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When God is revealed - Isaiah 40:6-31

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 28th September 2014.

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Just listen to these words: ‘It has been said by someone that ‘the proper study of mankind is man’. I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls Father.’

 

Those were words preached by a 20 year old C. H. Spurgeon. So eloquently put, the truth of what he says is penetratingly accurate. The fact is that wafer thin thoughts of God result in wafer thin Christianity. How a person thinks about God, argue Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, in their book ‘America’s Four Gods’,[1] is shaped by the answer to two questions. First, does God ever intervene in life? Second, does God ever make moral judgements about what we do and say? If the answer is ‘yes’, than we will have a very different Christian faiath from those who would answer ‘no’. In the case of the second group, God will be insipid, distant and dull. But if the answer is ‘yes’, if we really do believe  God is as Spurgeon describes him to be, then our world undergoes a radical transformation and things will never appear the same again. And the purpose of a minister in preaching is, under God, to enable this to happen. Three hundred years ago, Cotton Mather, a Puritan pastor in New England, put it like this, ‘The great design and intention of the office of a Christian preacher is to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men.’ Isn’t that wonderful? That’s why sermons challenge as well as inspire, search the soul as well as restore the soul. In fact, that was the office of the prophet Isaiah. You see, God’s people back then entertained the same kind of doubts that many of us entertain today. They too questioned whether God ever intervened in life or made moral judgements about the way we live. It is right there in Isaiah 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.’”  Isaiah looks forward to a time when God’s people would be at the end of their tether, as herded off into Exile, they hang up their harps, and sit weeping by the rivers of Babylon, as Jerusalem is reduced to a charred ruin, a haunt for rats and jackals. That is when the doubts came flooding in: ‘Is God able to help us? Does God want to help us?’ Perhaps he can’t, or worse still, perhaps he won’t. That is what lies behind the complaint of verse 27- God is not able and God is not willing. So how do you deal with that? God’s antidote to such doubts is to replace meagre thoughts of himself with mighty thoughts.

 

 So who is the God who reveals himself- the God who is far from weightless, but full of infinite glory? 

 

First, he is the God of consolation, v1, ‘Console, console my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.’ Now the prophet doesn’t attempt to minimize the suffering God’s people have experienced; he looks reality squarely in the eyes. Like slaves oppressed by a cruel tyrant they have endured what he calls a ‘hard service’. But nonetheless his message is this: ‘Don’t despair, for those long years of duress are now coming to an end. God certainly will not ignore your sins, in fact he will pay for them himself in a most remarkable way by sending his Servant to suffer as an atoning sacrifice (Isaiah 52-53) - that’s how much he loves you. God is not bellowing at you in his wrath, but, like some young Romeo, he is speaking ‘tenderly’ to you, which is what verse 2 means, ‘wooing’ you. The double repetition of ‘comfort, comfort’ only adds emotional intensity to the voice of God. ‘Your God, then, is a God of comfort-strengthening, restoring and you are about to experience it’, says the prophet

 

In fact he has already summonsed angelic messengers to prepare for his coming as we see in v3- ‘A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.’   A royal highway is to be constructed to carry the divine royal chariot. Far from having abandoned you, the Lord your King is coming to you. The prophet might well admit, ‘You find it difficult to believe such things. Hallelujah is a word which does not come easily to your lips as you have been crushed under the heel of the oppressor. Nonetheless, I want you to believe it, for while it is true that we human beings are such ephemeral creatures, here today, gone tomorrow, who when the wrath of God breathes on us we wither away like dried leaves (v7), there is one thing which is immune from the ravages of time and the vagaries of history, and that is God’s word of promise- “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever."  That is what I am asking you to put your faith in, says the prophet-not your feelings, not you circumstances, but in the unchanging, dependable voice of God- ‘for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ Like a shepherd, v11, he comes to lead his flock from the barren desert wastelands into pastures they could never have dreamt of; gathering the little lambs into his arms, holding them close to his heart- that’s how much you mean to God. This is glad tidings-v9 which is to be proclaimed from the rooftops, the good news of God setting up his new messianic kingdom of love and you are invited to share in it would you believe

 

But that is the question of course would they believe it? How can the prophet persuade them, and perhaps some of us, that we must believe it? The answer is that the only way to combat these low thoughts about God is by replacing them with lofty thoughts about him, and that is exactly what the prophet goes on to do in v 12ff .

 

You see, comfort is to be found not in denying God’s power, but in a massive reassertion of his absolute sovereignty over every twist and turn of our lives. The prophet does not excuse God, rather he exalts him. It is only against this backdrop of an all knowing, all powerful Creator God who sees the end from the beginning and who is intimately and passionately involved in the lives of his people, that the kind of faith can be elicited which can lift us from the depths of despair. Certainly sometimes God’s purposes may be inscrutable - so we ask ‘Why Lord are you allowing this?’ but that doesn’t mean they are irrational- having no purpose at all. There is a purpose, even if it is only known to God at the time.

 

And so secondly, we move on to the God of creation.

 

Did you notice the rhetorical question which appears twice, once in v18 and then again in v25? ‘To whom will you compare me.’ says God. Well, let’s try and do just that shall we? Let’s ask: where can we go in order to get some kind of handle on what God is really like?

 

What about science and technology? Perhaps they can give us some insight into the nature of God? We are so proud, and in so many ways rightly so, of our knowledge and our ability to harness the forces of nature for our own ends. But without wishing to underplay some of the most amazing achievements we have made through modern science, they really do pale into insignificance compared to what God is able to do.  For example, would anyone like to try their hand at relocating the Pacific Ocean? Or redistributing the sand of the Sarah desert? Maybe someone would like to level off the Himalayas. Well, you say, ‘that’s impossible’. For us, yes, but not for God- v12ff ‘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?’ 

