Down with despair - Isaiah 49:14-26

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 23rd January 2011.

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We all have our ‘hot buttons’ which are easy to press. I am sure that you know what I mean; mention a name or a topic and off people go on their hobby horse. With my late Dad it was politicians. If you were to mention politics, that is when the rant would begin; what a wretched lot they all were, snouts in the trough, who should have been Prime Minister- the works. Once, one poor unsuspecting prospective political candidate had the misfortune of coming around to my parent’s house canvassing. Not a good idea! My Dad opened the door, looked him up and down and said, ‘I am sorry pal, but I am not going to vote for anyone thicker than myself’ and promptly shut the door. None of us are immune from the ‘hot button.’ But it may come as a surprise to you to discover, and I say this reverently, that God has his hot buttons too; things which are so dear to his heart which if challenged will result in one long vigorous response we had not bargained for. And there is one hot button in particular which people press all the time and that is the question as to whether God cares. You see it at the beginning of the passage we are looking at together this morning- Isaiah 49:14: ‘But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, The Lord has forgotten me.’ That is one mighty and hurtful accusation to make. And God is so taken by this, so affronted by it that he spends the next four chapters made up of thirteen sections of text refuting it.


And this is no flippant cry of despair that the Jewish people are making- Zion. You see, Zion was not just the name of a place- God’s Holy Mountain; it represented God’s commitment to his people. He had forged a special relationship with them, a covenant. It was like a marriage relationship, a ‘for better or for worse’ relationship, and as far as the people were concerned it was the worst of times and where was he when they needed him most? It was in 597BC that it all began- a nightmare of apocalyptic proportions. The Babylonian army came down upon them like a swarm of giant locusts; murdering, looting, burning. Twice the beloved city of Jerusalem was laid siege. The second time was the worst- 589BC. For eighteen months the poor beleaguered inhabitants of that city were reduced to skin and bone. Then they  were herded like cattle to occupy refugee camps strung like beads along the rivers of Babylon, and that is when they wrote Psalm 137, ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.’ For 70 years they were in this desperate situation. It was alright for God to say, as we saw in the first part of the chapter, that he as going to send a Servant who would bring people from all over the world into a living relationship with himself, but what good was that to them. They felt as if God had simply forgotten them. And if the truth be known that may be how you are feeling this morning, or at least know of others who are feeling that. You find yourselves in the same shoes as Zion- desperate and despairing, genuinely wondering whether God has completely forgotten that you exist. At least that’s what it feels like. And when you are down like that, maybe wallowing in self-pity, rational arguments may not seem to get through, what is needed is something which will inspire the imagination and stir the heart. And that is what we find God doing here. Yes, he marshals arguments, but he does so in such a way that he wants his people to feel his love and commitment to them. He leaves no stone unturned, no argument standing which would leave his people with even the slightest suspicion that he has forgotten them.

First, we are told that God’s love is more dependable that we think-vv 15-18.

You see, this is an unforgetting love v 15, ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?’ One of the greatest bonds known to mankind is that between a mother and her baby. It is almost inconceivable that a mother should discard the one she has nurtured in the womb for nine months and gently nursed night and day. So is God saying to his people, ‘My love for you is like that’? No he isn’t. He is saying that it is infinitely better. Because tragically we do know of mothers who can forget their babies and even abuse them and it defies all reason, but it happens. I remember when I was in Jerusalem a few years ago switching on the morning news from the UK on the hotel TV only to hear the dreadful story of a couple who owned a pub in Sheffield arrested for the death of their toddler daughter who had simply been left in her filthy, flea infested bedroom to starve to death. When the police found her she had been lying dead for days. What made it worse was that the night before the police came around the mother had been on the phone to her friend worried about her pet dog that was off its food. How can a mother do such a thing? When I heard that I just cried. But it may have been much closer to these people to whom God is actually speaking because when Jerusalem had been under siege by the Babylonians, so desperate had the people become that mothers were reduced to cannibalism as  they cooked their own babies over fires fuelled by human dung. So can a mother forget her baby? In extreme cases the answer is yes. But God is not like that. ‘Though she may forget, I will not forget you.’ God is emphatic about it. It is an unforgetting love

But it is also a costly love. It’s as if God says ‘Do you want proof of that, why it is impossible that I could ever forget you?’ Then look at my hands verse 16, ‘See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.’  The word used here is one used elsewhere to describe a carving of a figure or number into a rock- an engraving-but here it is into God’s hands that the engraving is made. I must confess that I tend to get a little squeamish when I think of body piercing or tattooing which are now fashionable. Ears, I can just about cope with, but when it come to other parts of the body which seem to me to be rather tender- that is when I make a quick exit. But can you imagine taking a scalpel and inscribing someone’s name into your palm? Can you even begin to conceive the amount of pain that would generate? One thing is for sure, you would never forget that name would you? You would not forget the experience that produced it and you would never forget the individual represented by it because you would carry his or her name around with you wherever you went, because the name would have become a part of you. That is what God is saying here with regards to his people. And we know living this side of Isaiah 53 and the cross that such language goes beyond metaphor, for in Jesus God’s hands were not simply engraved they were pierced, and each drop of blood that was spilt contained the name of each one of his people. ‘My name is graven on his hands, my name is written on his heart’ that is what the Christian can sing and mean it!

