Grace In Many Ways
Text: Isaiah 40:21-31
Fifty years before these words from this prophet the People of Israel had suffered a major set back in their understanding with God. Fifty years ago Jerusalem, the City of God, the place of the Temple, the place where God dwelt among them, had been sacked by the Babylonians and the brightest and best, the cream of society, all of their CEO's and major political figures, had been taken captive and carted off to Babylon as political exiles. There they had been forced to find a new life under strange and radically different living conditions. Fifty years—that would take us back just a little more than the time of that traumatic and destructive labor struggle in this community—back to the time when this community discovered, as well, that life would be dramatically different from then on.
For fifty years they had been living under the dark cloud of homesickness. As for their faith in God, well, if God was not dead, he was certainly on vacation. He was most conspicuous in their lives by his perceived absence. God had been the one who had given them the land, God had come to the Temple, God was localized in Judaea, hundreds of miles away, and He had been beaten by the gods of Babylon. If God was still alive, he was impotent as far as they were concerned or indifferent to them. He had forgotten them or forsaken them. For fifty years they have been living in a strange place, burdened with this sense of being rejected or forgotten by their God, their feelings of value and significance at an all time low.
These had been the movers and shakers of Israel. These had been the people who could make things happen. They now looked around them at their situation and they had little ambition, had little faith in the future, they had grown weary of trying to do anything, they felt themselves forsaken by God and they were unable to believe that God cared about them. They have become realists. They say, "Lets stop fooling ourselves. This is the way it is. We can either worship with the Babylonians, or we can make the best of a nothing situation by enjoying what we can get. They have become pragmatic people. They look at the data around them and get caught up in the "irresistableness" of the powers that surround them. They can see the armies of Babylon. They know how weak they are. We will never be able to escape. When they look at hard facts, take an objective realistic evaluation of the situation, they can find no reason for hope, for optimism, or for joy.
A few years ago a group of people in a program called Leadership Vance listened to a member of this community talking about this community. He sounded for all the world like this prophet. As he described the events that had shaped this community, the westward migration propelled by Richard Henderson, the creation of the plantation system of agriculture in this area southward moving Virginians, the legacy of inhuman treatment of the slaves, conflict between land owners of the county and commercial and industrial leadership of the city. As the speaker spoke of the terrible and bitter battles this community has had over school administration, problems of living wages and industrial recruitment, and a whole host of others, the prevailing atmosphere was the same as these exiles in Babylon. The obstacles are too great. The problems are too many. Even at that meeting we began to succumb to the power of realism, there is too much to do, why try, what is the use. And the only way to live in such a realism is to fill the despair with rubbish, to worship pleasure, to entertain oneself, or to worship oneself and do the best for oneself and forget all the rest. A community, a people, a nation, will always find itself in a helpless situation, a people in great danger and peril, if it only looks at its problems and its own resources. If it sees history as limited to the material events and facts which have been brought about by material causes. Madonna may be a material girl as she claims, but by her material life style she is showing us that there is nothing worth living for in that kind of life.
The Word of God which comes to this prophet called Second Isaiah is that life always becomes too much for those to whom God becomes too little. When you take a realistic look at your problems and a realistic look at your abilities and your resources you will always end up in despair if you do not remember the greatness and purposes of God. That is why Second Isaiah begins his ministry with this message of rhetorical questions. "Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not been told from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of earth?" "Don't you remember who your God is?" The God who is your God is the great God of all creation.
The God you worship is the God who sits above the circle of the earth, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, measures the waters in the hollow of his hands, who weighs the mountains in scales, before whom the nations are like a drop from the bucket. Don't you remember how we would talk about the great joy we had in knowing that the God who had called all creation into being was the God who had called us into existence as a people. Surely you remember the Psalms "The Lord is the everlasting God, The Creator of the ends of the earth."
