Home » Sermons » Old Testament » Isaiah » ON REMAINING GOD’S FAITHFUL PEOPLE IN EXILE

 

ON REMAINING GOD’S FAITHFUL PEOPLE IN EXILE

 

Isaiah 40:27-31

 

Do you ever feel yourself to be an alien in Canada even though you have lived here most or all of your life? Do you ever feel that the current culture has exiled you, left you feeling you don’t belong any longer, left you feeling you are a stranger precisely where you had always thought you would feel at home?

One of my friends, a vice-principal in Scarborough, was telling a grade eight class about the popular musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Not one child knew it was based on a biblical story. Amazed, my friend took his discovery to the staffroom and told his fellow-teachers there, only to find that not one teacher knew the musical was based on a biblical story. With the erosion of the Judaeo-Christian tradition my friend has observed the erosion of other matters which we have always taken for granted: punctuality, honesty, diligence. One grade eight youngster came to school late, sat down sulkily and informed the teacher that he was going to do no work at all. The youngster would not open a book, pick up a pen, or think a thought. He was determined to do nothing except frustrate the teacher and encourage other students to follow him in his defiance. When my v.p.-friend informed the boy’s mother that her son was going to be suspended she accused him of picking on her boy: “Why should he be suspended? He hasn’t done anything wrong. How could he have done anything wrong if he hasn’t done anything at all? He doesn’t have to do schoolwork if he doesn’t feel like it.”

I often feel like an exile, an alien, a stranger who will be forever out-of-step. In the wake of mushrooming AIDS in India an Indian physician, an epidemiologist, has concluded that all government attempts at informing people of the ways and means and consequences of infection are useless; utterly ineffective. Only one thing has any chance of bringing people to their senses, says this MD, fear. When he says “fear” he means sheer terror, he tells us. The AIDS picture is be painted so horrifically that people will be terrified. It’s odd, isn’t it, that whenever a preacher has said that God is to be feared the preacher has been accused immediately of emotional blackmail, manipulation, psychological assault, anything else bad you might wish to add. We are not permitted to say that God is to be feared, even as God is characteristically merciful, even though what is at stake is nothing less than our eternal wellbeing. We are, however, permitted, even urged, to say that AIDS is to be feared when what is at stake is our temporal longevity. Where the salvation of God is the issue fear is deemed deplorable; where infectious disease is the issue fear is deemed commendable. Am I in exile? I feel I must be living on another planet!

To say the least I am amused when I read the rhetoric that boards of education spout concerning pluralism. Since we live in a pluralistic age, we are told, religious bias will be tolerated nowhere in the educational enterprise. And so when a Muslim speaks about Islam his contribution is welcomed as an instance of pluralism; but when a Christian speaks about the gospel his contribution is rejected as sectarian religion. Islam is culture, Christianity is religion. A Muslim youngster informed the class about Islamic festivals. My wife informed the class about Easter — and in turn was informed by board-authorities that what she had done was unacceptable. Do you ever feel yourself an alien precisely where you used to think you belonged?

Yet there are reasons why people feel themselves exiled, far from home. They don’t feel “at home” with life, with themselves, ultimately with God, inasmuch as too many negativities have piled up too quickly. Recently I have endeavoured to support a family whose mother, much younger than I, has had to undergo very extensive surgery for life-threatening disease. Her husband is on permanent Long Term Disability benefits, having undergone head-injury in an automobile accident and is now chronically impaired.

A few weeks ago I was interviewing a couple who wish to get married. As I always do I asked them if either had been married before. The fellow had. “Do you currently possess a decree absolute?” (In other words, are you legally divorced, and thus legally free to marry again?) “I’m not divorced”, he replied slowly, “I’m a widower. My wife died of a brain haemorrhage. I have one child, a boy fifteen, and he has Downs’ Syndrome.” I understand that these people may feel exiled from something or someone when they long to feel “at home”.

The first thirty-nine chapters of the book labelled Isaiah were written by the prophet Isaiah who lived eight hundred years before our Lord. The remaining chapters of the book (plus chapter thirty-five) were written two-hundred years later, during the Babylonian exile, by an unnamed prophet or school of prophets. The Israelite people have been carried off into exile, Their captors, the Babylonians, make fun of them, taunt them, humiliate them, despise them. The Israelite people feel themselves so far from home they couldn’t feel stranger. What compounds their strangeness in the midst of the Babylonians is their feeling that God has abandoned them. It’s bad enough to be a non-citizen in a land where you don’t belong and have no rights; how much worse it is to endure this plus the haunting impression that God has forgotten you. They couldn’t help asking themselves, “Would anything ever jog his memory? Was he ever going to return to them?” The Israelite people knew that they had been appointed a light to the nations. A light to the nations? — most of the time they now groped in the dark themselves. All too soon they became dispirited, demoralized, weary. They wanted only to lament, “What is the point of going on? Why struggle to be God’s faithful people? Why not give up and yield to the pressure of Babylonian paganism? We are weary beyond telling.”

