February 4, 2018

Have You Not Known? Have You Not Heard?

Passage: Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39
Service Type:

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

Do you ever feel yourself to be an alien in Canada even though you have lived here most or all of your life? Do you ever feel that the current culture has exiled you, left you feeling you don’t belong any longer, left you feeling you are a stranger precisely where you had always thought you would feel at home?

I do. When I first started out in ministry the idea of physician-assisted suicide was a fringe idea that one could hardly imagine ever taking hold in Canada. And yet today I find myself called into situations seeking my pastoral counsel regarding this very decision because our government has seen fit to make such things legal.

There are other reasons why people feel themselves exiled, far from home. They don’t feel “at home” with life, with themselves, ultimately with God, inasmuch as too many negativities have piled up too quickly.

Isaiah chapter 40 marks the beginning of the second part of Isaiah; written during the Babylonian exile. The Israelite people have been carried off into exile. Their captors, the Babylonians, make fun of them, taunt them, humiliate them, despise them. The Israelite people feel themselves so far from home they couldn’t feel stranger. What compounds their strangeness in the midst of the Babylonians is their feeling that God has abandoned them. They couldn’t help asking themselves, “Would anything ever jog God’s memory? All too soon they became dispirited, demoralized, weary. They wanted only to lament, “What is the point of going on? Why struggle to be God’s faithful people? Why not give up and yield to the pressure of Babylonian paganism? We are weary beyond telling.”

I wonder if we feel the same about church life—we are exiles in a strange land. The numbers are declining. The tasks to be done to keep the church functioning fall to fewer and fewer people. Some tasks we have simply stopped doing. The average age of our congregation is not going down. Children present at worship are few. We feel weary. I understand that God’s people in exile feel bone-weary.

1. Listen again to what the prophet says to these bone-weary people. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”
Please note that this prophet does not begin by telling people, “Just be patient”. He doesn’t say, “Cheer up now, nothing is as bad as it appears”. He doesn’t insult them by reminding them that they would feel better if only they stopped bellyaching. Instead he directs their attention away from themselves to GOD. “Do you not know? HE doesn’t grow weary, never. And HIS understanding is unsearchable” — which is to say, God’s grasp of our situation is wider, deeper, more comprehensive, more thorough than our fragmentary, distorted grasp can ever be.

It’s as though we are standing before a huge painting. The painting is immensely detailed, yet not chaotic or even cluttered; the painting has balance and coherence and unity. Nevertheless, we are standing so close to it, with our faces hard up against it, that we see nothing of the balance and coherence and unity. In fact we are so close to the welter of detail that we can’t even recognize it as detail; to us it looks like a smudge, a smear, a blot. From a range of half-an-inch we can see only a fuzzy daub which means nothing and whose colour we can’t even recognize.

In other words, the prophet encourages us to trust God’s picture of our situation. For not only is his understanding unfathomable, his persistence is undeflectable just because God never grows weary. The prophet comforts his people not by pretending that exile is less onerous than they know it to be (no comfort in such an insensitive bit of patronizing) but rather by directing them to the God whose unsearchable understanding and undeflectable persistence comprehend their situation now and will include it in that glorious painting which they will one day see themselves and for which they will praise him.

2. Have you not know? Have your not heard? These questions are repeated twice by the prophet in the text we read today. First to proclaim the wonder that God is the creator of all we see—he numbers the stars and calls them by name—so nothing escapes his attention. Our way is not hidden to God; our lives are not too small to attract God’s attention. Second to remind them that God doesn’t grow weary and God’s understanding unsearchable—this is the God who walks in company with them.

“Have you not know? Have your not heard?” Are the prophet’s questions to remind or to educate? Were they rhetorical and the implied answer is they had heard and knew? Were they queries about having sufficient information? I suspect a little of both. There is an effect that being bone-weary can have on us such that what is foundational fades into the background. Compounding problems have a way of holding our attention such that we can’t think of much else. Yes, these were God’s people and they should have heard and known of these truths about God. Yet there is another implication in the prophet’s questions; that these truths about God need to be heard and known. The assumption of the question is that these truths ought to be proclaimed and praised.

I invite you to turn your attention with me to the story we read of Jesus (Mark 1:29-39); we discover here that Jesus held the same conviction about hearing and knowing as the prophet. In Mark’s fast moving account he drills down on specific events that serve as examples of the general ministry of Jesus. We read of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law which serves as an instance of what he means when he says that Jesus “cured many who were sick with various diseases.” We read last week of an exorcism at the synagogue; a particular instance of the general ministry of Jesus who “cast out many demons.” Mark wants us to understand that these particular stories were typical of Jesus’ ministry.

