So, one of the lowest points in churchianity occurred about a thousand years ago in the 11th century. Pope Benedict IX was a notoriously immoral man, who turned the Roman church into a moral circus. He had become pope through bribery and was accused of partying, homosexuality, even homicide. Some Roman aristocrats formed a rebellion to replace Benedict with Sylvester III in 1045. A couple of months later, Benedict’s allies were able to restore him to the papal throne. So, now we have two popes. But Benedict soon grew tired of playing pope, and so, he sold the position to his godfather, Gregory VI. Not surprisingly, he quickly experienced seller’s remorse and decided to regain the position. And therefore, at the time King Henry III became ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, there were three men who all called themselves pope. He removes all three. He de-poped them all and inaugurated Clement II.
Now, some of you may confuse this time with a few hundred years later, the Great Schism, which also experienced a three-pope circus. But this is just a tiny glimpse as to what happens when you merge politics and church leadership and bury the gospel underneath greed, sensuality, and power. So, when you’re in a season like this, characterized by scandal, which if you want to experience this, just watch the evening news, it’s always refreshing when you see someone who is very different in the midst of all this.
Anselm of Canterbury was born in northern Italy at this time. He grew up at the base of the Alps. He had a godly mother, a cruel father, and although I would differ with him on many points of theology, he stands out as a very different kind of leader in the midst of all the corruption. He was passionate about integrity and purity and seemed to love Jesus sincerely. One of his most famous writings was known as Proslogion, [which] he wrote in 1077. And in chapter one, he invites us to step apart from the cares and the scandals of life and simply think about God, seek God. This invitation is about a thousand years old. Let’s join in.
“Come along now, little man,
Leave your daily work for a while,
Get away for a while from the swirling storms of your thoughts.
Put those heavy anxieties to one side,
Free yourself for God for a little while,
And rest for a little while in Him.”
I wonder if we could do that right now. Just imagine all the swirling storm of thoughts, even feel the weight of some of those heavy anxieties and imagine, okay, we’re not advocating an escapism or quietism which just ignores reality perpetually. But just for a little while, let’s set those aside.
“Retreat into the innermost room of your soul,
Block out everything else except God
And whatever can aid you in seeking Him;
And when you have closed the door,
Then seek Him.”
So, can you imagine yourself right now? I know you’re going to have to revisit some of these things, but for right now, close the door on everything but that which allows you to seek God. He goes on.
“Now, my whole heart, say to God,
‘I seek Your face;
Lord, it is your face I am seeking …’
I confess O Lord, with thanksgiving,
That you made me in Your image,
So that I can remember You,
Think of You,
And love You.”
In other words, I was made to be with you in your presence, in your image. So, when I’m with you, I’m doing what I was made to do.
“But Your image in me is so worn away,
So blotted out by faults,
So darkened by the smoke of sin,
That it cannot do the thing it was made for,
Unless you renew it and remake it.”
So, you can see here he’s praying for the same thing that Isaiah 40 is promising. Wait on the Lord, and you will be renewed. You’ll renew your strength. You’ll mount up with wings as eagles.
“Lord, I am not trying to climb up to your height;
My understanding is simply not equal to that.
But I do want to understand a little of your truth
Which my heart already believes and loves.”
Do you see how moderate that prayer is? Anselm understands the incomprehensibility of God. I can’t know everything about you, but I would love to know something to grasp more truly what my heart already believes and loves.
“I do not seek …”
These words he is famous for.
“I do not seek to understand so I may believe;
I believe so that I may understand.
More than that,
I believe that unless I do believe
I will not understand.”
What is he getting at there? He’s getting at the fact that there is more than intellectual hurdles. What we need is more than just “If I just knew more or could grasp more, then I would truly be one with my creator.” And he’s saying, “No, this is more than an intellectual challenge.” Let’s keep praying.
Father, with all the comforts our society enjoys, there is no true comfort apart from you. All these comforts in America, which are so many, can be delusional and ultimately are all dissatisfying if you do not renew us with your presence. So, we are asking that our time together now in your presence would allow us to get away for a little while and behold you through Jesus by the Holy Spirit, who is our Comforter. Amen.
So, in Isaiah 40, God is inviting us into his comfort. Verse 1,
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
“They who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.”
