July 14, 2007
Everyone has a story to tell, even the people who seem to smile all the time. This is one of the first things a young pastor learns when he graduates from seminary and begins his ministry. Some people look so well-adjusted and happy that you think they don’t have a care in the world. But they do. If you work with people long enough, you discover that even the “perfect” people know all about sorrow and heartache.
If you stay in one church long enough, you begin to hear the stories. Everybody has one. A tale of sadness or of failure. A story of a broken marriage, of a child with an incurable disease, of alcohol abuse, of crushing financial disaster, of loved ones far from God, of dreams dashed on the jagged rocks of reality. Every face has its own secret story. The pastor soon learns to look behind the smile for the shadows that are always there. Sometimes it takes a while, and sometimes he hears about it second- or third-hand, but over time, the truth comes out and the story is told. But the pastor is not surprised, for behind his own smiling face are many stories, some so painful they are never told, others only alluded to here and there, little whispers of past difficulties that discerning listeners hear even if they don’t fully understand.
Many of them have secretly given up on God because they feel he has wounded them and can no longer be trusted. Others grimly hold on to faith because they have nowhere else to turn. To all those people, God says, “I am still here and I care about you.”
All of us come to a breaking point sooner or later. We come to those moments that change the course of life forever. It’s amazing how suddenly things can change. Tonight we got a phone call with sad news about a beloved missionary whose wife is hanging on to life by a thread because of an automobile accident. Besides being badly injured himself, the husband is wracked with guilt because he was driving when the accident occurred.
So many things can happen so quickly. The phone rings and a voice says, “I’ve got bad news.”
–A failed exam.
–The test came back positive.
–The child died.
–She said no.
–”We’re getting a divorce.”
–The company doesn’t need you anymore.
–”I’m being sued.”
–A friendship suddenly ends.
–A move to a new job 1400 miles away.
–You discover there is another woman or another man.
Time stops. Life will never be the same again. How will you find the strength to go on?
Years ago Joe Bayly wrote a wonderful little book called Psalms of My Life. One of his psalms is called “A Psalm While Packing Books.”
This cardboard box, Lord see it says
“Bursting limit 200 lbs. per square inch.”
The box maker knew how much strain
the box would take what weight would crush it.
You are wiser than the box maker
Maker of my spirit my mind my body.
Does the box know
when pressure increases close to the limit?
No, it knows nothing.
But l know when my breaking point is near.
And so I pray,
Maker of my soul
Determiner of the pressure within upon me
lest I be broken
change the pressure rating
of this fragile container of Your grace
so that I may bear more.
We turn for insight to the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah. In Chapter 40 he writes to his own people–a nation in exile in Babylon. In their despair they wondered if God had forgotten them completely. In reply the prophet reminds them of the incomparable greatness of God. For Isaiah everything begins and ends with God. Nothing in life can be understood apart from him.
To a people whose faith had come to a breaking point, Isaiah points them back to God. His words speak to everyone struggling at a break point of life today.
I. The Principle
“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” (v. 28).
This verse contains four vital truths about God:
A. He is the Everlasting God.
That means he is totally reliable. Because he is everlasting, he has no beginning and no end. Take a line and draw it from infinity to infinity. When you come to the end of infinity, there you will find God. He stands above and beyond anything we can imagine.
There are no deficiencies in him, he does not decay, neither does he change. And so we pray and hear his answer:
“Lord, can you take care of my problem?” “It is no problem to me.”
“Lord, have you seen this before?” “I’ve seen it many times.”
“Lord, you won’t believe the mess I’m in.” “Try me.”
“Lord, will you be there when I need you?” “I was there before you were here, and I’ll still be here after you are gone.”
B. He is the Creator of the Ends of the Earth.
That means he is all-powerful. No problem can be too great for him because he made the things that are causing you the problem.
“Lord, can you handle it?” “Handle it? I made it.”
When you buy a new car or a computer or any appliance, a warranty comes with the purchase. That warranty guarantees the item for a specified period of time. The manufacturer warranties the item because he made it. He stands behind it because his reputation is on the line. He knows how to fix it because he designed it and put it together. Verse 28 is the believer’s warranty for all of life’s problems. And God’s warranty doesn’t end after ninety days. It lasts forever.
C. He Never Grows Weary.
That means he is continually available. “Weary” is what happens when you work to the point of exhaustion. That never happens to God because his strength has no limits. He is never too tired to help us and never too preoccupied with someone else’s problems to listen to our cry. His tank never runs out of gas. If I may put it in human terms, he never answers so many prayers one day that he can’t get out of bed the next day. And he never tires of helping his children.