I understand. I understand that God’s people in exile felt bone-weary; I understand because I know how weary God’s people in exile feel today.

 

II: — Then it is all the more important that we listen to this unnamed prophet whose invigoration at God’s hand has given us our text this morning. To us weary people he cries,

HAVE YOU NOT KNOWN? HAVE YOU NOT HEARD?
THE LORD IS THE EVERLASTING GOD…
HE DOES NOT FAINT OR GROW WEARY,
HIS UNDERSTANDING IS UNSEARCHABLE.

This prophet does not begin by telling people, “Just be patient”. He doesn’t say, “Cheer up now, nothing is as bad as it appears”. He doesn’t insult them by reminding them that they would feel better if only they stopped bellyaching. Instead he directs their attention away from themselves to GOD. “Do you not know? HE doesn’t grow weary, never. And HIS understanding is unsearchable” — which is to say, God’s grasp of our situation is wider, deeper, more comprehensive, more thorough than our fragmentary, distorted grasp can ever be. It’s as though we are standing before a huge painting. The painting is immensely detailed, yet not chaotic or even cluttered; the painting has balance and coherence and unity. Nevertheless, we are standing so close to it, with our faces hard up against it, that we see nothing of the balance and coherence and unity. In fact we are so close to the welter of detail that we can’t even recognize it as detail; to us it looks like a smudge, a smear, a blot. From a range of half-an-inch we can see only a fuzzy daub which means nothing and whose colour we can’t even recognize.

Instead of imagining yourself with your nose against a painting imagine yourself looking up at the underside of a rug. From the underside of the rug we can see splashes of colour, bits of this and that, and unaccounted for threads dangling here and there. If we could only see from above, looking down on the rug, then we should see that the million-and-one threads have, by the artistry of the weaver, been formed into a pattern which is nothing less than breathtaking. HIS UNDERSTANDING IS UNSEARCHABLE. God is the weaver. He sees what he weaves. For now we can only the underside, and must trust him with the topside. For not only is his understanding unfathomable, his persistence is undeflectable just because HE NEVER GROWS WEARY. The prophet comforts his people not by pretending that exile is less onerous than they know it to be (no comfort in such an insensitive bit of patronizing) but rather by directing them to the God whose unsearchable understanding and undeflectable persistence comprehend their situation now and will weave something glorious from it which they will one day see themselves and for which they will praise him.

In the meantime, says this unnamed prophet, we are to WAIT FOR THE LORD. Not wait around, not linger aimlessly, not loiter mindlessly; we are to wait for the Lord in that we have set our hope on this our God and we have entrusted our future to him. We are to hang on to him for the present and wait for him for the future. He sees our situation whose where we can see it only fragmentarily and with more than a little distortion. He can weave from the jumble of irruptions what leaves us agape if not aghast. He can comprehend at once in his “eternal now” what we see only piecemeal with each passing instant. Not even those developments in our lives which we find now to be unrelieved negativity are going to frustrate him. Then wait for him we must.

 

II: — Yet even as we wait for him we do not find ourselves waiting around, nothing going on. As we wait for him eversomuch is going on since, says the prophet, as we wait for him our strength is renewed, we share in one or another characteristic of eagles, we run without giving up in weariness, and we walk without falling down faint.

 

[i] Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. Believers of every era have found God to be as good as his promise. Centuries before the unnamed prophet wrote our text another of God’s people, Joshua, spoke God’s message to a fearful people: “Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

“Be strong! Be of good courage!” It’s a command, isn’t it; it’s a command, not a promise. The spiritual giants of Puritanism (don’t tell me you are tired of hearing about my love of the Puritans; if you aren’t acquainted with their experience or God consider yourself underprivileged) used to say, “All God’s commands are covered promises”. They meant that every command of God is a veiled promise of God. What God commands us to do he first promises us what we need to do it. Every command of God, in other words, is just another form of the promise of God. It is the command of God that we be strong. It is the promise of God that if we wait for him we shall find our strength renewed. Believers without number can testify that this promise God has fulfilled time and again in their own life. If we feel we have not yet proved it in our life then we should listen to the testimony of those who have — like the poor black woman whom Jean Vanier was visiting in the slums of Cleveland. He was taken aback at this woman’s medical condition, surrounded by her economic condition, and didn’t know what comfort to offer. He simply placed his hand on her forehead and said, “Jesus”. “I been walking with him forty years”, she whispered. Years earlier still John Paton, missionary to the pacific island of Tonga, went with his wife on the mission field knowing that God had commissioned them both to this ministry. Shortly after arriving on the island he had to bury his wife, and then his daughter a few days later. He wrote in his journal that there were moments when he felt he was on the edge of irremedial blackness, yet always came to know afresh that he was sustained, strengthened for that vocation which he also knew had not been rescinded.