So, you can see Isaiah 40 begins with comfort, ends with renewal, as if to say, “this is what I have for you,” but everything in between seems to have nothing to do with us. It’s all about the greatness and the goodness of God.
We saw last week that this comforting, renewing experience began with three voices. If you look at verse 3, verse 6, verse 9, voices are commissioned to cry out, and they cry out three things. God is saying, “My glory is coming,” which is essentially “my gospel/good news is coming.” As we see in the New Testament interpretation of these words. My glory is coming. My Word is continuing when all other words fade away. My Word is enduring, continuing. And then my power is carrying. I’m displaying my power not to crush you, but to carry you like a shepherd carries a lamb.
In the midst of these voices of comfort we heard last week, we hear an invitation to behold — verse 9,
“Behold your God,”
“Behold the Lord God (Adonai Yahweh),”
verse 10, second half,
“Behold his reward.”
And this sets us up for the rest of the chapter. We have heard voices of comfort crying out the greatness and goodness of God. And now we’re invited, not so much with voices, but visions of comfort displaying the greatness and the goodness of God.
So, God is providing for us a very different kind of … Can I use the word “therapy”? No? Let’s call it BYG therapy or BYG comfort — BYG. I’ve never been good at spelling. Behold-Your-God kind of comfort. Behold Your God kind of therapy. It’s like God is saying like Anselm, “Come apart, you who have experienced horrible suffering.” This is in that context, speaking of a people who will go into exile, and he’s speaking ahead of time comfort for them. And he’s inviting them to simply behold him as a means of comfort and renewal.
So, for those of us who are always looking for something to do, this can be a frustrating passage because he’s not calling us to run and do at this point. He will later. Right now, he’s calling us to behold. Can you, will you today, right now stand in awe of God, simply delight, stand in awe of the greatness and the goodness of your God?
The sermon today is super simple. Two points — God is really big. You are really small. Let’s close in prayer. That’s what he’s saying in this section of Isaiah 40. So, let’s unpack that.
Number 1, God is big. Verse 12, and he comes at this from several different angles, he measures everything. He measures everything. And he does this in two ways. Number 1, he does this accurately. Notice all the measuring language, verse 12, Isaiah 40:12,
“measured the waters,”
“marked off the heavens,”
“enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,”
“weighed the mountains in scales in the hills in a balance.”
All this measuring, weighing language is communicating an exactness, a precision like a good baker who is weighing the right amount of dough or measuring in a teaspoon or tablespoon just the right amount of baking soda, and I don’t know what I’m talking about. But nothing is left to chance. The creator measures everything accurately.
The second idea is that of “easily.” Verse 12,
“who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand.”
Look at the hollow of your hand for a moment. How much water do you think you can get in there? It’s the little dip in the middle of your palms. Some of you have big palms like Len here. He could maybe do a little more than the rest of us. But you’re generally talking maybe a tablespoon, maybe a couple tablespoons. And God is saying “I can measure the Pacific Ocean in this little dip in my hand –171 million cubic miles, 352 quintillion gallons of water.” The deepest part of the ocean is 35 thousand feet deep, which is around 5 thousand feet deeper than the tallest mountain which is above sea level. The tallest mountain above sea level is Mt. Everest. So, the deepest part of the ocean is about 5 thousand feet deeper than the tallest mountain above sea level is high. And God is saying “what with this much water is to me, that much water is to God.” He measures everything easily.
In verse 12, he continues,
“He marks off the heavens with a span.”
What’s a span? Tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger. So, for some of us it’s a little shorter than others, but generally around 9 inches or so. So, when you measure something with that length, God is saying “I can do that to galaxies, measure them easily, tour universes as if it were me taking a step.”
Now, of course, I need to say a word about anthropomorphic language, right? Because we’re talking about God having a hollow in his hand or measuring with a span as if God has thumbs and fingers. So, anthropomorphic language is when we speak of God in human terms. The word simply comes from “anthropos”= man and “morphe”= form. When the Bible talks about God doing something with “the hollow of his hand” or marking off the heavens “with a span” as if he has hands or fingers, we are seeing/hearing anthropomorphic language. God is revealing himself in a way we can understand. But just like when he compares himself to a lion or a lamb or a hen or a rock or a sun or a shield, he is not saying he is that. He is using something we know to teach us about something we don’t know to help stir our imaginations. And so, it’s as if God right now is closing the door and saying, “Look at something you know. Now imagine, what that amount of water is to you. That’s all the oceans to me.” He’s helping our little brains think about the magnitude of who he is in ways that we might be able to partially grasp. He measures everything accurately and easily.
