So Great - Isaiah 40:12-31

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 5th January 2003.

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It could have been a scene from a Die Hard Movie-but it wasn’t- it was actually happening. The force of the explosions did not initially destroy the towers of course, which were built to withstand the horizontal impact of a large commercial aircraft. It was the fire that killed the buildings. The fire, fuelled by 91,000 litres of aviation fluid , and a forest’s worth of office paper, reached temperatures of 800 degrees centigrade. At these temperatures, the steel core of the buildings, and the steel members which supported the concrete floors, began to melt and buckle. Eventually, they collapsed under the massive load above, brining a sudden catastrophic force to bear on the floors beneath. From this point on, the implosion of the buildings was inevitable. At 10.05 am, September 11th, the north tower of the World Trade Centre, collapsed; the south tower followed at 10.28 am. Approximately 3,000 office workers, policemen and firefighters lost their lives. It was an event which shook and shocked a nation if not a world.

Multiply the traumatic effect of that event a thousand fold and then you will be able to glimpse how God’s people - Israel felt when Jerusalem was destroyed and the cream of the nation was banished into oblivion in pagan Babylon, now modern day Iraq in 589 BC. They should have seen it coming of course, for God had repeatedly warned them-but no. Their pride and their sin blinded them to the inevitable chastening of God’s judgement.

70 years or so had now passed by. Oh, they had tried praying, but nothing seemed to happen, it was as if God had left the receiver off the hook. Some of those prayers were written down as songs, like psalm 137. And that is when the rumours began. 'God', they said, isn’t quite as we thought him to be. 'Certainly, our parents and grandparents believed that God Almighty stuff, but we can't, not in this day and age. No, we can't expect any help from that quarter. The Lord helps those who help themselves you know.' That was pretty obvious, they argued, from a plain reading of their circumstances. For, if God were so powerful, how come he hadn't already done something to lift his people out of the mess in which they found themselves, as he did, say in the days of Moses? So this in turn gave rise to the second rumour, far more twisted and demoralising than the first, that even if God were able to bring about a divine rescue, he simply wasn't willing. That in fact was the taunt of their non-believing neighbours: ' What's the point of having a God, they said ,who allows you to suffer? How can you ever think of such a God as LORD.' Those were the two rumours of despair-God not able, God not willing. And someone who had predicted this response decades earlier was Isaiah, as we see in 40: 27- ‘Why do you say, O Jacob and complain, O Israel, 'My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God.’'

And it may well be that as we look around the society in which we find ourselves that those are the thoughts which echo in our minds. What is church attendance in Hull now? - 0.7% Many churches children’s work is on the verge of extinction. School nativity's can’t even be photographed in some places because of fear of paedophiles. And we have undergone two of the greatest wars in history to secure this? The humanistic dream of a world living in perfect harmony has long ago dissolved. The tide does seem to be running out on Western civilization.

So little wonder if we too start asking where is God? Is there any future for us or our children? Is there any word at all from him? Well, yes there is. And it is the same word delivered by Isaiah which came to those exiles 2500 years ago. And it is a word not only from God but about God- we are being summoned to lift up our eyes from the circumstances to the God of circumstances - Is 40:9 'Behold your God.'

It’s as if the prophet is saying: 'Do you honestly think that God is so small that he doesn't have the strength to mount the rescue operation you need?' Do you really think that God is so fickle that he will abandon you ,leaving you to stew in your own juice, however well deserved that might be?' Then think again. And begin by thinking great thoughts of a great God. For what I am about to proclaim to you about the Creator- Covenant God is really nothing new, you have heard it before-it is there in your Scriptures, but you desperately need to hear it again and take it to heart if you are going to climb out of the mire of self-pity in which you are presently wallowing and be moved to wonder and worship.

And so the prophet begins to turn his congregations thoughts to the grandeur of God.

First of all they are told to that they worship a God who cannot be measured -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?’

In our creed we say we believe in God the Father Almighty ,Maker of heaven and earth. And that is exactly what we are being reminded of here. Let me ask you : what can you measure in the hollow of your hand? A few millimeters of water? What can you measure with the span of your hand-that is the distance between the thumb and the little finger? About 18 cm? What can you carry in a basket ?A few groceries picked up from Tescos perhaps- or a more select store if your name is Nigella Lawson? What do you weigh on the scales? Maybe some flour or some other ingredients for cooking. Do you know how all of that transfers to God?

What's in the hollow of his hand? Nothing less than the oceans of the world, that’s what. Do you know what you will find in God's shopping basket? All the soil of the earth. What does he weigh on his scales? The Alps and the Himalayas. What about this universe in all its vastness? Now even the scientists are reaching out to belief in God in order to comprehend and explain it. 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 us 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 if you are like me and numbers mean very little to you the accuracy required for the universe to form amounts to something like this- aiming at a target and inch wide on the other side of the universe twenty thousand million light years away and hitting the mark! Well, God hit the mark. Such numbers are as nothing to him. He measures the whole universe not in light years but like that- a span. That is your God, says Isaiah. and no one had to advise him on a thing- v 13.

But you may say, 'Well, space and the heavens, are a little too remote for me and my situation. It is this planet which gives me cause for concern. Our politicians seem to be obsessed- and with some justification- of weapons of mass destruction. What if Al-Qaeda manage to get hold of something like VX gas or some other toxic agent which could wipe out thousands within a matter of hours? Is that what is giving you sleepless nights? Well, the prophet confronts those nightmares head on- vv 15-17. 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.

