This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and over the Internet.
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Our reading today is from Isaiah chapter 40, starting from verse 12.
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
or 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?
Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord,
or instruct the Lord 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?
Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
they are regarded as dust on the scales;
he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.
Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires,
nor its animals enough for burnt offerings.
Before him all the nations are as nothing;
they are regarded by him as worthless
and less than nothing.
With whom, then, will you compare God?
To what image will you liken him?
As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and fashions silver chains for it.
A person too poor to present such an offering
selects wood that will not rot;
they look for a skilled worker
to set up an idol that will not topple.
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.
‘To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God’?
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.
[Isaiah 40:12–31 (NRSVUK)]
How much water is there in the Earth for God to hold in the palm of his hand? Well, according to coolcosmos.com, it’s about 326 billion million gallons. How many stars are there in the universe? According to space.com, there are about one billion trillion stars. How much does a mountain weigh? Well, according to weightofstuff.com, Everest weighs 159 billion 375 million old tons. That’s without the snow and the ice on top. We are bombarded aren’t we with facts and figures and statistics and numbers every day. Of course, they only give us something to give a little bit of perspective. We know that many formulae and facts can be interpreted or misinterpreted to give different perspectives.
In Isaiah, we need to understand the different perspectives for us to appreciate what God is doing now and how God is using circumstances and world history and politics to bring about God’s own ends. There is a reason why Isaiah Chapter 40 begins with God’s comforting and poetic words because the first 39 chapters of Isaiah are messages of judgments on superpowers and mixed motives of God’s people along with kings such as Ahaz and Hezekiah. These first chapters speak of the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon in 587 BC as something that happens in the future, whilst Chapters 40 and onwards speak of the exile as something that happens a while ago.
Chapter 40 starts another way for God’s people. The book of Isaiah seems to fit into three chunks, if you like, chapters 1 to 39, chapters 40 to 55, and then chapters 56 to 66. For our purposes of looking at God’s new normal, we looked a couple of weeks ago at the year of God’s favour in Isaiah Chapter 61. This became the manifesto pledge of Jesus at the start of His ministry.
Until the start of Advent at the end of November, we’re going to have a look at some selective passages and chapters in this second and third chunk of Isaiah to see whether there’s anything that we can learn about God’s normal or perhaps our new normal, what the New Testament might call the Kingdom of God. How to live as part of that Kingdom before it arrives in all its fullness. In a world so full of coronavirus, how do we make sense of God and the world and the Kingdom of God when there’s so much upset and confusion and concern.
We pray thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven, but what does it mean for us in how we act, how we behave, and how we serve one another? After the uproar of judgment in those first 39 chapters of Isaiah, the first thing we come across in Chapter 40 is the word “Comfort.” “Comfort my people.” A god that comes close to consoling and to comforting is precisely what people wanted, what people needed after years of turmoil and uproar. Maybe today, for many of us, we need to know some of God’s comfort. Maybe we are able to sort with ourselves because the world and maybe our lives have been turned upside-down and we’re trying to make sense of it all after a lifetime of what we once knew as normal and usual is no longer normal. After a few months of wondering what life would be like after lockdown, we still feel like we’re in a whirlwind where little makes sense. So much of what we know of the world confuses us and confounds us and many are trying to get our heads around what might be when things settle down so that we can visit our loved one again, go on holiday again, even have a meeting with five or more people.
I’m sure these mixed-up feelings are precisely what some of God’s people would’ve been feeling too. The same worries that are presented to people two and a half thousand years ago are precisely the same worries that people have today, and so comfort is exactly what we want as we start this new chapter. As we go through Isaiah Chapter 40 today, we can take comfort in three things: three-point sermon. One, that God creates and continues to do so. Secondly, that God reigns. Thirdly, that God sustains.
Firstly, a God who creates, who has measured the waters in the hollow of God’s hand, who has felt the dust of the Earth in a basket or weighed the mountains. These are rhetorical questions of course, but puts into perspective the fragility of our world. Many times over the last few years we’ve been reminded in a variety of ways that the Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, that’s according to Psalm 24, and how much of a responsibility we have for our world. That’s why celebrating harvest as many of us have done recently is really important. We take a moment of gratitude to remember how fortunate we are to have an excess of food.
