Isaiah 40. 6-31
Isaiah chapter 40
A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”
9 You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
or weighed the mountains on the scales
and the hills in a balance?
13 Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord,
or instruct the Lord as his counselor?
14 Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him,
and who taught him the right way?
Who was it that taught him knowledge,
or showed him the path of understanding?
15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
they are regarded as dust on the scales;
he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.
16 Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires,
nor its animals enough for burnt offerings.
17 Before him all the nations are as nothing;
they are regarded by him as worthless
and less than nothing.
18 With whom, then, will you compare God?
To what image will you liken him?
19 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and fashions silver chains for it.
20 A person too poor to present such an offering
selects wood that will not rot;
they look for a skilled worker
to set up an idol that will not topple.
21 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
23 He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
24 No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
25 “To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
It is said that the left-hand side of the brain is the place of creativity, imagination and intuitiveness, musical awareness, artistry and holistic thinking. At the age of about 7 ¾, my father took me to watch the Saints, Southampton football club. Something happened that day which has been with me for the rest of my life. For some reason, apart from losing 2 – 1 to Spurs, the left-hand side of my brain fused. There endeth my creativity. I’ve managed to survive on the right-hand side of the brain, allegedly elements of logic and analytical thought and reasoning. My hero was Mr Spock from Star Trek. Completely dispassionate and logical. When I visited art galleries, I knew what I liked and didn’t like the rest. Heck, my former wife was a tax lawyer and you don’t get less creative than tax.
But just occasionally I realise what I have been missing and this passage in Isaiah is it. I would love to be able to break into poetry, wonderful music and painting just to give some creative response to the incredible descriptions about the greatness of God. Because this is a song about a truly great God. So how should we non-creative Artisans look at what is said here. In fact the passage is broken down into a series of segments where different people express their own wonder. The pastor, scientist, business person, politician, priest, philosopher and astronomer. Each gives praise. What do they say?
We start in verse 11. Here is your God! The sovereign Lord comes with power. And first he comes to the understanding of the pastor. God tends his flock like a shepherd. God nurtures, in the best sense of both male and female nurturing. God gathers lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart. God gently leads those that have young.
Before we approach the magnificence of God as the creator and sustainer of the universe, we have our pastoral God, caring, nurturing, loving, committed and devoted, guiding and tending. Close to his heart. So whilst we should never lose sight of the utter greatness of God found in creation and still working today, in fact there is an even greater greatness. That God loves us, cares for us, pastors us and leads us as his young. We have a relationship God. That relationship was formed in creation and sealed in the life and death of Christ as one of us. What a great God, unlike all others
We move on in verse 12 to the admiration of the scientist. Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket or weighed the mountains on the scales or the hills in a balance?
Well this is surely impossible! But maybe there are scientists who can get a measure of the volume and size of the oceans of our planet and no doubt it is spectacularly huge. Even more huge is the cosmos and we see pictures of what we know of the universe and our entire solar system is but a speck on a huge poster. Mind blowing. And then who can truly, in tonnage or cubit capacity, understand the mountains across our planet? The fact is we can not even start to grasp how to measure, let alone do the measurements. And our God is greater than all this. What a truly great God.
From verse 13 comes the admiration of the business manager. But he or she cannot attempt, with all their schools of thinking and bizarre terminology and sayings about best practice in business management, to understand the ways of God. It says. Who can fathom the spirit of the Lord? Who could possibly treat the Lord as his counsellor and adviser? With irony the passage says: whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him and teach him the right way? Who was it taught him knowledge in the path of understanding? Some school of business studies? Some MBA? Or perhaps a school of philosophy? Or perhaps some aesthetic, self-denying religion? Don’t be ridiculous. Not possible. God is over and above and greater than all this.
Then from verse 15 we have the intervention of the politician, at which point after this particular week most of our hearts sink! Surely we heard the words: in our national interest, too many times since Wednesday. The passage agrees with you.
