Going Places - Isaiah 44:24 - 45:7
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Space - the Final Frontier - many of you will recognise those words immortalised in the TV series Star Trek. It is amazing to think that it is some thirty years ago that the series was launched boldly going where no man had been before. Today, Star Trek is of course a cultural icon, with 13 Star Trek novels being sold every minute. What many people dont know is that its creator , Gene Roddenberry , grew up in the Baptist Church and later decided the concept of God was too great and too encompassing to be explained or appreciated by any single system of belief. And I guess the culmination of this view was brought out in the 1989 film The Final Frontier where the Enterprise travels to a planet which is described as the place where all questions of existence can be answered. Here the crew believe they will find the real God. Well, they dont find God, but what they do find is some malevolent being imprisoned in a globe of energy. Well, after the crew escapes, one character asks Captain Kirk, So is God really out there? The captain answers by pointing to his chest and saying: Maybe hes not out there. Maybe hes right here in the human heart.
Move on a few years to another blockbuster movie - Twister. Here we have a climatologist who is convinced that tornadoes are deliberately trying to kill her. Why think such a thing? Well the trailer to the film tells us, namely, that periodically nature will, in a kind of psychotic fit, go completely, randomly mad. Nature is suddenly endowed with personality, a capricious will and woe betide anyone who gets in her way. This is an extreme form of what environmentalists call Gaia theory - Mother Earth as a living organism, which in some cases takes us into a new idolatry.
Now, bring those two ideas together - that God is not out there, but in here - a creation of our own making, and that we are victims of the impersonal, uncaring hostile forces of Nature, then you have a glimpse into the way many folk conduct their lives today. God is whoever or whatever you make him or her to be. As such god may have many faces, whatever helps you get through life, that can be your god. On the other hand, there are out there cold, blind forces of chance operating, tossing us to and fro like toys in a dark box - so we become victims of what some would call fate.
And that you know is not that far removed from the dominant civilisation in which the Jews found themselves in Ancient Babylon, some two and a half thousand years ago. For the Babylonians too believed in fate. And as far as they were concerned fate was very much on their side - they were on a roller. They had become a world superpower, the richest and most powerful - and let it be added cruel - empire the world had ever known. They too had their myths - just as inspiring and entertaining as Star Trek. They had their gods in plenty - Marduk, Nebo, just to name two of the most popular ones. And while they didnt believe they could control the future, they did believe they could look into the future and so manoeuvre their way around, so they spent a considerable amount of time and money studying the stars - astrology was big business.
And as you can imagine the whole situation seemed so depressing to Gods people. They had been taught with their mothers milk that occult practises such as fortune telling where no go areas. That the reason why they were not to pry into the future was because the future belonged to God - Yahweh and they were to trust him. At the heart of the universe was not some blind cosmic energy, but an all knowing, all powerful, all personal Creator who was intimately involved in his world moment by moment, steering all things to his ultimate good end. But they had to admit it was getting more and more difficult to believe that. If God was so powerful then why did his temple lie in ruins and his people bound in captivity? Perhaps fate was winning after all. If he was all knowing, then surely he should have seen this coming and done something about it? If he is all loving, then surely he must act to rescue his oppressed people and punish this arrogant dictatorship? And it is not that difficult is it? to sympathise with such sentiments as we view our situation two and a half millennia on. The earthquakes in Taiwan and Turkey certainly make it seem that nature has a will of her own and a destructive one at that. The slaughter of innocents in East Temor and Kosovo make it abundantly plain that the spirit of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, still lives on; that might is right. Are we simply to shrug our shoulders with these Jews and in a spirit of resignation say: Que sera , sera - whatever will be will be? The prophet says no we are not to do that. For that would be to surrender to a lie. I have some wonderful news for you, says Isaiah, I am going to remind you of some precious old truths which will break into your new situation with liberating power for I am going to tell you about a divine sovereign, a divine surprise and a divine purpose.
