Lord of history - Isaiah 41:8-20

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 8th February 2009.

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We all know that fear can radically change a person’s behaviour. What would you do if a large group of teenagers wearing hoodies started to hang out at the end of your street? They may or may not have plans to cause trouble. They may simply be bored and have nothing better to do than hang about on street corners but their very presence would cause most people to feel slightly uneasy or very afraid. And, as a result, well most of us would change our behaviour. Perhaps not going out after dark or choosing to drive instead of walking but altering how we live because of internal fear. Fear can and does radically change how people live.

The Bible says Christians are to be a joyful people, a thankful people, a persecuted people but we are not to be a fearful people. How is this possible? There are so many circumstances in life to make us afraid so how can we live as those without fear? This is what we discover in Isaiah chapter 41. We discover how to live as confident Christians in a world full of uncertainty.

Our focus will be on verses 8 to 20, which explain how the people of God are to deal with internal fear, but before we look at this section, by way of contrast, let me remind of what we discovered last week from the first seven verses of the chapter.

Verse 2 sets the historical scene for us. God says, ‘Who has stirred up one from the east, calling him in righteouness to his service? He hands nations over to him and subdues kings before him. He turns them to dust with his sword, to wind-blown chaff with bow.’

This is all about a Persian King called Cyrus, a real historical figure who in the 6th century BC swept out of Persia and conquered many lands, very quickly. It was a radical change of circumstances for the people living in neighbouring countries and verses 5 to 7 show how they reacted to the news that Cyrus and his army were approaching.

Verse 5, ‘The islands have seen it and fear; the end of the earth tremble. [Then they do two things to try and settle their fear. First of all…] They approach and come forward; each helps the other and says to his brother, ‘Be strong!’ [With absolutely no reason provided for why a person should be strong. It’s the ancient equivalent of it will be all right on the night without any basis. Then secondly…] The craftsman encourages the goldsmith and he who smoothes with the hammer spurs him on who strikes the anvil. He says of the welding, ‘It is good.’ He nails down the idol so that it will not topple.’ Or in other words, they trust in useless idols to offer their security in the face of uncertainty. 

That’s what the nations were doing but what about God’s people? They were in the line of fire, Cyrus was heading straight for Babylon. What about God’s people? How should they react when the world around them seemed to be collapsing? Listen to what God says to them in verses 8 to 10.

“But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend,  9 I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.  10 So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

A clear command from God to his people do not be afraid. They were not immune to the situation. The turbulent times were fast approaching. Cyrus was already on the move. And no doubt their hearts were already beating much faster than before. But should they be fearful? Was the arrival of Cyrus the final nail in the Jewish coffin? Was this game over for God’s people? Not at all. God’s commands them to quieten their anxious hearts. He commands them not to fear.

In the Bible when God commands something he also provides a reason to motivate the desired response. And the same is true here.

Why is Israel not to be afraid?

1.    They are God’s servant. Been chosen for a reason. They have something to accomplish and so the people of God will not be wiped out. Now in these chapters of Isaiah we will also meet another servant of the Lord, an individual who will be sent at some point in the future to do everything that Israel was asked to do but failed to do. The New Testament reveals this to be Jesus. ‘I have not come to be served but to serve and give my life as a ransom for many.’ But before he arrived Israel were still God’s servant and had a mission to God’s world. So they need not fear total annihilation at the hands of Cyrus.

2.    They are called Jacob, whom I have chosen. Jacob was a scoundrel. And yet he was picked because of God’s grace. God’s people have not gone so far that God would not reach out and help them.

3.    They were formed from the ends of the earth. Abraham was taken from Babylon and Israel formed from Egypt. The God of Israel was not a national deity like many of the gods of the ancient world. He was a world player and had the power to save his people from anywhere he wanted.

4.    Also a reference to their current situation. Verse 10. The LORD is with them. He promised to strengthen them and uphold them with his right hand.

These were huge promises to God’s people. What happened when Cyrus arrived in 539BC? Were the Jews annihilated? Were they totally destroyed?
No, they were allowed to return to their homeland and were even given money from the Babylonians to aid them on their way.

Did they have to be fearful when they heard the rumours of Cyrus approaching? No. Did they feel like quaking in their boots? Yes. How could they avoid doing what God told them not to do? Very simply. They had to trust the Word of God. They had to trust that his promises were sure and certain.

The same is true for us. Circumstances will change all the time. Climate change, credit crunch and the congestion charge are just the current problems shaking our nations. Okay the congestion charge is not a world problem but it is a problem described by two words beginning with the letter C and that seems to be a common pattern at the moment! There were others before and there will be others in the future. Who knows what they will be but we can always be sure that when life seems like a breeze and our footing seems secure circumstances will change and our temptation will be to fear.

How are we to respond? We must trust that God always keeps true to his promises.

What this doesn’t mean in the credit crunch is that Christians will be immune from financial hardships. It doesn’t mean the hours of Christians will never be cut and that Christians will never lose their jobs. God never promises this. But he does promise this…

Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”

Around every corner is your good. In every circumstance God is working out your greater good. This does not mean no set backs and hardships but that we can know in every situation that God has chosen us. He is preparing us for heaven. He is making us more like Jesus.