D. His Understanding No One Can Fathom.
That means he is absolutely trustworthy. He has perfect insight into your life, which means he understands thing about you that you don’t understand about yourself. We see life through a “keyhole” with all our problems filling our field of vision until we can see nothing else, but God sees the big picture–the really big picture. He sees the whole universe, all of it at the same time, past, present and future, and he sees it in panoramic sweep and in the minutest detail.
He is never stumped by our problems.
He is never baffled by our questions.
He is never confused by our confusion.
“When we know not what to do, he knows” (Matthew Henry).
This week I’ve been speaking at Gull Lake Ministries in south central Michigan, between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. It so happens that this passage is the theme verse for the summer so each morning the counselors have used skits with hand motions to teach the children the various parts of the passage. When they came to “his understanding no one can fathom,” they told the children to make a big circle with their arms because a fathom is a nautical term. It’s like looking down into a very deep well that has no bottom. You can drop a coin into the well and you will never hear it hit. So they told the children to make a big circle and then have another friend look into the “well” as if they were amazed at how deep it is. So we practiced that a few times with the children. Then the leaders said that two of the counselors were really great at doing this part of the passage so they called them to the platform. While we recited the verse, one fellow made a big circle with his arms, and when we came to “his understanding no one can fathom,” the other fellow jumped through the circle and landed on the stage with his legs sticking up into the air. It was an excellent demonstration of the truth Isaiah wants us to grasp. You can dive into God but you will never come to the end of his understanding.
II. The Promise
The principle leads us to a promise that comes in two parts.
A. God will supply strength in our weakness.
“He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength” (v. 29).
Notice the words used here. “Strength” refers to the ability to act in the moment of crisis. It speaks of endurance in hard times. “Might” is the power to reproduce. It speaks of vigor and vitality. “Power” means the ability to do what needs to be done. In this context it means that you will have whatever you need whenever you need it to do whatever needs to be done. It literally refers to power in your bones, that is, to physical power to keep on going.
B. God will do it because we all need it.
“Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted” (v. 30)
Young men typically think they have no limits. The summer after I graduated from college, I worked at the Chattanooga Glass Company where they made Coke bottles. My job was to sweep up the broken glass and keep things clean around the machines. It was a good job that paid well–something like $5/hour, which was good money in 1974. I remember working double shifts (16 hours) with no problems because I was young and felt strong and because I needed the money to get married later that summer. It is a peculiar blessing of the young to keep on going long after the old folks have given up. The young stay up later because they don’t get tired as easily. My boys are like that. When they are home, they come and go and talk and carry on at all hours of the day and night. I used to be able to keep up with them. Now I have to take a nap while they just keep on going. And they are still up talking when I finally have to go to bed.
But what is true of me will be true of my boys in the years to come. I’m not going in their direction; they’re coming in my direction. That’s the way life is. Even the strongest of the strong lose heart and give way. We all have to stop and rest eventually. No one can take the strain of life forever. As the late Tom Landry, former coach of the Dallas Cowboys, liked to say, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Even the mightiest oak will crash to the ground if you hit it in just the right spot.
God promises strength in the moment of weakness. And it arrives in the nick of time. A hymn by William Poole says it well:
Just when I need Him, Jesus is near,
Just when I falter, just when I fear;
Ready to help me, ready to cheer,
Just when I need Him most.
Just when I need Him most,
Just when I need Him most,
Jesus is near to comfort and cheer,
Just when I need Him most.
III. The Prospect
“But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (v. 31).
Note the two key phrases in this verse:
A. “Wait for the Lord.”
Some translations say wait upon the Lord. The Amplified Bible adds this in brackets: “who expect, look for, and hope in Him.” Waiting is perhaps the hardest discipline of the Christian life. Most of us hate to wait. I know I do. When I travel, I spend most of my time waiting–at the check-in counter, in the security line, at the gate, in the jetway, in the plane, on the tarmac, in the air, at the gate again, at baggage claim, and on the curb. When you travel, you learn to wait but you never get used to it. That sort of waiting is trivial compared to the wife waiting for a wayward husband to come home, parents waiting for word from their son serving in Iraq, a cancer patient waiting for the results of the latest test, or friends and loved ones waiting for the results of surgery. Waiting in a hospital is like no other waiting in the world. Minutes become hours and hours become days. You sit and stare and idly read a magazine you don’t care about and can’t concentrate on. You wander down to the cafeteria to eat food you can’t taste and listen to conversations you don’t care about. You wait for what seems like an hour only to find out that five minutes have passed since the last time you checked the clock. Such is life for all of us. It goes so quickly sometimes, days and months and years blur together, and then suddenly it slows to a crawl and almost seems to stop.
