Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Isaiah 49:4
(Isaiah) said, "I have worked, but how hopeless it is! I have used up my strength, but have accomplished nothing." Yet I can trust the Lord to defend my cause; he will reward me for what I do.


No doubt there are times in everyoneís life when we question why things are the way they are. We seriously ask ourselves, "Why am I doing this? I like what I am doing but why do I have to put up with so many difficulties, so many difficult people. Life is passing by so quickly, I donít really need all this stress."

Maybe itís something to do with your family or work. You simply canít believe that in spite all your efforts to do the right thing, everything has gone wrong and people are upset with you or have no appreciation of what you have been trying to do.

Maybe you have shaken your head in disbelief as one bad thing after another happens to you and said, "I canít believe that this happening to me again".

A statement like that is an expression of frustration and perhaps even anger because we feel we have lost control of what is happening in our lives. Itís as if no matter what we do everything still turns out all wrong. We feel helpless and disappointed because family life, work, friendships, church life go all pear shaped and become messy and we feel helpless to do anything about it.

Or maybe we have pondered over situations like these.
We wonder why it is that an innocent family enjoying a holiday doing the right thing on the roads is destroyed by the recklessness of another driver. That doesn't make sense.

Maybe youíve been to the funeral of a child and asked yourself why an accident or sudden illness should strike someone who had barely started out in life and didnít deserve this. Perhaps you have gone one step further and posed the question, "There are so many people in the world who cause nothing but evil and they seems to get away with it and yet this innocent childís life is cut short". Things like that don't make sense.

As we reflect on the past itís not too hard to recognise those events that appeared on the horizon of our journey through life unexpectedly and took us down a path that we had never anticipated.

Our thoughts turn to God.
Where has he been while all this has been going on?
Is he aware of my frustration and helplessness?
If he really knew what I was feeling then why hasnít he given me some clear direction how to change things or why hasnít he prevented things turning out the way they did?
If God truly loves me surely he wouldn't put me through all of this?

The prophet in the Old Testament reading this morning laments, "I have worked, but how hopeless it is! I have used up my strength, but have accomplished nothing." (Isaiah 49:4). He is frustrated and feeling helpless. God had called him to serve his people and deliver an important message. The prophet has worked as hard as he could yet there seems to be no results.

A pastor spends a day a week working on lawn mowers, chain saws, and small engine repairs.
Does he do it for the extra money? Hardly. It doesnít bring in much.
Does he do it because he's got too much free time on his hands? With a large congregation that could hardly be the case.
He does it because (to use his own words), "Itís good to see something work right. Even if I can't fix anything or anyone in the church, I can at least fix a lawn mower. When the motor turns over and runs smoothly I can stand back and say with a feeling of satisfaction, ĎDoesn't that sound goodí. The sound of a smooth running motor is reward for the time I have put into fixing it".

Why doesnít it work like that in the rest of life?
Why do we in the church so often feel as the prophet did,
"I have worked, but how hopeless it is! I have used up my strength, but have accomplished nothing."

If you have ever really tried to be a faithful disciple,
tried to teach a Sunday School class so that everyone gets the point,
attempted to reach out and help someone who was going through a particularly tough time,
sought to live a truly Christian life every day,
taken on responsibilities in the church,
tried to witness to the truth and standards of Christ no matter what the opinions of others at your workplace
- then you will know the frustration and exhaustion the prophet expressed when he said, "I have worked hard but I havenít accomplished anything."

Being a Christian is hard work. It can be awfully frustrating. Being involved on councils, committees and task forces of the church can be very trying. We try to put aside our own personal agendas and work together to achieve a goal but all we seem to do is spin our wheels and nothing seems to be accomplished. We are tempted to throw up our hands in despair and give up on God, on the Church, on being a Christian.

