A Meditation on Isaiah 40:21-31 “Comfort amidst the Unexpected and the Uncertain”
Can I start today's blog by asking my readers a tough question? How many of you have ever gotten fired from a job before? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below. Was it sudden? Or did you see it coming? Was it a shock to the system or were you glad to go?
Well, full disclosure…I have to raise my hand. If I’m perfectly honest, so much of my working life has been a lot like the old arcade game Frogger.
If you’ve never played it, the object of the game is to move your little frog across a busy intersection to get home. There’s all these obstacles like cars and trucks in your way. If you stay in one place for too long…splat…you’re done. Yeah, a lot of my jobs were like that. So no surprise I saw a game over screen.
I’ll never forget…I was working for this large franchise of a major cell phone company. At one time, they had stores all over the state. I started off in their customer retention department…which was calling past customers to come in and upgrade their phones.
Within a month or two I was their top salesperson and so the owner of the company asked if I would also work out on the sales floor to help one of their lagging stores. Within another month or two I was the top salesperson of that store. And I was doing both the retention sales and the retail….so I was making a killing by commission standards. I was also getting the attention of the higher-ups in the company. They very seriously started talking to me about the possibility of opening up my own franchise store. And they were so impressed with my work they were saying they would be willing to help with the initial investment.
Now I come from a very business minded family so when I talked to them about the franchise possibility, they were on board. It seemed like it was really going to become a reality. I had just turned 30, so I thought I was doing pretty good for myself. I was about to own my own store. I’d watch these store owners pull into the parking lots in their BMW’s and Jaguars and I’d think to myself….that’s going to be me pretty soon. Everything was falling in to place and the future seemed like a done deal.
There was only one last thing to do before I got my own store….they wanted to train me how to manage the daily operations of an existing one.
They sent me to train with the best owner in the company. And I could tell he didn’t like me from the start. He was always short, snide, and rude with me. In retrospect, I think he saw me as competition. Well, one night he just abruptly tells me he’s leaving, tells me to close up, and walks out. The problem was….he hadn’t trained me….on how to close the store. It freaked me out.
I counted down all the registers, I called the guy’s assistant manager. He told me how to post the reports for the day and gave me the alarm codes.
I locked up, breathed a sigh of relief, and went home.
The next day this owner called me in to his office and tells me that the technician had left the basement door where they do repairs unlocked and that I hadn’t locked it when I left. I said I didn’t know anybody even used that door and that I’d appreciate in the future he’d tell me things like that. And if you’re going to leave abruptly you might at least tell me what to do.
Then he looked at me with this smug grin and says “Well, unfortunately there won’t be a future for you. Leaving that door unlocked posed a big security risk to our company. We’re going to have to let you go.”
I was stunned. In an instant I went from thinking I was on my way to becoming this franchisee big shot to wondering how I was going to be able to pay rent for the month.
The future that seemed so sure, so foolproof suddenly became lost under a dark cloud of uncertainty. Have you ever been there?
Do you know what I’m talking about? We have a certain illusion of control over our lives…that things are going to go as we expect them to. But then we’re hit with the unexpected and the uncertain and those illusions are shattered. We realize we don’t have the kind of control that we think.
We realize that we walk a delicate path between happiness and pain, light and dark. We realize that there are very little constants and that our circumstances are always subject to change.
So where do we turn in moments like these? It’s easy to lose hope. Again, I’d love to hear about your experiences and how things worked out for you in the comments section.
Today we’re going to be taking a look at the historical context of this powerful passage of Scripture and we’re going to see how the situations that the Israelites faced so many centuries ago can speak to us now about God’s presence in our lives in the midst of the unexpected and the uncertain.
Hezekiah was one of the few righteous kings of Judah. He restored worship of the one true God, Yahweh, all throughout Judah. He brought prosperity and expansion.
Later on, he tried cozying up to Babylon in the north and becoming allies with them. Things were going really well.
But evidently that last part was a mistake because Isaiah comes to him in chapter 39. He says “days are coming when all that is in your house, which your ancestors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord.”
The unexpected. You think your enemies are gone. You think the future is wide open and full of promise. But then you find out that backwater kingdom to the northeast…is suddenly going to become the next great super-power…and that nothing will be left. And that’s exactly what happened.