First of all a divine sovereign. In this chapter, the prophets engages in a systematic attack on all forms of fatalism and fortune telling. The Babylonians believed their future was written in the stars, they worshipped them, as some folk in effect do today, not daring to make any major decision without first consulting the horoscope. But dont be fooled says Isaiah, it is God who made them , he determines their future not they yours - v24 This is what the Lord says - your redeemer, who formed you in the womb, I am the Lord who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself. And a little later in 45: 12 My own hands stretched out the heavens, I marshalled their starry hosts. God mocks the craven superstitions of the Babylonians as he mocks the craven superstitions of our culture - touch wood indeed! As we read in v 27 he says to the watery deep Be dry. . . Now the deep was a powerful symbol to the Babylonians, it represented all the forces unruly forces of chaos pitted against man - think of a storm at sea churning up all the silt and driftwood. They even mythologised it in a creation story that at the beginning of time there was a sea monster called Tiamat - the personification of the deep whom the god Marduk had to fight and after a long struggle he eventually cut the monster in two and from its two halves made the heavens and the earth. Still, the spirit of Tiamat was real, the unexpected forces of nature could strike at any time You see, for all their storytelling they had still not robbed the deep - nature - of its terrifying, paralysing power. But Gods people are not to fear such forces and why? because even they come under the sovereign control of the Creator God, He only has to speak and it ceases to be, as when his Son spoke on the sea of Galilee and that storm which was about to engulf that little boat and Gods nucleus church immediately ceased and all was calm. He doesnt have to battle with the forces of nature, they are his forces, he is sovereign master over them all.
That is why Gods people dont have to waste their time with astrology and clairvoyancy either. They are silly guessing games which lead you further and further into bondage. God certainly listens into such future stargazing. He can hear what the Babylonians scientists are saying, the mystic megs of this world. And do you know why he listens in? So he can do the exact opposite - v25 He foils the signs of the false prophets and makes fools of the diviners, who overturns the learning of the wise and turns it into nonsense. You may not realise this but hundreds of clay tablets have been found from Ancient Babylon which are professional horoscopes presented to the Kings. And do you know, not a single one of them contains anything negative, it is glory , glory all the way - a bit like horoscopes today - it is good news which sells papers not bad. And did you notice a few months a ago how right up to the last minute people were intent that Nostradamus had got it right - in 1999 and seventh months the great god of terror will come from the sky. I remember reading that when I was 14. And you can be quite sure we will be having more of that as we approach the millennium. But what does God do? He laughs and turns such prognostications into the nonsense they are.
No, it is not to the stars or your crystal balls you must look if you want to understand the meaning of history, it is , says Isaiah, to the Word of the Lord you must turn - his prophets, his messengers v26. They are the only reliable source of information about the future and the meaning of life. And so it is today. Have you been to Waterstones recently or any highstreet bookseller for that matter? There you will find a whole wall or table given over to astrology, New Age mysticism, UFOs. And squeezed in at the end of a shelf you might find one or two Bibles, usually in a white cover for a christening present. Ours is a superstitious and gullible age, just like this one facing the prophet. But, it will be the Word of God which will outlast them all with its deep and penetrating assessment of the human condition and its powerful remedy in the Gospel. Superstition binds, it always has done - dont walk under ladders, dont walk on the cracks in the pavement, dont buy a house with number 13 on it. But the Gospel frees people - liberating you intellectually, morally and spiritually
What is more, the Bible is full things which no mere human being would ever concoct so underscoring its divine origin, hence the divine surprise of v28 - God says of Cyrus, He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please, he will say of Jerusalem, "let it be rebuilt" and of the temple, "Let its foundations be laid. "
Now we really must appreciate how earth shattering that statement is. For a start, if it was Isaiah of Jerusalem who gave this prophecy, and I have no problem believing it was, then this prediction was made over 200 years before King Cyrus was even born - Cyrus being the King who eventually overthrew the Babylonians and sent the Jews back home. Now how do you explain such accuracy? Russell Grant eat your heart out! Or even if, as some scholars argue, this central section is from a later anonymous prophet who lived amongst the exiles and whose writing were attached to Isaiah, it is still pretty remarkable, because at the time Cyrus was a political nobody. Babylon was the superpower. To make the claim as here that this tiny insignificant prince was going to conquer the Babylonian Empire, and then give orders that the Jews should be given back their homeland was as laughable as someone today predicting