Also, he cannot be measured by anything. He cannot be measured by anything. Look at verse 13.
“Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord?”
In other words, the one who measures all creation cannot be measured by creation. The creation, though big, is measurable. The Creator, beyond big, is immeasurable. And this is what theologians describe as the incomprehensibility of God. It’s not that we can’t know anything about God. God reveals certain things to us. But we can’t know everything about God. No one can say, “I fully comprehend God. I’ve given him an IQ test. He did well. I’ve looked at his Myers-Briggs — ENFJ. He works well with people. I’ve read his book. So, I know him. I know God.” And Isaiah is saying, “Who can measure God? Who can get their intellectual arms around God and say, ‘I get God. I’ve got what can be known about God.’”
Tozer, in his classic Knowledge of the Holy, says this.
“Left to ourselves, we tend immediately to reduce God to manageable terms. We want to get him where we can use Him, or at least know where He is when we need Him. We want to God we can in some measure control.”
And Isaiah 40 is saying, “We can’t measure God.”
Number 3, he has been taught nothing. He has been taught nothing. Look at the end of verse 13,
“Or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?”
God has never taken a class. He’s never asked a question that he didn’t already know. He’s never Googled anything hoping to find an answer. He’s not afraid of AI. He is never confused. He has never misunderstood. He has never learned what he did not know. He knows all that was and is and will be. He knows everything in Reymond’s words,
“instantaneously, simultaneously, and everlastingly.”
His comprehensive knowledge formed the basis of all receptive knowledge.
What do we mean by “receptive knowledge?” When a scientist discovers something new, he’s not discovering creatively, but receptively. We’re receiving, grasping perhaps for the first time, what God already knows. We’re receptive in our knowledge. That’s why Psalm 36:9 says,
“In your light do we see light.”
We really can’t fully grasp the difference between light and darkness apart from his light.
And in the end, no one will point out something to God that God didn’t already know. And I know this is getting a little closer to frustration for some of us, but no one will get to the end of time and show God a better way to run the world than the way God runs the world. I know many of us are prone to suggest some things to God, and he doesn’t seem impressed. No one’s going to get to the end of the world and suggest a way of saving the world that is better than the way God is saving the world.
You say, “What is the purpose of this exercise?” I hope for a moment you’re simply beholding, standing in awe. “God, you’re so much bigger!” And everything we learn about God raises more questions. But Isaiah is inviting us to stand in awe, to behold, because there is a kind of comfort that comes. There’s a kind of freedom “to mount up with wings as eagles” that comes when we simply stand in awe of God because, number 1, God is big.
Number 2, we are what? We’re small. We’re small. So, this BYG comfort or BYG therapy, Behold Your God comfort, moves from beholding God to beholding the nations in light of who God is. And you’ll see this in verse 15. Now, what are nations? This is not a technical definition at all. We’re just going to use a very general definition — “collections of people that represent the aggregate of the best and worst that we can do as human beings.”
Three observations he makes. Number 1, we don’t tip the scale. Verse 15,
“The nations are like a drop from a bucket.”
Try this sometime. Get a little dropper, stick it in a full bucket, take out a drop, and drop it on the outside of the bucket or drop it on the inside of the bucket, and essentially the bucket is really not intrinsically altered, whether the drop is in or whether the drop is out. The nations are like this in relation to God. The one who measures oceans in the hollow of his hand is not impressed with a drop.
Isaiah uses another vivid analogy in verse 15.
“The nations are counted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.”
Nations like Assyria and Babylon that seemed to the people of God to be so powerful and impressive are to God as a speck of dust is to a scale. Whether the dust is on the scale or blown off the scale, the scale is unmoved, unaffected. We don’t tip the scale.
Number 2, we serve no necessary purpose. Verse 16,
“Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.”
Now, if God needed fuel for a fire or an animal for a sacrifice, the entire nation of Lebanon would not be needed or sufficient. What was Lebanon famous for? Cedars, the cedars of Lebanon. First Kings 5 — Solomon, when he was building the temple, went to Lebanon to get the wood. Lebanon prided itself in its building materials.