In 597 BCE Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. The Temple was completely destroyed and all the wealth of the Kingdom was plundered and taken to Babylon. But most importantly, the majority of the Jewish people themselves were taken in captivity. It was the beginning of the exile. In an instant, the Jewish way of life was completely lost. In Babylon, most of them lived in labor camps and worked as slaves. The unexpected.
Now between Isaiah chapter 39 and 40…there’s actually a time difference of 70 years. That’s how long the Jewish people were in exile. 70 long years. The unexpected gave way to the uncertain. I’m sure most of them didn’t feel any hope for the future. I’m sure most of them felt that God had completely abandoned them.
And as time passed the prosperity and happiness of Jerusalem became a distant memory. It’s said that the Jewish people often sat by the rivers in Babylon, just weeping.
But while the Israelites were being swept up in the winds of the unexpected, uncertainty, and change, the prophet Isaiah knew these things weren’t simply a matter of chance, bad luck, or some kind of curses from on high. No, he understood these shifting of the sands as being the human condition. All flesh is like grass. The grass withers. The flower fades. My brothers and sisters, these aren’t easy words to hear. And yet, they give us perspective.
They help us to strip away the idols that we create in our own lives; idols of pride, idols of control, idols of power and invincibility.
The Prophet Isaiah witnessed the ebb and flow of human history in a broken and fallen world. He witnessed the rise and fall of nations. And he stood with his people in times of triumph and disaster; joy and sorrow. Isaiah understood the words of the great teacher who came before him, the teacher who said “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” The seasons come and go…and everything under the sun is subject to perpetual change.
Isaiah knew they were prisoners to more than just the Babylonians. They were prisoners to time itself.
That’s the true exile; deeper even than their terrible circumstances.
See, if you really think about it, we’re ALL exiles. We lost the paradise we were created for. And the unexpected, the uncertain….we can’t escape these things. Maybe that’s why they’d all but given up. Now the irony of this chapter is that it was written just as Babylon itself was collapsing. The Persians were the next superpower. They conquered Babylon. And they freed the Jewish people. They told them they could go home and live in peace.
But a lot of them didn’t want to. Jerusalem was in ruins. The temple was gone. They didn’t want to rebuild. They were so used to living with their circumstances it was easier to just stay where they were, crying by the side of the river. And we can all relate to that too, can’t we? These tempests of the unexpected and the uncertain…they can throw our whole lives into such chaos that we grow weary and exhausted. We can’t fight it anymore. We surrender and we let the winds blow us where they will.
The great philosopher Albert Camus said the only real philosophical question is trying to judge whether life is even worth living or not.
And we might all find ourselves asking that same question when we lose a loved one….or when our marriage of so many years suddenly falls apart….or when we lose our job and we’re afraid we’re going to have to sell our house. These are the circumstances…the unexpected…and the uncertain…that remind us we too are in exile.
But the ancient prophet understood reality more than that modern philosopher.
See, he knew that it’s only when we understand our place that we could learn to soar like eagles in spite of our circumstances….because while the philosopher said we’re alone in the universe and that life itself ultimately has no meaning…the prophet said that the universe was fashioned by the hands of a providential God….a God who is transcendent and immanent…a God who knows each of us….by name.
God is transcendent. What does that mean? The Prophet says God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth. God is greater than the heavens and the earth. God is above everything that exists…that’s what transcendence means. There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Our Milky Way is just a tiny part of it. But these things didn’t come about by time and chance. God created all of it. Comfort my people, God says. Tell them that the endless stars in the night sky aren’t gods as the Babylonians believe. Tell them I created them, numbered them and named them. Tell them that there’s a power behind the universe….a power that’s made all things and that sustains creation.
Just as he did with the Israelites, the prophet is calling us to change our orientation. The Babylonians made idols with their hands.
We make them with our hearts. Hundreds of years after the time of Isaiah, Paul said what was wrong with the Romans was the fact that they exchanged “the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” See, Isaiah and Paul are telling us to be careful. There are so many good things in creation…things that we’re meant to enjoy…but they should never, ever take the place of the Creator who is above all these things. We grow faint, we grow weary when we start to lose our grip on the things we think we possess.
The things we try to plant, the things we try to sew….all of them can be caught up in the whirlwinds of the unexpected and the uncertain. So, Isaiah says, don’t hold up anything in creation as being equal to the Creator. Everything in this world around us is subject to change. Don’t hold on to worldly things for dear life. Hold on to the one thing that doesn’t change…the transcendent God who has made all things. The text says lift up your eyes on high because that’s where we find comfort.
