It is probably almost always true that the most difficult moments in our lives shape us the most. It is probably true that who we become depends to a great extent on the manner by which we go through those trying times. It is probably true that our capacity to go through seasons of greatest challenge depends on the intensity of the hope to which we cling, a conviction that things will get better no matter how dark it gets. It is true, I believe, that hope springs from confidence in a trustworthy promise of deliverance from, as the Psalmist wrote, the valley of shadows of evil and death.
Permit me to share with you one of such valleys that shaped me.
In my country of birth I was a political idealist in my younger years as were almost all of my friends at that era, the late 1960s and early 1970s. Just as I reached voting age, democratic elections were swept away by the ruling government in an effort to stay in power. The then-president declared martial law throughout the country in order to keep control. He was brutal. Violence would erupt here and there. Friends and university professors began to disappear, some to locations unknown, others ending up battered in military prisons, still others turning up dead with unmistakable signs of torture. I joined a clandestine cell. We saw ourselves as part of a network of resistance, our purpose to stir up what we then called the masses to rise in rebellion. One fateful night past midnight the military came for me where I was living. Outside waiting were several army trucks full of armed soldiers. I was taken to an interrogation room at the army base but not before I had slipped my parents’ phone number to my housemate the army left behind. For most of my teenage years I had rebelled against my parents. I began to wonder if my they would come for me, perhaps pull some strings for my release. It was that hope of rescue, as small as I thought it was, that helped me keep my wits about me during that valley of shadow.
Deliverance was sweet. It came from circumstances beyond my control, a surprise, if you will. Years later, when I finally became serious and intentional with faith in Christ, that same sense of unmerited deliverance came over me. I had been very dismissive of the faithful in Christ, but then, through circumstances external to me and that overwhelmed me, I was welcomed into God’s fold. Truly, I had been blind, but then I began to see.
The wonderful Isaiah 43 passage1But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life.
Fear not, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you.
I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” is set in the midst of massive valley of shadow that kept the Jewish people for 70 long years. It was the tragedy of the Babylonian exile that began in 586 BC. Jerusalem and the Temple were sacked, destroyed. The best and the brightest of the people were forcibly taken to Babylon leaving the poor and the destitute to live among the ruins. To begin to have a sense of this historical tragedy, we must understand that the Jewish people then, and now, are people of the Land. The Jewish faith was, is, and will always be inextricably married to the idea of possession of the Promised Land, the Land they fervently believe God had given to them. To have wrested the Promised Land from them as Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon did in the 500s BC, was a disaster of epic scale.
Perhaps first-generation immigrants who still remember having left their countries of birth to start a new life in Canada would have a sense of the tragedy of exile. We first-generation immigrants came here voluntarily with the intention of starting a new life, adapting to whatever Canada is all about. Yet it is also true that many immigrant communities have tried to keep alive memories of that which was left behind. If this were not so, there would be no St. Andrew’s Society, no Caribbean Association, no Ukrainian Canadian Congress, no Icelandic Memorial Society, no Montreal Korean Language and Culture Centre, – the list goes on and on in our cultural mosaic that is Canada, ethnically-based organizations trying to preserve memories and traditions of their countries of origin. Many of us hide in our hearts a desire to go back or to visit the “old country” even though the “old country” would have since become unrecognizable. Multiply that nostalgia a thousand-fold and add to it an aching desire to return home and we can begin to imagine the despair of the Jewish people in exile. No wonder the author of Lamentations wrote of the tragedy:
Or consider the lament of the exiles themselves, in Psalm 137:
In this bleak setting of exile, despair, longing, sadness and tears, emerges in Isaiah 35 a ray of hope: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened…” And hope breaks out in full glory in Isaiah 40:
And I wonder that when the English poet and philosopher Alexander Pope penned the words: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blest” that he had somehow lurking in his thoughts those last verses of Isaiah 40:
These verses form a restatement of the nature of justice in God’s kingdom, God’s special concern for the downtrodden and powerless: those who victimized by the power-mongers of the world; those rendered helpless by the whims of tyrannical ruler; those exploited by the rich. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. I know of few other lines that brim to overflowing with hope eternal. And so Isaiah 42 exults:
In other words, whole creation, rejoice!
