Sorrows and Sighs
The following comment was posted by a girl on an atheist website:
“I’m confused … I always believed science would be the cure-all for my problems, but I don’t know if I can keep living without eternal life. I guess I’ll just have to find a way myself to make it through this meaningless existence. I just wish I knew of someone who could show me the path to eternal life. If science can’t provide the answers, though, then who or what can!? *sigh* Doesn’t it seem like there is a higher power that gives our lives purpose? Well, science says there isn’t, so there isn’t.” Science does not in fact say there isn’t a higher power, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Have you ever felt like this girl though? Can you relate to her angst? Have you ever really wondered if there is any point at all? Even Bertrand Russell, the great and influential philosopher, realized that without God, life, the universe itself, is truly meaningless.
Hope is in short supply in our culture these days. If life as one sees it now on this pain-filled planet is all there is, then existence is indeed meaningless and we must, as this girl says, “find a way myself.” She realizes there is one thing that would make everything meaningful: eternal life. She once expected science to find a way for humans to live forever, but she has come to realize that it cannot.
At one point in history, there was a group of people who trusted in someone they fervently believed would truly change the world for good. A handful of devout Jewish people thought a man named Jesus was the Messiah – the deliverer who would break their oppressive bondage under the Romans and set up a permanent and truly godly kingdom on earth. Their prophet Isaiah had prophesied in the ancient Jewish writings that the Messiah would come and restore all things to a paradise, where there would be no more fighting, oppression, fear, or death. Everyone would live together in peace forever.[i]
Seems a far cry from the world we live in, doesn’t it? We live in a world filled with sorrow and sighing. Anxiety and anger. Oh, there’s beauty in life, in this world, to be sure. Traces and reminders of the goodness and creativity of God. But this beautiful world can also be a brutal world, for it is a world filled with so much that isn’t good. If we’re really honest with ourselves, we wonder, “How can a place that is so beautiful also contain within it so much ugliness? How can a world filled with majestic mountain peaks and 365 incredible sunsets a year also have the fury of the hurricane and tornado? How can human beings be so self-sacrificial and filled with goodness and yet live lives marked by brokenness and sin and indecency. How is it that we are able to take a heart out of one person and place it in another person and have it continue to bring life, and yet we cannot cure cancer? Why can’t everyone who wants a job find a job? Henry David Thoreau’s writing often reflected on our human tendency to reside in sorrows and sighing. In his classic work Walden he wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
It was among a people in exile, leading lives of quiet desperation, lives filled with sorrows and sighing, that the Old Testament prophet Isaiah ministered. Life didn’t make sense. There was no room in their theology or self-perception for a people of God living in exile. Defeated. Broken. Solomon’s great temple reduced to rubble. Jerusalem destroyed. Was what their Assyrian captors were telling them true? Were the Assyrian gods stronger than the God of Israel? Hadn’t God always said that there was no other god beside him? Was God too weak? Was there even a God at all, or was everything just random, meaningless?
To a people asking those kinds of questions, to people wrestling with the meaning and goodness of life, Isaiah asks a simple question – who are you going to trust? Turn with me to Isaiah 35.
Isaiah’s entire ministry was a reaction against Judah’s insistence on looking everywhere but TO GOD for meaning, purpose, and security. They were running around frantically trying to find … something … someone … and always coming up short. God had proven, again and again throughout their history, that he was with them and would provide for them, at times against all odds on purpose, and yet, they wouldn’t trust him. It was always “God and …” God and a healthy economy. God and a strong army. God and physical strength and health. The problem is, the AND always falls short. There is no “God and …” With the girl on the atheist web site, our hearts created for and longing for something eternal, we cry out, “I guess I’ll just have to find a way myself to make it through this meaningless existence.” Our default setting is “God is not trustworthy” so we place our trust in self and others, anything that is not God.
It is in that often quiet but sometimes not-so-quiet desperation that God comes to us. In chapters 34-35, Isaiah lays before us our choice – who are we going to trust? In chapter 34, he summarizes our human tendency to place our trust in ourselves, in our human ingenuity, in our own ability to solve all of life’s problems and challenges on our own. When my brother Brad was a toddler, his favorite phrase was “My do it!” He didn’t want any help from anyone with anything. He’s 44 now, and I think that’s still his motto – “My do it!” Truth is, it’s the motto of humanity. I don’t need your help God. I don’t need you. My do it.
Isaiah 34-35 are poetic. And in Vv. 8-14 of chapter 34 he poetically, artistically describes the outcome of a life lived by that motto … But then, in chapter 35, he begins to describe the outcome of life lived trusting God. Look at Vv. 1-4.
God comes to us. In our broken lives of quiet despair, lives filled with sin and shame, God comes to us. Not because we are somehow worthy, but because it is in the nature of God to come. To love. We talk about our “coming to Christ” or “coming to faith in Christ” and we do, but we only have to take the last step. If the journey from us to God could be depicted as a thousand mile journey, God covers the thousand miles, up until the last step. And then he lets us decide. Will you trust me, or are you going to keep doing it your way? If it’s a journey of one thousand miles, we only have to take one step. God takes the rest. He comes to us so that we may come to him.
Stacey King was an NBA basketball player in the late 80s and early 90s. He spent his first 4 seasons as a reserve player for the Bulls. During the 1990 season King only started six games and averaged 15 minutes per game. But one night, during an overtime game against Cleveland, he contributed to an important victory. He said it would always be the greatest memory of his life: the night he and Michael Jordan scored a combined total of 70 points in a NBA playoff game. Michael Jordan scored his career-high 69 points, and King scored his one. God comes to us, so that we may come to him.