that Saddam Hussain would declare war on Syria, win and give Palestine as a gift to the Zionists. Can you believe something like that? And yet - it happened in 539 BC just as God said it would and just as all the political commentators and crystal ball gazers said it wouldnt. This God will do as he pleases. You do not play with this God. Cyruss army marched into Babylon without a fight. The Babylonians simply panicked and ran - so whereas in the pew Bibles 45: 1 is translated he will strip the kings of their armour it could be rendered, He will catch the kings with their pants down. And he did or to be more precise God did - through him , even though Cyrus was not aware of it . God says - I will go before you and will level mountains, I will break down the gates of bronze. Now let me ask you: is your God this big? Or is he a God who is tucked away in a corner somewhere to be brought out once in a while dusted down and worshipped, maybe first thing in a morning, or perhaps on a Sunday? He may even be the God of the Church of England although sometimes we may wonder - but he isnt a God who is involved in the real world out there - the world of work, University, government, the Labour party conference - Serbia. But why not? Is it that God is interested in church things , personal things, but not political and national matters? But as we shall see in a moment, the two cannot be separated. This whole world and human history is one interconnecting web, cut one strand and the whole lot unravels. We do live in a global village so that what happens in South east Asia will in some measure affect us in Britain and more to the point will affect Gods people and the spreading of the Gospel. Its obvious when you think about it. God has to be concerned about politics for the sake of his plan of salvation. Which brings us to our next heading - a divine purpose - 45: 4For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you (Cyrus) by name.
Why did the Persian empire of Cyrus displace the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar? Well, as far as Cyrus was concerned it was because they had become more powerful and Babylon had disintegrated internally and so had become a push over. And that may well be true. But do you know what the real reason was? It was so that this tiny insignificant band of Jews could get back to their homeland, rebuild their capital and construct a new temple. Thats why. God had redrawn the political map of the middle east, caused a political upheaval only rivalled by 1945 with the intent purpose of getting his beloved people home. That is how mighty God is, that is how committed God is to his saving purposes, to ensuring that you and I will eventually get home to heaven. He works world history to that end. Because if he had not done this think of the alternative - there would no Israel, which means there would be no Jesus and so no salvation and you and I would not be here this morning.
Gods history book reads so differently to ours. We read of the Pharaohs, their pyramids, their imaginative irrigation schemes and vast treasures. As far as God is concerned the only thing they did which mattered was to let a group of rag tag slaves called Hebrews go and worship in a desert. We read of the Caesars, their intrigues, their love , their battles and buildings. As far as God is concerned the only thing of universal importance was when one of them ordered a census so that a poor peasant newly wed and his pregnant wife could go and give birth to a baby in Bethlehem. Pontius Pilate you know had an impressive and varied career in the Roman diplomatic service. But in Gods sight the only significant contribution he made to world history was when in an act of cowardice and political expediency he condemned to death the man from Nazareth - Jesus. What really matters looks so, so different from Gods perspective.
But the point is this: it is precisely Gods perspective which should be our perspective. If God is going to ensure that all of his children eventually arrive in the glory of heaven - then he has to be in total control of history. He has to be. Otherwise something might happen which he didnt see coming and mess up his plans - a persecution he didnt prepare his people for, an infanticide policy which would kill of one of his future leaders like the one Herod instigated. What did Jesus say? I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it You better believe it.
And God has always been working to this end of establishing his kingdom. He will even use the selfish political machinations of a Henry the 8th and his marital affairs in order to bring about a Reformation so that thousands would come to know the assurance of sins forgiven. He will allow a man like Wesley and Whitefield to be in effect kicked out of the Church of England so they can go into the fields to preach so thousands could be saved. And do you not think he is doing the same today? Why did the Berlin wall and the Eastern Block collapse like a pack of cards? Well, many political reasons can be given - but what about this? So that millions of people who had been starved of the Gospel for so long could now hear it in the open. Do you see what God is doing? Even here in this city? He is working in and through all things, things which may seem to us trivial and unimportant - even chance - in order that men and women, boys and girls will be brought back home to him out of their spiritual exile. That is what he is doing. Now I dont know about you, but for me that is a God who deserves my worship.
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