Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Isaiah 40:21-31 Commentary
Comments and Observations
Isaiah 40 is by no means the only place in the Hebrew Scriptures to see this irony but it is on glorious display in also these verses. You can see it also in places like Psalms 8, 19, and 90, as well as in the Book of Job and other places.
What is this irony? It is that within the span of only a few verses the authors of Scripture—in this case Isaiah, who also relays words that are said to come directly from the mouth of Yahweh—has no difficulty at all switching back and forth between as lofty a piece of rhetoric as possible and as intimate a piece of rhetoric as possible. In the case of Isaiah 40:21-31, we are hit over the head repeatedly with soaring pictures of God’s grandeur.
God, we are told, sits enthroned high above the circle of the earth—his perch is so lofty as to render us human beings as mere bugs scurrying along the ground. The entire canopy of space is stretched out by this same God as he handles the fabric of the cosmos the way a seamstress would handle a swatch of cloth. And when it comes to even the mightiest people on the planet, God is able to buy and sell them with ease. Their earthly majesty and power mean nothing to God—with a wave of his hand he is able to turn even the proudest and strongest to dust.
Having peered briefly at the earth, Isaiah then returns our gaze to the starry skies of the night. As is the case with all biblical depictions of the night sky and the stars above, what the ancient peoples could not see in the heavens was a lot. Even today if you can get away from city lights and stand on the side of a dark country road some summertime evening, the number of stars that can be seen in that arm of the Milky Way galaxy that we can see in summer in the northern hemisphere is still mind-boggling. But we now know that what the naked eye can see only scratches the surface of what is truly out there in the universe.
“Who created that starry host?” Yahweh asks through Isaiah. “Who calls them each by name?” And even the stargazing Israelites of old—much less we who can see so much farther and deeper today—hear this question and can respond only with some gasp along the lines of “Whoa!” The writer of Psalm 8 saw what stars he could and asked the famous question, “What is humanity that you would be mindful of little ole’ us, O God?!” We look out onto a universe clotted with more whole galaxies than we can count and say, “What is the entire planet earth; what is the entire solar system; what is the entire Milky Way galaxy that you should even be able to see us and pick us out among the starry hosts, O God?” We feel unmade by the vastness of space.
Or as any number of atheists today would answer that question: We don’t matter. We can’t matter. As John Ortberg quotes Bertrand Russell in Ortberg’s book Faith & Doubt, “In the visible world, the Milky Way is a tiny fragment. Within this fragment the Solar System is an infinitesimal speck, and within that speck our planet is a microscopic dot. On this dot , tiny lumps of carbon and water crawl about for a few years until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded.” As Ortberg wryly comments, “Is it only me, or is that the tiniest bit depressing?” (Faith & Doubt, 2008, Zondervan Publishing, p. 33).
Isaiah 40 pummels us with this same kind of imagery.
God is high.
We are low.
God is lofty.
We are scurrying bugs.
God plays with the stars.
We make mudpies.
Yes, we must be all-but invisible, all-but inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. What other conclusion can one draw?
So how gloriously ironic it is that this passage more-or-less sets us up to draw just such a conclusion only to then read in verse 27, “Why do you say, O Jacob, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, my cause is disregarded by my God?’”
Why do we say that??? Well good grief, you just backed us into a corner where we could draw no other conclusion! If you want to bolster our confidence that God can see us, then don’t set us up by making our smallness so vivid and undeniable!!
But that’s just the irony: every time the Bible wows us with the grandeur of God and the magnitude of God’s neverending creation, we are immediately told that this same God uses that very same almighty power in the service of attending to us, to our lives, to all that we do. No matter how vast the universe is, no matter how awesome and almighty our great God is, none of it gets in the way of God’s tender regard for every last one of us. He knows our names, too.
“Do you not know?” Isaiah asks again and again. “Do you not know?” Well, no. Knowing this is not obvious. A glance into the night sky would not lead us to conclude that we matter so much to God that he worries about the same things that vex little old us. But that’s where the revelation of Scripture comes in. It tells us so many wonderful things, not the least of which is that we matter. We are loved.
Maybe you didn’t see that coming in a passage that hammers away at our littleness. But what a nice surprising ending we get anyway!
My friend Deborah Haarsma is an expert on galaxies and on astronomy generally. Sometimes when she makes a presentation for adult education classes she will conclude her talk by showing a slide of a typical night sky. On one part of the picture there is an area of sky that appears empty—there are stars all around but some parts of the sky don’t contain any visible stars. So Deb zooms in on one of those apparently blank patches of darkness but then superimposes on it what the Hubble Space Telescope saw in that very “blank” patch when it really cranked up its magnification. What the picture reveals always draws gasps from all who see it because in that seemingly “empty” part of the night sky the Hubble photographed hundreds and hundreds of not stars but of whole galaxies. And since each galaxy may contain upwards of 1 billion stars, it soon becomes apparent that even the seemingly blank parts of the night sky actually look out onto clusters of stars that number in the trillions.
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