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January 11, 2004
I now invite you to turn to the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 43, and follow along as I read verses 1-7. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
1 But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
6 I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth--
7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God
Abe Vigoda is an actor who played the gloomy and rumpled Detective Sgt. Phil Fish on the 1970s sitcom Barney Miller. In 1992, People magazine reported that Vigoda was dead, and by 2001 Vigoda’s presumed death had become such a pop culture joke that even The New York Times mentioned it in a story on his eightieth birthday. Plenty of people seem to think that Abe Vigoda is dead, but he is not.
What would you do if you read your own obituary in the newspaper? . After reading his premature obituary, Mark Twain replied, “The report of my death is an exaggeration.”
Back in 1888, Alfred Nobel read his own premature obituary in a paper that proclaimed that “The Dynamite King” was dead. The obituary was a careless mistake; it was Nobel’s brother who had died, but that mistake revealed to Alfred Nobel that the world looked upon him as a merchant of death, as a “Dynamite King” who became rich by making explosives. Nobel resolved to write a new last will and testament, leaving his entire fortune to establish an award that would reflect his deepest convictions about the real purpose of life’s ideals. And that was the inception of the Nobel Prize, created to honor the citizens of the world who have devoted their lives to peace and to reconciliation.
Now I know that Bob Hope died last summer, but he was also the subject of a notorious premature obituary in 1989 when the Associated Press unintentionally published a notice of his death. The obituary landed in the hands of a U.S. Congressman who announced the news of Hope’s demise to the entire House of Representatives.
Then, only months before Bob Hope actually died last summer, CNN posted on its website another premature obituary of Bob Hope, and of several other prominent folks. Most major news organizations keep pre-written obituaries for famous people on file, so that when the celebrity dies, they can publish the obituary immediately. These obituaries were unintentionally accessible to the public for 20 minutes in April 2003, and they announced the death of Bob Hope, Fidel Castro, Vice President Dick Cheney, retired U.S. presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, retired South African president Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II.
That is quite a list of folks who were at that time not dead. These premature obituaries are relevant to us today because our text from Isaiah concerns a people who have already written themselves off. As far as they are concerned, they are already dead. Even though they are still walking around breathing, they are ready for their obituary. This is not an uncommon emotion for human beings. When pilloried by problems that will not go away, when swept by the storms of life, when surrounded by blazing infernos of stress and anxiety, we often think we are goners. “Game over,” we say. “End of story. That is it, close the door and turn off the lights. Give it up. The fat lady has sung. We are finished and done for.”
This text from Isaiah is a reminder to God’s people that we are never finished and done for. We are not finished because of who we are and who God is. This is a reminder that we desperately need. This is what it says: God’s people belong to God. God knows them by name. They are rescued, redeemed, and saved. Egypt, Ethiopia and Seba were given in exchange for them. God is with them. God is with you right now. No matter what your troubles are, God will see you through those troubles.
Now there is an erroneous view of God that we sometimes hear in church. To summarize it briefly, it is called the watchmaker God. In this way of thinking, God made the universe the way a watch maker makes a watch, put all the parts together, wound it up and set it going, and now God sort of sits back and watches it all work. Thus, God is the creator of the universe, in this way of thinking, but once having created, he is no longer much involved with it. If that is the kind of God we have, then we might as well be atheists, because it puts God out there somewhere and seems to imply that God does not have much to do with us. Certainly that is not the God of the Bible.
We should see God not only as creator, but as being continually involved in his creation. The watchmaker illustration does not work very well. Perhaps we should think of the universe as a living thing, as a plant. God is the gardner who has planted the seed and grown the plant and who continues to work with the plant. John Calvin, speaking on this subject, said, “But faith ought to penetrate more deeply, namely having found him creator of all, forthwith to conclude he is also everlasting governor and preserver—not only in that he drives the celestial frame as well as its several parts by a universal motion, but also in that he sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the last sparrow.” [Institutes of the Christian Religion I,16,1] Calvin says that certainly we recognize that God is creadtor, but a believer must go beyond that and realize that God is still working in the universe, as Calvin puts it God “drives the celestial frame.” Then Calvin brings it down to the individual level, saying that God “sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made.” It seems obvious that Calvin is thinking about what Jesus said in MT10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” There were a lot of sparrows in New Testament times. I suppose there are a lot of sparrows today. Jesus says not one of them falls to the ground, that God does not know about and care about. Then to drive home his point, Jesus goes on to say in v30, “Even the hairs of your head are all counted.” Every part of you is known to God. Even the smallest, most insignificant thing about you is known to God. Now that might be a frightening thing to us—to be completely known by God, so Jesus adds in v31 “Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” God knows us so well because God loves us so well. God loves us and cherishes us and takes care of us. God is always with us.
So we have these great words from Isaiah 43:1 where God says to us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” You have got to love that. The next time you are having problems, read these verses from Isaiah. Notice that God does not say that we will not have problems. He speaks of passing through waters and rivers.
Here we should remember that the ancient Israelites were not a sea-going people. They did not like big bodies of water; they were not good sailors, they saw the sea as a scary thing. Yet God says in v3: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” What God is saying is that when you face the thing that you fear the most, God will be with you to keep you safe.
He speaks of walking through the fire. God does not promise that we will not suffer; God does not promise that we will not have trouble. There are things that threaten to consume us. These are the kinds of problems that eat away at us, ravage us, reduce us to mere ashes of our former selves. These are the burdens that cause our souls to waste away, transform us into hollow shells of what we once were. These are the fires of life. It’s the burning, searing pain that seems beyond bearing.
