Behold your God - Isaiah 40:12-31

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 18th January 2009.

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It was on October 21st, 1966 that it happened. There had been accidents before of course. Coal mining, as my Dad knew personally for 34 years, is a notoriously dangerous industry. But this accident was different, for it happened not deep underground from the sight of press and TV, but in the clear light of day before the horrified eyes of a nation. And it happened not to miners themselves who know the peril of the pit, but rather it happened to their children. Aberfan was the name of the place, a typical south Wales mining community nestling in a valley a few miles from Merthyr Tydfil. On its outskirts stood a man- made hillock some 200 feet high. Over a million tons of accumulated coal slag had been dumped on that hill. It was just after 9am on that fateful Friday morning when the mountain began to move. Slowly at first in such imperceptible degrees that those working the cranes didn’t realise what was happening, and then all of a sudden an avalanche of black sludge descended upon the village. Cottages and shops were engulfed. But it was not their loss which was responsible for this being such a heart rending and horrifying calamity. No, Pentglass Junior School lay at the very foot of the mountain.254 young children had arrived to school that morning and the tidal wave of mud swallowed them whole. The dead bodies of 116 children and 28 adults were eventually unearthed from beneath this black suffocating morass. I was 11 years old at the time, and belonging to a small mining community myself I can tell you that the sense of empathy was very strong .I remember coming home from school and seeing my grandfather a former miner ,sitting before a TV screen weeping as he saw one small body after another being gathered up in blankets. One of those who lost their child was the local Baptist minister. Choking back the grief he confessed, ‘My faith has been shaken to the core; I don’t know how I shall ever preach again.’

What can a Christian say in the face of such a disaster? Where can a Christian go to find the resources necessary to enable him to go on believing when confronted with suffering on such an horrifying scale? The temptation to doubt on such occasions is almost irresistible. And the doubt which thrusts itself upon the believer is not the abstract doubt of the philosopher-does God exist? No, the doubt the believer feels is much more agonizing than that-it is the doubt expressed in the question: Does God care? That was the question the weeping mothers in Aberfan were asking that day-does God care? And that was the question these Jews were asking when this prophecy in Is 40 was delivered to them afresh. And I would want to suggest to you that it is the question often uppermost in our minds too, if the truth be known, because I tell you this, if God doesn’t care then neither will we. Callous indifference to the plight of others is the only course open to us, for if God doesn’t care, then life has no ultimate meaning or value.

And that was the conclusion some of these Jews in the 6th century BC were coming to. If you were to multiply the Aberfan disaster by a factor of a 1,000 or 2, then you will begin to get pretty close to the scale of the crisis which was affecting the people of Israel. You have to picture a people who had been taught for a thousand years or more that they were the chosen people of God. God had pledged himself irrevocably to them in covenant. Now picture this same people: besieged for two long harrowing years by one of the mightiest and most ruthless armies the world has ever known-the Babylonian army. Picture them reduced to total starvation- with mothers consuming their own children in order to stay alive. Picture them finally defeated, humiliated, by the overwhelming military might of this pagan empire only to be  herded away from their homeland, crammed into refugee camps in a hostile and strange land-full of pagan idols, knowing that their own beloved, beautiful city was now nothing more than a ghost town, a habitation for rats and jackals. We cannot overestimate the effect that national tragedy had on the faith of the Jewish people. For them their cry to God was like the agonized cry of an abandoned wife for her husband-does he love me? Does he care? And the answer many pious Jews at the time gave was in the negative. Of course God doesn’t care; if he cared he wouldn’t have done this. And it may well be that you are feeling like that this evening, or at least know of some people who are.

So, is there a way to offset such destructive thoughts and answer this question? Well, yes there is and we find it in these central sections of Isaiah. At heart the answer is deceptively simple and it is this: we are to replace small thoughts of God with great thoughts of God based upon the great facts of God. You see, the human imagination can be a blessing or a curse. When things are going wrong many of us allow our imaginations to run away with us and we can only picture the worse case scenario with things going from bad to worse. But the prophet in this section urges us to allow faith, based upon the facts of God’s self-revelation to sore higher than ever before, to allow the imagination to think the unthinkable and to work out the implications: if this is what God is really like (and he is) then what does that mean for your and me and all those who claim to be his people-the eternal object of his love?

Now there are two aspects of God that Isaiah wants to get his readers to dwell on long and hard- what we might call the immensity of God and the intensity of God.