I have a friend who is going through a crisis regarding his newborn grandchildren who are having serious medical issues. He spoke of being on a roller coaster of emotions as the doctors first gave bad news, then good news, then news that is somewhat confusing. He felt like being taken to the top and then suddenly dropped to the bottom. He added this telling phrase: “I’ve found that it squeezes my mind quite a bit while trying to do other things.”
Cancer can do that to you also. Not just active cancer but cancer patients in remission. As someone said to me this week, “It’s always on the back of your mind.” You think about it every time you get ready for another checkup. What will the doctor find this time? Will the blood work be okay? Will the tests show anything?
When I asked a supremely gifted cancer doctor to tell me the current state of research, he took his hand and spread his fingers, as if to say, “The research is all over the map.” It all depends on what kind of cancer. And where. And when they found it. And where you are being treated. And what treatments are used. Medicine is an art and a science, and there are percentages but no guarantees.
Our text reminds us that we are not waiting for the latest medical breakthrough or even for a message from our loved ones or a new job or an end to a prison sentence or for an offer of a better job or a check for a million dollars. We are waiting for the Lord.
We are not waiting for something.
We are waiting for someone.
So this is not waiting with passive resignation. “It’s hopeless. I can’t do anything about it.” Waiting for the Lord is the highest expression of our faith. “I know God is going to resolve this situation. I don’t know how and I don’t know when, but I know he’s going to do it. I’m not giving up. I’m waiting on him.”
Somewhere recently–and I honestly can’t remember where right now–I heard someone quote Elisabeth Elliot on doing God’s will. She said that when you feel confused and uncertain and don’t know what to do next, and especially when you can’t figure out the bigger picture (which describes most of us most of the time), just get up and do the next time. “There is always a next thing that needs to be done.” It may be small or trivial, but there is always something that needs to be done–washing or cleaning or writing a note or making a phone call or paying bills or cleaning the shelves or filling an order or putting gas in the car or picking up the kids or taking your pills or saying your prayers or weeding the flowers or feeding your dog. Life is like a river that never stops flowing even when we are confused about where it is taking us. So do the next thing. And here is Elisabeth Elliot’s insight. In the doing of the “next thing” even when we are confused, the next thing after that will be revealed to us. And eventually (though it may take a while) we will begin to see the way forward.
Here is the connection with the trials of life I’ve been talking about. Just as my friend spoke of having his mind squeezed by worries about his grandchildren, even so we may come to the place in life where our fears freeze us into total inactivity. Waiting on the Lord means that even in those moments, you make a mental choice to trust in the living God who is all-sufficient for your needs and say, “I am going on with my life.” Not without some doubt and often with tears but I am going on nonetheless.
Waiting does not mean doing nothing. Waiting for the Lord means, “I am totally convinced that God is at work in this awful situation even though I cannot see it at the moment. Therefore I will not let this thing overwhelm me because being overwhelmed will not solve the problem anyway. By God’s grace I will do the next thing that needs to be done, trusting that God is at work behind the scenes.”
So that little step forward–whatever it is–is a step of faith. Waiting is not passive, but active, because you believe God is at work in the midst of the crisis.
B. “Renew their strength”
This is the heart of God’s promise. It is his word to his weary people who feel like they cannot keep going. The word “renew” actually means to exchange one thing for another. It was used of changing clothes. In this passage it means to exchange your weakness for God’s strength. This is a wonderful promise because no matter how desperate your situation is, he’s got more strength than you’ve got weakness. When my boys were young and would hurt themselves playing outside, I would pick them up. That was possible because I could easily carry them. These days I couldn’t pick any of them up. But if I live long enough and end up old and feeble, they will no doubt pick me up. But God does not change as we do. His strength does not lessen over time. The Lord of the universe has more strength than you’ve got problems.
Our text explains how his strength will help us. The passage shows us life in three aspects:
A) Strength to soar. “Mount up with wings like eagles.” This is what happens when you have so much energy and so much enthusiasm that you can’t wait to get out of bed. You rise above your problems with exuberant joy.
B) Strength to run. “Run and not be weary.” This is the God-given ability to withstand enormous pressure. You have unusual strength that you know doesn’t come from yourself. It’s what happens when you say, “I don’t now how I made it through that, but I did.”
C) Strength to walk. “Walk and not faint.” This is stability in the commonplace affairs of life. Walking without fainting is the ability to get up every day, day after day, and do what needs to be done, facing the irritations of life without flinching and with reasonable good humor.
Walking is placed last because it is the daily need of every child of God, and in that sense, it is the highest attainment of faith. Walking is more remarkable than running or soaring precisely because walking is the real “stuff” of life. Walking isn’t exciting but it will get the job done. Galatians 5:16 tells us to “walk in the Spirit.” Walking implies steady progress in one direction by means of deliberate choices over a long period of time. To walk in the Spirit means something like “let your conduct be directed by the Holy Spirit” or “make progress in your life by relying on the Holy Spirit.” It has the idea of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide every part of your life on a daily basis.