It says. Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket. Dust on the scales. Before him all the nations are as nothing. They are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing. Well that’s told the national politicians! But they won’t go quietly. Nor will nationalism, despite what M Macron said a week ago. I am not a prophet but I think all of us in this pulpit have a duty to look ahead. I think we will be coming back to these few verses, and similar around the Bible, a lot over the coming decade as the question of nationhood will become a crucial matter of debate. In Christ there is no male and female, Jew or Gentile, Samaritan or Israelite, at which point we pause and then add any other present nationalities at odds with each other. And we think of the Western world and the impoverished Third World. And until a decade or so ago, each stayed in their own national state. But the latter are on the move. How in Christ’s kingdom on earth can we say it is a fortunate accident of our birth that we are here in Surrey and not in Somalia or Yemen? In Texas and not in the caravan from lawless Honduras, Venizauala and Nicaragua? And to say we are no longer nationalistic Brits because we want to be good Europeans is no answer because the EU is just as much a nation as any nationstate. Read again these verses because we will be reading them many times in years to come as the status of the nationstate is questioned, by politicians and by us as Christians with a distinctive Christian contribution as part of the kingdom of God here on earth
God is greater than any nation. They are as nothing to him. Undoubtedly he works through national politics. Some might even say there are particular blessings for nations which have endeavoured to honour him. But it is the people who matter, from all nations.
And then, verse 19, we have the insights of the priest. How easy it is to create God in our own manageable size and in the way we want to consider God. God in our own image rather than us in the image of God. God found in some icon or image made of metal, overlaid with gold and fashioned in silver, for those who have wealth. God found in some wooden statue. As the passage says, with whom will you compare God? To what image, statue will you liken him?
And as we think about this, the absurdity should strike us. The pastoral God who cares about us, the God of the universe, the God who doesn’t need counselling or being told about the paths of righteousness, is greater than any nationstate, is nevertheless brought down to our own size by the image we create of him. It has been one of the strengths and vital part of the history of the Protestant church which has turned its back on icons and images. I spent my formative years in the free evangelical church where there would be very few artistic adornments. Go to the Scottish Presbyterian Church and even more so. The European Baroque and orthodox churches are very different.
The challenge for us in the evangelical church is not about icons and relics. It’s about the narrowness and our restrictions on our own vision of our God, what he is able to do and what he has done, of our vision of answered prayer, of renewal and revival, of healing and salvation. How much in our own way are we ourselves limiting the size of our God?
Then from verse 21 we have the philosopher. Thinking deeply and speaking in lyrical and profound terms about God. Have you not understood since the earth was formed? God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth. We its people are like grasshoppers. God stretches the heavens like a canopy, a roof, a tent, a mansion in which to live. He brings the mighty rulers, the corporate multinationals, of this world to nothing. No sooner do they create their great plans, they sow the seed and it temporarily takes root than it withers and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff. A sense of history gives a better sense of God. The Psalms are full of this. Solomon wrote about it in Ecclesiastes. Of course we must plan and endeavour. Whether it is working the home and community, employed work or working for ourselves or businesses we have created for work for others. God loves the honest work that we all do. But not where those plans are outside the acknowledgement of the greatness of God and obedience to the ethics and loving morality of God. There is much about which to study about God and work and business. Perhaps every business should have a philosopher and pastor? Certainly we need a clear Christian understanding of the value, worth and life balance of work
And in the last of these groups we come to the astronomer, gazing through his telescope or whatever is now the digital equivalent into the far reaches of the heavens and the universe. It says. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? God who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.
A lovely image that as night falls, God is calling out the stars, the suns, the planets and the comets one by one, each by name, to take their place in the skies above us. An image far easier to cope with in Isaiah’s day than what we now know about the stratosphere. But nevertheless an image of God so much mightier than we could ever comprehend.
We then have the end of the chapter, quite different. The Lord is the everlasting God, Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even young men get tired and weary, stumble and fall. Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint
The whole of Scripture is intended for encouragement, exhortation, guidance and doctrine. But we have to say to ourselves that there are some parts which throughout the last 2000 years have given particular encouragement and exhortation. And this is one of them. It’s only when we get to heaven that we will realise how many millions upon millions of Christians, many of us here this morning included, have read this passage, have given thanks to God and have kept going, persevering, despite opposition, despite bodily physical weariness, despite pain and trouble. The perseverance given by the Holy Spirit. Thank God for this passage and thank God for his spirit who gives us this strength and perseverance and power.
