Real redemption - Isaiah 43:1-7

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 22nd February 2009.

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One of the great box office films of the 1980’s was of course, ‘Back to the Future’ and if you are too young to have been around when it was first released you have no doubt had the opportunity of seeing it since- courtesy  of DVD. As well as it being the vehicle which launched the career of Michael  Jesus Fox into the stratosphere it also didn’t do much harm for the band Huey Lewis and the News because it featured the top ten hit, ‘The Power of Love’. And over the years that theme has lain at the heart of many a song- the belief that love changes things, love makes the world go around, love can take you up where you belong, all you need is love and so on. And yet it appears that in the 21st century the belief in love’s power has somewhat diminished. This is well captured by a Hallmark card which reads, ‘I can’t promise you forever. But I can promise you today.’ Love no longer seems to be the universal araldite glue which can keep people together so that they last. Love has taken on a more ephemeral quality, a ‘here today gone tomorrow’ feel to it which makes us feel more vulnerable and unsure.

That certainly was what God’s people, the Jews, were feeling isolated in Exile in Babylon, and, if the truth be know, what some Christians feel as they face what seem overwhelming challenges which life has thrown their way. The question is then raised: ‘Just how powerful is God’s love?’ Is it powerful enough to get me through this? Is it strong enough to reach down to me in the valley so that I might be placed on the mountain? Well, is it? In the passage we are looking at together this evening in Isaiah 43, the prophet wants to reassure us that it is. In fact it is a love which is more powerful than we can ever imagine. And so to help us have some grasp as to the immensity of this love- a redemptive, rescuing love, Isaiah draws on some of the most moving and evocative imagery at his disposal. And there are three reasons given as to why God’s love is the most powerful force in the universe.

First of all, no people are too difficult for this love to change. Let me ask you, have you ever looked upon someone, maybe someone you love, and seeing that they are making a total car wreck of their lives, lurching from one disastrous choice to another, and you feel you have tried everything and getting no where fast? You have reasoned with them, you have pleaded with them, you have cajoled them and even wept with them and all to no avail. They just seem totally insensitive and incapable of change. Has that ever happened to you? Well, it happened to God. This is a description of the very people Isaiah is writing to- chapter 42:18 ‘"Hear, you deaf; look, you blind, and see! 19Who is blind but my servant and deaf like the messenger I send? Who is blind like the one committed to me, blind like the servant of the LORD?  20You have seen many things, but have paid no attention; your ears are open, but you hear nothing." Then v 23, ‘Which of you will listen to this or pay close attention in time to come? 24Who handed Jacob over to become loot, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned? For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law. 25So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart.’ Just what do you do with a people like that? God had given them a law at Sinai to enable them to live as they were meant to live as an example to the surrounding nations. What did they do? They ignored it and became like the surrounding nations. He sent prophets time and time again to warn them and plead with them to return back to their God? What did they do? Ignore them or abuse them- often both. Then he sent a mighty army to punish them in the hope that at last they would come to their senses. What happened? They accused God of being unjust and a promise breaker. Is there any hope for such people? Is there a love somewhere which has the power to bring such people to a right state of mind? Following on from such a description of God’s people who seem to be beyond the pale we then hear these words in 43:1, ‘But now, this is what the LORD says-- he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’ What an amazing change in tone. Did you expect that? I know I didn’t. You might  have expected more of the thunder and lightening- ‘What on earth am I going to do with you?’ But no. These are tender words, words of a lover whose heart is broken but whose passion still burns. He created these people from nothing- and what God makes can’t be unmade or reversed. He not only creates he also rescues, God is in the retrieval business, his makeovers aren’t cosmetic they begin on the inside and work towards the outside. And this is a personal call by God, ‘I have summoned you by name- you are mine.’ Isn’t that touching? God is possessive of those whom he loves, he is not just going to walk away when things get tough, he remains committed. And who is he committed to? He is committed to these insensitive, bone headed, ungrateful, complaining, wayward people-that’s who. You know to lose all sensitivity, as it seems these folk had, is one of the most bleak and dangerous of situations to be in- it borders on hopelessness- and yet it is precisely these kind of people that God promises to restore. It is going to take one mighty power to do that isn’t it? One of the great pioneers in the treatment of leprosy- Hansen’s disease- was the Christian doctor Paul Brand. He showed that in 99% of the cases, HD only numbs the extremities. The result is that the body’s natural early warning defences are knocked out. That is when the decay of organs, like hands begins, but in this way: In villages in Africa and Asia, HD sufferers  have been known to reach directly into a charcoal fire to retrieve a dropped potato. Nothing in their body told them not to. Brand then began to formulate the theory that it was as an anaesthetic that leprosy destroyed. Daily routines grind away at HD sufferers hands and feet, because the early warning system doesn’t work. So if a tendon is pulled, they simply learn to walk crooked. He noticed that the fingers of many of his patients simply started to get smaller over time. He couldn’t quite understand why this was happening until he discovered that at night as leprosy sufferers were lying in their bed with their hands hanging over the side, rats would sneak in and simply nibble away at the fingers and because they had no feeling in them they just left them there not realising what was going on. The point is this. It is only too possible have a spiritual form of leprosy so that very gradually your soul becomes calloused to Christian things- a hardness sets in so you become indifferent to prayer, reading the Bible, attending God’s house, serving God’s people- and like those rats the world eats you away without you even noticing. There is a hardening which takes place that in the end makes it difficult to tell you apart from the regular non-Christian. Can God get through to someone like that? Yes he can- well at least he will with some-the remnant, not because they are better than others or have more potential or aren’t as far gone, but because God has set his love on them and he will restore them- ‘You are mine.’ So if you are here tonight thinking you have blown it as a Christian- well, maybe you have, but that does not mean God has finished with you. If there are stirrings of regret, a longing to come back then you can take those as signs of God tenderly calling you, restoring you so you can respond. Take him at his word and come back.

