Isaiah 40:1-11; Romans 5:1-5: In his book The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer made the following observation: “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until He has hurt him deeply.” To put it another way, God cannot do much with people who have not passed through a time of suffering, sickness, sacrifice or struggle. How can we be a blessing to people who are going through the hardships of life if we ourselves somehow have been exempted from such hardships? However, when we have been through these things ourselves two things can happen. First, we have a better testimony about what God has done in our lives. Second, we can be a real comfort and encouragement to others who now are passing through what we already have faced. We can tell them about a God who can sustain them and preserve them through whatever circumstances life throws at us.
Most of us prefer an approach to faith that would keep us from dealing with suffering and struggle. In fact, many Christians are under the mistaken assumption that the whole point of establishing a relationship with God is so they can be kept from such things. They want a religion that paints a permanent smiley face on their lives and safeguards them from the things in life that can result in tears, sorrows or setbacks. The truth is, there are times in our relationship with God when suffering not only occurs, but may be directed our way by God who seeks to chasten and correct us for sins we have committed. The suffering does not mean God has cut us off or thrown us away; it means only that from time to time God may have to do something to us in order to get more from us. Tozer is right when he says it isn’t likely God can bless us until He hurts us.
That is the way to look at this passage from Isaiah 40:1-11; God had hurt the nation of Judah not as an end in itself, but in order to chasten the people and perfect them for better, future service. The suffering that Israel had to endure was something unthinkable. The chosen people had been exiled from their promised land. Their king had been captured and carried away in chains. The Temple of Solomon lay in ruins. The Levitical priesthood had been scattered, and the system of animal and grain sacrifices that were the heart of their religious life had not ended. As Psalms 137 states so poignantly, all the people could do was “Hang their hearts on the willows by the rivers of Babylon and remember Zion.”
All that was left to them was what they had when they were led out of their first captivity in Egypt 700 years earlier, which was God’s presence. They had been stripped of everything that had become an obstruction to their relationship with God. Now, with all of that out of the way, God was ready to begin a second chapter in the relationship with Israel. The harsh punishment had been imposed and endured; the nation had been “hurt deeply; the people were poised to return to their homeland and serve God greatly. “Comfort My people…her hard service is complete…her sin has been paid for…they have received double for all their sins.”
This passage calls to mind the words of Hosea 6:1-2: “Come let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but He will heal us; He has injured us, but He will bind up our wounds. After two days, He will revive us; on the third day, He will restore us that we may live in His presence.” God may hurt us, most often in response to our sins. However, that suffering is not pointless; God is working to perfect and purify our lives so we may be of better service in the future.
There may be someone here who feels as if God has torn you to pieces or allowed someone else to tear you to pieces. I remind you of the principle of “liberation lifestyles” as taught by Joseph Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In order to help us break out of our tendency to view our lives through the prism of victimization, he says that 50 percent of what goes wrong in our lives can be attributed to what others may have done to us, while the other 50 percent is a direct result of what we have done and what our own actions have brought upon us. It may be that we are being torn to pieces as a consequence of our own sinful behavior.
There are times in all our lives when we (as did ancient Israel) allow some things to become obstructions to our relationship with God. Perhaps we value our political party and its principles more than we value the Lord. Maybe our national pride and arrogance causes us to sing “God Bless America” rather than “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Perhaps we prefer the precise observance of religious rituals to the diligent pursuit of justice and righteousness. One day it seems we are walking with the Lord. Then we begin to drift until we end up walking away from the God we thought we were serving. That is when we discover there are consequences for being unfaithful.
I am especially concerned about young people drifting away from God and church as they get older. So often they end up facing consequences such as pregnancy, imprisonment, addiction, even premature death. When people who once walked with God begin to drift away, as was the case with Israel, they need to know there are consequences following their choices. Our sins can be forgiven by God, but that does not exempt us from the consequences of our conduct!
The good news of Isaiah 40 is that God’s love and grace are stronger than His anger and wrath. The sinful nation was allowed to return. A highway was established in the wilderness that led back from Babylon to Jerusalem. As Hosea 11:8 says, God seemed to be saying, “How can I give you up, Ephraim?” As Psalms 130:4 says, “With you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared” (held in awe). God was setting the captives free and giving the sinners a second chance.
Are there any second-chance Christians in the house today? Is there anyone here who knows you did something that was displeasing to God and unbecoming of a child of God? I know that I fit into both categories, but I wonder if there is anybody else here who has spent time in God’s divine dog house? Having said that, let me ask whether there is somebody here who knows his or her sins have been forgiven and that the relationship with God is stronger now than it was before God held you accountable for your sins? However, God may get more out of us now that He has hurt us deeply. Here is the message of Isaiah 40:1-11: God will punish us for our sins, but He will take us back when the season of suffering has ended. God will offer us another chance and wipe the slate clean, allowing us a new beginning just as He offered Israel.
I know there are some popular TV preachers who never talk about sin, suffering, rejection and restoration in their sermons. They say people do not like to hear such sermons because the topic of sin leaves them unhappy and uncomfortable. Preaching should leave God’s people unhappy and uncomfortable.
Of course if we fail to do that as preachers, God may bring to pass the warning in Ezekiel 3:18 and hold us accountable for the blood of those we failed to warn and leave us unhappy and uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the people we could have helped by our preaching end up unhappy and uncomfortable either in jail, the cemetery or hell. Part of preaching involves rebuking as in 2 Timothy 4:2 and admonishing or warning as in Colossians 1:28. Anything less than this causes our preaching to become ineffective and irrelevant.