Our responsibility to creator God is to look after and to reach out to the world in the ways in which we have been had put on our hearts. A God who still creates today: newborn babies born to new families, new inventions, and perhaps even medical treatments to help heal and repair. Discoveries that explorers find in the big and the subatomic. The words of a poem or a created story out of the mind of somebody’s thoughts. People are amazing.
To whom can anyone compare this God? That’s the next point that Isaiah 40 goes on to look at to comfort people with. Back in the day, idols were made for people to worship. Here, there’s a sense that the sovereign God is coming up against them in laughter, almost defiance. Look at verse 22 and 23, “‘Present your case,’ says the Lord. ‘Set forth your arguments,’ says Jacob’s King. ‘Tell us you idols what’s going to happen. Tell us what the former things were so that we might consider them and know their final outcome. Oh, declare the things to come.’” The inference is they can’t. They can’t. The creator God who’s jarring them. They’re made of metal or wood or something that people can go off with and walk and take somewhere else. The creator God we are thinking of in this beautiful passage of Isaiah 40 reminds God’s people that there’s no God like theirs. No God like this God. How comforting this must be. Do you not know? Have you not heard? This God is an everlasting God. The Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. He sits in a throne above the circle of the Earth and people are like grasshoppers. It seems God is unimpressed by the empires and the kings and queens of this world. This ever-reigning God is still somehow that God that provides comfort and love and is above the work of human-made Gods and of humans themselves. These words must give some form of consolation for the people of God back then.
God was even in control of King Cyrus to release them from captivity all those years ago. The celebration that we were thinking of recently in Isaiah 61. What about God today? Where is God in the pandemic? Why does an Almighty God allow this to happen? I have a friend, Simon Cross, who is a university lecturer in spirituality and many other important things. He sends me reflections every morning. Last week, somebody asked him the question, “Is God all-powerful?” Following a short commentary on a couple of traditional responses about whether this makes God a tyrant, and what about people’s ability to live with free will? Not something that we’re going to be talking about today, Simon summarizes with this statement. “A third way,” he says, “Is to say that God is not, in fact, all-powerful, almighty, or omnipotent at all, except in a way that is quite different, the way we would normally expect or think of God. God is in fact not able to intervene, to coerce us or things into doing what God wants. This is because God is love. God’s nature is love and love is ultimately weak in that it cannot coerce. Love cannot force others to do its will. What makes love powerful is that it can remain consistently persistent. It doesn’t give up, because it never stops trying. Love can persuade. Love can lure us towards living well and caring for one another.” Simon concludes, “God has a never unloving deity keeps calling, keeps luring, keeps persuading us to walk in the way of love, but can never coerce anything or anyone to do God’s will.” He sums up and says, “Finally, I personally think that this idea of the weakness of God is ultimately the most persuasive idea about God’s power.” In terms of Isaiah 40, and the God who reigns, the idea of a God who is love, who is my equal, is central to understanding where God is today and who God remains. The God who we see in this beautiful poem of comfort reminds us even now that his nature is both to continually create and to continually love.
Finally, we come to the last and probably most famous verse in Isaiah Chapter 40. “Where it says he gives strength to the weary, increases the power of the weak, even youths grew tired and weary. Young men stumble and fall but those who wait upon the Lord renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not grow faint.” When we think about these verses, aren’t we just a little bit jealous, perhaps, of those promises if we are feeling frustrated, and tired and weary? Those first 11 verses which we didn’t read from Chapter 40 talks about a God who comforts like a shepherd, who tends his flocks. This is a God who speaks tenderly to his people. It’s a very personal mission, “Comforts my people,” says the Lord.
Later, presenting good news to the holy city of Jerusalem that needs restoring. The sense of a pleasant relationship between the Creator God who reigns is also the God who wants a relationship with his people. In these last verses, we have examples of a God who sustains. The word ‘weary’ comes up three times in quick succession. The first is more to do with being worn out, perhaps toiling or toiling at work. The other two speak of exhaustion, and fatigue. The weariness of having experienced something for so long, that it’s not only physically tiring but emotionally so as well.