Every nation has something it prides itself in. I know you can’t read all the details on this, but from airplanes to clothing to coffee to oil, each nation prides itself in certain economic achievements, and its economy depends on those things. And God is saying, “Take your most impressive achievements, your most lucrative accomplishments, and they do not impress me. I am not dependent on any of them. Your enough is not enough.”
Number 3, we add up to less than nothing. Verse 17,
“All the nations are is nothing before [me]. They are counted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.”
Now, the key to understanding this is that word “before.” If these nations stood before God, as if to impress, persuade, convince, confront, God is saying, “It’s as if no one or nothing stands before me.” God is not saying he does not love these nations. Remember, “God so loved the world he gave his Son” to redeem the nations. And we learned when we were in Revelation 21 a few years ago, God is ultimately going to redeem the glory of the nations and bring the best into the New Jerusalem. God loves the nations. What he’s saying here is if you claim to stand before God as if you in and of yourself have something impressive to say or do in the presence of God, you are nothing. We are small compared to God.
So, let’s summarize, review, apply. How do we get BYG comfort? Well, we do what we just did. We meditate on the greatness and goodness of God. How do we do that? We can do it a number of ways. Wake up in the morning, and before I trust in my own words and thoughts, I’m feeding on his words and thoughts because his thoughts are higher than my thoughts like the heavens are higher than the earth [Isaiah 55:8-9]. So, that quiet time in the morning to recalibrate, orient myself, Behold Your God. We do that as we drive to work and [when] the sun is rising, and we stand in awe of God. We do that in the middle of the day when our thoughts and our to-do lists are like avalanches, smothering us and we shut our office door for a moment. We look at the hollow of my hand and “okay, Lord, oceans are like this to you. Certainly, you have enough grace to help me in this time of need. I can stand in all of you. You pour comfort. You renew. You re-orient me to see myself rightly, to see you rightly, to see others rightly.” We’re meditating on the greatness and the goodness of God.
Second, we are honest about our own smallness, weakness, failures. And this is really, really important. If you walk away from Isaiah 40 saying, “Yeah, I’m puny. I’m pitiful. I’m useless. That’s what the pastor was saying,” that is not BYG comfort because the point of this passage is not to humiliate, but to orient. It’s not humiliation, but orientation.
What is orientation? It’s when you see yourself rightly in relation to someone or something else. So, God is saying, “Look, I’m not wanting you to be like a bug crushed under.” God is not strutting or flaunting or trash talking. He would need a real opponent if he was going to really trash talk. It gets boring to trash talk with a kindergartner. You know, it’s just not the same. So, that’s not what God is doing. God is reorienting us so that we have a proper perspective of ourselves, the problems, our nation, the news. I’m not saying none of those matter. He loves us. He’s very concerned. But if we don’t see him properly, we will see everything else improperly. Does that make sense? We have to begin by beholding our God and realizing he has sent his Son to restore his image in us, to renew us so that we can, number 3, see ourselves through his greatness and goodness as revealed in the gospel.
So, a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that things like anxiety, depression, self-harm have all spiked in the last few years, especially among the young. And we talked about various possible causes, from excessive screen time, social media, divisive politics, the politicization of everything, breakdown of marriage and family. We can talk about lots of contributing factors, but have you ever wondered why now in comparison to the past? We are living in a day when the lifestyle, life span, relative security of people has never been greater in the United States. The poorest people today are filthy rich compared to people one hundred years ago.
So, take a few examples — the metrics — child mortality rates. In the 1800s, for example, in the United States, 46% of babies did not make it to their fifth birthday. That will take your breath away. Almost half! So, if you have multiple kids, it will just cause you to just stop in your tracks — what it would be like one hundred or two hundred years ago. Many succumbed to tuberculosis, typhoid, scarlet fever. You’ll see the cholera pandemic. You’ll also see the Spanish flu pandemic, those spikes. So, that’s from 1800 to 2020, from 46% child-mortality rate down to less than 1%.
How about life expectancy? In 1860 life expectancy in the United States was 39. Now, I know you teenagers don’t think that’s very young. It is really young. I would have been dead long ago. Today it’s 79. People back then had plenty to worry about, plenty to be depressed about.
