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“God’s Support & Protection through Flood and Fire”

Jan.13/13 Isaiah 43:1-7


There’s a popular saying, “Into each life a little rain must fall...” Yet for some folks, it seems more like a downpour than “just a little rain”! The phrase is found in a poem The Rainy Day by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining; / Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall, / Some days must be dark and dreary.”
He doesn’t specify what the cause of the sadness may be. Troubles can be anything, from snowstorm cancellations to serious sickness to relational friction. Ella Fitzgerald adapted Longfellow’s phrase into a song that points more directly to interpersonal difficulties:
“Into each life some rain must fall / But too much is falling in mine
Into each heart some tears must fall / But some day the sun will shine
Some folks can lose the blues in their hearts / But when I think of you another shower starts
Into each life some rain must fall / But too much is falling in mine.”
    This life has its trials, of all sorts. That’s one thing about the Bible - it deals with life realistically, acknowledging there are difficulties. Isaiah 43:2 doesn’t talk about IF problems will happen, but WHEN they happen: “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...” Not IF, but WHEN. Contrary to eastern religions, this world is not an illusion, it is very REAL with real problems. Even Jesus could say frankly in the Sermon on the Mount, “Each day has enough trouble on its own.” (Mt 6:34) And to the disciples on their last evening together before He was crucified He said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Jn 16:33)
    So, the Bible teaches that we will have troubles, BUT also that God will be there and help us through them. They may be waters and rivers, like a flood; or at the other end of the spectrum, they may be like a raging fire. The Israelites passed through the Red Sea on their exodus from Egypt, then through the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. Before they went through the Red Sea they were backed into a corner, pursued by the Egyptian army. What troubles are you facing? Has something got you ‘backed into a corner’ with no way out? That may be what the “waters” in this passage represent for you.
    Later, in Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar erected a gold image 90 feet high and commanded everyone to bow down and worship it. When 3 Jews named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to fall down and worship the image. As a result the king had them chucked into a blazing furnace. But One who the king described as looking “like a son of the gods” appeared walking around in the flames with them. The 3 faithful Jews came out of the furnace completely unsinged, not even smelling of fire. Is there some bully pressuring you, like the king bullied Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Do you feel put on the spot because of your faith, even persecuted because your Christian beliefs clash with those of others? Or are you ‘feeling the heat’ because you’re trying to resist some very strong temptation? We can find ourselves “walking through the fire” in various ways. The question is not IF we will face such trials, but WHEN. Yet God promises to be with us when we are His people.
    Someone once said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Do you think that person might have experienced significant suffering in their life? Want to know who actually said it? Helen Keller, who was not only blind but also deaf. This famous invalid refused to become discouraged by the “rain” that fell in her life; when she passed through the waters of physical handicaps, she found them essential for character development. God used the trials to make her into the person of note she became.


This chapter of Isaiah 43 sets out clearly that God is our origin, our Creator, we belong to Him. V1 “this is what the Lord says – He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel...” Also v7 “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” One of the questions any satisfactory worldview must answer is how we got here. The Bible teaches that God made the heavens and the earth, and filled the earth with a wide variety of life-forms, culminating in mankind, made in God’s own image. Secularists propose that we evolved randomly from inert matter – a view that is coming to be seen as chemically and statistically more IMprobable all the time, as science discovers the complexity of living molecules and how finely tuned are the systems required to sustain life as we know it. The secular person doesn’t feel they “owe God” anything, they are “beholden to none”, independent, free of any moral obligation.
    Not so for the Christian. If we believe God created and formed us, that means we owe our very being to Him. We are contingent, derivative, not existing on our own steam but by His sheer grace. We are dependent creatures not independent; we have a debt at the root of our existence, we “owe” God, we have an obligation because He did that (creating) for us. So we BELONG to Him: v7 “everyone who is called by My name...” When a manufacturer forms and makes something, like a Chevy car or an Apple computer, they put their name (or at least their symbol / trademark) on it. We are called by God’s name, we belong to Him. V1 “I have summoned you by name; you are Mine.”
    This is echoed in the New Testament; Paul writes to Titus (2:14), “[Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” If you have trusted Jesus as your Saviour, do you sense at the very core of your being that you are His, you belong to Him? Elsewhere Paul states, “All things belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” (1Cor 3:22f)