Secondly, no circumstance is too harsh that this love cannot sustain, v2, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; he flames will not set you ablaze.’  God is saying that whatever comes your way, the power of my love can take you through it. Isaiah might be getting the people to remember what God has done in the past. Think of the way God enables Israel to pass through the ‘waters’ of the Red Sea as if they were walking on dry land. Or when they crossed over the river Jordan into the promised land- God managed that OK- they weren’t drowned than. Or it may be that he is using water and fire as the two extremes of a destructive experience- drowning at one end and burning at the other, as if to say whether you have a baptism of water- like the flood- or a baptism of fire or whatever may lie in between, in every conceivable kind of trial I will be with you and these things will not ultimately harm you. He doesn’t say that there will be no waters or fires and that these things won’t hurt- but rather they will not have a devastating effect on you in terms of your relationship to him- he will get you home in the end. And notice the reason God gives for us being able to have such a confidence that this will be so-v3, ‘For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.’ What is the basis for the preservation of this unworthy church- and it doesn’t take more than a moment’s reflection to see ourselves included here- it is the unchangeable character of God. He is the LORD- the great ‘I AM’, the God who promises to be whatever he needs to be and do whatever he needs to do for the sake of the people he loves. He will draw upon whatever resources are necessary which reside within the infinity of his own being to give you whatever strength you need to cope and endure. You know  a passage like this can come to mean so much to you when faced with trials you are afraid you cannot bear. One of the early Reformers who was burnt at the stake for his Protestant beliefs in 1531 was Thomas Bilney. He was quite an evangelist in his own time. In the early days when such beliefs were considered heretical under Henry the Eighth the way he got the Gospel out was to visit his priest for confession. He would visit him day after day ‘confessing’ all this terrible teaching that he had been reading- that it is only by faith in Christ that we are put right with God, that the mass is not a sacrifice but a memorial, that the Bible is the Word of God and so on, until eventually his priest got converted- his name was Hugh Latimer who became a bishop and suffered the same fate as Bilney- burnt at the stake. Well, on the night before Bilney was due to be taken out for this dreadfully painful way to die, some friends visited him and tried to console him with some trite remark that, ‘though the fire would be hot and painful to the body, yet the Spirit of God might cool it for his everlasting comfort’ (with friends like that who needs enemies!). But Bilney was a realist. He stretched out his hand and put his finger in the flame of the candle until it burnt down to the first joint and said this, ‘I feel by experience that fire by God’s ordinance is naturally hot; but yet I am persuaded by God’s Word and by experience of some spoken of in the same, that in the flame they felt no heat, and in the fire they felt no consumption; and I constantly believe that however the stubble of this my body shall be wasted by it, yet my soul and spirit will be purged thereby: a pain for the time, whereon notwithstanding followeth joy unspeakable.’ Then he went on to quote this very passage, ‘Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called you by name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee,: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the Lord they God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour.’  Did that make a difference to him? Listen to the description of his last moments: ‘People marvelled at his calm and patient bearing. They saw reeds and faggots piled around his body and set fire. They blazed upon his face, causing untold pain and distress, while he held up his hands or beat his breast crying sometimes, ‘Jesus’ or ‘I believe!’ Then a strong wind blew the flame right away from his body, so that he stood for a while out of reach of the fire. Two or three times the flame was blown aside before the wood was set alight; but then, at last the fire began to burn in strength. He did not long survive, and his body soon fell forward upon the chain.’ The writer goes on, ‘Little Bilney did not escape from death by fire, but those who had eyes to see may have seen that he was not alone: there was One like unto the Son of Man who stood by him in the heat of dying and went with him through the gates of glory.’ No circumstance is too harsh that he cannot take you through it.

