The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, January 10, 2010. The text for this week’s message is Isaiah 43:1-7.
Do you ever stop to think about what God really thinks about us? I mean, what He really thinks? Not the feel-good stuff that we want to hear, or “Jesus loves me this I know,” or anything of that sort, but what He really thinks. Take a look at your life. You know your faults; you know the dark things that you keep hidden from everyone else; you know the secrets that you have that would embarrass you to no end. What do you think God thinks about you in light of all this stuff? Those are some tough questions to deal with this early in the morning, but we have to face the truth at some point.
We hear it all the time, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life,” but do we get it? Do we understand that kind of love? Can we really believe that this is how God feels about us? I think this passage in Isaiah does a fantastic job of clueing us into the fact that this really is how God feels about His people, in spite of all our failures and misgivings.
Isaiah 43 begins by reminding us of who God is, and who we are. God is the one who created us. God, the Creator, the one who caused all things to be merely by speaking it into existence, created us. And what’s even cooler than that, if we read through the creation story again. Man isn’t spoken into existence; God forms man. Genesis 2 tells us that God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed life into him. Humanity wasn’t spoken into existence like the rest of creation. God formed humanity.
And we hear echoes of that here in Isaiah. It says, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob; he who formed you, O Israel…” (v. 1). The parallel phrases here (he who created you, O Jacob; he who formed you, O Israel…) are used to emphasize God’s position as creator of the Israelites. There is no doubt who is in charge when we come to this passage. But we also are reminded of our importance as created beings. Humanity was important enough that God formed it with His own hands. That is a crucial, but subtle, reminder to begin with in today’s reading.
What is also crucial about his passage is how it starts. “But now” clues us in to the importance of the surrounding context. Another one of the reasons that I think it is going to be important for us to read through the Bible this year is because we start seeing things in their original context, and often this sheds a whole new light on things for us. There is very little about Scripture that lends itself to pop spirituality if we really dig into the context. Often what we can take at a very superficial level is enriched by the things going on all around the passage that we often leave out. If we don’t have even a basic familiarity with Scripture, we lose the richness that dwells deep within.
You see, in Isaiah 42, starting in verse 18, we see that Israel has really messed up. I mean, they are total failures in God’s eyes. They are referred to as blind, deaf, a people who have been plundered, a people without a rescuer. What is worse is that they are in this position because God himself put them in it. They failed to be obedient to God, and they did not walk in the ways of the covenant that was established with him. They sinned against the Lord, and as a result, as Isaiah 42:25 says, “He (God) poured out on him (Israel) the heat of his anger and the might of battle.”
In the ancient world, when one nation conquered another, it was believed that it was because the gods of the conquering nation were stronger. But what Isaiah says here goes totally against that way of thinking. When Israel was sent into exile, it wasn’t because the Babylonian gods were stronger than Yahweh, it was because the people of Israel failed to uphold their covenant. It was because they failed to be obedient to God. It was because they chased after idols and turned their backs on God. “But now…”
But now, Israel was being restored. Isaiah, who wrote long before the people of Israel were ever even conquered by the Babylonians, has a vision of restoration. And this restoration isn’t because of anything in particular that the Israelites had done, but it was because God, the Creator, the one through whom all things come to being, it was because of Him that they were being restored.
“But now…” In spite of all the things that they have done, in spite of their failures, their faults and their sins, they are being restored. Notice, it says, “are being restored,” not “are restoring themselves.” There’s a difference. God is the one who does the restoration. There’s always a “but now” moment in our lives; it’s a moment when we realize that our life does not have to be what it has always been.
I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite TV shows is Scrubs. They show is a little different now because it is focusing on med students more so than the doctors. But in an episode that I watched this week, they illustrate this point so well. One of the students is a guy who flamed out of med school years before, but now he is back in and is doing things differently this time around. He is picked to give the speech at the white coat ceremony, but he initially turns it down because he saw himself becoming what he was before, and he didn’t like it. And this theme arises in the episode that we can’t let the past dictate the future.
See, there really are spiritual insights just waiting to be uncovered in the most unexpected places. Because isn’t that what this passage is about? Isn’t this passage about not letting the past dictate the future? Isaiah begins the passage with “but now,” and that is a reminder that, yes, Israel messed up big time in the past, but that doesn’t mean that God has totally given up on them. I could almost stop there, but there’s more just waiting for us in this passage.