Mark tells us that Jesus got up early in the morning and went to a deserted place and prayed. Mark does not say much more about Jesus’ prayer life until the garden of Gethsemane; unlike Luke who notes it routinely. When Mark tells us of this one instance of Jesus praying he does so as picture of what was typical for Jesus. We can see this in the rhythm of his story-telling.

Let us enter the story there. Jesus is off by himself praying and the disciples wake up and can’t find him so go looking. The Greek word used here translated as the disciples “hunted” for Jesus is a word that has hostile connotation—akin to our saying they “tracked him down.” Everyone is looking for Jesus following that marvellous evening when Jesus healed so many. The disciples can’t believe that Jesus is AWOL; incredulous that Jesus doesn’t know what he ought to be doing. In a similar sense the exiles though they knew what God should be doing—ending their exile.

Now note with me Jesus’ response to being scolded by his disciples for being missing in action. “He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1:38) There is a message that needs to be proclaimed. It is the good news Jesus is proclaiming that in him the kingdom of God has come near. It is the amnesty of God announced in the self-giving of the Son on the cross. The gospel needs proclaiming. The Apostle Paul takes up this same conviction; “for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (! Corinthians 9:16)

The truth about God needs to be made known and heard. This is why Jesus came preaching. This is why the church holds peaching as a central aspect of its ministry.

3. Have you not know? Have you not heard? There is yet another implication. The truth about God is not something that is self-evident. It must be proclaimed and made known. Yes, it is true that Isaiah points to God’s creation, the stars for example, to underline the scope of God’s attentive powers. The point the prophet underlines is that God, who has called a people for himself in Israel; a people who were to be a witness of God to the nations; a people who were in exile—this God who calls them, who rescued them from slavery in Egypt; this God is their creator. God who has come to us in Jesus and rescued us from slavery to sin; this God who loves us so much as to pour himself out without remainder at the cross is the creator and holds all things in his powerful grasp. Just as not a single star is missing so not a single believer is every lost to God.

Now I know that the Apostle Paul says that, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1:20) What he doesn’t say is that the righteousness of God is evident in theses things—it is the gospel makes this clear. (Romans 1:17)

A member of our congregation shared a story with me of his being part of a group that met with Geology Professor Nick Eyles for an exploration of an outcropping of Precambrian shield rock on the shores of Georgian Bay. As the geologist explained the giant parameters of “geological time” evident in these rocks, the wonders being described inevitably lead, in our church member’s experience, to only one logical conclusion—the hand of the Creator. This is an instance of what the Apostle Paul noted about what can be understood by what was made.

On a similar note I have long thought the idea of a self-generating universe logically problematic. There are no self-generating beings in our world. None of us got life for ourselves as if by some power of our own we thrust ourselves into existence. So if I can see that nothing in the universe is self-generating why would I conclude the universe somehow possesses such power? It points me in the same direction as my friend listening to the wonders of the earth being explained—something or someone outside the universe is the source of this generation.

The wonders of the creation point do us in a certain direction. However, they do not tell us much about the character of this God. We learn first—having heard and known—of the God who loves us in Jesus Christ, as Israel comes to know in the conversation initiated by God that his steadfast love endures for ever; and then learn that this God who loves us is also our creator. This is why the wonders of the universe confirm your faith—you already have heard and know God.

3. A final note on those who wait for the Lord. “Waiting for the Lord” is a euphemism for our discipleship; a description of faith. It isn’t waiting around or loitering. It is to be engaged in the things of faith we know to do—prayer, fellowship, reading his word, serving where we can. Our waiting isn’t aimless—we set our hope on this God having entrusted our future to him. He can comprehend at once in his “eternal now” what we see only piecemeal with each passing instant. Not even those developments in our lives which we find now to be unrelieved negativity are going to frustrate him.

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. Believers of every era have found God to be as good as his promise. Centuries before this prophetic word of Isaiah, Joshua spoke God’s message to a fearful people, “Be strong and of good courage.” Remember that every command of God is a veiled promise of God. What God commands us to do God first promises us what we need to do it. Every command of God, in other words, is just another form of the promise of God. It is the command of God that we be strong. It is the promise of God that if we wait for him we shall find our strength renewed. Believers without number can testify that this promise God has fulfilled time and again in their own life. You can’t describe how you got through some difficulty—you just know you did.

We are also promised that those who wait for the Lord are going to run without becoming weary; so weary, that is, as to quit running. In the ancient Hebrew world jogging was unheard of and the Olympic Games centuries away. People never ran for leisure. They ran for two serious reasons: to deliver good news and to save life. Both purposes coalesce in the gospel, for the gospel is good news which saves. It is important to note that we are brought into saving fellowship with God by the announcement of the gospel and we are sustained in the faith by the same gospel. This is the good news our world needs to hear and know.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.