And life with God is a life filled with hope and joy and vitality. Notice the difference in the imagery between Isaiah 34 and Isaiah 35. In chapter 34, living places become dead. In chapter 35, dead places spring to life. Humanity makes the habituated places inhabitable. God makes the barren places filled with abundant provision. Now, remember, this is poetry. This is figurative language. Certainly we have the capacity as human beings to live in places some once thought were uninhabitable. We have had people living hundreds of miles above the earth on the International Space Station for years. Space isn’t habitable. We’ve been able to make it habitable so to speak. And yet … in spite of our ability to do that, we tend to make life uninhabitable. Miserable. Barren. The desert here is symbolic of our total world – our physical world, our social world, and our spiritual world. Trusting only in ourselves, in human ingenuity and human solutions, leads to living life in a desert. Placing our trust in God leads to living life in a blooming garden.
And it is in Christ that God’s true glory is revealed. John begins his gospel with the words “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:1-5,14). Matthew quotes the words of Isaiah in the opening verses of his gospel, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:23). God with us. God among us. God coming to us. God joining us in the mess we have made and pulling us out.
Look at Vv. 5-7. There are two images here. One is of the infirm being made whole. The other is of the desert busting forth in bloom. “Streams in the desert.” I love that. Streams of life in a barren wasteland, so pervasive that the wasteland is no longer barren at all. It becomes an oasis. To the people Isaiah was ministering to, the infirm and the desert were both viewed as being in the thrall of death, barren, and useless. But in Christ, God takes that which is dead, barren, and useless and fills it with life and beauty and purpose.
On the journey between us and God, the thousand mile journey of which God takes all but the last step, there are two barriers, and God removes them both. The first is our ignorance. We don’t know God. We don’t understand. We don’t get it. We can’t see past the ends of our noses. We look only to ourselves and those around us for answers and solutions and security, only to be let down again, and again, and again. Into our ignorance God reveals himself. In Christ. He doesn’t just give us information. He gives us that, but he gives us so much more. He gives us himself. His presence. He doesn’t just send messengers with messages. He comes himself.
The other barrier is our sin. In Christ, God takes upon himself the judgment that our sin has coming. No one wants to live in a world devoid of justice. We all want evil to be punished and unfairness and injustice to be made right. We don’t like it when it seems that a legitimate wrong goes unpunished. We would certainly prefer that the justice focus a little bit less on us and a little bit more on the bad people out there. What we have to understand is there is bad in each one of us. There is sin in each one of us. We may not all be murderers and child molesters, but we all fall short. We all live lives marked by sin, sin that hurts us and hurts others. And God’s justice falls on Christ for all who place their faith in him. That’s the one step we must take. The step of trust. Of faith. God removes the barriers of ignorance and sin. God comes to us, covering all but the last step, and he offers us a choice. God comes to us so that we might come to him.
Look at Vv. 8-10. A highway. The way of God. What did Jesus say of himself? “I am the … WAY.” The picture here is of a raised highway. Even a fool cannot miss it. No danger can come near it. No REAL danger. Nothing that endangers your soul can come near it. Nothing that can separate you from God’s love can touch you there. This is a level of security the world knows nothing about. Here’s the thing: what we view as a danger and what God knows IS a danger are two different things. In Romans 8, St. Paul says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The only real danger is something that can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Only sin can do that, and God in Christ has removed that barrier for us, if we will trust him.
So you and I have a decision to make. Who are we going to trust? Is it, in the words of the girl on the web site, “I guess I’ll just have to find a way myself to make it through this meaningless existence.” Is it “My do it”? Am I going to decide that God isn’t trustworthy and look elsewhere? Or am I going to trust God?
Yes, I will still face trouble in this life. Tribulation. Distress. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Danger. Sword. But none of these things can separate me from God’s love. None of them. The way of God. Jesus, the Christ. Streams in the desert now, in this life. In the midst of the troubles. And a desert reborn as a lush garden when Christ returns. That is the promise of Emmanuel, God with us. That is the light of Christmas.
Ever since he was a little boy, his parents had been promising that they would give him a beautiful car to drive when he turned 16. He even planned to park it in the family’s barn where it could stay warm and dry. Only first his dad would have to get rid of that old car sitting in the barn. He couldn’t wait for his dad to haul it off to the dump to make way for his dream car.
But when would that day come? When would that new car arrive? And when would his dad get rid of that old junky car under the tarp? Then one evening in early summer he heard strange sounds coming from that old barn. It sounded like power tools … a drill … a hammer. What was going on? Peering into the darkness he saw nothing but the stars overhead. And he noticed that a light was on in the barn. He walked into the warm night air, down the dirt path, and poked his head into the barn door.
When he saw the tarp, rolled up and left against the door, he excitedly thought, Was Dad finally getting rid of that junky old car? But then he suddenly looked and saw one of the most incredible sports cars in automotive history. It was a Corvette, but not just any Corvette. It was the coveted, beautiful, powerful 1963 Corvette 327 V8 with a split window, aluminum knock-off wheels, painted candy apple red.
So that was the car underneath the tarp all those years. He stood there stunned. It was always there, just getting ready for his father’s masterful work of restoration. At that moment his father looked up, his hands deep in the engine bay, and handed his son a socket wrench. With a broad smile, he said, “Come on, son. Grab a tool and let’s get this car ready.” [ii] God is standing there. He’s made the journey. He’s come to you. He’s taken all but the last step. He’s removed the barriers. He’s ready to transform deserts into gardens. Will you trust him? Let us pray.
[i] Source: Josh and Sean McDowell, The Resurrection and You, (Baker Books, 2017), Pages 11-12
[ii] Adapted from Randall Rauser, What on Earth Do We Know about Heaven?(Baker Books, 2013), pp. 157-158