Posts tagged ‘Isaiah’

January 13, 2013

When you pass through the waters

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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[1]. 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[2].  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.


[2] Alec Motyer ‘The Prophecy of Isaiah’, Inter Varsity Press, 1995, p.331

December 11, 2012

mind at peace

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You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.

(Isaiah 26:3)

I found it very helpful recently when I heard this Bible verse quoted in a sermon I was listening to.  Staying or fixing or focussing our minds upon God, whether in the quiet place of prayer or in the midst of a hectic day results in peace.  God is the fixed point of focus when everything else is all over the place, it is great to remember that He is the God of peace…

May 15, 2012

Tranquility

Looking up ‘Tranquility’ in the thesaurus produces a string of:

Peace
….peacefulness
……..restfulness
….repose
calm
….calmness
……..quiet
….quietness
stillness.

Even something about reading those words produces a certain soporific effect.

The picture above I took at Garrettstown on a day off last Saturday. Without such special days, times with my beautiful (and incredibly patient) wife and our two wonderful boys I don’t think I would last very long in parish ministry.  We all need times of peace, days of fun, moments of joy and places to escape to.

We spent about six or seven hours on the beach but it felt like no time at all.  It wasn’t very warm, there was a chill in the air from the north east, but we built an enormous sand castle, which later became an alien space craft and a rowing boat (of sorts).  We gathered driftwood and made a fire on which we cooked sausages and rashers.  Breathing in the fresh sea air all day meant that we all slept very well that night and I was ready in body, mind and spirit for the day and week ahead, (something which unfortunately doesn’t always happen).

As I look at the photo now I am reminded of those old and familiar words that long ago we used to sing in church:

Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee:
because he trusteth in thee.
Trust ye in the Lord for ever:
for our rock of ages is the Lord.

(Isaiah 26:3-4)

February 5, 2012

How big is our God?

Blue Sky Thinking

(Photo taken at Trimpley Reservoir, Worcestershire, in 2009)

Sermon for today.  Text Isaiah 40:21-31.

There is a story that I read recently of African-American slaves toiling in the hot sun. They are working so very hard to pick cotton. There is a young woman and beside her is her small boy, maybe six or seven. She’s working in the fields and she has such incredible dexterity that she is able to pick cotton with her right hand and caress the forehead of her child with the left. But eventually, exhausted by working so hard in the fields, she falls down from the weight and the pressure of the work.  Her boy attempts to wake her very quickly, knowing that if the slave drivers were to see her the punishment would be swift and hard.

He tries to shake his mother, and as he’s trying to shake her, an old man comes over to him.  He looks up at the old man and says, “Is it time? Is it time?”

The old man smiles and looks at the boy and says, “Yes!” And he bends down and whispers into the ear of the woman who was now upon the ground and says these words: “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”

At that moment the woman gets up with such incredible dignity. She stands as a queen and looks down at her son, grasps his hand and begins to look toward heaven. All of a sudden they begin to fly. The slave drivers rush over to this area where she has stopped work and they see this act of human flight and are completely confused. They do not know what to do! And during their confusion, the old man rushes around to all the other slaves and begins to tell them, “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”

When they hear the word, they all begin to fly.  And at that moment the slave drivers grab the old man and say, “Bring them back!”

They beat him, and with blood coming down his cheek, he just smiles at them. They say to him, “Please bring them back!”

And he says, “I can’t.”

They say, “Why not?”

He said, “Because the word is already in them and since the word is already in them, it cannot be taken from them.”

The old man had a word from West Africa, ‘Cooleebah’, a word that means God. It had been placed into the heart of these displaced Africans and now they had dignity and they were flying[1].

How big is our God?  I ask this question because it’s an important one.  Sometimes we have no problem singing “Our God is a great big God…” but other times, especially when problems are looming large our God seems to shrink doesn’t He?  Have you ever heard the expression “You can’t put God in a box”?  It means that we try to restrict God, we try to place limits on what He can and cannot do, and we start to believe that He could not help us, or heal us or provide for us or forgive us, when He can of course do all those things and so much more.  So let us ask ourselves today, “How big is my God”?

The background to our reading from Isaiah is that the people of Judah were in big trouble; for generations they had turned their backs on God and now it was Isaiah’s job to warn them that because they would not change their ways they were going to be punished.  A foreign army was going to come and attack them, defeat them and drag away many captives.  But also there was hope, God would ultimately save them not only from the Assyrians and Babylonians, He would save them from themselves too.  A bit like us, the people’s view of God had become stunted and small, they had not only put God in a box, but also stuffed that box away in a corner and out of sight.  In our reading today, Isaiah reminds his original audience (and us today) that God is all powerful and at the same time longs for those people who have deserted Him to come back.

Isaiah reminds us that there is only one Creator God, who not only originates all, but maintains and controls everything too.  This supreme Creator God also directs all of history towards a definite goal.  Therefore to believe in Him is to be assured of ultimate safety; that both the present and the future are secure in His hands. In verse 21 we read:

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told you from the beginning? 

Isaiah tells us that it should be obvious to us that God is not only there but that He is also the source of all things; that in comparison we are like grasshoppers, we are very small and He is very great.  I like the second half of verse 22, which reads:

who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in…

I have problems putting a wardrobe together, but God stretched out the vastness of space with a spoken command.

How big is our God?