God’s word to us is that when there is such destruction in our lives, if we feel as though everything around us has turned to ashes — then we can rejoice, because God says that he is nearby. That fire — whatever it is — will not consume us because we are God’s redeemed people.
There are the things that threaten to overwhelm us. This is the stress, perhaps from multiple sources, that slowly rises like a flood, until there is scarcely any breathing room left. This is when the marriage, the children, the career all conspire to overwhelm us with burdens, decisions and anxiety.
God’s word to us is that if there’s a flood; if the rivers rise and rage; if the waters of calamity flood our lives, making us feel as if we’ll just about drown if things get worse, then rejoice, for you know that God is with us. We will not be overwhelmed. We’re redeemed. And that’s not all. We are “precious” (v. 4). We are “honored” (v. 4). We are “loved” (v. 4).
We’ll pass through the fire unburned. We’ll walk through the flood unharmed because God is with us, making it impossible for the fires and floods of life to lay a hand on our souls. So we do not need to worry about premature obituaries. We do not even need to worry about obituaries.
Henrietta Mears is a Christian Educator, she says, “If you ever happen to see in the obituary column that Henrietta Mears has died, don’t you believe it! This old body may die, but I’ll be glad of that .... I’ll have a new body. And what will I do when I get to heaven? Well, I am going to ask the Lord to show me around. I’ll want to get in a rocket ship and inspect all the galaxies he has made. And maybe he will give me a planet of my own so that I can start building something. Oh, it’s going to be wonderful!”
She is right, it is going to be wonderful to be with a God who loves us.
But the text not only tells us a lot about ourselves, it also speaks volumes about the God who is there to help us write our life’s story.
God created us (v. 1). Brought us into being. Gave us life.
God formed us (v. 1). Gave us definition. Specificity. Personality.
God made us for his glory (v. 7). Gave us a reason for being.
God redeemed us (v. 1). Gave us back our lives ruined by sin. Made us useable, useful. Made us persons of worth.
God is the one who has called us (v. 1). Given us a mission, a summons to righteous living.
God is the one who claims us as his own. “You are mine,” God says (v. 1).
God is the Holy One (v. 3).
God is our Savior (v. 3).
This, then, is the One who — thus identified — promises to be with us through flame and flood.
We’re made by God. We are loved by God. We’re in the presence of God, right here, right now and always. That is not an exaggeration. God’s love for us can not be exaggerated. God’s love is so big, so strong, so powerful that mere words can not contain it any more than an obituary is ever an accurate assessment of a life. An obituary, whether premature or not, is a fragmentary reflection. Any person’s life is far bigger than any obituary they might have. Even so, the love of God for us is so much bigger than we can say. It is beyond expression, beyond language, beyond words.
This is so, even when we feel afraid; even when we feel alone — God is with us, caring about us and loving us. Of course, death comes to us all. An obituary will be written — some day. Someone has said that good health is merely slowing the rate at which you die. That is certain true, no matter how good our health may be, we are all going to die.
But not now. First there are other times to be endured, long before obituaries are necessary. There are the times when hardship, adversity, misfortune or calamity are the sloppy mud we’re immersed in every day. There are days, or months, when we’re slogging through those deepening floodwaters up to our necks, chilled to the bone and hoping to heaven we’ll survive. There are times when we’re running around putting out fires everywhere, barely able to catch our breath, while our lives are going up in smoke.
At times like those we may feel as if God has it in for us. Wrong. God is in it for us.
Few of us have premature obituaries on file at media companies awaiting our demise. Even so, we may want our obituaries, however humble, to say something like: She persevered in hard times because of her faith. The trials and tragedies of life never stopped her from loving her family. She worked hard. She spent time with her kids. She loved to laugh. When the rivers rose, she survived. When the fires burned, she endured — because she was a child of God.
I suppose we all want a sort of complimentary obituary, but Isaiah reminds us that as long as we have breath in us, it’s premature to publish our obituary, because there is always hope no matter what our situation may be.
Helen Keller was born in 1880. She lost her sight, hearing and ability to speak due to a severe illness in infancy. If anyone ever had reason to give up on life, she certainly did, but she did not give up. Helen Keller not only learned to read, write, and speak, but went on to graduate cum laude from Radcliffe College. In addition to being the author of articles, books and biographies, Helen was active on the staffs of the American Foundation for the Blind and the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind. She also was an inspiring lecturer and received many awards.
Helen’s strength and optimistic attitude helped her overcome her weaknesses, which could have been permanent handicaps. She could have complained, and felt sorry for herself, but she wanted a more productive and meaningful life, and she achieved that life. She refused to give up.
We should also refuse to give up. We are not alone, God is with us, and in God all things are possible.
You have come to church today, hoping to hear God’s of powerful voice speaking to you where you are, speaking words of love to you. So often we hear only sounds of uncertainty and anxiety; we long to sense God’s presence with us. Sometimes we are afraid, sometimes we feel powerless. Sometimes we feel alone and unloved and forgotten. We need to hear God’s life-giving words, where God says to us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.” “I have called you by name. You are mine.”
When we face a crisis, that threatens to overwhelm us, when we feel like we are drowning in the flood, we need to hear God’s word that when we pass through the waters, God will be with us.
We face personal trials, when we are burned by our circumstances. Let us depend upon God’s promise that when we walk through fire we shall not be burned.
Above all, remember God’s love. Remember how he said to us, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” Amen.
Electric New Paper, The. Newpaper.asia1.com. Retrieved July 9, 2003.
Frankel, Daniel. “Bob Hope not dead,” E! Online News, June 5, 1998, Eonline.com.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 03/23/04