First we have the immensity of God which the prophet lays out before us in verses 12-24. Just think for a moment says Isaiah, about the wisdom of God-v 12-14: ‘Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or who with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? Who has understood the mind of the Lord or instructed him as his counsellor? Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?’ There are two things about these questions which Isaiah is throwing out at us- they are playfully ridiculous and expect the answer in each to be case ‘no’. Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, who has marked off the heavens with the breadth of his hand, who has instructed God on how to make a universe? The answer- no one. God can manage these things all by himself thank you very much. Even now scientists are reaching out to belief in God in order to comprehend and explain the universe. Even allowing for the theory of a Big Bang at the beginning of the universe it has been calculated that there had to be such a close balance between expansive energy -that is driving things apart- and the force of gravity- pulling things together otherwise there would be no universe- at least not one which would support life. Too greater expansion and no galaxies or stars would have formed. Too much gravity and the whole things would have collapsed back in on itself before there was time for the process of life to get going. That means for this universe to be possible requires a balance between the effects of expansion and contraction at a very early stage in the universe’s history to be no greater than 1 in 10 60. Or to put it another way, the accuracy required for the universe to form amounts to something like this; aiming at a target an inch wide on the other side of the universe twenty thousand million light years away and hitting the mark! Well, God hit the mark bang on. Such numbers are nothing to him. He measures the whole universe not in light years but like that- a span- the measure between the thumb and the little finger. That is your God, says Isaiah. We have tremendous problems understanding the workings of the universe let alone thinking of how we might design it ourselves. But God had no such difficulties. From the smallest neutron to the largest nebula, from the flea to the elephant, God’s creative genius envisaged them all in an instant. No one taught God.

But how does this help us answer the question: Does God care? Well, in this way: despite the occasional appearance to the contrary, we live in an ordered world, a cosmos not a chaos. This is a world which is run sensibly, with reason and purpose and remarkable regularity. We may not always be able to discern what that purpose is, but we can legitimately infer from what we do know about the complexities and yet order of things that God does not operate in a haphazard way with what he has made. So if that is the case with the movement of planets and electrons then how much more so with the crown of his creation –human beings. So the prophet is trying to get the point across that might we not consider the possibility that the God whose wisdom conceived all of this and who made it and steers it, also has the wisdom to take care of our lives too so that no circumstance should alarm us? This does not mean that no circumstance should baffle us, or depress us or concern us, but that believing in the sovereignty of God enables us not to be alarmed into thinking that God has somehow lost control. He hasn’t for he can’t. Use you imagination.

But you may say, "Space and the heavens, are a little too remote for me and my situation. It is this planet which gives me cause for concern. What if Al-Qaeda manages to get hold of something like VX gas or some other toxic agent which could wipe out thousands within a matter of hours? Well, the prophet confronts those nightmares head on- vv 15-17. Nations are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust. Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires or its animals enough for burnt offerings. Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing. Are the nations mighty? Do you feel overwhelmed poor Israel (and we might well add -poor church) by the superiority of the world as people laugh at you and deride you and your little church meetings? Of course you do. But look at them again, but this time, try and see them as God sees them. They are like dust which can be swept away with the brush of the forefinger. Or like a drop of water falling from the lip of a bucket, so insignificant that it is hardly noticed. Don't be intimidated by the nations, they are a negative quantity as far as God is concerned. They do not even begin to measure up to him.

Now why is it so important to think grandly of God, apart from the obvious answer that that is exactly what God is-grand on an infinite scale? Well, one very good reason is that if we don’t we are liable to be seduced by the alternatives-v18, ‘To whom will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?’ As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not topple.’ You see if we do not allow our imaginations to be fired by the truth about God, then our imaginations will set about creating substitutes for God. We are wired to be religious people, it is integral to what we are as human beings- deep down we cannot be atheists. We may be anti-theists- resisting and denying the true God, but we must have some sort of god to whom we can be dedicated, that will give us some kind of meaning to life. Now Babylon in which these people eventually found themselves was stuffed with such idols and mightily impressive they were too. They looked fantastic and what is more they appeared effective- after all, the reasoning went, the nation with the most powerful gods was the most powerful nation. And there was no doubt who that was- Babylon. The proof of the pudding was in the eating. If Israel’s God had been the most powerful then why was she languishing in bondage? And when you are feeling like someone has just put the boot in and you are lying on the ground exhausted that is an argument which is difficult to counter. That is, unless you see God as he really is and the idols for what they really are. At the end of the day the idols don’t deliver the goods- not long term. So we put our trust in economic prosperity- and when the downturn comes and unemployment bites- the idol topples. We put our trust in this relationship and move onto the next when that fails, and the next and the next until we feel empty and used. Whatever we put in place of the one true God becomes an idol. And when most of our fellow citizens are following idols which seem attractive and powerful then it is going to take an altogether grander view of God to prevent us from being enticed and going along with the crowd. And here it is - v21-24. ‘Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? (In each case the answer is: yes you have but we constantly need reminding because we so easily forget) He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.’ Believe that and no idol will ever seduce you, let this vision of God capture your heart.