 

Even now scientists are reaching out to belief in God in order to comprehend and explain the phenomena of the universe. Even allowing for the theory of a Big Bang to account for the beginning of our physical cosmos, it has been calculated that within the first trillionth of a second of that primordial explosion, 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 all. If expansion dominated then matter would fly apart too rapidly for condensation into galaxies and stars to take place. But if gravity dominated then things would have collapsed back in on itself. In other words, we live in an exceptionally finely tuned universe. To illustrate how accurate things had to be for the universe to form, the scientist Professor Paul Davies says it is like aiming at a target an inch wide on the other side of the universe, twenty thousand million light years away and hitting the mark. What is the probability of that happening? Yet, God hit the mark! Such probabilities are nothing to him. In fact v 12 literally reads, ‘he adjusted the heavens with the span of his fingers’. As we might adjust a small picture hanging in the wall between our thumb and small finger, God does that with the whole universe! 

 

Perhaps we need to go to our universities to find some measure of God- the intelligentsia- surely they will tell us what God is like? vv13-14, ‘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?’ We might ask: which firm of consultants at which University Science Park did God approach when he set about the ambitious project of creating a universe? We have problems understanding the workings of the cosmos let alone designing it. But God has 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. He didn’t have to work things out like we do from premises to conclusions, ‘if this, then that’- he simply knows. He is omniscient. That is what the word means- ‘all knowing’. Even the great Albert Einstein once said, ‘I feel like a man chained. If only I could be freed from my intellectual smallness’ Well, there are no such conceptual limitations imposed upon God.

 

So how does God size up to the climax of creation-humankind? The world population is now around 7 billion people. That amounts to considerable collective strength. Put all that wisdom, energy and power together and you would end up with something very impressive. But how do they compare to God? We are told in verses 15-17: 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.

 

Have you got the message yet: nothing can be compared to him- vv18-24.  ‘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.’

 

So let’s go to the religious imagination and see what happens- and this is the most ridiculous of all. People construct their mental images of God as well as their metal images. You see, the human heart is by nature an idol factory and idolatry amounts to trusting in a God substitute which could be anyone or anything-money, power, prestige, relationships, the position of the stars and on and on and on. And it is not difficult to see why we would prefer an idol to the real God because then we think we don’t have to give an account to him, we make idols with which we feel comfortable - safe and under our control. But they amount to nothing in the end and invariably fail us when the chips are down- especially towards the end of your life when you get closer to death. Think of the idolatry of work. I can tell you, no man is ever going to look back on his life and say, ‘You know, I wish I had spent more time at the office.’ He may say, ‘I wish I had spent more time with my family’. Idols, you see, which simply topple.

 

But maybe it is amongst the great and mighty we glimpse something god-like and say ‘Yes, God is like this’, after all, the Kings of Babylon were thought to be gods-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? 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. 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.’ That is how these great men who seem to wield so much power over the nations, directing the course of human history -Hitler, Stalin, Putin, Obama- appear before God, he only has to blow on them as a man might blow on a candle and they are gone.

 

But let’s have one more try to get the measure of God. The prophet leads us by the hand in order to gaze at the stars under a dark, night sky -v26, ‘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.’ There is nothing more humbling or more breathtaking than to stand looking up at the heavens beneath a star studded sky. How vast it all is and how small we all feel! A number of years ago the Christian astronomer, Professor David Block (who, by the way, was inducted into the British Astronomical Society at the age of 19) gave a presentation at Witzwaterand University in South Africa explaining why he believed in a designed universe. He showed a slide 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 there is another reason why the prophet refers to God’s power over the stars, and that is because like some people today, the Babylonians believed that our destiny is determined by the stars-astrology. No, the real God is the one who rules the stars, not they that rule us. He is the one who moulds space and time itself as the arena for his artistry. Our life is not governed by blind fate, but by an all knowing, personal, creator-redeemer God who has a loving purpose for each one of our lives. The apostle Paul says something very similar in that magnificent passage at the end of Romans 8: ‘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 speaks of ‘neither height nor depth’ -he is referring to the position of the planets- in the sky- astral religion. 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.

 

But finally, and perhaps most movingly, he is the God of restoration.

 

You can spend a thousand years searching the whole universe in vain to find one thing which even begins to approximate the God we worship here this morning. He is the incomparable one. But, says the prophet, your trouble O Israel, (and we might has well as said, O Christian) is that you have been so battered by circumstances, so deluged by the world’s propaganda that you have forgotten that fact. You think that God is like you-fickle and feeble. God is no bigger than you highest thoughts about him. And because you have forgotten that you complain -v27. The reason why our problems seem so great is because our view of God is so small. Here is the answer-v28-31. ‘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.’ Young men will fall exhausted you know, even these young Babylonian warriors you are afraid of will one day be rendered immobile by arthritis. But not the people of God, they have available to them a supernatural resource which keeps them going and going. Why? Because they put their hope in the living God. So much of faith in this tragic, broken world of ours is made up of patience. The immature think that the normal Christian life is soaring eagle-like, gliding on a super spiritual thermal layer. Not so! Faith is very much about patience. The climax of this prophecy is the ability to walk in the midst of the darkness of life and to trust in so great and glorious a God. And this same God says to each one of us this morning-trust me. I am as good as my word.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] See Wells, Whirlwind, p19

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