Monday, February 06, 2012

Sermon on Isaiah 40:21-31, for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, "Comfort for the Weary"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our text today is the reading from Isaiah 40. It’s scarcely possible for us to contemplate the vastness of the universe and the majesty of God’s glory that it displays. The incredible window seat God gave our earth to view the depths of the universe through telescopes and space exploration has stunned countless humans with the realization that those tiny twinkles of light that pepper the nighttime sky are all giant, burning stars like our sun—and often many times greater in size. And yet they are at such great distances from our own solar system, that it staggers the human imagination. Perhaps if it does not fill us with pride, we might say that because we have those glimpses of the grandeur of the universe, we can even better appreciate Isaiah’s words: “It is [God] who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in....lift up your eyes on high and see; who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might and because He is strong in power not one is missing.”
When we gaze up at the stars, and try to fathom how far away they are, and how massive they are in size, we truly can feel like ants or grasshoppers in comparison. Even flying in an airplane over a city or seeing videos from the space shuttle, looking down at earth, gives one a sense of this smallness and seeming insignificance. Once while taking some youth to a Lutheran summer camp, I led the group in some stargazing and finding constellations. One of the young boys, looking up at the stars for the first time free of the hazy glow of city lights, was amazed at how beautiful it was. He remarked that the nighttime sky looked like a giant tent spread over us, and the stars were like little holes where the light poked through from outside. I was thrilled to tell him that this is just how the Bible describes the heavens, and what God did in “stretching them out like a tent” when He created the universe. He was pretty excited to find that the Bible used the same description he thought of to describe the stars. Truly, out of the mouths of children God has ordained praise. (Ps. 8:2)
God truly “determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. (Ps 147:4). Not one of them is missing. If God knows all the stars and calls them by name, how much more wonderful that He knows us so intimately as to know the number of hairs on our head. Every corner of the infinitely vast universe we live in is known by God’s wisdom and knowledge. And He is still greater and still more magnificent, awesome, and beyond description than His beautiful universe. Yet we are not forgotten or unnoticed in the midst of all its grandeur, however puny and insignificant we may seem in comparison, like little grasshoppers.
So why should a person give time to contemplate the majesty and awesomeness of God? Our troubles can certainly leave us feeling forsaken, glumly looking down at our feet and feeling hopeless. We might cry out in the words of verse 27: “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” As though to say, “God is ignoring me in my troubles. He’s not paying attention to me, and He’s not listening to my prayers!” Whether demanding or despairing, our cry goes up, “How long?” How long can it last? How long can I last? I’m weary, I’m faint, I’m exhausted, I’m on my last legs. “Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted.” If this is our cry, that God has forgotten us in our trouble, Isaiah proclaims that the God who is inexhaustible in His strength and power is the One who gives strength to those who become faint and exhausted under the strains of life. To the weak He gives strength, to the weary He sets their feet back upon the path to walk upright.
He describes how the youths and young men will faint and be weary, and the young men shall fall exhausted. You know what it is that wears you down in life. What struggles sap your strength, what trials test your prayer life and reliance on God. What burdens you have tried to carry on your own, instead of turning them over to God. For many, life can be exhausting, even to young and energetic people. The cares and struggles of life can often be much greater than we can bear. Yet God describes those who wait for the Lord renewing their strength, and continuing on, even soaring like eagles or running without fatigue. More than just a “second wind” like a marathon runner gets who breaks past “the wall”—this description is of one who can keep going on, despite enormous odds against them. This description is of one rising above their circumstances and finding supernatural strength in God alone. The description of one who by all odds should have been crushed under the difficulty of their situation, but instead is renewed in their strength by the Lord. God is their resilience.
Isaiah’s call for the weary to look up from their troubles to God is the call of the Psalmist as well. That in our trouble we might pause to look up to the heavens or to the mountains, and ask ourselves “From where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!” (Ps. 121:1-2) To look up to God, to contemplate His majesty and great power puts us in mind of the fact that He’s in control of all things, that the universe is made and moved by the might of His hand, that the stars bear their light at His will and command. It’s a humbling reminder of our insignificance before Him. But when we have come to that humbling knowledge, it also serves to teach us “what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:4). We’re reminded that as glorious as the heavens and earth are, and as insignificant as we seem in the eternal span of time and in the immense order of the universe, that God is still mindful of us and has bestowed great honor and glory on mankind as the crown of His creation.