But this God, proclaims Isaiah not only cannot measured but cannot even be compared-18-24. ‘To whom will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?’

I am sure that you have noticed that there is a new ‘in’ word in religious and even non-religious circles today- it is the word ‘spirituality.’ The great thing about that word of course is that it is so vague, it is like a jelly mold into which you can pour any filling you like. It carries with it an air of reverence, or religious earnestness, even if you have no formal religion you can still describe yourself as spiritual. But you see, unless such notions are anchored to the idea of truth -what is really the case-then what you end up with is a new idolatry. We decide the shape and flavour of the god we want to worship, or rather have in our pocket. And generally it is a god who makes very few demands. If God is thought of as some cosmic gas, then it is impersonal and will have little to say on issues of morality-so you can enjoy your spirituality- and still do what you want.. If it is the god of the ‘I like to think of god like this variety’ -he may well be little more than a totem, a lucky charm for tough times- a mystical rabbit’s foot. In fact for all our alleged sophistication we live in one of the most superstitious and idolatrous ages in centuries.

Well, the Jews knew what that was like too living in Babylon, it a place stuffed with idols and rife with superstition. And like today, such alternatives seemed so attractive. We all receive junk mail- and the Jews would have received their 6th century BC equivalent which vv 19-20 indicate that it would have run something like this: ‘ We’re so glad that you have come to reside in Babylon: and of all the families on Marduk Avenue, you have been chosen to receive our special offer. We want you to be the envy of your neighbours and friends. We can now offer you the latest craftsman- cast idol, overlaid with gold of the finest design and equipped with silver chains to prevent theft or accidental damage. We are sure that you will want to establish your own garden shrine ,so do take this offer to heart. If you want a cut price economy model, especially if you have a growing family, then our non-rot wooden model with its non-topple features is for you, this avoids the embarrassment of finding that your god has fallen flat on his face.’

And this is what some of the Jews were tempted to put in the place of the living God! You see, you get what you pray for- and live for. What motivates you in life, what gets you up out of bed in the morning- that is your god.

.You see, like these Jews in Babylon, we Christians are surrounded by idols which have immense power and attraction, squeezing the real God from the centre of our horizons, so that worshipping him with his people ,say on a Sunday becomes more and more intermittent. Studying his world takes second or third place over watching the telly anytime. What is the antidote? Get hold of this view of God who alone should have our love and allegiance, who frees and does not enslave, who enriches rather than impoverishes- vv21-22 ‘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? 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.’

Of course the world is huge, and if we but gave it a moments thought we would feel dwarfed by it all ,but our God dwarfs the world, and yet - and yet- at the same time cares for you- he is a personal as well as an- all powerful God and that is brought out in that lovely description of God as a tender shepherd in v 11 ‘ He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.’ No he is not so big that he doesn’t have time for you- it is because he is so great that he can, he is, as it were, able to hold within his mind and heart a billion and one requests from all of his children at the same time, they are known to him personally. And that is more than can be said for the idols. You try praying to Matalan when you are ill. You try depending upon Manchester United when your heart is breaking through bereavement. You try sprucing up a new home when a new war looms on the horizon-see how they you comfort then. Of course they can’t-but the true God can and does.

But then again you might be tempted to compare God to some mighty ruler, as if Freud and Feurbach did in seeing God as nothing more than the projection of our own fantasies-man writ large. Not at all. How do these rulers appear when measured against him- vv23-24. ‘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.’ These are the great men which cause us such sleepless nights-the Nebuchadnear's of Babyon,the Hitlers, the Stalin, Asama Bin Ladens .Do you know what they are really like? They are like a handful of dry grass which when you let go are blown away by the wind.

But the true and living God also cannot be rivalled -look at the heavens- v25-26 '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’.

While I was in South Africa I visited Witzwatersrand University. And a few years ago the Christian astronomer, Professor David Block gave a presentation 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. What does Isaiah say? God calls them out each one by name! That is your God- the God you believe is powerless to help you.

But the prophet has another more significant reason for drawing the exile's attention to the stars, for the Babylonians who had taken them captive worshipped them, theirs you see was an astral religion. They believed the stars were god's, the very gods who had defeated Yahweh ,the very god's who held Israel's destiny in the balance-so they thought. None sense, says Isaiah, don't believe a word of it-throw your horoscopes away, let mystic Meg get a proper job-God made the stars how can he be held to ransom by them? He determines their existence, they don't determine ours. Our life is not governed by blind fate, but by an all knowing ,all creating -redeemer God who has a loving purpose for our lives. The apostle Paul says something very similar in that magnificent passage at the end of Romans 8. Do you remember what he says? ‘ In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ When he talks about ‘neither height nor depth’ -he is referring to the position of the planets-high or low in the sky- astral religion, horoscopes and the lot were big in Paul’s day too-having come over from the East - Babylon in fact.’ Do we honestly think that walking under a ladder, breaking a mirror, even failing to say our prayers is going to cut us off from God’s love? If so then we do not know the God of the Bible.

And so we come to the climax of this breathtaking passage- v 27 'Why do you say O Jacob, and complain O Israel, and we could add, and grumble O Christian'-' My way is hid from the Lord and my cause disregarded by my God? What does he know? What does he care ?'Do you sometimes feel like that? Well, this is what he says: 'Have you not known, 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, his understanding no one can fathom.' But even more than that,-v29-31. 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.’ Do you see how the God of limitless strength shares it with those who acknowledge their need? It is the weary not the self-reliant who prevail in the end, because their strength is not human but divine- a strength which will see them all the way home to heaven.

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