Many years ago, I had Twitcher -like tendencies. A member of the Richmond Park birdwatching Association. We used to lurk around graveyards which are some of the least disturbed parts of our towns and cities. With binoculars trained on little brown dabby things in faraway trees and bushes.
One of the distinguishing features of birds is flight. The pigeon which has an upward flight, a loud clap of its wings followed by a downward flight. The blue tit family which almost seems to hop from one group of trees to another in its progress. Some will have been lucky to see a barn owl at twilight almost ghostlike across quiet fields. In New Zealand I saw a huge colony of albatross. So ungainly on land. So majestic in the air.
And then there is the eagle. Fortunately with the reduction in chemicals in agriculture we have seen the return of many raptors. The majestic eagle soars on thermals. It rises higher and higher and glides on the currents of warm air until it strikes. This analogy in the passage of the eagle is deliberate. The eagle doesn’t reach its heights through its own wing power. It doesn’t flap wildly like a swan. And the Bible says that we should not give up however weary we may physically be. We soar on the currents of air of the breath of the Holy Spirit. Through him we keep going. Through him alone we have perseverance and overcome weariness of body, mind and spirit. Through prayer and fellowship, through Bible reading and study, through worship and gathering together as believers, through obedience and faithfulness, we run the Christian race and don’t grow weary, we walk in the footsteps of Christ and are not faint. Trust in the work of the Holy Spirit in your life and you will renew your strength.
So as we conclude, let us go back to the beginning of the passage. Words which are well-known in the English language. All people are like grass, like the flowers of the field. In short time, the grass withers and the flowers fall but the word of our God endures for ever.
Famous words about human insignificance. What are we worth? In the scheme of the incredible universe, mere grass which flourishes and fails? Pretty insignificant. Is that really the Christian message? It couldn’t be further from the truth of a God who wants a relationship with us, his created individuals, that we love him and he does his work in eternity and infinity with us. The word of God endures for ever. That is our significance.
Each of us in our own way have the opportunity of making a significant contribution. But it’s a matter of looking at our priorities, of our gifts and talents and opportunities.
Before you look at your iPhones to see how long the sermon is lasting, let me end with a story about Steve Jobs. He was in his second time at Apple having had an initial bust up. He had come back with new ideas and innovations. He had a British creative designer, now Sir Jony Ive. He knew he had a good product but he needed somebody with business and marketing acumen. John Scully III was the president of Pepsi-Cola, based in New York. Steve jobs flew to New York and offered him a job with Apple, salary of $1 million at a time when that was a big salary and it was turned down flat. Silicon valley was then just a valley. A few months later he came back and offered $2 million and said, in terms, wouldn’t you rather prefer to work in California than New York. No was the immediate answer. Certainly not. Steve jobs retreated but he was not daunted and a third time he came back. This time he said it was his final offer, $3 million. Huge. But he said that even if this salary was not enough to tempt him to go to California, there was something more. He said: do you really want to spend your entire career making sugary drinks? Wouldn’t you rather do something significant? Wouldn’t you rather make a significant difference in the way millions, billions of people around the globe communicate and live their lives?
The rest is history. He moved. During his time at Apple, sales increased from $800 million-$8 billion. The company had $2 billion in cash in its reserves when he left.
Are we living our lives making the equivalent of sugary drinks or can we make a significant difference? We can with God helping us. Why? Because we have a great God. Great in so many ways. Great in the universe. Great in the microcosms of our minds and bodies. Great in our wonderful planet. Great in the way we have been created. Great in the way we have been saved into a relationship of significance with God the Father through God the son in the work of God the Holy Spirit.
With God we make a significance. We are not grass or flowers, here today and gone in a few days. The word of our great God endures forever. Amen