So, God has a definite claim on our lives. But it’s not a matter of dispassionate and heartless ownership. God also makes it very clear that He loves us dearly. V4 “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you...” Hear those words? “You are precious - honoured - I love you.” Deep in our hearts we need to know that we’re special to someone, we’re loved by someone – that’s the way God has made us, to crave that. Through the prophet Jeremiah the Lord said, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.” (Jer 31:3) Jesus told His disciples, “the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (Jn 16:27)
    God loves you! He treasures those who are His. It’s been said, “The love of God is like the Amazon River flowing down to water one daisy.”


Someone recommended the CBC series Heartland to us, and we found it was available on Netflix (we don’t have TV), so have been watching episodes from season 1 to start. I must admit, at first it seemed like just a soap opera with horses, but it’s growing on us. (I may be in need of counselling!) I like the grandfather character “Jack”, an unpolished old rancher, a man-of-few-words but with acute observation. But in the first season the main focus is on the relationship between young Amy and farmhand Ty, who’s making his way through the correctional system. More than once Ty expresses his unconditional support to Amy with words like, “I want you to know I’m here for you.” (At least, before he runs off and leaves her at the end of the season!)
    Such words are some of the best ways we can express loving support for another person: “I’m here for you.” In a way, that’s how the Lord communicates His unwavering support for believers in Isaiah 43. V2 “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you...” V5 “Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west.” The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel interprets the angel’s announcement to Joseph that Mary would give birth to a son who’d save His people from their sins as a fulfilment of a prophecy from Isaiah 7:14: “"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" —which means, "God with us."” (Mt 1:23) Jesus is the ultimate expression of God taking human form to be with us. In the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel, at His ascension Jesus promised, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The author of Hebrews portrays Christ as a merciful and faithful high priest who “had to be made like His brothers in every way”; “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Heb 2:18) Jesus knows what you’re going through; He knows what temptations all about, because He has come among us, He’s stood with us in unwavering support.
    Have you had people misunderstand and slander you? Jesus was absolutely innocent, yet people condemned Him and hung Him on a cross to kill Him. Have you had trust issues in your own family? Jesus’ brothers didn’t even believe in Him (though some did after Easter). Has your friend let you down? One of Jesus’ own disciples, Judas, betrayed Him – Judas, whom Jesus had even entrusted with the group’s finances. Jesus can relate to whatever you’re facing.


So, what do we have so far? A messed-up world, plagued with floods and fires, sin’s painful consequences; we as creatures have an obligation to God, who loves us and supports us – but what’s going to be done about those trials, the mess we find ourselves in? There needs to be a clean-up crew. Somehow things need to be set right. So God arranges the solution we can’t come up with for ourselves. When we’re held hostage by evil, God in His grace sets up a ransom, an exchange, so we can be redeemed, brought back. Vv3-4 “For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.”
    Note the piling-on of titles here, underscoring God’s unique identity and prerogative: “the LORD” (in caps - YHWH, God of being); “your God” elohim the Divine One; “the Holy One of Israel” - sacred, hallowed, set apart; “your Saviour” - liberator, deliverer, helper. God will ransom His people by giving another in exchange for them. This plainly suggests the substitutionary aspect of Christ’s atonement – His perfect sinless life in exchange for our fallen guilty one. Historically, there’s reference to other nations (such as Egypt) taking Israel’s place – perhaps God directed the Babylonian king’s heart to attack Egypt instead of Israel, or Cyrus of Persia was allowed to loot Egypt as a reward for his kindness to the Jews. But the historical exchange points to the more general ransom of Christ’s death on the cross. Now believers “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Ro 3:24)
    Vv5b-6 hint of God’s saving acts in restoring our fractured lives. “Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west.I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth...” In Isaiah’s time, this immediately related to the Jews coming back from nations where they were exiled. For us now, there’s a wholeness that happens in our lives, a healing or re-integration when we yield control to God and stop trying to juggle all the spinning plates ourselves. “To save” (which is Jesus’ job) means to bring salvation or shalom, peace, wholeness. The Holy Spirit can glue our broken bits back together - our relationships, families, priorities - through forgiveness, grace, and humility.