If you are not a Christian here tonight how are you coping in the current financial crisis? Are you expecting everything to be all right without any basis? Or are you turning to other supports that will fail you in the end? But now and again do you not still quake in your boots? Do you not toss and turn as your head lies on the pillow because deep down you know the circumstances are too big for you?

How are Christians to react? We are to remember that the God who makes a promise, keeps a promise. He has said, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”

So Christian, don’t be afraid of changing circumstances.

Secondly, don’t be afraid of success. You might think this is a weird title. Who would be afraid of success? Surely you mean, don’t be afraid of failure. I’m not talking about your success or my success but the success of our enemies. I’m talking about those who oppose us because we are Christians. This is the theme of verses 11 to 13. “All who rage against you will surely be ashamed and disgraced; those who oppose you will be as nothing and perish.  12 Though you search for your enemies, you will not find them. Those who wage war against you will be as nothing at all.  13 For I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.”

It’s fascinating just to remember the story of those nations who opposed God’s people in the Old Testament. What happened to the Assyrian Empire? They were taken over by the Babylonians. What happened to the Babylonians? They were crushed by the Persians. What happened to the Persians? They were defeated by the Greeks. What about the Greeks? They were conquered by the Romans. And…well, the story continues in every century. God’s people will not be wiped out. They will be sustained and upheld by him so they can continue to witness for him in this world. But the enemies of God’s people have a certain destiny. They will not succeed. God’s people will triumph in the end.

Who are the enemies of God’s people today? It was very obvious who they were in the 6th century BC. In these verses of Isaiah they are very active in their persecution of God’s people. They rage against them, they oppose them, they even wage war on them.

Are these the only enemies today? Certainly there are governments, other religions and individuals who go out of their way to oppose the Christian faith. But these are not the only enemies who face a certain future at God’s hands.

Romans 5:1-2: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into the grace in which we now stand.”

Romans 5:10: “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having being reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

Who are the enemies of God’s who one day will be dealt with definitely by God? All enemies of God. Those who insist on living their way and not the way of King Jesus.

If not a follower of Jesus tonight, why are you not actively seeking to follow him? Do you believe this is true?

If you are a Christian, let us be encouraged. We may be small and often seem insignificant but we will triumph in the end. God loves justice more than we do. And so there is a day planned when this wicked rebellion against our Creator will be stopped once and for all. So Christian, do not fear success.

Thirdly, do not fear insurmountable obstacles because when God is with us the obstacles are cleared out of the way.

This is what we’re told in verses 14 to 16. ‘Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O little Israel, for I myself will help you,” declares the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.  15 “See, I will make you into a threshing sledge, new and sharp, with many teeth. You will thresh the mountains and crush them, and reduce the hills to chaff.  16 You will winnow them, the wind will pick them up, and a gale will blow them away. But you will rejoice in the LORD and glory in the Holy One of Israel.’

A threshing sledge was a heavy wooden board stubbed with metal teeth on its underside. Sheaves of corn are brought to the threshing floor in order to separate the grain from the chaff, the lighter husks that surround the grain. A threshing sledge was used to do this. After it had been dragged around the threshing floor, the grain and chaff were tossed into the air with a pitchfork and the chaff was carried away by the wind. This was called winnowing.

But here Israel will be a threshing sledge. Not just an old one that a dodgy second hand car dealer has on display but one with lots and lots of sharp teeth. It will be used over the mountains and crush them. The hills will be reduced to chaff. The wind will pick them up and gale will blow them all away.

Notice who gets the praise for this. End of verse 16, “But you will rejoice in the LORD and glory in the Holy One of Israel.” This makes sense. A threshing sledge can do nothing on its own. It is only useful when the farmer takes control.

How true for us as Christians! On our own we are puny, little and insignificance. But when God takes control then all sorts of obstacles are removed.

This should not encourage us to be reckless but to be expectant and optimistic that we can achieve things for God in his strength. When God is at work things will happen.

I remember when I came here. How could the money be found for three years ministry up front? It was.

Christian, do not be afraid of obstacles. If God wants you to do something it will certainly happen.

Lastly, do not be afraid of the future.

Christianity has much to say about the future and this is what verses 17 to 20 focus our attention on. So yes the exiles will be going home but even they were asked by God to raise their sights because there was something planned for the future that was much grander than simply a return back to what to the country where their forefathers lived. This future is beautifully described for us inverses 17 to 20.

“The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the LORD will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.  18 I will make rivers flow on barren heights, and springs within the valleys. I will turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs.  19 I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set pines in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together,  20 so that people may see and know, may consider and understand, that the hand of the LORD has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created it.”

This is the language of creation. What is promised is a new creation when all the features of this broken world will be removed. Lots of picture words. But do you get the picture? What a place? Thirst is quenched and beauty surrounds us. What a place to dwell forever!

So my friends do not be afraid of the future. In fact, do not be afraid. God is in control and he is working everything out for the good of those who love him. So let’s take him at his word and live differently as a result.

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