A pastor wanted to focus on racism in a series of sermons. He conducted a survey of the congregation before he began the series. He then preached his 6 sermons bringing into each one how the gospel related to the issue of racism in the boldest and clearest way possible. Then he gave the survey questionnaire to the congregation again. Result: his congregation was 2.5% more racist after the series of sermons than before! He must have exclaimed in the words of the prophet, "I have worked hard but I havenít accomplished anything."

Doing things in the church as disciples of Christ can be so darned frustrating. We want results - measurable, irrefutable results. Motor mower mechanics get results. Why can't we?

The Apostle Paul must have been frustrated and bewildered when the people whom he had taught about Jesus and the Christian life were side-tracked by false teachings (the church at Galatia) or torn apart by strife between members of the same congregation (church at Corinth).

Like the prophet we donít like feeling that what we have done has been a waste of time. We like to see results from all of our efforts. We want to be in control of our destiny, to have a say about our future. And it can be so bewildering and hurtful when things in our daily lives or in the church don't go the way we think they ought. We can easily say with the prophet, "I have worked hard but I havenít accomplished anything."

When it all boils down, too often we try to fit God's ways into our way of thinking and our ways of working things out. When we do this we discover that God's ways are so mysterious and even confusing. His ways don't seem logical to us at all.

We need only to look at the death of Jesus. Why did the eternal all powerful God have to go down the road of dying such a horrible death on a cross in order to give us forgiveness? Surely, if God can do anything, there must have been another way to achieve the same results. Even many of Jesus' closest friends couldn't make any sense of his death. The facts were so contrary to what they thought the Messiah would do.

But there is one thing that is not a riddle. Even though you can't understand everything about God, you can know him.

God who is the Creator of all in the universe has promised to keep watch over us all the time. He is our refuge and strength. God knows that life has both its moments of stability and its moments of uncertainty. It is in those moments of uncertainty that God's presence becomes so important to us and enables us to function in today's world.

God's presence in our lives
guides us,
comforts us,
and gives us strength.
We are confident that at all times we have a God who goes through our troubles with us,
caring for us in a personal and intimate way,
lifting us up and supporting us.

It is true we find it hard to explain so many things that happen in our lives. Paul explains that even though we like to think that the plans we make and the future we plan are firm and fixed, but in reality we can only see a part of the picture of what God has planned for our lives (1 Cor 13:12). One day it will be revealed to us how all of these events fall into place and why they have taken place. Even though Isaiah felt as if he had wasted his time and energy with nothing to show for it, he could still confidently say, 'I can trust the Lord Ö he will reward me for what I do.'

We need only to look at Christ and we see that God's love is the most valued possession we have. As we think back and all that has happened in our lives, the mistakes and the tragedies, the one thing that enables us to keep our senses is knowing that the love of God forgives us for all our past mistakes as we come to him in repentance, the love of God has supported us through every tragedy and difficult time.

Over the 30 plus years that I have been a pastor, yes, there have been times when I have thrown up my hands in frustration and bewilderment at why things were turning out the way they did. And yes, I have added my voice to that of Moses, Jeremiah, and workers in God's church over the centuries who have questioned, "Why me? Do I really want to do this anymore? No! Find someone else". But in the end, God whispers sometimes softly through the Scriptures and sometimes through the much louder voice of another person that he has a plan and these moments of frustration and bewilderment are part of the process of discovering God's will for me as a person and for the church.

The Holy Spirit keeps on whispering to each of us when we are frustrated and angry with the way things are turning out, not to give up but to remember
that we are his chosen people,
that God will keep his promises,
that he will use the bad things that happen to bring about his purpose,
that his love for us will be as strong as ever
and that he has called us to faithfully carry out his work in this community and in this country.
He tells us, as he has told leaders, prophets and preachers in the past,
doing God's will and carrying out God's plan for his church are not easy.
It will involve struggle and frustration.
It will also challenge us to look to God for ongoing direction and encouragement.

May the words of Isaiah also be ours when we are confused about what God has planned for us or discouraged because nothing is turning out the way we had planned it would. "The Lord has called me to be his servant. He is the source of my strength". (Isaiah 49:5).

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
20th January 2008

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