God.

And it is here, of course, that we run into so many problems. Isaiah has described our God accurately. How can we say otherwise? This is the Word of God. But I can think about God in such a way that this great and glorious God is so great and glorious that I feel forgotten. I see myself as so small that I am convinced that I am insignificant to God and then, to everyone else. God becomes distant. My relationship with Him becomes formal. He is the great and powerful King, and I am one of his lowly, unimportant and forgotten peasants. This is transcendence gone haywire. There are those who see this and react against any sense of God, the transcendent. So, they run in the opposite direction. They fear that this ‘transcendence’ can only lead to people feeling neglected by God. So, all they want to talk about is God’s nearness, His immanence.

What is ironic is that this sense of feeling neglected is precisely what Isaiah is dealing with. This is the problem that he is addressing in this chapter. And that becomes clear in the next verses. All that Isaiah has written up to this point is all for the sake of what he writes next.

‘Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.’

You’ll remember that I told you that Isaiah’s audience was a people who were struggling with life. They were filled with questions, doubts and fears. Isaiah is working to help them with their struggles. But his solution is not to ignore God’s grandeur, His transcendence, and only talk about His nearness, His immanence. No, rather He paints a picture of something of the beauty of their God in all His transcendence. And what a picture, indeed! He then takes all of that and tells these struggling people how this great and glorious and transcendent God cares about them. Or to use the words of another spokesman for God, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ In Jesus, the great and awesome God draws near to struggling people and calls them by name. ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.’ It’s clear that Paul understands this because he writes, ‘… the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ Isaiah’s question is pointed and apt. ‘Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?’ Israel, you are not forgotten, even though it may feel like it. Jesus knows and cares and acts. ‘He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.’ In His kindness, He will give you what you need. The great and glorious God has come near. Transcendence and immanence.

Isaiah finishes with a promise. It’s a great piece of Scripture. Though most of you have heard it many times before, listen to it again.

‘Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.’

Consider a couple of things. First, notice the contrast. Isaiah tells us to look at the young. See how they are so energetic. Ask any mother of a toddler about youthful energy and she will respond with a hearty, ‘Amen!’ – unless, of course, she’s a Presbyterian. But even this youthful energy has limits. Again, ask any mother of an exhausted and cranky toddler who can’t settle to sleep about the limits of youthful energy and you’ll get another hearty ‘Amen!’ – and this even if she is a Presbyterian! I know that Isaiah is not talking about toddlers, but you get the point. Human energy has its limits. But the energy that Jesus gives is different. It is inexhaustible. So, there will be times when you will receive some dramatic answer to prayer, and you will fly like the eagles, soaring high in the skies. And it will feel so good. There will be other times not quite the same, not quite so dramatic, but you find that you are still making good time as you run the race. There will, however, be those times when you are slowed to a walk. There has been no dramatic answer to prayer, not even enough to get you running. It’s just one foot in front of the other, step by step by step. But even here, you’re still making progress. It’s slow and difficult, but it’s still progress. Jesus gives the ability to keep moving forward. The energy He gives is inexhaustible.

Another thought to consider. Please notice that the promise is not that life will get easy. As long as you live on this earth, life will be hard. There will be those times when it will be extraordinarily difficult, and there will be those times when it won’t be quite so hard. There will be those blessed times of needed respite when Jesus gives you a break from the war. But it will never be easy. Life here is hard. That’s why Jesus talked about denying the self and carrying a cross. So, the promise is not that you will never feel the difficulties of life. The promise is that you will never have to stop moving in the right direction because of the difficulties of life. Jesus will make sure that you have what you need to endure to the end. And as He walks with you through this valley of the shadow of death, He will give you not only strength but also joy. So, don’t look for days without difficulty. That’s what heaven is for. But do expect Jesus to keep this promise in ways that will astound you.

And then there is this. ‘They who wait for the LORD…’ This waiting is not the same as just sitting there being passive. This is placing your hope in Jesus, expecting Him to act and waiting for Him to do exactly that. We too often falter here, putting our hope either in our own ability to cope and to overcome or in something else to take care of the situation. But Isaiah wrote, ‘They who wait for the LORD…’ To wait for Jesus to act will require trust. But He will act at the right time. He will tell you what you need to know. He will give you whatever it is you need to keep going in the right direction. But you need to wait for Him to act.

So, consider this chapter. Consider how it begins and how it ends. ‘Comfort, comfort my people says your God. … ‘They who wait for the LORD will gain new strength.’ This is not some classroom lecture. It is a message of hope to people in need of that hope. And what’s in the middle providing a good reason for hope? ‘Behold your God.’ Hope comes from knowing Jesus and getting to know Him better. And there is nothing that Jesus wants more than that for each of you.

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