Let me point out that God did not let Israel return from captivity after a few weeks or months. The people of Israel had to sit by the rivers of Babylon for more than 30 years. During that time, they may have developed two spiritual resources I want to share with you: patience and perseverance. Patience is what is on display while God is working out His divine purpose in our lives and the world. We do not lose heart or hope when our deliverance seems long delayed because we know “All things are working together for our good” (Romans 8:28). Sometimes God works on our lives as if they were modern construction site with a sign posted that reads: “Pardon our dust while improvements are underway.”
We cannot know how long the construction work will last, but one day the dust will be swept away, the sign will be taken down, the improvements will be finished and the site once again will be open for business. Every one of us is under construction while God makes improvements in our lives. We can all sing the gospel song lyrics, “Please be patient with me, God is not through with me yet. But when God gets through with me I shall come forth as pure gold.”
As Romans 3:23 reminds us, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” However, those sins can be forgiven and our relationship with God restored. God may allow some time to pass before we are relieved from the consequences of our sins. Until that time passes, all we can do is be patient while God works in our lives.
While we show patience when God is working, we need to show perseverance when the devil gets in our way. We need to show perseverance when Satan disrupts the good work God is doing in our lives. Perseverance is our determination to stay with God regardless of temptations. Perseverance is determination to stay with God no matter where others invite us to go. Perseverance is determination to stick to the agenda of God’s kingdom even when it seems as if that goal is unattainable. There always will be obstacles and obstructions in the paths of those attempting to be about God’s business. Their challenge is to persevere in the face of all resistance and opposition.
Nothing worth having in life comes quickly or easily. Everything of value comes at the end of perseverance. You cannot win in athletics without perseverance in training and competition. You cannot sustain a long-term marriage without perseverance and determination. You cannot succeed in school as you pursue whatever degree you have in mind without perseverance. The devil is busy, but we are to persevere. Evil has not surrendered yet, but persevere. Injustice still occurs, but persevere. Human cruelty and hatred are prevalent; but God is still at work, so persevere. Remember the lines of James Russell Lowell who said:
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet the truth alone is strong.
Though her portion be the scaffold
And upon the throne the wrong.
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadows
Keeping watch above His own.
Let me tell you a story about perseverance. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2009, I exercised an act of faith by planting tulip bulbs in Cleveland, Ohio. I wondered if I had waited too late to do this, and I worried even more when the first snow of the winter fell on the next day and covered my flower bed. That was followed by one of the worst winters on record so far as snow fall was concerned. My flower bed and tulip bulbs were covered by three feet of snow for more than three months. Each day as I saw that snow piled up in my yard, sitting on top of my tulip bulbs I wondered if those small and delicate flowers could survive the harsh nature of their surroundings.
Things got so bad as far as snow was concerned that I actually talked to my tulip bulbs, telling them how sorry I was that I placed them in such a terrible situation. I told those tulip bulbs, “If I had known how much snow as coming I never would have placed you in the ground.” How could they survive a winter like that with all that ice and snow covering the ground for so long? I truly felt sorry for my tulip bulbs, and I was sure I never would see a tulip in the flower bed in spring.
However, it seemed as if my tulip bulbs started talking back to me, telling me not to worry. “Take it easy, Marvin; we’ll be alright. Don’t worry about a thing, just wait and see what happens. There may be some snow on top of us, but there are some roots underneath us; and we are going to persevere until the snow melts. Just wait a little while and see what happens.” Sure enough, when the snow melted, I went outside to see what was happening in my flower bed, and I saw the tips of tulips breaking through the frozen ground after a harsh winter. There was snow on top of them, but they persevered. The heavy ice sat on top of them for months and caused me to doubt if they could survive, but they persevered. The weather threw everything it had at those tender and delicate plants, but they persevered.
We all can learn a lesson from the tulip bulbs and persevere in the face of hardship. Until God’s kingdom is established, we need to persevere. Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, we need to persevere. Until the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ, we need to persevere. Paul said in Romans 5:1-5 that we should rejoice in our sufferings because suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance produces character; and character produces hope.
Here is another way to talk about perseverance: Press on! Press on like the tulips that broke through the hard ground of winter. Press on. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come in the morning (Psalms 30:5). Press on. God is bigger than any problem we may be facing. Press on. We may have sinned badly, and God may have punished us deeply; but we can still be used greatly. Press on. Make this your theme song as you persevere in the face of all of life’s challenges:
I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day.
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.
One of the roles of Advent is to challenge us to persevere in serving God while we are forced to wait patiently while God works. Israel had to wait 430 years for God to delivered it from Egypt, then for 40 days while Moses was on Mt. Sinai, as well as another 40 years before entering the promised land. More importantly for this season, they had to wait for 700 years until the promised Messiah appeared. Perseverance mixed with patience is part of what every Christian needs. One day, our waiting will be done, and the kingdom of God will be established fully and finally on the earth. Until that day, we say with Revelation 21:20: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Who knows, the long delay in Christ’s second coming to establish the eschatological kingdom may be related to the fact that God is also waiting—waiting for us to repent of our sins and be prepared to welcome Christ when He comes again!