Walking is slow compared with driving a car or taking a plane. It’s not flashy. And sometimes walking can be tedious, slow, dull, drab, and downright boring. And yet if you’ve got to get from Point A to Point B, walking will get you there eventually. All you have to do is just start walking and don’t stop until you arrive. Walking in the Spirit is not some mystical experience reserved for a few special Christians. It’s God’s design for normal Christian living. It is nothing more than choosing (by God’s grace) to take tiny steps in the right direction day after day after day.
The Lessons for Today
We can summarize the lessons of this marvelous text three ways:
1) Our greatest need is to look up and see the sufficiency of God. </font size>
As long as you look at your problems, you are not looking at God. When you look at your problems, they will always seem too big for you to handle–because in the last analysis, they are. Who among us is equal to the truly daunting issues of life? We are not equal to divorce, the death of a friend, the ruin of a career, a vicious rumor being spread against us, a massive financial setback, our sons and daughters going off to war, our parents growing old, the collapse of a cherished dream, the end of a long friendship, an attack of severe depression, a disabled child, or a massive heart attack.
Who is sufficient for these things? Yet they are come and we find ways to cope, but we are not equal to them, and sometimes our troubles come in waves, and sometimes the waves utterly overwhelm us.
This week a lady spoke up during a question-and-answer time to say that she had been “on top of the mountain” a week ago, and yet now she had encountered such enormous difficulties, many of them apparently related to her marriage, that she now found herself “under a rock” and completely unable to pray. She seemed both overwhelmed and completely defeated. What should she do?
I reminded her that if she could not pray, she should not force herself to pray but should remember the words of Romans 8:26-27 that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. The word “helps” pictures someone trying a carry an enormous log who has fallen and is trapped underneath it until Paul Bunyan comes along to carry the log on his own broad shoulders. So the Holy Spirit comes to us in our weakness and prays for us. In those moments of utter desperation, when we can do nothing more than utter, “Oh God! Oh Jesus,” we should not berate ourselves. To cry out in desperation, “Lord, have mercy!” may be the most sincere prayer we have ever prayed. And in a sense, those three words lie at the heart of all true prayer.
It is not the magnitude of my problems that matter.
It is the magnitude of my God that makes a difference.
Is he big enough to meet my needs?
2) Our greatest danger is resisting the work of God in our lives. </font size>
It can be a good thing to hit rock bottom if it causes us to look up and see the Lord. Years ago a friend told me that he had learned that truth the hard way. After rising in his career and achieving enormous financial success, he found himself in a place where everything he had was taken away from him. He lost it all, to the point that all he had left was his wristwatch. Everything else was gone. “God did it to show me that I can’t be 99% committed. It’s 100% or nothing.” Sometimes we must be stripped of the things in which we trusted so that our trust might be in God alone. Who are the truly strong people of the world? It is not the glitterati we read about and whose exploits we follow on TV. The strongest people on earth are those who have discovered their own weakness and have turned to the unlimited resources of God.
Show me a man who says, “Only God can get me out of this,” and I will show you an excellent candidate for a miracle.” If someone says, “I’ve come to the end of my rope,” God says, “Wrap yourselves around me and I will be your strength.”
When we are weak, then we are strong in the Lord.
3) Our greatest hope is exchanging our weakness for his strength. </font size>
We are invited to wait on the Lord.
We are promised an exchange.
God will fit the supply to our moment-by-moment need.
Do we need to fly? Run? Walk? It will be given.
He will come to us if we will turn to him. The unlimited power of God flows into our failing humanity on the simple condition of waiting on the Lord.
Are we weary?
Are we discouraged?
Are we confused?
Those words describe all of us from time to time. But we are at length delivered by God and our weakness exchanged for his strength. If that sounds mysterious and even mystical, I grant that it is so. I can offer no empirical proof except the promise of God and the testimony of millions of believers who have found those words to be true.
We mount up with wings as eagles.
We run and are not weary.
We walk and do not faint.
Here, then, is the promise for all of us. God will give all the help we need because he has all the strength and power in the universe. He has so much that it never runs out and we will never come to the end of it.
It all depends on who God is. To say, “I’ve got no place to go but to the Lord” is like saying, “I’ve got nothing to breathe but air.” The issue is not your problems. The issue is God. If God is who he says he is, then you’ve got every reason to be grateful and every reason to be full of hope and every reason to keep believing in the midst of your trials.
They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. This is the promise of God. Amen.