‘Yes, but is God aware of the tragedy in my life, the broken walls and desolation which litters every waking day?’ Yes he is, ‘Your walls are ever before me’ he says. We may look upon a disaster and find it is distasteful that we instinctively avert our eyes to avoid the shock. Not God, he sees it and is moved by it. God’s love is more dependable than you think.

Secondly, God’s plans are much greater than you can envisage -vv 18-23. One of the many reasons why the people are so spiritually down in the dumps is because they feel they are a non-entity, there are so few of them. The fact is in the ancient world when a country was broken by a superpower and the people dispersed that was the end of them-they no longer existed. This was ethnic cleansing before ethnic cleansing. But there was only ever one exception to this: Israel. If you want proof positive that the Bible is true, then you only have to point to the existence of the Jewish people- they shouldn’t be there! We don’t have any Moabites today, or Sumerians or Akkadians- those people groups have disappeared-but not this one- God ensured that the ancient rulers did something quite unprecedented with this people- he preserved them. But from where they are sitting when this prophecy came to them afresh, they think that they will eventually be going the way of all such nations- into oblivion- that is what happens. And they look around and do a census and the numbers don’t look too good. Are they just a few generations away from extinction, they ask God replies, ‘no’- v17, ‘Yours sons hasten back, and those who laid you waste depart from you. Lift up your eyes and look around, all your sons (that is an emphatic ‘all’) gather and come to you. As surely as I live declares the LORD (God is now on oath),  “you will wear them all as ornaments; you will put them on like a bride.’ What use is a city without people? Zion is at the moment empty, except for a few jackals and rats, but that is all going to change and every single one of God’s people is going to occupy it. Or to change the imagery, the wedding dress of God’s bride is going to be perfectly adorned, not one jewel or pearl will be missing. And to show how extensive God’s plans are, God will even use pagan rulers to achieve this- v23. And at one level this happened in 539BC when God raised up the Persian King Cyrus who did the unprecedented thing by not only releasing a conquered people but making provision for them to return to their homeland. That was a miracle if ever there was one! But at a deeper level God is doing it today. Through the Gospel he is calling people, the sheep who hear his voice, to come into a living relationship with Christ on whose palms are engraved their name and they are being added to the heavenly Jerusalem, the Zion or church which is in heaven. This is made up of billions of people.

And that mind boggling truth ties in with what God says through the prophet in verses 19-21. The place is just too small for the numbers of Zion’s children he will be adding to it, they will need more space. We look around us today and we too feel in a minority because we are. Church attendance is abysmal in this country, especially so in our city- 0.6%. And when you bear in mind that not everyone who attends church is a born again Christian believer, that makes the situation even worse. And so we can sometimes feel like shrugging our shoulders and asking: ‘Is it worth it?’ But the point is, God is still at work, God is still extending his family and it invariably begins with small unpromising numbers- like here with the Jews in exile.