But by itself, maybe that’s not enough. Because even if we say there’s a power behind the universe….that doesn’t necessarily mean He’s on our side, does it? That doesn’t mean He cares. What if He just created everything and then decided to leave and take a long vacation? If you’ve been in exile like the Israelites it’s easy to see how you might start to think that way. Or worse. What if you adopt a kind of fatalism? You start to say maybe God threw these unexpected things into my path. I’ve done terrible things so maybe I deserve this illness.
No. In times of the unexpected and uncertainty, the Prophet wants us to remember that God is providential. What does that mean? God’s providence means that God is in complete control of the universe. He brought everything into existence and He calls all things by name….which means…God has a plan for everything. Time doesn’t move forward with endless chains of random events…time is guided by God with a purpose. Now that doesn’t mean God causes everything to happen.
That’s a mistake a lot of people make when talking about God’s providence.
What it means is that God has a plan for reconciliation….for bringing all created things back to Himself. This exile of God’s fallen creation ends in reconciliation and restoration.
So what does God’s providence mean for you and I? Well, let’s say things are going so well for you on the road of life that you’re coasting along on cruise control. But then suddenly an obstacle is flung in your path that leaves you scrambling. With God’s providence we see that God’s still working and moving in our lives...in spite of our circumstances. No matter what happens…even if you end up in a ditch, God is there.
When we face the unexpected and the uncertain, God promises that He’ll be with us. God has a plan.
In other words, God in His love for you will get you through it. No matter how bleak the situation is…you’re told you have to move in to a care facility. You’re told the company is closing its doors forever. No matter what we have to face God promises to give you the strength and power to face it. But by itself, maybe that’s not enough either.
If something unexpected has just happened to you…if you’re living with uncertainty right now…you might be saying…all of this sounds nice on paper…but how do I know it’s true?
How do I know that God really cares about me?
We know God’s promises are true because God is immanent. What does that mean? God’s immanence means that He’s also within and near His creation. In other words, God’s never far away. God never takes vacations. He gives power to the faint and he increases the strength of the powerless through Christ. God is always with us in Christ.
This God who sits above the circle of the earth came down and became one of us in Jesus Christ. The transcendent became immanent. So in Christ, all of Isaiah’s promises became reality.
Christ is the friend who sticks closer than a brother. Christ is our Good Shepherd who leads us through every valley of the unexpected and the uncertain. Comfort my people…I am with you…I am right beside you.
In the face of the unexpected and the uncertain, we can soar like eagles above all the changing landscapes of our lives when Christ is the source of our strength.
There was a time when the Apostle Paul grew faint and weary. But it was in that dark moment of his life that God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Whenever you find yourself facing the unexpected and the uncertain go to the Lord in prayer…ask Him to give you the strength, the courage and the peace to face whatever lies ahead. He’ll give it to you. He’ll be right there with you.
In closing, sometimes we just need a reminder of that. That day I got fired and all my plans for the future went up in smoke I just sat there in the parking lot of that shopping center watching the cars go by. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even think. It seemed like my life was over. I must’ve been there so long it was getting dark and that finally snapped me out of my stupor. I picked up my phone and I called my Mom.
I told her what happened and she just kept telling me to trust God over and over again. She said Neil, God’s always been with you. Don’t let something like this cause you to doubt that. And then she read me these words from Isaiah 40.
Just like the Israelites in exile, my circumstances almost caused me to forget all the things God had done in my life.
But sometimes…in these places of uncertainty and the unexpected… all we need is that reminder that God is with us and to seek His strength. Are you in need of a reminder today? Are you in need of His strength? It’s right here..Do this in memory of me.
In the Christian church we celebrate Holy Communion. In worship, it’s in the celebration of this Sacred Mystery where we find that reminder and that strength. When we say the words of our Great Thanksgiving from the liturgy...we recall the story of God’s providence...God’s plan...from the beginning...and we bring it into the present moment, our moment. It’s alive, it’s in our midst.
And when we take the bread and cup, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ gives Himself to us as our offering. “Take my body, take my blood...let it give you nourishment and strength. I want you to run, not walk.”
So whenever we face the unexpected and the uncertain...let’s remember to come to the Table. It’s the greatest source of comfort there is. Amen.