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11.13.11 “Thanksgiving in Troubled Times” Isaiah 51:1-16 Sermon Summary

by on November 15, 2011

Some people argue that the fundamental teaching of the Bible is that we are to be grateful before God. Sometimes life makes it pretty difficult. How can a prophet writing 500 years before Christ help us give thanks today?

Summary Points

  • The challenge of giving thanks when we don’t want to
  • Three perspectives from Isaiah to help us give thanks

Isaiah 51:1-16 was written close to the end of the Exile. In 587 BC  the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and deported the prominent citizens. The Exile would last about 70 years, and prophetic writers like the “Isaiah” of this passage (the Isaiah after whom the book is named wrote two centuries earlier) sustained the faith and hope of the Exiles. It was a challenging task.

Psalm 137:4 poignantly and succinctly states the issue: “How can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” We often find ourselves in a foreign land: When the test results come back positive; when the unimaginable phone call comes; when the betrayal is by the one closest to us; when another month passes without resolution.

The positive perspective of Isaiah 51 is embedded in a section of the book famous for the “Suffering Servant Songs.” In four passages, the most famous including Isaiah 53, the prophet acknowledges the suffering of God’s people, God’s servants, in the world. But despite this, the prophet calls the people to thanksgiving in Isaiah 51. Isaiah offers three perspectives to help us give thanks when we’re in the foreign land.

(1) We are not alone. Isaiah calls us to remember “the rock from which we were hewn,” including Abraham and Sarah, who were promised in their childless old age that their numerous offspring would bless the world. It took several more decades, but that promise was coming true. It also includes Moses, who challenged Pharaoh, liberating God’s people from Egypt and leading them for a generation through the Wilderness towards the Land of Promise.

Hebrews 11 is the “golden chapter” reminding us of the fact that we are not alone. The author lists our ancestors in the faith who, “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, shut the mouths of lions, escaped the edge of the sword,” among many other achievements—despite being “tortured, suffering mocking, flogging, chains and imprisonment, stoning, and death.” And in it all, Hebrews says, these champions of the faith did not receive what they were promised, in order that we might be born into those promises and receive them ourselves.

(2) Thus we are part of a greater story. Suffering has a purpose. We may not know it at the time, and our understanding may be delayed. But the purpose of our suffering is known by God, and it is revealed to us when we have faith and suffer with patience. Second Peter 3:9 says that God is patient also, not desiring anyone to perish, but wanting all to come to repentance.

The promises of deliverance are delayed by God so that more and more people can be a part of them. The heroes of Hebrews 11 didn’t receive the promises, their suffering was prolonged, to allow time for us to be included. Just as they waited for us (and are still waiting), so we endure and wait for others. Our suffering serves at least this purpose—that others may come into the reception of God’s grace.

(3) God Guards and Guides Us. Through Isaiah God says he preserves us “in the shadow of his hand.” When we look afar on a sunny day and shield the sun with our hands, we have a glimpse of Isaiah’s metaphor. God’s hand hovers over us, protecting us from the blazing sun. God also says he “puts his words in our mouths.” These are the words of praise and thanksgiving preserved in the scriptural testimonies—words like Isaiah’s. With these assurances—God’s protection and God’s words—we can survive in the foreign land and give thanks.

And in the mean time, between now and our deliverance, we can serve. We can serve like the suffering servant of Isaiah’s time, the people of Israel in Exile, who by their faith and thanksgiving bear testimony to the God of their deliverance. We can serve like our suffering servant Jesus, who testified of God’s Kingdom in the foreign land of this world, and suffered so that we might follow him and be a part of it.

When we find ourselves in the foreign land where it’s difficult to give thanks, we can remember that we are not alone, that our story is part of a greater story, and that God guides and guards us as we serve others, give thanks, and await our deliverance. Thanks be to God!

Questions for Further Reflection or Discussion

  • What is the topography of the “foreign land” you inhabit? In what ways are you waiting for God’s deliverance?
  • Hebrews give us the image of our time of suffering embedded in a larger story of a “great cloud of witnesses” still awaiting deliverance. It is like it is our turn to run a leg in the relay of the universe, with those having already done so cheering us on from the stands. What can you do to remember this image through your suffering?
  • What passages of Scripture do you borrow on your own lips to give praise and thanks to God when it doesn’t arise naturally out of your own heart? If you don’t have any, Isaiah chapters 40-66 offer lots of options.
  • Isaiah promises that God’s “hand” protects and guides us. How have you experienced God’s protection and guidance? With these experiences in the past, how might you look for God’s protection and guidance now and in the future?
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