Sermon for Raysville Friends meeting
Reading: Isaiah 40:12-35
When I read Isaiah 40, I am reminded of God’s speech in Job. If you recall, Job suffered, even though he didn’t do or say anything wrong. He had a debate with his friends about whether or not his suffering was related to God’s justice. Job’s friends see suffering as condemnation, while Job protests that he is innocent. Eventually God answers everybody. God condemns Job’s friends, and lets them know that Job spoke righteously. When God speaks to Job, God does not give any answers to the question of: why, but instead points out that God is much bigger than any of us, and beyond our understanding. I guess it is not for us to speculate on the why’s.
Now, Isaiah is very different. In the case of Isaiah, Judah is not righteous — or, at least the leadership is corrupt. There are no shortage of warnings, and it is clear that not only must Judah and Israel be punished, but that God has chosen ungodly nations to deliver this punishment. There is again a picture of a very big God — a God who is able to be in control of the whole Earth.
What is important about this chapter is that it reminds all of us ordinary people that we have hope. The nation was being punished for the sinfulness of the powerful. The sinfulness was such that consequences were suffered not by the guilty, but by the innocent. The reality of the situation was that the wicked were prospering. If you were an ordinary, suffering, person, what comfort do you have other than that God is big enough to bring princes, and oppressors to nothing?
The sad truth is that in many ways, when the Babylonians came, the people of Judah were much better off. While this is looking ahead a couple months, Jeremiah tells the people in captivity: “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your good and not your harm, to give you a future with hope.” These words were written in a letter that also told the same people that Babylon was their new home, and they would live there, work there, and die there: “Babylon is your new home now, get used to it. Remember, even in Babylon God still plans good things for you!”
Isaiah is writing in a time when it is becoming increasingly obvious that God’s government is failing, but there is good news: God is much bigger than any government. When kings fail, God does not fail. When the kingdom lacks mercy and justice, God still gives people what they need. God has good plans for God’s people, even in a corrupt government. God even has good plans for God’s people when they are in captivity and under a hostile government. Because God is the highest, there is always hope.
Usually when we think about how God is in power, we think of such examples as that of Daniel: and, Daniel is definitely a great example of somebody who God strengthened. Daniel is a model of courage, and God worked miracles to protect him. The story of Daniel starts with the captivity. Among the best of the young men carried off were Daniel and his friends. As soon as they were carried off and pressed into service, Daniel and his friends insisted on remaining faithful to God. When this meant following dietary law, they followed dietary law. When it meant refusing to worship an idol, Daniel’s friends were willing to face being burned to death, saying: “If our God can deliver us, let Him deliver us” — and, even though the heat of the furnace killed those who threw Shadrach, Mishach and Abednego — those three survived, so that not even their clothing was singed. After this, we read of the story of how Daniel is protected from the lions when he is thrown into the lions den. The book of Daniel provides a model where God is more powerful than those who hold Judah in captivity, and God uses this power to protect His people.
Unfortunately, these are miracles. Anything that we call a miracle is something that we cannot expect to happen. Maybe there are every-day miracles; I personally believe there are, but, I don’t expect to see God saving somebody from execution, nor do I expect God to prevent other bad things from happening to good people. I don’t expect these things, because we have more martyrs than “Daniel’s”. What do we do when God does not save us from the lions?
Part of the gospel is that Jesus himself came to answer that very question. Jesus was not the savior that anybody expected. People wanted a savior who would defeat the Romans; they got somebody who lived and died under Roman rule. When God lives a human life, God suffers all that is unfair, and even is executed as a political prisoner. Jesus was not the savior that anybody was looking for: People wanted a conquering, not a suffering messiah.
Even more difficult is that Jesus didn’t hide how hard things would be from his disciples. He spoke to them about his upcoming death, and he even warned them that they would receive the same treatment as he did; almost every one of the disciples died a martyrs death. As much as we want the good news that we too can experience a miracle like Daniel and his friends experienced, we were given a different model.
The good news that Christians have to offer, however, is tied up in our suffering savior. There are several reasons that this is good news: First, it is because our God is a sympathetic God. The literal meaning of “sympathy” is to suffer with. Jesus came down to earth as an ordinary person, in an occupied land. The first years of Jesus’ life were those of a refugee in Egypt. At the end of his life, he was a political prisoner, abandoned by his friends.
Christ suffered more than everything that a person can be expected to suffer. God chose to sympathize with humanity through Jesus — and when God judges us, it the judgment of someone who has sympathy for us. I might also add, the gospels pretty clearly tell us Christ’s standards of judgment: Jesus is always merciful to those in need of mercy.
This is also good news, because Christ suffered everything, and yet was victorious. Jesus suffered temptation, yet was victorious over sin. When the Romans put Jesus on the cross, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day — Jesus was victorious over death. The disciples wanted Jesus to defeat the government of the Romans — but, He did much more than that! He defeated the only power that the Romans, and every power that might follow has over the disciples. Once the fear of death is taken away, there really are no longer any threats that the Romans could hold over the Disciples. In Luke chapter 12, Jesus says: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who can kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do” (NET). The way Jesus defeated the Romans was far more complete than if he removed them from power, he removed their power so that as far as the Kingdom of Heaven is concerned, Rome was no longer relevant.
The most amazing thing is that the miracles that brought Jesus victory are not like the miracles we read about in Daniel. In Daniel, only Daniel and his friends were saved. Few other prophets were saved as Daniel was saved. Jesus’ disciples were not saved as Shadrack, Mishack and Abednego were saved. Jesus on the other hand invites his followers to share in other miracles. Whenever people speak of “sanctification”, they speak of being made holy so that sin loses the power to destroy our lives. Personally, I think ‘how’ this happens is not nearly as important as that it happens. What is important to me is that I need saved from my sin, and Jesus came to save me from my sinfulness.
What is more amazing is how Christians have said for as long as our memory: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the word to come.” Jesus somehow invites us to participate with the resurrection. Those of us who walk with Jesus can expect to end up in the same destination with Jesus. Somehow, we hold on to the hope offered with Jesus said: “I go to prepare a place for you.” We expect the miracle of resurrection so that we can go to that place that is waiting for us.
Our good news is what God is doing with and for us ordinary people. Those miracles that happen once in a generation are exciting, but they are only good news for a few. What was prophesied, and what we believe we have experienced is good news for everybody, even the poor and the oppressed. We believe that Christ conquered, leaving everything that stands against his kingdom powerless. Christians look at Jesus as the one who, in the words of Isaiah: “brings princes to naught and makes rulers of the earth as nothing.” Our good news is: We believe Christ invited us into His eternal kingdom.