Week 19 The Story
J. B. Phillips, whose paraphrase of the New Testament has helped many, also wrote a provocative little book entitled Your God is Too Small. He wanted to help people think of God in new ways.
“Many men and women today are living, often with inner dissatisfaction, without any faith in God at all. This is not because they are particularly wicked or selfish or, as the old-fashioned would say, “godless,” but because they have not found with their adult minds a God big enough” to ""account for"" life, big enough to ""fit with"" the new scientific age, big enough to command their highest admiration and respect, and consequently their willing cooperation” (p. vi).
It’s possible, as our awareness of reality expands with adulthood, for our knowledge of God to remain at a juvenile level. If we let that happen, we end up having to choose between the facts as we see them and loyalty to an inadequate God. We end up secretly fearful that some new discovery in human knowledge might overturn our beliefs. We end up worshiping God not with glad confidence but only as a duty. That is a defeatist faith. Nowhere does the Bible teach us to think that way.
The prophetic faith of the Bible brings all of reality, including the perplexities of life, under the command of God. The Bible doesn’t shrink from problems; it deliberately creates more problems for us. Why? Because we do settle for superficial answers. But God wants to lift us to a mature reality toward a goal that deserves our all.
Isaiah foresees the glory of the Lord revealed to the whole world (40:5). The Lord is not coming down just to patch things up a bit. He intends nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth (65: 17; 66:22), and he’s starting that newness with us. Isaiah envisions the ongoing reformation and revival of the people of God (42:18-44-23), until we are completely remade.
Now, how does God work out his great plan? What strategies is he using? Does the history we see unfolding around us look like the emergence of a renewed human race in a renovated universe? Is that the lead story on CNN today? If not, what do we need to understand to be confident in the promises of God? Isaiah shows us the improbable methods God is using. The structure of this message is threefold. First, God accepts final responsibility for everything that happens. Secondly, God warns us not to take offense at that. Thirdly, God calls us to embrace him as God.
God’s greatness: “I am the Lord, who does all these things” (44:24-45:8)
Our arrogance: “Woe to him who strives with his Maker” (45:9-13
God’s invitation: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth” (45:14-25).
Due to space we will focus primarily on number one. God wants to help us accept God not as the God we expect but as the God who does things his own way. God is “a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling” (Isaiah 8:14). But if we’ll get past our prejudices and trust him with a new openness, we’ll find him to be better than we expected.
“Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
‘I am the Lord, who made all things . . .
I am the Lord, who does all these things’” (44:24a, 45:7b)
The whole creation belongs to God. He “stretched out the heavens” and “spread out the earth” by himself (44:24). As the Creator, God is free to interrupt the processes of history and bend events any way he wants them to go, while the prognosticators of worldly wisdom have nothing but past patterns and present trends from which to extrapolate (44:25). But God can hit rewind, fast-forward, whatever he wants, no matter what anyone else says. In fact, here’s one of his improbable strategies. He plans to raise up a man named Cyrus – God is calling him by name over a century in advance, to prove his own sovereignty over human events. God plans to raise up Cyrus the Great, the Persian conqueror, to defeat Babylon, set the Jewish people free, and send them home to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple (44:26-28). And why does God bother to do that? Because the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ will not appear in Babylon. The prophetic word was, “Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” (40:9). God’s people have to get home to prepare the way of the Lord. So God is shaping all of history, including what we regard as secular events, to advance his purpose centered in the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
You can well imagine Isaiah’s original Jewish readers loving his assertions of God’s greatness. But there’s a problem: “who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd. .’ Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus. . . (Isaiah 44:28a; 45:1a).
Isaiah has been arguing that idols and idol-worshipers are stupid. But Cyrus was an idolater. He did give credit to the God of Israel for his victory over Babylon, and he did free the Jews to go home and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4), but that was just Cyrus’s way of being diplomatic. He freed all the foreign peoples enslaved in Babylon and rebuilt all their temples. That was his general policy because he wanted the favor of all the gods. We have a record of this in his own words. But God calls this pagan politician “my shepherd” and speaks to him as an “anointed” messiah-figure. We can feel how bracing this is by looking at the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. Isaiah 45:1 calls the pagan Cyrus, a “Christ.”
