Today is the first in a series I am calling Playlist for the Heart. I invite you to join with me over the course of this series in reflecting on Bible passages that others have found meaningful and shared with me. The goal is to put together a playlist of special passages from God’s Word that we can listen to and be encouraged.
There once was an elderly gentleman who lived on a street where there were a lot of families with young children. This man went out of his way to support and encourage the kids on his street. When they would set up lemonade stands, he would be their best customer. When they came around to sell Girl Guide cookies, he always bought several boxes. And at Halloween, he was always very generous when handing out his candy and he would always extravagantly compliment the children’s costumes.
One summer, he hired a contractor to replace the cement on his driveway. All the old, broken pieces were dug up and hauled away, wooden forms and rebar were put in place, and, when everything was ready, a big cement truck arrived and the new driveway was poured. All of this was of great interest for all the neighborhood children, who watched all that was going on with their noses pressed up against their living room windows. When the contractor and his men left, and the elderly gentleman was in his house having a nap, the kids just couldn’t help themselves and they started running through the concrete. Hearing the commotion, the man woke up with a start, looked out his window, saw what was going on, and raced out of his house hollering and screaming at the children.
The next day, one of his neighbors, who had seen his response, came over for a visit. As the two of them talked and stared at the petrified footsteps in the older man’s driveway, the older man was still upset and voiced his concerns to his younger neighbor. The neighbor said, “I don’t understand. I thought that you liked kids.”
The older man replied, “I do, but in an abstract sense. I don’t like them in the concrete.”
There are many things in life which we can be okay with as long as they remain just an abstract concept. It’s when they become concrete, that is, real to us, that we find it hard, because now we actually have to personally deal with that reality. Death is one of those things. When I was serving my one-year internship as a student pastor, there was a family that I and my supervising pastor would often visit. Later, after my internship was over, the mother of this family became very ill with cancer. One of the things she struggled with as her illness progressed, was a fear of dying. When I was told about her fear, I thought to myself, “That seems strange to me. Why would a person be afraid of dying? We have the promise of eternal life through Jesus.” However, for me at that time, dying was only an abstract concept. For her, it was concrete, and that makes all the difference.
We live in a culture that denies death. The media we ingest is filled with images of people who are young, beautiful, aqnd full of life. In the past, families would prepare their loved ones for burial themselves. Now we hire funeral homes to do that for us. As Justin Timberlake sang, we: Don’t wanna think about it, Don’t wanna talk about it, [We’re] just so sick about it, Can’t believe it’s ending this way.
The problem with denying death is that we are unintentionally short-circuiting our reception of the greater life that Jesus has for us. The abundant life Jesus wants to give us is always lived with an awareness that our life in this world will, one day, come to an end. That awareness of our mortality is a necessary first step in the process of preparing ourselves for the time when death becomes concrete to us. But how do we go from being totally unprepared for our own death to having a settled peace about it?
To answer that question, we are going to look at Isaiah 43:1-13. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.
God’s Promise of Restoration Brings Hope
Hard Times for God’s People in the Ancient Past
As you are doing that, I will share with you some information that will help you to grab hold of what God is saying to us here in this passage. The prophet Isaiah lived about 700 hundred years before the time of Jesus and people were going through a really difficult time back then. The world superpower at that time was the vicious, warmongering Assyrian Empire and in 733 BC, the kings of Aram (which is present-day Syria) and the northern kingdom of Israel invited Ahaz, king of Judah, to join with them in an alliance against Assyria. Instead, Ahaz asked the Assyrian Emperor, Tiglath-Pileser, for help, and the Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 BC. Isaiah warned Ahaz not to do this, but he did it anyway, and within a short time, Assyria began to threaten Judah. In 701 BC, the Assyrians laid siege to Jerusalem. The king of Judah at that time, Hezekiah, prayed to God for help and, as Isaiah prophesied, the Assyrians withdrew.