While we may often be forgetful of our place in the universe, God never forgets or forsakes His children. As glorious as the heavens are, their creation is described as almost an afterthought: “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” (Ge 1:16). Yet God has crowned mankind with glory and honor, and given them dominion over all the creation. God gave instructions to Adam and Eve to master the creation and rule over it. To reflect on God’s majesty, therefore, puts us in mind of our place beneath God, but also raises our position to know that among all the wonders that God has created, we stand out for His special attention, love, and concern.
Of all the things that God could “occupy” Himself with, the creation of vast, unexplored wonders and beauties, hidden beyond what the naked eye can see, out in the distant stars, or hidden in the depths of caves and mountains, or the great abysses of the sea—still God’s greatest marvel, His most loving, caring, and superb act of creation was making human beings in His own image. That He would give the imprint of Himself on the living souls of Adam and Eve, saying “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Ge 1:27). This act is only surpassed in greatness by the redemption that Jesus Christ accomplished for us, by buying us sinful humans back from our fallen glory, when He died on the cross for our sins. We are His first, because He made us, but secondly we are His because He bought us back through Jesus Christ. For both these reasons, God is not aloof and unconcerned with His precious children, but rather He is deeply concerned with all that happens in our lives, so that we are promised, “Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7).
If you were to imagine what it would like to be eternal, and have no measurement of the passing of time like we do, could you also envision what our human problems would be like? From problem to solution, all our life’s events would lay before you, and you would see clearly to the end of each one. There would be no fretting about the outcome, because you would already know it. God sees all this from His heavenly perspective, and knows how He will bring us through them all. When we wait on the Lord, patiently enduring our situation, we acknowledge His superior rule and wisdom; that all things are in His hand. We rest in His promise that He will never leave us nor forsake us, and that He will carry us through to the end.
As proof of God’s love and concern, He heard our cry from the depths of our pain, struggle, and human misery, and Jesus Christ came down from the exalted heights of heaven and joined us in the depths of human existence, to became one with us in our sufferings. He knew them face to face. And more than sympathy for us, He proclaims release and life. “He comes with rescue speedy to those who suffer wrong, to help the poor and needy and bid the weak be strong; to give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light, whose souls condemned and dying, were precious in His sight.” (LSB 398:2) In place of our sighing, groaning, and sadness, God supplies us with songs and rejoicing.
Charles Spurgeon commented on Psalm 97:1, “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice”--saying that as long as this sentence is true, there is no cause for worry and unrest. God’s power just as easily controls the raging of the wicked as it does the raging of the sea. God’s love just as easily refreshes the poor with mercy as His rain refreshes the earth with showers. His majesty gleams in flashes of fire in the horrors of a storm, and His glory is exalted over the fall of empires and the crash of thrones, which stand as nothing before Him. Spurgeon adds that in all our conflicts and trials, we can behold the hand of our Divine King. Since God is who He is, since Jesus knows our needs and well provides them, we can rejoice, and we can sing a song of gladness, as we look to Him for refreshment and strength.
His refreshment comes to you in the waters of Baptism, where you drink of Jesus Christ, the Living Water, and your soul is refreshed in the cleansing of your sin and the gift of a clean conscience before God. His strength comes to you in His Word, spoken into your heart, so your soul finds delight in His Word and hope for your future. It comes in the knowledge that Jesus suffered to the point of exhaustion, even to death on the cross for us, so that we would be spared the guilt and weight of our sin, and that we would find eternal rest in Him. His comfort comes to you in the consolation of brothers and sisters in Christ who help to shoulder your burdens together with you, as we each turn them over to Christ. His strength comes as He feeds you with the heavenly manna of His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, to strengthen you for your journey so you can run and not grow weary, to walk and not faint. In all these ways, Christ sends His Holy Spirit to enliven you, to take your prayers and inner groanings before God, and to renew you in the knowledge that He who watches over you never slumbers nor sleeps, and that in His arms you rest in safety, though all the earth give way. Find your rest in Him, in Jesus’ name, Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      What did the glory of the heavens move the Psalmist to sing? Psalm 19:1-6; 50:6; 97:6. How does this adjust our sense of size or importance?

2.      How did God create the stars and the universe? Gen. 1:14-19; Psalm 104. How thorough is God’s knowledge and attention to His creation, both at the cosmic scale, and at the microscopic scale? Isaiah 40:26; Ps. 147:4; Matt. 10:30.

3.      Nevertheless, what question often forms when we are faced by our troubles? Isaiah 40:27; Malachi 3:14-15; Psalm 73. What is God’s answer? What shows us God’s attention, concern, and involvement? Psalm 8; 121:1-2; Phil. 2:6-8

4.      What are the things that have you troubled, or weigh you down? Have you ever thought that God didn’t care? Where are His sure promises to you given? Acts 2:38-40; Matt. 26:27-28; John 11:25-26; 1 Pet. 5:7; Rom. 8:26-27; Luke 11:13

5.      What comfort is there in knowing that God has an eternal perspective on our problems, and that we can turn them over to Him, instead of bearing them ourselves? Matt. 11:28-30; Psalm 97:1

6.      See other Psalms of comfort for times of distress: Psalm 4, 6, 10, 13, 18, 46, etc.

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