But also this belief in the immensity of God means that no regime will ever destroy you- 23, ‘He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.’  It is not Prime Ministers and Presidents who are the real movers and shakers of history, it is God for he brings them to nothing, he blows on them like a hot wind and they are gone. You see, Israel needed to hear this because in the years following this prophecy they were going to be subjected, politically speaking, to one nation after another- the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. And when you find yourself under the jackboot of an oppressive power again you are going to ask: ‘Does God care?’  In all sorts if ways rulers try and trample down God’s people, for example in Burma today. The Karen people, a tribe which is 44% Christian are dreadfully abused by the military regime there. Instead of using mine detectors, the military take Christian women and children from this tribe and force them to walk on ahead of the troops through suspected minefields so that they are the ones who are either killed or maimed first. That is what the rulers of this world do. And what does the Lord say? It is that they may have their day, their moment of power, but it will not last forever, whereas his people will. No regime can ever destroy you. They may take away your life but they cannot take away your soul.

As we think on the immensity of God and work through the implications we can know that no circumstance can alarm you, no idol should seduce you and no regime can destroy you-he is that great. But there is another aspect of the divine and that is the intensity of God, and by that I mean that God is intensely concerned with the small scale and well as the big picture, the individual as well as the nations. In other words- God is in the detail. Look at verse 25: ‘To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal’, says the Holy One. ‘Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.’ 

To say, ‘Lift up your eyes and see’ in the ancient near East is to invite the answer, ‘Yes, I see more deities’, the Babylonians had an astral cult, they worshipped the stars as gods. ‘No they are not’, says Isaiah, they are created not creators. God put them there and- notice- he calls each by name. Isn’t that remarkable? Professor David Block gave a presentation at Witzwaterand University in South Africa explaining why he believed in a designed universe. He showed a slide which was a picture of one hundred billion stars. He pointed out to his overawed audience that if they were to count one star per second they would be there for two and a half thousand years. And that is only a fraction of the total number of stars in the universe. But God can give you each name in an instant. He is the God of the detail. And that means that for his people, no vastness can ever obscure you. Sometimes people say to me, ‘God can never be interested in the likes of me. Why should God bother listening to my prayers, they are so trivial.’ But that is the kind of God he is. If I can put it like this, God has time for you because time is not a problem for God since he is outside time. Whether he listened to you for a hundred years or a hundred minutes it is all the same to him- what matters is that you matter. If he knows each star by name do you not think that he knows your name? That is why the complaint of verse 27 is a non-complaint for it has no basis in reality- but we still voice it nonetheless, ‘‘Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God.’ ‘Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.’ God’s intensity means that no weariness will ultimately exhaust you. In pastoral ministry I have the privilege of meeting many of God’s people going through the mill. That is when I often feel woefully inadequate- I listen, I hold a hand, I sympathise, I pray, I share something of God’s Word. And time and time again I am amazed and humbled at the way such Christians just keep keeping on. How do you explain that? Well, it must be that God is faithful and does what he says he will do- ‘those who hope or wait on the Lord will renew their strength.’ Many of you will know of Peter Sanlon who spoke here last year in our Summer in the City events. He and his wife Susanna were expecting their first baby but last Thursday Peter wrote this: At 8.08pm last night, our first baby was stillborn. His heart stopped in the womb and he went to heaven before being born to earth. Before we met, my wife and I both had the same favourite names for children. Our baby boy was given the name we always intended for him - Calvin. Small enough to hold in your hand, he is infinitely precious. Somehow, we know that his all too brief life, was lived for the glory of God.
Little Calvin was named after one of the great theologians - John Calvin, born 500 years ago. Our baby Calvin is now a greater theologian than any person on earth; for he sees God face to face, rather than by faith. Our God gloriously and awesomely rules over the timing of all events. This sovereign Lordship is particularly painful to behold when it is your own child who dies, in this case before he was born, as the psalmist wrote "Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them." Psalm 139:16. As I mourn with my wife the loss of baby Calvin, we humble ourselves beneath the sovereign timing of God's gracious hand, and praise him that all his books are masterpieces. It just breaks our hearts that some of his books are so tragically short.’ How do you account for that response?  Well, ‘those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.’ How can we know this to be true? Because this is the God whose immensity and intensity meet us in Jesus-who has promised to be with us to the end of the age-that is his immensity- spanning space and time itself, and who said, ‘I know my sheep’-that’s his intensity. So God is saying to you and me through Isaiah that we are to allow our imagination and affections to be fired by the facts about God and to place our troubles and despair next to the sufficiency of God.

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