Isaiah reminds us that the vastness of our universe allows us a glimpse of the might and majesty of our Creator. Philip Yancey in his book “Prayer: Does it make a difference”, gives the following description to help us appreciate the scale of the universe:

If [the galaxy in which we live] the Milky Way galaxy, were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup. Even now, two Voyager spacecraft are hurtling toward the edge of the solar system at a rate of 100,000 miles per hour. For almost three decades they have been speeding away from Earth, approaching a distance of 9 billion miles. When engineers beam a command to the spacecraft at the speed of light, it takes 13 hours to arrive. Yet this vast neighborhood of our sun—in truth, the size of a coffee cup—fits along with several hundred billion other stars and their minions in the Milky Way, one of perhaps 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. To send a light-speed message to the edge of that universe would take 15 billion years.[2]

No matter how big the people of Judah’s problems were, God was greater; no matter how big our problems are, God is greater.  How big is your God?

Look at verse 25 and 26, we continue on with the theme of God’s greatness.  Isaiah asks us to look up at the night sky and says:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see:  Who created these?  He who … numbers them and calls them all by name.”

How many stars do you think there are?  Scientist are not sure, but:

“In July 2003, scientists at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Australia announced their latest estimate for the number of stars in the Universe – 70 sextillion. That is 7 followed by a mind-boggling 22 zeros…”[3]

To give us some idea of the large number we are talking about, the number of stars is far greater in number than all the sand on all the beaches in the world.  Yet God not only has them all numbered, he has names for all of them too!

How big is your God?

O.K., you might be getting a bit fed up with me asking that question by now, but I do not mean to nag or annoy and I ask the question to myself too, “how big is my God”?  It’s not very nice to be someone who is suffering in some way and someone starts going on asking you how big your God is.  Of course we have all been there haven’t we, we say that God either doesn’t know about me or if He does He simply doesn’t care or is not powerful enough to make a difference, and if we were to feel like that we wouldn’t be the first to do so, the people in Isaiah’s day felt the same too.  Look at verse 27:

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God’? 

They thought that their way was hidden from God, that He could not see them and that he did not regard them in any meaningful way.  But nothing, NOTHING, could be further from the truth.  Look at the answer the doubters are given, and look a the answer we are given when we think that God doesn’t care about us:

The Lord is the everlasting God, 
the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 
29He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 
30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 
31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. 

We grow tired yet God never tires in any way, we only know a few things, God knows everything, (even before it happens).

Have you ever been in a hurry at the airport?  I can remember one time in Dublin airport running to get to the Departure Lounge, carrying a couple of heavy bags and puffing and panting as I went.  Then I looked to my left and noticed a man walking at a normal pace and going at least as fast as I was – he was of course standing on one of those moving platforms that you get at airports.  He was going the same direction as me, with the same amount of baggage and yet with a fraction of the effort!  When we walk with God it is a bit like that, by His Spirit he comes underneath us and bears us along. We’re still walking, but we walk dependent on him[4].

What is going on in your life right now?  Are you tired or sick?  Walk with God.  Are you lacking in faith or courage or wisdom?  Walk with God.  Have you lost your job or worried that you might lose it?  Walk with God.  Perhaps you don’t know how you are going to pay the bills and put food on the table.  Walk with God.  Do you dread going to school or college tomorrow morning?  Walk with God.  Are you afraid, do you seek forgiveness, are you lost or lonely?  Walk with God.  And when you walk with God, before you know it you will be flying.

A.W. Tozer wrote:

“Anything God has ever done, he can do now. Anything God has ever done anywhere, he can do here. Anything God has ever done for anyone, he can do for you.” [5]

Please pray this prayer with me:

Heavenly Father I ask that you would walk with me now and that you would come alongside me and bear me along.  Help me to walk alongside you, to hold on to you.  Help me to not try and walk only with my own strength but to know your support at all times and in every sense.  Lord I have many questions, but I somehow know that You are the answer, I choose to trust you now and for always…

Amen.

December 1, 2011

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand?

“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand…

Barley Cove 1
and marked off the heavens with a span,
From Old Head of Kinsale
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
Inishmore Farmand weighed the mountains in scales
Cumbriaand the hills in a balance?
Towards Snowdonia
(Isaiah 40:12 ESV)

———————————–

Notes:

Photo 1 – at Barleycove Beach, Co. Cork, taken with a Nikon F100, 50mm and Fuji Reala 100 film, June 2010

Photo 2 – From the Old head of Kinsale, January 2007, taken with a Panasonic FZ50

Photo 3 – Inishmore, taken with a Pentax P50 and 70-300mm zoom using Kodak film, possibly in 1995

Photo 4 – From the summit of “Green Gable”, Cumbria, July 2005, taken with an Olympus C-310

Photo 5 – from Shell Island, North Wales, taken with a Panasonic LX1 in July 2009

June 10, 2009

Red in tooth and claw

Camera: Olympus OM-1, Lens: G.Zuiko 50mm f1.4, Film: Fujicolor Reala 100

“Nature, red in tooth and claw.” I don’t know how I feel when our cat does this sort of thing. I wish he would just kill the mouse quickly and eat it, the whole playing with it first and teasing it and then letting it escape to run after it some more is to me a little too cruel…

But then that’s life and that’s nature in this fallen world in which we live. The Bible shows us that this was neither how it was in the beginning nor how it will be at the end:

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
(Isaiah 11:6-9)

Yes there’s probably a healthy dose of metaphor in those words but the clearer meaning is the most obvious one i.e. that when God makes a ‘new heaven and earth’ there will be a return to how things were meant to be before the fall….