Photo: Glencar Lough, Co. Leitrim, January 2013.
Sermon for Sunday 13/1/13. Text: Isaiah 43:1-7
Have you ever been in that place where you just want to give up? The pressures of your work, your family situation, your finances or whatever sphere of life you are concerned with just becomes too great, too overwhelming? You wish that you could get on a boat or a plane and find a desert island somewhere where there would be no telephone, only the sound of lapping waves, no bank statements, only leaves falling from the trees and no one to be cross with you or gossip about you, only the feeling of the warm sand running through your fingers…
All of us who have lived for any length of time know that life can be great but it can also seem like hell at times too. Sometimes as Christians we think that we cannot get emotional with God, we have to keep a stiff upper lip and pretend that everything is alright. Really what we want to do is find somewhere where we can shout and something that we can punch, but instead we think that God would not approve of such behaviour so we bottle it all up somehow until it bursts out of us in some other way, such as during an argument with a friend or when we beep the horn ferociously at someone who cuts us up at a roundabout!
Martin Luther King Jr. was perhaps the leading light of the movement in the United States in the 1950s for racial equality through nonviolent resistance. I doubt any of us could imagine the pressure and stress he was under; he received as many as 30 to 40 threatening phone calls a day. One night in January 1956 he returned home late after a long day of meetings. His wife and young daughter were in bed and he was eager to join them, but then the phone rang; it was yet another threatening call. He wanted to go to bed, but he could not shake the menacing voice of that phone caller that kept repeating the hateful words in his head. He made some coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. With his head buried in his hands he cried out to God. There in his kitchen in the middle of the night, when he had come to the end of his strength, God spoke to him. King later wrote: “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on … He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone, no never alone.’ In the stillness of the night the voice of Jesus was greater than the voices of hate and it gave King the courage to press on, to press on for the rest of his life. That is what each of us needs, the voice of Jesus speaking into our lives, into our situations. It is a Voice that is greater than anything or anyone that can come against us. If we are a Christian, then we have a relationship with God. In our reading from Isaiah, God says of that relationship:
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you … he who formed you … Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
Aren’t those phenomenal words? God created us, he knitted us together in our mothers wombs (cf. Ps.139:13), He knows us completely and He speaks to us as He spoke to the people of Israel and he tells us not to fear, he has redeemed us (in other words he has freed us from blame, we are forgiven), and not only has He redeemed us through the cross of Christ, he also calls us by name. I remember in the equivalent to National School that I went to all the girls were referred to by their Christian names but all the boys were simply called ‘boy’. It was wonderful then in my next school to hear my new teacher, Mrs. Jenkins, call me by my name. I felt like a real person, I felt valued and it made me want to do my best work for this kind teacher. God knows us by name, He knows us intimately and He cares about us and we matter to Him. I love the bit at the end of the verse where God says, ‘you are mine’. Can you imagine God punching the air, saying your name and going ‘yes, you are mine’? We are not an afterthought for God, He is passionate about us.
Verse 2 has appeared in lots of songs, the words are poetic and beautiful:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
There’s a magnificent song by U2 called ‘drowning man’ about a man drowning in the “winds and tides” of life. As you listen to the song you can imagine him being swept down a fast moving river and he is about to be carried away out of sight when suddenly out of the darkness comes a voice saying “Take my hand … hold on tightly … hold on and don’t let go of my love … hold on tightly to this love which will last for ever…” All of us go through troublesome waters in life and if we try and swim in our own strength we are more likely to fail. But God’s promise is that the waters shall not overwhelm us.
When I read the words ‘walk through the fire, I am reminded of the event recorded in Daniel chapter 3, where Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into the Fiery Furnace for refusing to worship a 90’ high gold statute. But rather than be burnt up in the flames they were completely unharmed, with even their hair left unsigned! When King Nebuchadnezzar looked into the furnace he exclaimed to his soldiers:
Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire? They replied “Certainly, O king,” To which he replied:
Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.
God sent a heavenly visitor to help the three men during a time of great trial. God will help us too. Perhaps some of you have stories of how God has helped you through great trials and difficulties in ordinary or extraordinary ways. Perhaps we would be amazed too at all the times and in different ways God has saved us in different situations which we have no idea about…
Fire and water represent the totality of trials, of whatever sort and however they come – in all things, the Lord is with us. As I was thinking about this I remembered the story of Terry Waite, a representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury who went to the Lebanon to try to secure the release of four hostages but ended up being held hostage himself for four long years. In his autobiography he writes much about his faith in the midst of intense difficulty. One of the bits I remember is where he used to save a little bread when it was given to him and together with a little water in a plastic cup he used to recite the Communion Service from memory. In solitary confinement, far from home, frightened, he nevertheless drew great comfort and support from the fact that God was with Him in the midst of his great trial, He did not allow Terry Waite to be overwhelmed or drown in despair, God carried him through until he was released.
In the next few verses, God shows His people how much they mean to Him, by naming the nations he has saved them from and punished in their stead, Egypt (remember Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea) and Ethiopia and Seba (countries beyond the borders of Egypt). Then Isaiah plunges forward in time to a regathering of God’s people from the ends of the earth at a time far removed from the day of writing. Some people say that the modern day nation of Israel is a fulfillment of this prophecy, with Jews from all over the world leaving the countries of their birth and setting up a new home in the land of their ancient ancestry.
In the past God gave nations in exchange for His people, with Christ though He did much more than that. Isaiah himself would give a clear indication of this in chapter 53 when he wrote of the Messiah, the suffering servant:
But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
In Christ we have the ultimate fulfillment of all that Isaiah wrote. Through Him, we have a special relationship with God; we are His children, called by name, knitted together by Him in our mother’s womb. He is with us before we were formed; he is with us through life and through death. Certainly we are his if we want to be. Often I come across people who are going through trials of one kind or another and it breaks my heart to see them trying to cope without God’s help. For different reasons people try to cope on their own – but it really doesn’t have to be like that. He calls your name, He tells you not to fear, He has redeemed you and you are His now and always… Amen.
 Alec Motyer ‘The Prophecy of Isaiah’, Inter Varsity Press, 1995, p.331