But thirdly, no price is too great than he will not pay it, vv3b-7, v3, ‘I give Egypt for your ransom,

Cush and Seba in your stead. 4Since you are precious and honoured in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.’ ’It is a wonderful to be valued? Yet there are so many in our broken, disintegrating who find that a very difficult thing to believe because they have been starved of love all their lives. But do you realise what God is saying here? If you are a Christian you are valued immensely and the proof is that he will pay any ransom to get you back. That is what the prophet is declaring here when he talks about giving ‘Egypt, or Cush or Seba in your stead’ These were the regions around Egypt. In other words- if it takes the whole of North East Africa to bring you back I will give it in a heartbeat. Now King Cyrus who defeated the Babylonians eventually sent home the Jews, but in other directions he extended his empire, especially in Africa. Well, that proves just how special you are to God, says Isaiah. He will move history to restore you. Other nations may well perish, that was the lot of a defeated nation in the ancient world, obliteration but not for you Israel. In fact I will go even further; because I love you and you are precious in my sight, I will give the rest of mankind in exchange for you-v4, - peoples in exchange for you.’ In other words, whatever the hostage situation you are in and whatever the ransom price I will pay it to get you out. And it is only when we get to Chapter 53 that we see the true extent to which God will pay any price to save us- His Servant splayed on a cross and left to die. That is how much you mean to me. What, these dilatory, obstinate, insensitive, slow to believe and obey people? Yes, that is exactly who he is talking about. And when you look into you heart and when I look into mine, are you not glad that it is so?

And just in case you might be tempted to think that somehow God might overlook you in the crowd we read of God’s determination to ensure that every single one of those he has paid for will make it to the end-v5 ‘Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. 6 I will say to the north, `Give them up!' and to the south, `Do not hold them back.' Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth-- 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."’ Did you notice how extensive that is? ‘I will bring your children’ from every point of the compass, ‘sons and daughters’. But also how intensive it is too- concern for the individual, ‘Everyone who is called by my name.’ It is emphatic- each one. And why has he done this? ‘For my glory.’ Those of you who are teachers, let me ask: Which is the greater trophy- the pupil who has a supportive home, is self-motivated, above average intelligence and so does quite well at school or the one who comes into your class with not very much going for him- for him school is a drag, his parents want him to leave as soon as he can so he can bring in some money, but who under your guidance and inspiration slowly changes, so that learning becomes something to be prized and-would you believe it- this is the kid that makes it through to a good university and makes something of his life- against all the odds! Which is it? Well, multiply that feeling a billion times and that is the glory God is going to receive in heaven from the whole of creation, with angels looking on in holy wonder as, as far as the eye can see there are billions and billions of people who were the spiritual dregs of the universe shining with a splendour the angels could well be envious of- and God did it! But -it cost him dear, had he given up the planets and all the riches they contain they would not amount to what he did pay to make this dream a reality- the blood of his one and only Son. But then again, no price is too great for those he has set his heart upon.

Just how practical is knowing this? Let me end by telling you about Keith Jones. Keith Jones is the Chief Executive of the Mission Aviation Fellowship. After leaving the Naval Air Squadron as a pilot he and his wife Lin went with MAF to serve Christ in Chad-Africa. After four years on their return home Lin developed Leukemia, and this is how Keith, recounts what happened: ‘I drove Lin to London and she was admitted into an isolation ward. I remember her looking at me. She was scarcely recognisable. Lin was  reduced to skin and bone and neither knew where she was  nor what she was saying. Keith' she said ‘get out of my life I don’t want to see you again.’ I knew that was not Lin speaking but the result of all that was happening to her. I told her I would go home but come back the next day to see her. ‘Don’t bother’ she replied. Looking round at her I wept, she was so ill. Then I called out as loudly as I could ‘I can’t leave you’ I  threw my arms around her, then an hour later left her asleep and  cried all the way home. Lin developed an infection of the brain and died aged 43..Sometime later, after Lin died, the Lord reminded me of that night. I heard him speaking to me in my mind and heart telling me there was a time in eternity when his Son took on his shoulders the sin of the whole world, that he too was left to die looking unrecognizable and that while he looked at him and could have gone to him, thrown his arms around him and embraced him and told him he would never leave him, He did not. He turned his back on his own dear Son Jesus and left him there to pay the death penalty for my sin. I realized in that experience that what Lin and I went through was no more than a glimpse of the pain God endured so to give his Son Jesus Christ. It enabled me to share with others in a more informed way something of his costly love for them.’ He goes on, ‘So Lin completed her last adventure on earth and went on to that greatest adventure of all-seeing God in all his glory in heaven and being welcomed home by the Lord whom she had loved and served.’

You see, when it comes down to it, no other truths will do to enable us to deal with the reality of living in this world. This is the power of God’s love; that no people are too difficult, no circumstance too harsh and no price to great. Let us pray.

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