What’s all this saving activity of God moving towards? There are specific purposes He has for His people, a claim on us due to His creating and intervening.
    First, despite all the unsettling trials and disturbance around us, we are to FEAR NOT. V1 “But now, this is what the LORD says...‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’” Also v5, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you...” Paul told believers they should “Be joyful always” and “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1Thess 5:16,18) – note “always” and “all” circumstances. James could write, “Consider it pure joy...whenever you face trials of many kinds...” (Jas 1:2) Having God’s promises of unconditional support in our lives makes a real difference when we’re being tested. Two of my favourite verses in this regard are Isaiah 41:10 and Deuteronomy 31:8; they’re worth memorizing! Is 41:10 says, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Deut 31:8 is engraved on the inside of my wedding ring; it says, “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”
    The Lord continues in the prophecy of Isaiah 43 to say in v10 “You are my witnesses” and v12 “You are my witnesses that I am God.” His actions in creating and saving us oblige us to be His witnesses, speak up for Him, tell others about His sovereignty and saving power. “Understand that I am He.Before Me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me...From ancient days I am He.No one can deliver out of My hand; when I act, who can reverse it?” (Is 43:10ff)
    Have we accorded God that importance, that elevated position in our lives? Do we live and pray as if everything depends on Him? Or have we organized our lives in such a way that we can get along very well without Him, ‘thank you very much’?! That’s not how Paul saw it; he wrote to Timothy, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (1Tim 1:17)
    A key aspect of being God’s witnesses is MAKING HIM LOOK GOOD. Note what our purpose is according to v7: “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” God created us FOR HIS GLORY, to ‘make much of Him’ and help Him become more appreciated by those around us. What would those in the secular world say their purpose is? Maybe - “to have a good time”? That’s not it for the Christian. Our goal is not to make much of ourselves, but to make much of God, glorify Him, point out His goodness in so many ways to others.
    We are created for God’s glory. The apostles expressed it this way: Paul - we are “for the praise of His glory”; we are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works...” (Eph 1:12; 2:10) Peter - “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Peter says trials come so our faith may “result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” And, “If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” (1Pe 2:9; 1:7;4:11)


Today’s scripture passage is not a ‘play it safe’ kind of passage; it’s a “get out there, take a risk, and discover God’s saving power” kind of passage. One man who does this quite literally was featured in Time magazine.
    “Everyone in Cabrini-Green (one of Chicago’s toughest housing projects), it seems, knows 63-year-old Brother Bill. He’s hard to miss – he wears a flowing, sky-blue cassock made from hundreds of tattered denim patches. Brother Bill’s mission is to bring peace to the troubled housing project. 53 times, by his count, he has waded into gunfire in order to stop it; 53 times the gunfire has stopped, and 53 times he has emerged unscathed. He talks trigger-itching assailants into putting away their guns and going home to their families. He sits beside wounded gangsters who hope to die and persuades them to live. And he insists that there is nothing special about him or his accomplishments. He just says, “I’m an ordinary man on an extraordinary mission.” He doesn’t preach, he loves. One of his fans, a 22-year-old Vice Lord, says: “I really think God sent him here.”
    Isaiah prophesied, “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned...” He probably wasn’t thinking about GUNfire! But Brother Bill has been kept safe doing reconciling work. Now, God may not be asking you to actually walk into the line of fire in that sense – but how MIGHT He be asking you to be His ambassador where there’s conflict, say? How is He seeking for you to be His witness, praying with people, calling others to reconciliation? May He keep you safe through the danger, and reward you as you glorify Him. Let’s pray.