Believing and belonging - Isaiah 43:1-7

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 19th September 1999.

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They are sometimes referred to as Generation X, those born in the mid sixties and seventies. More than half of this generation come from broken homes. They have watched hundreds if not thousands of murders on TV - not to mention sex. Some of them are latchdoor kids - having made their own way home after school only to fend for themselves in an empty house. Understandably, some of them drift onto the streets, join gangs, simply to capture a sense of belonging - because you see, if you belong, then in part you can gain some sense of identity - value.

One writer from this mid 20's - to thirty something age group - Janet Bernardi in her book 'A Generation Alone' compares her peers to random molecules bumping into other molecules. She makes an important distinction between loneliness, which is a state of emptiness, and aloneness where life may be full of activities but lacks the support of family and friends. She says it encompasses a basic distrust of people and a fear of being hurt. It is in fact a survival technique but comes across as surly independence. That, it is sad to say, is the way many of that generation feel today - aloneness. And I would suspect that it is a feeling not simply restricted to the young - many older people are feeling that way too. Alienated from a fast track society, separated from their own children and grandchildren - where do they turn to gain a sense of purpose - of belonging?

Well, some two and a half thousand years ago now, there was a group of people experiencing exactly those feelings of aloneness. Battered and bruised by years of war , purged in a brutal policy of ethnic cleansing - they felt terribly alone - unloved - abandoned. Their faith should have helped, but it seemed only to make matters worse. In the popular mind at least there appeared to be a mismatch between what they had been taught and what they were experiencing. They had been taught they were important to God, his own special people. If so then why were they languishing hundreds of miles from their homeland under the heel of the mighty Babylonian Empire? But of course it was because they were special that was happening. The law of Moses told them clearly that just because they were God's children didn't mean that gave them a moral blank cheque. With privileges comes responsibilities. They were to model before an unbelieving world just what living faithfully with God meant in practice. But they didn't. They became greedy, immoral, irreligious, treating God as if he were some errand boy - having become very much like our own society in fact. And so God had to act, he had to discipline his wayward children. Yes he had appealed to them time and time again, but like a lover whose overtures were constantly spurned, there comes a time when love has to be tough - hence the Jews being taken away into exile. And that is when a new message came to them - a message of hope. And it is that same message of hope, that we can know value because we can belong to God - that we need to hear today - Isaiah 43:1.

Do you see who we belong to? It is God. We are his special possession. In fact we are his people twice over. He made us, he created us. As the artist has owners rights over the sculpture he has so tirelessly crafted, so God has owners rights over us. Our very breath is his gift, our life history has been in his hands - he formed us, moulding us physically, morally, psychologically. Here is BUPA medical insurance ad: 'Your brain is the most complex structure known to man. Your eyes can distinguish up to 1 million colour surfaces. Your lungs are big enough to cover half a tennis court. You have around 60, 000 miles of blood vessels. You give birth to 100 billion red blood cells each day. Your heart beats 100, 000 times a day. You're amazing! We want you to stay that way.' We are amazing - he has created us. And even more than that, he redeemed us. Even though we belonged to him and sought to steal our independence from him, he bought us back, even at great cost. That was true for Israel in the OT. They were his creation. Until he took hold of them they were nothing but a despised nomadic rabble. But he gathered them, made them into a nation, gave them a law, a culture, a kingdom. Nothing was too good for his beloved Israel. And even when they mocked him and broke his heart, he still kept on loving them, appealing to them. And even here at their lowest point, he reminds them that he had redeemed them, when they were beaten slaves in Egypt, with the implication which will become explicit later - he will do it again. Why? because they were his, his name was upon them.

Even more is it true of those of us who are Christians. By right of creation and by right of redemption we belong to him.

Now do you belong to God like that? That is the question I want us to think about his morning. Are you his personal possession? Because if you are, then our passage says some wonderful things about you. It says you are very privileged person. And if you are not, I have some very good news for you. This great and mighty God invites you to be. Just look at the privileges which are yours because you are his and what could be yours if you are humble enough to accept them.

First, if you belong to God, you enjoy a special presence of God in your life - v2(read). Notice God does not promise his people immunity from trial or sorrow. He says when not if. He speaks of going through the waters, not around them. It will inevitably happen at some time or other. But what God promises is his presence with us in it. Isn't that an amazing promise? This is the great thing about Christianity. It is a religion of incarnation, we worship the one called Emmanuel - God with us. No other religion in the world can make such a claim. If you were a Muslim, Allah would be remote and you simply have to submit to his iron will. If you were a Buddhist you could not even be sure that God exists and you certainly could not say that God suffers with you. It is only the Christian who pointing to the cross can say 'God does not abandon his people - he comes into a suffering world and suffers with us, he comes into a dying world and dies for us, he comes into a cursed world and takes that curse upon himself, so that for the believer aloneness can never be a reality for them, because they belong to him. Did you notice how emphatic that promise is: 'I will be with you' - not 'I may keep the occasional eye on you'; 'I will be with you when you feel like going under.' Isn't that a privilege? You belong to this great God, it's your privilege.