The Assyrian Empire was soon replaced by the Babylonian Empire and Judah’s reprieve proved to be only temporary. In 586 BC, as Isaiah foresaw decades before, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and most of the residents of Judah were carried off into captivity in Babylon. Isaiah not only foretold the calamity that would come upon God’s people because of their sin. He also gave a message of hope: When the time was just right, God will deliver his people and bring them back to their homeland. Future events proved Isaiah to be a true prophet who spoke God’s Word to God’s people. In 538 BC, Cyrus, the king of the Medes and Persians, who conquered the Babylonians, decreed that the Jews could return home. The God we worship is the same God that Isaiah served, and he is a God who keeps his promises to his people.
God’s Faithfulness & Promise of Restoration Brings Hope
God’s faithfulness and promise of restoration was a very, very important source of hope to God’s people as they went through these extremely difficult times, because, you see, these things were not happening in a spiritual vacuum. Back then, each nation had their own set of gods and victory on the battlefield was viewed as the sign which showed which nation’s gods were the best.
But the one, true God does not operate according to human ways of thinking. He has a much bigger picture in mind than who will win victory on the battlefield today, and the tools he will use to accomplish his end goal are not the ones we humans invariably choose, namely power and fear. Instead, God often works through weakness, because weakness is the way of faith. You don’t need to have faith if you have power. You can simply make happen whatever you want done. You don’t need to have faith if you can make people fear you. If you simply threaten them in the right way, they will do whatever you want.
But a life ruled by power and fear is no life at all. There is no love, no hope, no creativity, no healing, no community, and no restoration. There is only power and fear. When the power runs out or the fear dissipates, it’s game over. God wants something better for the world, and he tells us how he will make that happen through his prophet, Isaiah.
God’s Comfort Comes to Us Through Our Relationship with Him
God starts off by telling us who he is so that we know who we are. But now, this is what the Lord says—he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. (Isaiah 43:1) The One speaking here is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is Yahweh, the One who spoke to Moses from the burning bush and said that his name is, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). He is the creator of all things, the earth, the sun and the moon, all the other planets, solar systems and stars. All the plants, all the animals, every cell in every human being who ever existed, exists now or ever will exist, God is the maker of them all. He is the source and the foundation of all reality, including all the things we see and all the things that we don’t see.
And God not only created all things, he created a plan for redeeming and restoring all things when his good and perfect creation became corrupted by the sin of our first parents. It was for that purpose that God called the family of Abraham to be his people and gave to them the precious promise that through that family all people in the world would be blessed. From Abraham to Isaac to Jacob the promised carried on. Jacob was renamed Israel by God, a name that means “one who struggles with God.” Down through the ages, that struggle with God continued, not because he was being difficult, but because God’s people were. The lure of the sex and power religions of their neighbors were very enticing to God’s people back then, as it is today, because the promise of sex and power connects with the longing for adoration and control that exists in the depths of every human heart. But those alternative religions, back then and today, are peddling false promises because what they offer will never really satisfy the deepest longings in every human heart, and when they get us hooked, we become prisoners of addiction, always needing more and more of our drug of choice when the last hit wears off. The struggle is for us to wean ourselves from our desire for power and control and rest, instead, in the love and faithfulness of the God who created us. The desire for power and control is so strong within the human heart that we need to die before we are free of it.
Who are we? We are his beloved, forgiven children. He has named us and we belong to him. This Creator-child relationship then sets the stage for everything that follows.
God is Our Savior
Continuing on, we read, When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush j and Seba in your stead. Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life. (Isaiah 43:2-4) Our loving Father has given us a promise that the trials and tribulations we face in this life will not harm us. He will be with you no matter what. When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, Egypt had all the power and might, Egypt had all the wealth and military strength. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Cor. 1:27) God chose to help the helpless Hebrew slaves, delivering them from slavery and bringing them into a Promised Land of their own. Rivers drown and fires destroy, but the God of Jacob gives life that nothing not even death can take away.
