Sample sermon: “What Can You Reasonably Expect from God?” I once preached this sermon, focusing particularly on the beloved verse 31.
I received a phone call the other day from a modern-day daughter of Job, whom I will call Mary. At one time Mary had been a pastor’s wife with 2 young children and a nice home, but her husband was extremely abusive and she had to get out of the marriage. The church did not support her. Her husband continued to harass her. Her life has been hellacious for the last 20 years. Her now-adult children are a source of much heartache, her multiple health problems are bewildering and debilitating, her finances are a mess. She’s alone, sick, confused and penniless. And Mary is disappointed with God.
Through all of her suffering she has done what Isaiah 40:31 encourages God’s people to do; she has put her hope in the Lord. She believes all these wonderful things that Isaiah 40 says about God. He is the gentle shepherd who gathers his lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart. He is the mighty creator of the universe and the ruler of even the most powerful nations. He is the all-knowing director of all things, whose mind is beyond our comprehension. He is the incomparable God, utterly unlike all the false gods of the world.
Mary genuinely believes that God is real, that God is alive, and she has trusted God’s only Son as her Lord and Savior. Through all of her trouble, Mary has put her hope in the Lord, expecting that he would act for her, that he would answer her fervent prayers by keeping the promises he makes in his Word. But it hasn’t worked out the way she expected, and she is disappointed with God.
Perhaps you can empathize with Mary today. As we read our text in Isaiah 40, it is very clear that the ancient Israelites knew all about Mary’s kind of disappointment. In verse 27 we hear them voice their disappointment. “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God.” Their lives had been torn apart by the Babylonian captivity. In spite of the fact that they were God’s special covenant people, his little flock of beloved lambs, they had lost their land, their homes, their loved ones, their country, their temple, their place on the earth. They were sure that God had forsaken them.
Oh, they had the promises of God, the word of God that promised a return from that Exile. In fact, Isaiah 40 opens with those lovely words, “Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God.” But they couldn’t believe those words. They were too disappointed with God. So, they said over and over again, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God.”
C.S. Lewis asked the key question for those who know how Israel and Mary felt. What can you reasonably expect from God? You may be familiar with his story. In his early life he was a confirmed agnostic, but then to his surprise he was converted and became one of the preeminent explainers and defenders of the Christian faith in the 20th century. His books have helped millions believe in the God of the Bible, the God who became human in Jesus Christ. Lewis was particularly eloquent about the problem of pain. If you’ve seen the movie “Shadowlands,” you can hear him say, “Pain is God’s megaphone.” Lewis was a true believer who assisted many sufferers like Mary through the shadowlands of life.
Then came his own valley of shadows, where he discovered disappointment with God first hand. Fairly late in life he fell in love with Joy Davidman. They were married only a short time when she became ill. Lewis called on God to heal her. He begged and pleaded. And she died. Lewis was shattered, overcome with grief. In his book, A Grief Observed, he talks about his disappointment with God. God is our refuge and our strength, he says, a very present help in trouble. But I prayed for this love of my life and God was not a very present help in trouble. In spite of all my prayers and my faith, she died. What, he asks, what can we reasonably expect from God when we’re in trouble?
That’s what our text explains in some of the most memorable poetry in the Bible. Years ago, I heard a sermon by Dr. John Claypool that gave me fresh insights into these familiar words: “they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.” These poetic words capture three ways we can expect God to help us.
Sometimes God simply rescues us. Quickly, perhaps instantaneously, he gets us out of the situation or miraculously changes the situation. We soar up out of the situation on wings like eagles and the trouble is gone, behind us.
There was an article a while back in my local paper about the resurgence of eagles in West Michigan, accompanied by a picture of a bald eagle diving into the water to snag a fish. An eagle can spot a fish from a mile away, dive at 100 miles per hour, and sink its talons into that fish before it knows what happened. That’s what God does sometimes when we put our hope in him and cry for help. He plunges into the situation and snatches us out of it. Unlike the bald eagle who devours the hapless fish, God dives into our hopelessness and we fly away on wings likes eagles. Everything is miraculously better, because God rescues us from the situation.
The story of the 10 lepers in Luke 17 is a perfect example. These 10 men had a terrible problem. Leprosy had ruined their lives and it couldn’t be cured. But then they met Jesus. Standing at the required distance from Jesus, they cried out to him. “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” Jesus said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And, says the story, “As they went, they were cleansed.” Just like that. They cried to Jesus and he rescued them by totally changing their situation in a miraculous way. The New Testament is full of stories like that. Many of us have experienced such dramatic, miraculous rescues. We can reasonably expect God to do that today. “We will soar on wings like eagles.”