Second Isaiah is not trying to give them a second half pep talk about believing in themselves. Second Isaiah feels deeply that they need to remember who this God is that they think has forsaken them. They have allowed the absence of God to diminish his power. They have taken his withholding of himself as a sign of his powerlessness. Second Isaiah is urging them to remember who their God is. Remember that the God whom you worship is the God who brought all creation into being. To this God belongs the power to make all things that are, to this God belongs the power to hold all chaos together so that creation doesn't fly apart, this God is the God who continues to bring the stars out each night for him to play with. Look around you at the still awesome powers of creation and remember that all of those forces and powers were created by your God
Remember your God is not like all these other Gods. All these other nations see their rise and fall as indications of the triumph and fall of the power of their God, but don't you remember how our God is not like those other Gods, not like those other gods that must be created by the craftsmen's tools, not like those other idols. With what other gods will you compare the God who has lead you up out of Egypt and promised to be with you. The greatness of God is always beyond the categories and the understanding we have of God. You think you understand the way things work. Since we are here in exile, our God must not have been as strong as their god and so there is no future for us. But Second Isaiah reminds his people: God has always been one who was so great that you never knew all his ways. His ways were beyond our ways, his thoughts different from our thoughts. Don't you remember the greatness of God as creator of all, don't you remember how he has always asked us, "To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?"
Remember that God has promised to be with us all the time. Remember that God who created all things, who is unique among the Gods, is the God who has promised to be with you and stand by you through all things. God has participated with us in history, he does not grow faint or grow weary, he is with us. God is trust worthy not because nothing is a burden to God, but because God will bear whatever burdens love requires.
After fifty years of exile they had begun to believe that God did not know, did not care, had forsaken them and could do nothing. Second Isaiah comes as the new voice of God to these discouraged and fearful people. He begins by reminding them of the greatness of the God they worshipped. Do you remember that your God was the everlasting God, who made heaven and earth and all things in it. Don't you remember that God is so great, so awe inspiring, beyond our limited abilities that we can never fully imagine or understand the possibilities that exist in God's love, don't you remember how God has promised to be with us and to be our God and to abide with us in all places. If you remember all those things, how can a few military battalion worry you, how can you let a few minor economic problems dominate and dictate your view of life. If you remember the desire and purposes of God to be with creation, to love his people, to share with them their life, how can you believe that it doesn't matter what you do. Surely the God who created all powers, forces and systems, has the power to bring the new into being, surely the God who is different from all our understandings can bring into being that which is beyond our reasonable expectations, surely the God who is with us is able to bear the burdens of love which he has taken upon Himself in love.
Great hopes, great energy, great endurance, great faithfulness are always rooted in the greatness of God not in our own abilities. Second Isaiah understood that only by bringing the exiles back into a relationship with the Great God of all creation and history would they find a great hope for the future. For only in an everlasting God who is Lord over all creation can one find the patience to out love evil. Only in a God whose ways are not our ways can one find the endurance to live faithfully and allow corruption eventually to expose itself and collapse, like the collapse of communism. Only the awesome God of creation has the ability to hold creation together and to continue to bring in new possibilities for the redemption of creation in the face of all that has been done to creation by us creatures. Only the amazing creative God could work within history to bring us to ways to feed people when population has gone from 1 billion to 6 billion in 300 years. Increased production so that the problem of hunger is still a distribution problem not a production problem.
It was appropriate then that the speaker at the Leadership Vance program ended the presentation in the same way. The problems of Vance and Henderson are many and mighty, but the real challenge is spiritual. Either we will believe in the creative and redemptive power of God, who can come into this community, and by the work of his people and his love, bring about change and improvement or we will succumb to the temptations of the realist and say that the problems are just too great and too many and we will "fill despair" with all manner of rubbish, distraction, and abuse.
Whenever our problems and our difficulties seem more than we can handle, then it is then we need to be reminded of the greatness of God. For in faithful worship of God we may soar, we may run, or we may just walk, but we will not be overcome.
Rick Brand, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church of Henderson, N.C