Shepherd and Anointed One were titles of the royal line of David. Now God is transferring those titles over to a Gentile conqueror? It must have seemed to the Jews that God was not just washing his hands of them but was overthrowing the whole moral order of the universe. And God says here, “I am the Lord, who does all these things.”
What does Isaiah see? He sees that the sovereignty of God is big enough to include offense. In his mastery of all things, God uses whatever persons and methods he wants to, whether we like them or not. He is not defeated by the gritty realities of human history; he is using them for a redemptive purpose, so that even a Cyrus can foreshadow the true Shepherd and Messiah, Jesus Christ.
If God is sovereign, then all of history, not just church history, is his plan. All events have one ultimate cause, fit into one great purpose, and find their significance in one final victory. That means we can’t box God in. It means we can’t think piecemeal. It means making room for the improbable ways of God.
God has promised that his glorious salvation is the future of the world, and he’s bending all of history around in that direction. Isaiah affirms that in 45:1-7 God made his presence felt by handling the known world over to Cyrus on a silver platter. In that very human struggle, God was working his plan. Three times Isaiah uses a Hebrew particle of purpose, I’ma’an: “. . . that [Cyrus] may know that it is I, the Lord” (v. 3); “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen..“(v.4). “that people may know from the rising of the sun and from the west” (v. 6).
Do you see how the purpose of God spreads out ever more widely, from Cyrus to Israel to the nations? What is God accomplishing with his ever-expanding reach? He is proving that “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (v. 6). And in his perfect maturity, if I may put it that way, he accepts full responsibility for his actions.
“I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all things” (v. 7).
Let’s stop trying to rescue God from a problem he created for himself by claiming full mastery over all things. Let’s not relieve God of his responsibilities as King of the universe. The very thing we perceive as a problem, God perceives as his glory, namely, God owns the dark moments of life. He bends everything around for a saving purpose. When Isaiah wrote this so long ago, he did not overlook a difficulty that we brainy modern people happened to notice. Isaiah 45:7 is not an embarrassment. It’s what we love about God. Not even evil can frustrate him. And his surprising strategies are our assurance.
They are also a delight to God himself. See what he’s doing by his sovereign power:
“Shower, O heavens, from above;
and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;
let the earth cause them both to spout;
I, the Lord, have created it” (v. 8).
If you are in Christ, this is a picture of what God promises to do for you – fresh, new life springing up out of the natural deadness that you are without his sovereign grace. Do not insist on what we call miracles, God will use many methods to do great things. And whatever his strategy may be at any given moment, he looks at what he’s doing and rejoices in it. You should too. You can be happy that God is God, because he’s better qualified for it than you are. The reason we chafe under God’s providences is not God; the reason is our arrogant demands of God.
God is glorifying himself by being himself. And his being God is our salvation – if we’ll have him. Someday each one of us will bow before Jesus Christ crucified as God’s Ultimate Surprise (Philippians 2:9-11). If you’ll look past his unimpressive followers now, if you’ll trust him enough to join him in the way of his cross, you will bow then in the deepest joy forever. But if you cling to your hurt feelings and dashed expectations and broken dreams and stubborn pride, and if you insist on sulking and having things your own way, you will bow unwillingly then, to your eternal exclusion and regret. And the saddest part will be, you will deserve it.
C.S. Lewis wrote a series of children’s stories in which the Christ figure is a lion. In one scene a girl named Jill bursts into an opening in a forest. She’s thirsty. She spies a stream not far away, but she doesn’t rush forward to throw her face into its refreshing current. Instead she freezes in fear because a lion is resting in the sun right beside the stream.
“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I – could I – would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make a promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer. “Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“O dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.