But that’s not the only way God responds to our prayers for help, nor, in my experience, the most frequent. Sometimes God helps not by rescuing us from a situation, but by running along with us in the situation so that together we can repair it. His power works with ours so that we can run and not grow weary. We don’t think we can keep going. We don’t think the situation will ever change. And it doesn’t change quickly or dramatically. But because God collaborates with us, we have the strength to keep running until we repair the situation together. We don’t soar effortlessly on eagle’s wings; we work very hard ourselves. Because God gives us the strength, we can run and not grow weary. And eventually the situation ends.
Think of the way God fixed the great problem of Israel’s bondage in Egypt. God could have rescued them in one miraculous moment on eagle’s wings. Instead, he came to Moses and said, “You must lead my people out of bondage.” Moses said, “I’m not able. I’m too meek. I can’t speak.” And God said, “I will help you.” God did his miraculous part in the 10 plagues, but it was Moses who rallied the people and led them out of bondage. It took some time and it was very hard for Moses. He was intimidated and hesitant and he wanted to quit. But God was with Moses in all his power. And at the end of day, Israel was free, because God collaborated with Moses to repair the problem of Israel’s bondage. With God’s help and in God’s strength, Moses ran and did not grow weary and the situation was changed.
But there are other times when God’s help doesn’t change the situation at all. He doesn’t rescue us out of the situation and he doesn’t give us the strength to repair it ourselves. Instead, he simply gives us the strength to endure, so that we are personally renewed. The situation doesn’t change, but we do. We grow stronger. We don’t faint. We think we will, but we don’t. We just keep walking through the situation and we emerge on the other side of it a renewed person, because God gives us the strength to endure.
Now I have to tell you that I don’t like this nearly as much as the other ways God helps his people. I want things to change. I don’t want to change myself. I pretty much like me the way I am. But God often has other ideas. The apostle Paul discovered that with his thorn in the flesh. In II Cor. 12 Paul describes how he begged God to take away his physical affliction. “I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me,” he says. But God didn’t.
Instead, God gave him the grace to endure even with this physical affliction. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And through that affliction Paul became even more powerful as a servant of Jesus Christ. God had greater things in mind than changing Paul’s physical situation. God wanted to change the world and he needed a man who was filled with the power and grace of Jesus Christ to accomplish that. After much prayer and struggle, Paul finally understood God’s plan and he embraced it gladly. He says in vs. 10, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
I need to hear that—“for Christ’s sake.” I really want to be rescued quickly. I want to soar on wings like eagles. I’ll settle for God’s help in solving the problem. If I have to run for a while before the situation changes, I can deal with that, as long as the situation changes. But I don’t want to keep walking in the trouble, because that causes me pain. I don’t want pain. I want life easy. I, I, I, I. It’s all about me. But it’s not. It’s about Christ, Christ who loved me so much that he died for me, Christ who has bigger and better things in mind than my ease. So sometimes Christ gives us the grace to simply endure, to walk and not faint, so that we grow stronger in his service.
That’s how God helps those who hope in him—rescue from a situation by God’s miraculous intervention, the repair of a situation through God’s collaboration, or our personal renewal through the situation as God gives us strength to endure. That’s what you can reasonably expect from God. Of course, that often leaves us wondering which of the three it will be this time. And that can lead to disappointment with God for even the strongest believer.
That’s why I must come back to Paul’s phrase in II Cor. 12—“for Christ’s sake.” It’s not about us; it’s about Christ. That’s a sobering reality, but it reminds us of a greater saving reality. Christ was all about us. He lived and died and rose for our sake. That’s how we know what we can reasonably expect from God all the time. Whether it takes the form of rescue, repair, or renewal, we can expect God to keep doing what he has already done—save us to the uttermost for Christ’s sake. If we keep our eyes focused on the Son of God dying and rising and ruling for our sake, we will not be disappointed with God. “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
I hope that you will never go through the kind of loss that decimated the life of Jerry Sittser. In a head-on car crash, his mother and his wife and his little girl were instantly killed. In a thunderous collision, three beloved generations were wiped out. In an instant it was all over and done. There was no possibility of rescue, no chance of repair. All Sittser could do was despair or endure. Because God helped him, he not only endured; he even triumphed, transforming his loss into a powerful testimony of God’s grace. You can read about what God did in Jerry Sittser’s life in his marvelous book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss. It’s a powerful reminder that even when God doesn’t rescue or repair, he still helps us with a grace that may be disguised as unbearable loss. And by that grace, we are renewed.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 7, 2021
Isaiah 40:21-31 Commentary