So now we come to Isaiah 43, the text read to us today.
It begins with the name of God: “But now thus says the LORD…” LORD here is the same word used in Exodus 3:14, translated there as “I am”, the ineffable name of God. There is no question as to who is speaking here. The name of God is followed immediately with creation language, language that we first see in Genesis 1. God created. God formed. God created the world and everything in it. God formed the people of the Promise, of the Covenant, the nation of Israel. By extension God also formed people everywhere whether Jew or Gentile.
God was about to bring his people back from exile. But it has been 70 years since the Jews were snatched from their land and brought to Babylon as captives, as living trophies to demonstrate Babylonian supremacy. Have the people been faithfully waiting for deliverance? Or, have they given up after all these years of captivity? There are indeed indications from Isaiah’s text that some lost hope: they turned away from the true God and began to fashion for themselves images of wood and stone as substitute gods. If I were in continuous distress for 70 years, petitioning God for deliverance but with prayers that never seem to get past a glass ceiling, would I lose hope? Would you lose hope? Would I have believed Isaiah’s prophetic assurance of deliverance after 70 years of waiting? Would you have believed the promise?
Confidence in a promise is built upon fulfillment of past promises. You will tend to trust the promise of a person who in the past has ever always made good on his or her word. This is precisely how God appeals to his people. It is that promise fulfilled – of God’s love and protection, demonstrated in the deadly waters of the great flood that destroyed the earth but which saved Noah and his family. It is that sure promise of the eternal faithfulness of God made to the very old Abraham and Sarah who at their advanced age had a miracle child. It is that promise of God’s loyalty to his people, demonstrated by the opening of the Red Sea that saved the people of Israel, and destroyed their pursuing enemies. It is crossing the miraculously dry riverbed of the Jordan on foot and into the Promised Land. It is the promise of God’s loyalty to the faithful, manifested by the deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the intense flames of the furnace. Therefore, there was no reason for the exiles to doubt God’s promise of deliverance proclaimed through Isaiah the prophet.
For us, the promise of God’s love and loyalty is ultimately that cross where Christ died, the cross that confronts us with our sins but delivers us from them. It is the fulfilled promise prophetically written in Psalm 16 of God who would never leave his Son to rot in the grave, but raise him up in victory over death. Therefore, there is no reason to doubt that promise of Christ when before he ascended to heaven he assured his followers: “I am with you always, to the end of the age,”2Matthew 28:20 that he has prepared places for us in his Father’s house, that he will come back and receive us into his presence,3John 14:1-3 usher us into the presence of the Almighty.
I began with my story of one of the valley’s of my life. I will admit to fear at the time, one that manifested itself for years afterwards by an irrational phobia of men in uniform: police, soldiers; border guards. I would probably be correct in stating that each one of us here remembers a valley of shadow: a death; a separation; a debilitating illness; loss of employment, and other trials and difficulties that no one else might comprehend. Where is “the hope that springs eternal in the human breast,” the sure promise that will carry us through the valleys of shadow?
This is what we will do: Let us remember God’s fulfilled promise to the people in exile in Babylon and believe that God in time will also rescue us from the evil that may beset us. Therefore, even if we were forced to go through troubled waters, a picture of the chaos and disorder that life may throw at us, in the strength of Christ we will not be overcome. Even if we were to be tried by fire, a picture of extreme duress, in the strength of Christ we will not be burned. Each one of us called by God’s name, Christ; each one of us created in God’s image, in God’s glory; from wherever we may have come, north, east, south and west, God comforts us us through Isaiah:
With this, we look at our valleys shadow, our floods and our fire, straight in the eye and say as the Psalmist said:
To God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be praise forever and ever. Amen.