Twice the people are told to “fear not.” The first time, it says, “fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, and you are mine” (verse 1). God is not only reminding them of His position as creator, but he is reminding them of His position as their redeemer. And it isn’t the first time that God has redeemed His people.
In Exodus, we read of the first, and most important, act of redemption in the Old Testament. The people have been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. They cry out to God, and God sends Moses. The people are set free. No longer are they slaves in a foreign land, but now they begin a journey that ends with them traveling for decades until they finally enter the land that was promised to their forefather Abraham. In Judges, we read time and time again about how the people fall away from God, only to have Him raise up a great leader that runs off the oppressors. It is a cycle that we see several times in that book. God is in the business of redemption.
And here’s the thing. God doesn’t do the redeeming because the people are worthy of it. He doesn’t redeem them because they’ve been following Him and are still being oppressed in spite of their obedience. In fact, it is quite the opposite. They are redeemed in spite of the fact that they have gone astray; in spite of the fact that they have failed to be obedient; and in spite of the fact that they are full of sin. Why does God do this? He tells us in verse 4.
“Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you…” (Isa 43:4). Because they are precious, honored and loved. They are worth something to God, even though they don’t act like it. Even though all they seem to do is mess up and live their lives in sin, they are worth something to God, and He loves them. God’s love makes them worthy of redemption.
In verse 5, we see the second “fear not” statement. This time it says, “Fear not, for I am with you…” God is not absent. God is not some distant being that just reached down, set things in motion and is coming back to check up on it. The world is not a Ronco rotisserie oven as far as God is concerned. There’s not “set it and forget it” here. “Fear not, for I am with you” God says. God is active and involved in the world.
It doesn’t say that God is only with them temporarily. It doesn’t say that God is only with them when they are obedient. It doesn’t say that God is only with them as long as there isn’t anything better for Him to do. It says that God is with them. And when God is with you, there is no need to fear. Yes, the people will be defeated and exiled. Yes, the people will be separated from their homeland for quite some time. But that doesn’t mean that God wasn’t with them. And it doesn’t mean that God didn’t care about them.
So, what does all this mean? Why should we care about this particular passage? Isn’t this just something that God said to the people of Israel thousands of years ago? Why should it matter to us? Because you have messed up; because you have failed to be obedient to God; because your life sometimes looks like a pile of garbage that you don’t think God wants to even approach. Because sometimes, you think that God couldn’t love you because of the sin that’s in your life. Honestly, we aren’t all that different from the Israelites.
Sure, we don’t openly chase after the false gods of the Canaanites. Or do we? Do we have idols in our lives? Do we have things in our lives that take precedence over God? Do we spend our time and energy chasing after things that aren’t God? Do we focus more on our jobs, our sports teams, and our pursuit of money, position and power than we focus on God? An idol is anything that draws our worship from God. An idol is anything that takes our focus off of God. We have idols in our lives, whether we recognize them or not. There are things that constantly pull us away from God. And some of them don’t have to try all that hard.
We are in need of redemption. We are in need of redemption because we get distracted. We can’t always see God. We can’t always know what God is doing. Consequently, we often forget about Him. We often forget to give praise to God for the blessings in our lives. We often forget to spend time listening for His voice. We often forget to spend time in His word. We have sin in our lives, and no matter how much good we try to do, we cannot get rid of it. It’s not like we have a ledger sheet where if we do enough good things, then we don’t have to worry about the sin that’s in our lives. That’s not how it works. We are in need of redemption, and there is nothing that we can do to earn it. “But now…”
But now, God reminds us of who He is. God reminds us that He is our creator, the one who knew us before we were in the womb. God reminds us that we need not fear because, out of His love, He has redeemed us, and, out of His love, He is with us.
Do you feel like you’ve stopped following God? Do you feel like there’s too much junk in your life for God to want anything to do with you? Do you feel like the sins that fester inside of you keep you from being loved by God? Do you know other people who feel this way? Read this passage again. Read it again when you aren’t feeling up to par. Read it again, when you think you’ve gone too far and have completely separated yourself from God. Read it again if you think that God can’t possibly care about you because of what you’ve done. In spite of all Israel has done, God was with them. And back to the question I opened with, what does God think of you? In spite of all that you have done, God is with you, and He loves you, and He has redeemed you through His Son Jesus Christ.