Now, what is my point? Tough up like they were tough? No. Sometime we’ll have to walk through some historical examples of how many people back then dealt with self-awareness and their emotions, and it’s quite fascinating. As much as we are addicted to self-concern, many in the past were oblivious to self-awareness in an unhealthy way. So, I am not at all saying, “Those people were amazing! You’re terrible!” That is not the point. It’s not true. But something, something is different today. And I gave some examples earlier of possible contributing factors, but I do think there’s one that you will rarely hear talked about, and that is the air we breathe today regarding how you interpret things like sorrow, anxiety, fear, desires. See, in the past, when you walked through a season of sorrow, everyone knew that was a normal experience, and it didn’t tell you anything about you. Jesus promised you will experience sorrow and loss, and you will suffer. That’s what God has called all of us to, and that was just a way of life. And you will experience seasons of joy, and that, too, is a normal part of life.
But what is different today? Today, when you experience sorrow, that tells you something about who you are. When you experience a certain desire, good or bad, that doesn’t just describe your experience; it actually shapes your identity today. When you feel an attraction, that tells you who you are in our culture. If you have confusion about what it means to be a boy or a girl, that doesn’t just describe a normal experience of child development; it is now definitional. You are supposed to define yourself by that emotional experience. Do you see how significant that is? And it doesn’t matter.
This isn’t just one segment of society. If I, as a pastor, define myself by hard things in the ministry, that is going to reinterpret everything in light of what I’m experiencing or feeling … or as a businessperson or as an educator. And we’re actually raising the next generation to be so self-consumed with what we experience, which again is a normal part of life — the joys and sorrows and the griefs and the hard things and the happy things. But they aren’t supposed to trump biology and reality. Today the only real is what you feel. That’s the first commandment in our culture. The only thing that’s real is what you feel. And so, we can come up with all sorts of remedies to all sorts of maladies, but if we don’t address that, we are vulnerable to our latest feeling.
So, what does this have to do with BYG comfort? God is saying to us, “You don’t know you if you don’t know me. You will come to know you as you behold me.”
John Stott wrote years ago,
“The biblical revelation reminds us that human beings are not self-explanatory. They derive their meaning from outside themselves, from God in whose image they are made. We are not autonomous individuals, creating ourselves constantly by the decisions and choices we make. No, we are images, we are reflections. The dignity of our humanity is derivative; it comes from him whose image we bear. We are dependent beings.”
It’s just another way of saying, “God is the one who’s big. We are the ones who are small.” We interpret our experience through who he is. And what he’s done through Jesus.
Christopher Watkins says,
“If the recognition that we are made in the image of God keeps us from thinking too much of ourselves [we’re just the image] then the fact that we are in the image of God prevents us from thinking too little of ourselves.”
You see when you behold God, it both elevates us (we are not mere beasts), and it lowers us (we are certainly not God). And it’s not a mushy middle thing, it’s a both/and that God, when we stand in awe of him lifts us up and brings us down.
As Aslan said to Prince Caspian,
“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve … and that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.”
It’s another way of saying what Jesus said in so many different ways. “If you’re going to follow me, you’re going to go down way deeper than you’d ever imagine. You’re actually going to lose your life, and you’re going to find it, and you’re going to experience a life more abundant. I’m going to take you down. I’m going to take you up. My death, your death. My burial, your burial. My resurrection, your resurrection … Like eagles flying.”
And there’s such a weird, two-action thing going on. Our self-concern shrinks, and our self-awareness actually increases in a healthy way, not being absorbed with ourselves, but we actually, as we behold God, can see ourselves more clearly. We can see our brothers and sisters, our lost neighbors more clearly as we behold God. Let’s pray.
Father, we often live as though we are big and you are small. It’s no wonder we get so exhausted. You are big. We are small. And so, we pray that, Lord, you would lead us. Some of us are in seasons of sorrow. Recalibrate, renew us we pray as we behold you. Some of us are in seasons of happiness and joy. And even then, you are the one who tells us who we are. We don’t define ourselves by our sorrow or our joy, but by you. You enable us to interpret all these things truly, and we thank you.
And we pray that your Spirit would continue to speak to us as we continue to stand in awe. You are so big, Lord. We are small. Thank you for coming, Jesus, to lift us up. We thank you in Jesus’s name. Amen.