And we know that, not only because God kept his promise to rescue his people and bring them back from exile in Babylon, he also kept his promise to send a Messiah, a descendant of Eve who would come to crush Satan under his feet. But this God-human Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, would fulfill our Father’s promises, not through power and fear, but through the way of weakness and faith. Jesus took the place of Israel and relived, as an individual, all the events the Israelites experienced as a nation. However, this time there was no struggle, no faltering or failing on the human side of the God-human relationship. Jesus set aside the use of all his divine power and glory and lived the human life that we would ideally live: a life of saying and doing the things that our Father in heaven wanted said and done, with no concern for ourselves because we know that the Father is carrying us in his loving arms.
That’s an ideal that we can never meet. Weighed down by the sin we have inherited, we can never be perfect in following our Father in love and faithfulness. That’s why Jesus’ saving work on the cross is essential. Without it, we have a hopeless end. With it, we have endless hope.
Again, following the way of weakness and faith, Jesus allowed humans with evil intent to put hands on him. They beat him, they flogged him and they nailed him to a cross to die. He was the only totally innocent human being in all of history, therefore he did not deserve the judgment and the excruciating suffering and death that he experienced. Yet, through it all, Jesus never once complained, he never fought back, he never looked up to the sky with disdain and cried out, “Why me, Lord?” The suffering that he experienced rightfully belonged to the stiff-necked Israelites, the wayward Judeans, and every other human being that ever walked the face of this earth. He was “the people” given in exchange for your life, he is your proof of safety when you walk through the fire or pass through the rivers, he is your guarantee of God’s gracious, infinite love for you.
Jesus not only paid for all the times when we try to grasp for power or instill fear, hurting ourselves and others in the process, and won for us the forgiveness we need to live in a right relationship with God. Jesus also created a pathway of life for us to walk on.
Walking on the Pathway of Life
Walking the Jesus path of self-denial is a great struggle for us, but we walk it anyway because we know that the sweetest place we can be, especially in hard times, is in the ever-loving arms of Jesus. And there is no greater joy than knowing that, in the end, he will lift us up and say, “‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (Matthew 25:23) So we turn away from lusting for power and control, we choose the way of weakness and faith, and we rest in sweet, sweet love of Jesus. This is how we live, this is how we die, this is how we will live forever. And we know that is true because Jesus rose from the dead.
God Promises to be With Us in All Things
In her email suggesting that this passage of Scripture be included in our Playlist for the Heart, Susan E. wrote:
“In December of 2010, when my sister-in-law was dying of cancer, I was gifted with some time to visit Anna and Rob. It was a very difficult time as we knew Anna’s time on earth was coming to a close and that we would have to say good-bye (for now). Pastor Don Schiemann came to visit and Anna expressed her fear of what it would be like as she died. She had confidence of being in heaven with Jesus, but it was the time to get there (the process of dying( [that she feared]. He read Isaiah 43 to her and it has always stuck with me to “fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have summoned you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you… Do not be afraid, for I am with you…” [Isaiah 43:1-2, 5] The answer was we don’t really know what it is like to die, but we do know that God promises to be with us in all things including death. When Anna died on Christmas Day a few weeks later, her sister told me that Anna was fighting death, but just before she died a peace came over her and her face softened and became content. She witnessed Jesus coming to Anna and carrying her away from her pain and suffering to life eternal with Him. This promise has carried me through my own times of despair over the years and I am constantly amazed that even when God seems far away, he isn’t, he is actually carrying me through.”
Dear friends, the challenge that I have for you today is simply this: Lay your life down into the loving arms of Jesus and let him carry you. This life is like a practice for the Big Dance that is going to happen later on. So let’s learn to dance with Jesus now. We follow him wherever he leads us because we know three things: He loves us, he is with us and we are forever safe with him. Amen.