So let me tell you about Adoniram Judson. He was the first American Overseas missionary who in 1813 at the age of 24 went with his 23 year old wife to Burma- now Myanmar. He worked there for 38 years until his death at the age of 61 with one trip home after 33 years. All his years in Burma were hard but the early years especially so. For example Ann, who married Judson on February 5, 1812, bore three children to Adoniram. All of them died. The first baby, nameless, was born dead just as they sailed from India to Burma. The second child, Roger Williams Judson, lived 17 months and died. The third, Maria Elizabeth Butterworth Judson, lived to be two, and outlived her mother by six months and then died. Actually Adoniram eventually married three times, with two of his wives dying on the missionary field. It was six years before they saw their first convert. And the years after that first convert were very hard indeed. On June 8, 1824 Adoniram was dragged from his home and put in prison. His feet were fettered and at night a long horizontal bamboo pole was lowered and passed between the fettered legs and hoisted up till only the shoulder and heads of the prisoners rested on the ground. Ann at the time was pregnant, but walked the two miles daily to the palace to plead that Judson was not a Western spy and that they should have mercy. She got some relief for him so that he could come out into a court yard. But still the prisoners got lice in their hair amid the rotting food, and had to be shaved bald. Almost a year later they were suddenly moved to a more distant village prison, gaunt, with hollow eyes, dressed in rags crippled from the torture. There the mosquitoes from the rice paddies almost drove them mad on their bloody feet. The daughter, Maria, had been born by now and Ann was almost as sick and thin as Adoniram, but still pursued him with her baby to take care of him as she could. Her milk dried up, and the jailer had mercy on them and actually let Judson take the baby each evening into the village and beg for women to nurse his baby. On November 4, 1825 Judson was suddenly released. The government needed him as a translator in negotiations with Britain. The long ordeal was over - 17 months in prison and on the brink of death, with his wife sacrificing herself and her baby to care for him as she could. Ann's health was broken. Eleven months later she died. And six months later their daughter died. But in 1831 something began to happen and God was suddenly moving in a very powerful way. Judson wrote: ‘The spirit of inquiry . . . is spreading everywhere, through the whole length and breadth of the land." [We have distributed] nearly 10,000 tracts, giving to none but those who ask. I presume there have been 6000 applications at the house. Some come two or three months' journey, from the borders of Siam and China - 'Sir, we hear that there is an eternal hell. We are afraid of it. Do give us a writing that will tell us how to escape it.' Others, from the frontiers of Kathay, 100 miles north of Ava - 'Sir, we have seen a writing that tells about an eternal God. Are you the man that gives away such writings? If so, pray give us one, for we want to know the truth before we die.' Others, from the interior of the country, where the name of Jesus Christ is a little known - 'Are you Jesus Christ's man? Give us a writing that tells us about Jesus Christ." That was two hundred years ago. Now there are 2 million Christian believers in that country and 40% of the Karen people who were the folk Judson primarily worked amongst are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ- 40%. Is that not part of the fulfilment of what God promises here in Isaiah 49. Do you not think that Adoniram Judson would not have felt the despair of these people- that he was in a land which was in ruins and desolate-v19? And yet through all the heartache and all the pain- from this one man, humanly speaking, came millions of spiritual children. And you have to ask: what kept him and his wives going when many of us would have given up in despair? It was the truth about God contained in these pages, that this is a God whose love is more dependable than we think and whose plans are greater than we can envisage.

‘Ah’ you say, ‘that is all very well but you don’t know my situation.’ Well, I can’t imagine it being worse that Judson’s, but you may think so. Well, that is the kind of objection Israel is raising in verse 14, ‘Can the plunder be taken from warriors, or captives rescued from the fierce?’ ‘Everyone knows that once a nation has been taken into captivity-end of story. No peoples have ever been released.’ True. But that is because we fail to see that God’s power is more extensive than we can ever imagine, which is the main thrust of the remaining verses. Here is an emphatic but in v25, ‘But this is what the Lord says, Yes, captives will be taken from warriors and plunder retrieved from the fierce. I will contend with those who contend with you and your children will be saved.’ Something unprecedented is going to take place and I Yahweh will do it, I can change the heart of kings, I can raise up one empire and put down another-that is what you will see, and that is exactly what happened to the utter astonishment of the surrounding nations-v26, ‘Then all mankind will know that I, the LORD, am your Saviour, your Redeemer, that Mighty One of Jacob.’

But is there not a more profound sense in which this has taken place? Did not Jesus talk about binding a mighty man and taking his plunder? Is not Calvary, the Cross, God’s public demonstration not only to the world but to all the powers in the universe that he alone is Saviour, Redeemer, the Mighty One of his people? I tell you most solemnly, that there are people in our country today who are oppressed and in bondage in a way far more menacing than these Jews were, but many are not even aware of it. It is a bondage to idolatries and a way of life which robs them of the dignity, value and potential that God gave them by virtue of being made in his image. It is an exile whereby they are cut off from the one by whom and for whom they were made and they are drifting into a Christless eternity, and the great enemy of our souls, Satan is delighted with that. But God is still in the rescue business. Captives are being taken from Satan’s cold, icy grip and coming to know a love and freedom they never knew were possible as they encounter the Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ. It may be that you are still in that position this morning, but you need not remain there, God has not changed, his promises have not changed, he still has power which is more extensive than we can imagine. Perhaps you are a Christian but the complaints of verses 14 and 24 that God does not care or that God does not have the power come readily to your lips. Then take to heart what he has already been saying to you and go further, allow your mind’s eye to ponder that lonely hill with its three wooden crosses, and that single blood stained figure in the middle, who as he takes upon himself your sin and mine echoes the words of verse 14 in the anguished cry, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me.’ Then allow this thought to penetrate your soul, that he was forsaken so that we never will be.


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