New year message - people with a purpose - Isaiah 44
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
‘Space-the Final Frontier’-many of you will recognise those words immortalised by the TV series Star Trek. It is amazing to think that it is some forty years ago that the series was launched boldly going where no man had been before. Today, of course Star Trek is a cultural icon, with 13 Star Trek novels being sold every minute. What many people don’t know is that its creator, Gene Roddenberry, was brought up in a 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 don’t 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 he’s not out there. Maybe he’s right here in the human heart.’
Move on a few years to another blockbuster movie-Twister- now a TV Christmas favourite. 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.
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 people conduct their lives today. God is whoever or whatever you make him or her to be. As such god may have many faces; god is whatever helps you get through life. On the other hand, there are also out there cold, blind forces of chance operating, tossing us two and fro like toys in a dark box- so we become victims of what some would call ‘fate’ or ‘Nature’.
And you know, that is not all that far removed from the dominant civilization in which the Jews found themselves in Ancient Babylon, some two and a half millennia ago. For the people of Babylon (now modern day Iraq) too believed in fate. What is more, 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, the cruellest 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, Bel to name but a few. And while they didn’t believe they as mere mortals could control the future, they did believe they could look into the future and so manoeuvre their way around. As a result they spent a considerable amount of time and money studying the stars: astrology was very big business indeed.
And so you can imagine the whole situation seemed so depressing to God’s people. They had been taught with their mother’s milk that occult practises such as fortune telling were no-go areas. 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-the Kingdom of God. But they had to admit that it was getting more and more difficult to believe that. For if God were so powerful then why did his temple lie in ruins and his people bound in captivity? Perhaps fate was winning after all? If he were 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. Earthquakes in Turkey and the Tsunamis certainly make it appear that nature has a will of her own and a destructive one at that. The slaughter of innocents in the Sudan and elsewhere make it abundantly plain that the spirit of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, still lives on; that might is right. Are we with these Jews simply to shrug our shoulders and in a spirit of resignation saying: ‘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. In fact, 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 prophet 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 don’t 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 he writes, ‘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. As we read in v 27 ‘he says to the watery deep’ Be dry...’ Now the ‘deep’ was a powerful symbol for 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 mythologized 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 God’s people are not to fear such forces. And why? Well, 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 God’s nucleus church immediately ceased and all was calm. He doesn’t have to battle with the forces of nature, for they are his forces.
That is why God’s people don’t have to waste their time with astrology and clairvoyance 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. If you are going to meet a tall dark stranger at all he is bound to be one who will bring some cheer into your life and not gloom. 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-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 high street bookseller for that matter? There you will find a whole section given over to astrology, New Age mysticism, UFO’s.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 people here. 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-don’t walk under ladders, don’t walk on the cracks in the pavement, don’t buy a house with number 13 on it. But the Gospel frees people-liberating you intellectually, morally and spiritually.
So let me tell you about someone called Darren from Leeds who having worked his way through a variety of Youth Custody Centres eventually ended up on prison as a violent criminal. In time he found himself in the Wolds’ prison where the prisoners were given access to the internet. He writes what happened next: ‘I used to go on some of the Religious message boards and see what was going on out there. …I didn’t realise it at the time but I had a real desire to be released from the life I had. I just didn’t know how this was going to happen or indeed even why it should happen. I can probably say at this point I had no conviction of sin rather that I just wanted to have a better life for myself, for selfish reasons. I contacted all manner of people, Muslims, Pagans, Buddhists, Catholics as well as others and I suppose that in their own way a lot of these people seemed to be happy in what they had. I tried to fit in with them and it just didn’t work for me. I didn’t want to fit in; I actually wanted something better than what they had. I wanted to have a real living relationship with something that could really help me. At the time I just didn’t know what or who this was. While I was in this situation I was repeatedly drawn back to the Bible and I started praying. And the expression that I have used before – for want of a better way of explaining it – is real get down on your hands and knees “Lord, help me!” prayer. I think at this very moment the Lord gave me conviction of sin and it was then that I knew that I was a hopeless sinner and that I needed some sort of redemption. I was also praying that I be introduced to someone that a clear idea of what they believed and on the Internet the Lord (Christ Jesus) sent my way a good Bible based believer. This was a direct answer to prayer and at the time I probably wasn’t able to fully comprehend it. All I do know is that the Lord really spoke to me through the words of this man and the various other people that were introduced to me along the way. I certainly won’t say that my conversion was overnight, rather it was a gradual stripping away process of the old me, to reveal the new man that Christ Himself had brought out in me. But the Christian faith is all about a process, a stripping down and building up if you like.’ Now that is real power which comes from God via this Book by His Spirit.
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? For it happened- in 539 BC just as God said it would and just as all the political commentators and crystal ball gazers said it wouldn’t. This God will do as he pleases. You do not play games with him. In fact, Cyrus’s 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 -but he isn’t a God who is involved in the real world out there-the world of work, University, government, the Middle East. .But why not? Is it that God is interested in church things and 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 rest 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 God’s 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-45:4’For 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. That’s 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 evening.
God’s 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 loves, 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 God’s 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 God’s perspective.
But the point is this: it is precisely God’s 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 didn’t see coming and mess up his plans -a persecution he didn’t 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 had 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 don’t know about you, but for me that is a God who deserves my allegiance. That is a God who demands my trust.
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