Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 18)

Text: Isaiah 35:3-4
Give strength to hands that are tired and to knees that tremble with weakness. Tell everyone who is discouraged, "Be strong and don't be afraid! God is coming to your rescue."

Alone, confused?

Jane’s tear-filled eyes showed that her heart was ready to break.  “I don't think I’ll ever see my daughter again,” she said.  “She was only 15 when she disappeared. She left for school one day and no-one has seen her since.  That was 10 years ago.  I want to know what’s happened to her.  Every day I ask God for his help; I just want some peace of mind”.

There are times when we can’t help but be confused and troubled at the seeming absence of God’s loving hand from our lives.  The circumstances surrounding us leave us wondering why God is allowing this to happen. 

For Jim the silence of God was unbearable. “Why?” he burst out, “why should this happen to Susan (his wife)?”  Jim was 55, and with the children off their hands they were both beginning to enjoy life together, they were planning an overseas trip.  But now Susan had terminal cancer. 
“It's only a matter of months at the very most,” the doctor had told them. 
“I prayed”, Jim said, “but I don’t even know if God heard me.  Nothing has changed.”

When we are tired, worn down, worried sick, confused about what to do next, restless and anxious because we don’t know what nasty surprise is going to pop up and knock us for a six again, when we are down and out and we pray and all we get from God is silence, it doesn’t surprise us when we find ourselves joining with the song writers of the Old Testament Book of Psalms,
My God, … why are you so far away?
Won’t you listen to my groans and come to my rescue?
I cry out day and night, but you don't answer,
and I can never rest (Psalm 22:1-2).

In Psalm 69 the writer says he is worn out and his throat is sore from calling to God for help.  He keeps looking and pleading for God's help because he is up to his neck in trouble and is about to drown.

There was an occasion a long way back in history when people thought God wasn’t listening.  They cried to him and didn’t get an answer.  They prayed and he seemed deaf.  In fact, instead of helping them in their trouble, their troubles seemed to increase.  I am talking about the people of Israel when they were captive in Egypt.  In spite of their prayers, their groaning and their crying out to God, the king got tougher, they were made to work harder, and their children were killed.  They suffered for years and years as slaves of the Egyptian pharaoh.

But then it happened.  God rescued his suffering people and led them out of their misery.  But God doesn't rescue them by immediately transporting them to a land flowing with milk and honey.  God leads his people out of the suffering and misery of Egypt into the misery of the desert.  It is there in the desert that they learnt some very valuable lessons about the God whom they always seemed to be accusing of abandoning them.  The lesson was this: when bad things happen God was never far away.

It is no different today.  As we journey through life bad things will happen but the great thing is this: our God stands with us in the midst of evil. 

It’s easy to ride on the highs of our Christian experience and to be elated over the way we have seen God work in our lives.  We see these things with the eyes of faith but nevertheless for us they are real experiences of God at work in our lives. These high moments of experiencing God's hand at work in our lives might have been
a miraculous escape from a car accident; 
the unexpected job that came our way just when we needed it;
the amazing relief and peace after old wounds in a relationship have been healed;
the much needed help and care received from an unanticipated source.

These are what I call Red Sea experiences.  God's rescuing presence was clearly seen.  The crossing of the Red Sea was one of those occasions that was engraved on the memory of every Israelite.  God had saved them in clear and miraculous way; there was no doubt about it.

Then there are what I call the Captivity experiences – those moments when we feel alone and left to fend for ourselves; almost as if we are cut off from God.  We are held captive by the pain, or tragedy, or suffering, or grief, or confusion. The people of Israel felt like this in Egypt and then Babylon.  They felt abandoned by God; they were confused and troubled; they cried out for help; their patience was tested as they waited for God to save them but in the meantime they had to endure the trouble they found themselves in.

And so we come to our text to from Isaiah 35.  The previous chapter in Isaiah is very gloomy.  It tells how all humanity and the universe will be destroyed.  It gives us images of wild animals taking over the world and thorns and thistles covering the land and the land being laid waste by never ending fire.  After this rather horrifying picture comes Isaiah 35 – a chapter of hope.  All is not lost.  God has not given up on his creation.  Flowers will bloom in the deserts and farmlands will once again be fertile.  Rivers will flow; the fierce animals will disappear; those with sickness and disability will be healed.  

And so to those who are caught up in a Captivity experience, that is, those confused and troubled by what is happening in their lives and wonder why God hasn’t stepped into change things right now; those who are at their wits end crying out, “Where are you, Lord? What are you doing? Why don't you hear me?” Isaiah has a message,
“Give strength to hands that are tired and to knees that tremble with weakness. Tell everyone who is discouraged, ‘Be strong and don't be afraid! God is coming to your rescue.’”

A few chapters later Isaiah reminds his overwhelmed and troubled people,
O Israel, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles? How can you say God refuses to hear your case? ... Don't you know that the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth?  He never grows faint or weary.  No one can measure the depths of his understanding.  He gives power to those who are tired and worn out; he offers strength to the weak. … Those who trust in the Lord will find new strength” (Isaiah 40:27-31).

Isaiah then records God's promise, “Don't be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

The people of Israel were drowning in trouble, suffering, and pain and couldn’t see God at all through the fog of misery and anxiety and anguish.  They couldn’t see how God could have any role in their lives at that moment.  They felt that they had been left to struggle along on their own.  It seemed that God had nothing to offer them. At that moment a miracle like the one at the Red Sea would have been handy but it didn’t happen.

God spoke through the prophet and told them not to be afraid and discouraged and that he was with them. 
God has spoken even louder through his Son, Jesus.

Jesus Christ, God's Son entered our history and became a man that we might know how much God loves us and how well he understands our human situation. Since then, it is no longer possible for anyone to say that God is remote or far off or silent. 
Since then, it is no longer possible for anyone to say that God doesn't care.  In Jesus we see how well our caring God understands our needs.  He knows we need forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal and the assurance that he will be with us always even to the end of the world.

In Jesus we see abundantly clearly that God never abandons us. His love for us is beyond any superlative that we could find.  And because he loves so perfectly and purely there is no way that he could deliberately cause us harm.  The promise of God himself is clear and reliable, “Don't be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand”.  Maybe we don’t understand everything about God and about everything that is happening around us but this one thing we do understand, and that is, we can trust the Lord who says, “Be strong and don't be afraid! ... I will help you!”  Even in the worst and most confusing situations this is our strength and our comfort.

Take God seriously when he says, Cast all your anxiety on me because I care for you” (1 Peter 5.7). 

Take God seriously and say, “Good, I'll do just that. Indeed I have cares; I worry about tomorrow, and about next week. I worry not only for myself, but also for those whom I love.  But for once I’m going to give up reading my daily horoscope, and instead let you work things out, God.  I want you to get me through tomorrow and next week.  I want you to be my rod and staff when I pass through the valley of the shadow of death; and in my darkest moments when I cannot see where I am going because of all the troubles that press in around me, your guiding hand will continue to guide me and give me the comfort of your presence.”

Taking God seriously means taking God at his word, giving him the chance to act as he has promised.  When we are weary and our hands hang down, God is ready to “give strength to hands that are tired and to knees that tremble with weakness” to all those who trust in him for strength and take him at his Word

God is not cold or indifferent to our tears.  He has broken the silence.  He has spoken to us and told us clearly of his love and care for us in his Son Jesus.  It doesn't matter what may come into our lives, God is always there beside us, he never deserts us, there is nothing that is able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).

Isaiah said it well, “Those who trust in the Lord will find new strength”.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
9th September 2012

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