But there is even more to come, for the prophet goes on to speak of a very special protection - v2b(read). We are not promised immunity then from difficulty in this world, but we are promised a limit to what harm or temptation God will permit to befall us. They will not sweep over you, The flames will not set you ablaze. Often this special protection will be unknown to us. There may well have been countless times this very week when unbeknown to you God has spared you some tragedy. Sometimes we may feel that the buffeting of our faith couldn't be harder than it is , but if we only knew the half of it we would be thankful for what we have been spared. God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength - says the Bible. Sometimes God allows the powers of evil some reign in our lives - not unlimited reign , but measured restraint to knock off some of our rough edges, our spiritual complacency, sometimes to wake us up out of the backslidden slumber we have got ourselves into. So while God will test our faith he will never destroy our faith - the waters may wash over us but not drown us, the fire may purge us but not consume us - though it may not feel like that at the time. But the promise stands - he will protect us, ensuring that our final destiny is reached. And his special protection arises out of his special presence. It is because he is with us that the floods cannot overwhelm us. Just as when on the sea of Galilee the disciples where beside themselves as they entered that fearful storm, crying to Jesus asleep in the stern - 'Save us Lord, don't you care if we drown?' I tell you while he was with them even a tidal wave could not have sunk that little boat. And even when, as Christians in the past have had to do - and some today still have to do - face martyrdom - when even the very thought of being put to the flames causes our hearts to melt within us - the testimony time and time again is that Christians have calmly entered the flames with such equanimity that their captors have been dumbfounded. Why? Because God was with them. That is your privilege if you belong to him. No matter what you may be undergoing this week, what nightmares may await you when you go back home or to the office - there is one who is with you and he will protect you.

And if that were not enough the prophet goes on to speak of another privilege we have - the privilege of a very special passion - v3 - 4 (read). It is a wonderful thing, isn't it, to be valued. Yet as we saw at the beginning, there are so many in our broken, disintegrating society who find it very difficult to believe that anyone could love them - they have been starved of love all their lives. But if you are a Christian you can be sure of this - you are valued - immensely. You are important to him. He will pay any ransom to get you back. That is what the prophet is saying here when he talks about giving 'Egypt, or Cush or Seba in your stead'. 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 to his homeland. But for Christians of course there is an even greater proof of God's love, where god moved heaven and earth to restore us and that is the cross. We doubt if God loves us? We wonder how long it will last. Then God says look at that splintered cross on that craggy hill. That's me you see up there in my Son, your maker, your God, nail - stabbed and bleeding. Covered in spit and soaked with sin. That's your sin I am feeling. That's your death I'm dying. What is more that is your resurrection I am living. That's how much you mean to me.'

Certainly we are all valued and loved by virtue of our creation. There was once a college student in the days of Black Power in the United States. This young Negro found his own way of handling the problem of racial discrimination. He had a banner on his wall that said: 'I'm black, and I'm Ok, 'cause God don't make no junk.' It may be bad grammar but it's great theology. God deeply values what he has made. But let me tell you this, if you are a Christian God has fixed his special covenant love upon you - he calls you by name, he chooses to save you. There is a story of a little boy who was being teased in the playground because his peers had just discovered he was adopted. Eventually he rounded on them. 'Alright,' he said, 'so I am adopted. All I know is, my parents chose me, but yours couldn't help having you.'

And every Christian can say the same. In the mists of eternity past he saw me, loved me and determined to save me. Of course he may sometimes discipline me, what good parent doesn't? But - he will never abandon me - he has paid too high a price for that to happen, love sealed in his own blood.

But finally we have a special purpose - vv5 - 7(read). Do you know, God has a great plan - a great plan and if you are a believer you are a part of it. Here we hear the very heartbeat of God. Why did God create us? Why did he go to such unimaginable lengths to redeem us? The prophet tells us: we are made for God's glory. You see by taking such rebellious , recalcitrant and in many ways hopeless specimens of humanity like us , with a view of shaping them into creatures of such outstanding beauty and holiness that even the angels will blush - God is demonstrating to the entire universe his glory - that he is a God of grace, a God who can and will do the impossible. That is one reason he saved you - why he has fixed his love upon you, why he is present with you, why he will protect you - so that you will eventually share in his transcendent glory in heaven. That is where you are heading. Notice again the resolute and definite way God puts it: I will bring your children from east and west I will say to the north give them up to me' and who is going to refuse this God?

So let me tell 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 Leukaemia, 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.'

Do you see how aloneness is not an option for God's children? Do you not hear his voice calling you this morning through this passage saying: 'I love you, you are precious and honoured in my sight'? Now what possible explanation could there be for that other than God himself inviting you to share in this special love? Don't turn your back on him. Don't walk away from him. He is calling you by name, 'come to me.'

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