It would not be difficult to multiply the testimonies of men and women who knew that the command, “Be strong and of good courage”, is the covered promise, “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength”, and who proved the promise fulfilled. It would not be difficult. Nevertheless I want to bring forward the testimony of someone whose experience or God must surely help us all. The apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi, “I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances may be. I know how to live when things are difficult and how to live when things are prosperous… I have learned the secret of eating well or going hungry, of facing either plenty or poverty. I AM READY FOR ANYTHING THROUGH THE STRENGTH OF THE ONE WHO LIVES WITHIN ME.

Six hundred years before Paul wrote a word of this his ancestors, powerless in the face of the Babylonian captivity and exile, had also proved the promise. Just because they waited for God and were strengthened they were able to live — not pine or whine or decline — even in exile.

 

[ii] In the second place those who wait for the Lord are going to mount up with wings like eagles. Our Hebrew foreparents had noted that the eagle nested in inaccessible places. The eagle lived where only other eagles lived. But live there other eagles did. Fellow-believers — and only fellow-believers — know where I live, because only fellow-believers can live where I live. There is a profound sense in which the Christian lives in an inaccessible place. The Christian lives where those not yet born of the Spirit do not live simply because the realm of the Spirit is accessible only to those who surrender to the Spirit. All of this is to say that there is a struggle peculiar to the Christian which only other Christians know about; it is also to say that there is a comfort for the Christian which only other Christians can give, just because only other Christians profoundly have access to us. I cannot tell you how often I have been helped by the spiritually sensitive among us who know the temptations, frustrations, discouragements and pitfalls peculiar to a minister — and who have lent me that comfort, encouragement and even safety which only other eagle-nesters can. I needn’t supply you with the specifics. It is enough for us all to know that the eagle lives in places accessible only to other eagles.

We Christians who are in assorted exiles in our secularized, pluralistic age know that to wait for the Lord is to comfort others and to be comforted ourselves with a comfort that is uniquely ours in the midst of our unique difficulty.

 

[iii] In the third place those who wait for the Lord are going to run without becoming weary; so weary, that is, as to quit running. In the ancient Hebrew world jogging was unheard of and the Olympic Games centuries away. People never ran for leisure. They ran for two serious reasons: to deliver good news and to save life. Both purposes coalesce in the gospel, for the gospel is good news which saves. However much you and I may feel alienated in our culture; however much we may feel alienated in our denomination (whose national office has defended the witchcraft of Wicca); however much we may feel exiled in a milieu which disdains hard-edged truth and prefers sentimental illusion; however much any of this is current we remain charged with the responsibility of running without growing weary to the point of not running. We remain charged with exemplifying and commending that good news which, vivified by God himself, saves from death, destruction and damnation. The fact that the gospel seems to evaporate before it has chance to soak in is not our responsibility. The hearing it receives in an alien culture is not our concern. All that matters is that we continue to exemplify and commend what we know to have brought us life in God. The prophet tells us that as we wait for the Lord we shall continue to do just this.

 

[iv] Lastly, those who wait for the Lord are going to walk and not faith, walk and not collapse. Walking is the common Hebrew metaphor for obedience. Throughout scripture we are told to walk worthily of God, walk worthily of our calling, walk as children of light, walk in newness of life. The walk we walk is simply the ethical shape which faith lends our lives. To walk worthily, to walk as children of the light, is to obey him who insists that where there is no obedience there is no faith, even as he maintains that the gate which admits us to the walk is narrow and the walk itself rigorous. To say that the gate which admits us is narrow and the walk itself rigorous is to say that discipleship is not a cakewalk, not a saunter; it doesn’t meander. And above all, the walk of discipleship is always and everywhere walking against the flow of the shufflers and strollers all around us.

From the standpoint of that ethical shape to our lives which faith imparts Christians in exile today feel they are living on a different planet. When Maureen caught a grade four girl stealing Explorer money out of our home in Toronto the girl’s mother exclaimed, “Why was my daughter so stupid as to let herself be caught!” The disparity between what God requires of his people sexually and what our society endorses I won’t even comment on. But it is disturbing when theology students regularly approach me for essays they can crib and turn in as their own for an “A” grade when in fact they are ignorant, lazy, dishonest and soon to occupy our pulpits.

The one thing about the Israelites which first amazed and then angered their Babylonian captors was the Israelite refusal to capitulate. They refused to conform. They told their Babylonian exilers straight out, “If we conform to you outwardly we won’t know who we are inwardly, for in fact we shall have ceased to be God’s people”.

To walk without fainting means that you and I are going to behave as followers of Jesus without apology in the midst of a social exile which regards our discipleship as ridiculous. But walk without fainting we must, and walk without fainting we shall, just because to walk worthily is promised all who wait for the Lord.

We exiles are sustained in all this just because God’s understanding is unsearchable; which is to say, even our exile (in whatever form it takes) God not only sustains us in now but will use in ways we have not yet seen for our edification, our neighbour’s encouragement, and his own glory.

Then wait for him we shall until that day when faith gives way to sight, our exile ended, our pilgrimage over, and we are lost in wonder, love and praise.d

 

F I N I S

 Victor Shepherd