When it all comes too much to handle, what then? When we are caught off guard by something, where we’re thrown off-kilter, how do we respond? How do we get back on track? We have all had those times of darkness and harshness and thoughts of whether this, whatever this is, will end. For some today, we are weary of the life that this pandemic has sucked out from us. The time we spend at home has drained us from the joy of enjoying normal family life, seeing others, or perhaps being able to do things as independently as we used to. For others, life changes with age or infirmity, and we are frustrated or angry and perhaps frightened of what these next steps in the future may hold. They are all signs of being weary, especially where there seems to be no end in sight for whatever that situation is.
We forget that others have walked down this trodden, brow-beaten way before us. We think we are the only ones who know what it’s like to feel this way. The preamble to these famous words, those words of the tiring and growing weak in Isaiah, are worth listening to afresh. “Do you not know? Have you not heard the Lord is the everlasting God? The creator of the ends of the earth.” This God will not grow tired or weary. Even if no one has walked down this road, this path, before and you are at your wit’s end, and you don’t want to unburden yourself to someone for fear of embarrassment or looking weak, God never grows tired or weary. God never stumbles or slumbers or sleeps. In fact, because of this, the God of love, this God never grows tired or weary of you coming to unburden yourself to Him. For the first time or for the gazillionth time, this creator God who loves and creates promises to sustain you in the hard times as well as those times of joy and carefulness.
The sense of this prophetic poem, Isaiah 40, has to me a buoyancy about it. Read out loud with joy, and lightness, even the bits which sound like a scold. Things like, “Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say Israel, my way is hidden from the Lord?” Even here, I get the sense it’s the gentlest of rebukes from the shepherd God, who tends, to only look out for the flock, and wishes to comfort my people.” If we have an everlasting, ever-loving, Almighty, and all-powerful God, then let us come. Let us receive the strength that is offered to us, to the weary soul. Even young people, as an example here get tired. Yes, sometimes they even sleep their way into the middle of the afternoon, and their parents get weary from telling them to tidy their room, do their homework.
How do we receive this comfort and this strength from God? How? There are different ways from different people, as we said earlier, different perspectives. Someone told me recently that one way of looking at new restrictions because of the virus is to see it as a way of learning to be more patient. Perhaps I need to learn a different perspective. Seeing things through the eyes of another in order to receive comfort and strength.
How often do I put myself in the shoes of my own spouse to see things the way they do? If I did, what will this mean to how I need to change or alter the way I see things? How comforting or strengthening will that be to me and to them? That’s a challenge.
Receiving comforts and support and strength is not necessarily a spiritual thing. Being in that place where you know your heartbeats. Taking that walk or that bit of exercise that you’ve promised yourself. Learning to breathe deeply as you stop rushing around to look at the simplicity, yet intricacy, of something amazingly big like a hill or a mountain in the distance or that beautiful, tiny flower in the vase in front of you.
Perhaps we receive the comforts and strength of God when we simply be. When we become aware of the goodness of God. When we are fully present in and with ourselves, centring ourselves once again. It might just mean giving ourselves permission to stop and to be for a few moments in our day. To let our minds wander, to allow ourselves that peace that passes all understanding. That’s what meditation consists of in many ways, being fully present with ourselves, becoming aware and afresh that God is with us.
Give yourself some moments now, as we close to get lost in those rhetorical questions that God found here in Isaiah 40. Who has measured the waters in the hollow of God’s hand? Who has held the dust of the earth? Who has showed God the paths of understanding? You might want to breathe deeply, perhaps breathe for a count of four. Hold it for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, then before breathing again, just hold it for a count of four. Being at one with yourself. Wondering how you feel. This new normal in the kingdom must begin with knowing where I am right now. Being honest with how I am feeling with myself and with the world and hanging on to those truths, those realities: that God is and remains the one who creates, the one who reigns, and the one who sustains. May this God who loves you and knows you. May this God reign and sustain you in whichever situation you find yourself this day.
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.