Scripture: Isaiah 40:21-31
In case you missed it, the biggest news in the business world over the past couple of weeks is GameStop, a brick-and-mortar store that sells video games. Their business model is considered by many people to be obsolete, as more and more people buy or download video games online. In other words, GameStop today is where Blockbuster Video was ten years ago.
I’m not going to explain what “short selling” is, but it allows Wall Street investors to profit off of GameStop’s demise. If the company’s stock price continues to fall, these investors make a lot of money. If it rises, they lose a lot of money. And the last couple of weeks, they’ve lost a lot of money. All because a bunch of individual investors banded together online to buy shares of GameStop stock, pushing the price of this otherwise failing business sky-high—and thus punishing Wall Street for betting against the company’s future success.
In Isaiah chapter 40, if it were possible to buy stock in what remained of the nation of Israel at this point in their history, I’m afraid Wall Street would be short selling; they’d be betting against their future success. The prophet Isaiah is looking ahead to a future time… after King Nebuchadnezzar and his army conquered Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, after they led many of Israel’s citizens into exile there. Israel’s future looked bleak… So much for the promised Messiah! So much for David’s kingdom continuing without end! So much for all the nations coming to saving faith through Israel’s God! Those dreams are over.
At least that’s the way it appeared! Israel had proven itself unfit for the mission God gave them, and God seemed to be punishing Israel… forever.
But in today’s scripture, God is showing Isaiah that this wasn’t the case!
And so beginning in chapter 40 the prophet is writing to encourage them: “Don’t be discouraged. Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart. Don’t stop believing. Despite how things appear, God has not given up on you. Despite your desperate circumstances, God has not forgotten you.”
So he says to Israel in verses 21 and 22, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? He [God] sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers…” Then verse 23: “[He] brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.”
In other words, it’s as if God were saying, “I know it seems like the Babylonians—including the mighty King Nebuchadnezzar—are really powerful and really intimidating and really frightening… But King Nebuchadnezzar is nothing. He’s a grasshopper to me, as are all these Babylonians who oppress you.”
It’s interesting that Isaiah mentions grasshoppers. He’s likely recalling an incident that’s recorded in Numbers chapter 13, when Israel is very near the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. Moses sends twelve spies into Canaan to gather intelligence—so they can let Israel know what they’re up against before they enter the land, and what the land is like. And the spies bring back good news: “This is a land flowing with milk and honey.” And they bring back grapes, pomegranates, and figs. It was a fertile, bountiful land that God is going to give us!
And yet… the spies bring back fear: “Their cities are well-fortified… and the men are big and tall and strong… They’re giants… They’re Nephilim!”—referring to those mysterious beings whom God destroyed in the flood back in Genesis 6. In verse 33, the spies say: “Next to [these Canaanites] we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!”1 Only one of the twelve spies, Caleb, had the faith and courage to say, “Let’s go and take what God has promised to give us!” The other eleven said, “We’re no match for them! We’re grasshoppers!” And unfortunately, because the Israelites failed to trust in God and his strength—and instead believed they needed to rely on their own—they were too afraid to go… and another 40 years would pass, 40 more years of pain and suffering, before they would enter the land God had promised to give them.
And God wants the Israelites in today’s scripture, exiled in Babylon, to remember this lesson of their ancestors: Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? “The truth is, you feel like weak, powerless little grasshoppers who are getting stepped on and walked over… but you don’t understand. I’m your God. These Babylonians are the grasshoppers as far as I’m concerned! I’m on your side. So what are you afraid of?”
Israel needed to be reminded of who God is, and his promises… and I’m sure we do too!
I’m sure that many of you are facing some scary giants in your life today. Maybe it’s COVID-19 or some other scary health challenge or diagnosis? Or maybe, because of the pandemic, you’re struggling financially… maybe your business is hurting… maybe you’re worried about making ends meet? Maybe you’re unemployed… Maybe you’re grieving… Maybe you’re lonely… Maybe you’re dealing with a breakup… Maybe your marriage is struggling… Maybe you’re struggling in your relationship with your kids… Maybe you’re struggling in school… Maybe you’re struggling to kick some addiction or some other destructive habit…
Whatever it is, your problem feels like a giant and, by comparison, you feel like a grasshopper.
A photo went viral on Twitter last week. Maybe some of you saw it. It’s a picture of a man running into the woods in the snow. He’s running away from the person taking the picture. No, wait… On closer inspection, you see it’s actually a black dog—a poodle—running toward the person taking the picture. Regardless, you’ve probably seen pictures like this before. There’s a famous illustration of an old woman with an ugly wart on her nose and a scarf over her head… But look again: “Oh, wait! It’s actually a beautiful young woman.”
Either way, the picture hasn’t changed… Only… how we look at the picture!
And that’s what today’s scripture invites us to do… to learn to reinterpret events and circumstances in our lives—to learn to see things from God’s point of view… to learn to see the so-called “giants” in our lives as grasshoppers.
Paul does this, for instance, in 2 Corinthians 12. If you have your Bibles—and you should—I invite you to turn with me there. Look at verse 2: Paul describes having an experience fourteen years earlier in which he was “caught up to the third heaven,” or “caught up into paradise.” Whatever it was, he said he unable to talk about what he heard. It was a powerful spiritual experience, a powerful encounter with God. But, Paul says in verse 7, “to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.”
This is Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh.” He doesn’t describe what it is. The Corinthians to whom he was writing likely knew what he was referring to. Some scholars speculate that it might have been a conspicuous physical ailment of some kind. There’s evidence in Paul’s letters that he had some kind of problem with his eyes—and I’ve heard speculation that he had Graves’ Disease, one symptom of which is that causes your eyes to bulge out, and you can have trouble seeing. Or it might refer to the severe persecution that Paul experienced. We don’t know… and it’s not important.
What’s important is where it came from… And you might say, “Well, that’s easy… it came from Satan… ‘a messenger from Satan sent to harass me.’” So the devil caused the thorn. But not so fast… because he says that this “thorn” is serving a good purpose: to keep him from becoming conceited… to keep him humble. Why would the devil do something good for Paul? Satan would love for Paul to be done in by the sin of pride! And this is where we need to notice something else. Verse 7: “a thorn was given me.” Was given. If you remember English class, that’s written in the passive voice, which you should normally avoid. You’re supposed to say, “Somebody gave me something,” not “something was given.” But in the Bible, when you see an author speaking in the passive voice about something that was done to him, it’s called the “Divine Passive.” Paul intends for us to understand that God is giving him the thorn.
Wait… So is it God, or is it the devil? But Paul understands—and he wants us to understand—that in this case it’s both.
Paul has no doubt that Satan intended to use this thorn to cause him great pain and anguish, to impede Paul’s ministry, to hamper his effectiveness at bringing the gospel to the Gentiles, to cause him to wallow in self-pity, to make him discouraged, to make him depressed, to make him angry.
That’s what the devil intended.
But remember: As other preachers have said, the devil… is God’s devil… meaning, God has him on a leash until he finally vanquishes him after the Second Coming. And the devil’s schemes are no match for God’s good plans and purposes. So God can even take what devil intended for Paul’s harm, and transform it into something that’s ultimately good for Paul and his ministry. And Paul discerns what God has done: God has used the thorn not ultimately harm Paul, but to serve Paul’s interests, to help Paul in his ministry… to keep him from becoming conceited.
Now flip back to Isaiah 40. Notice verse 31: “They who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.” For most of our lives, we’re waiting… At least from our perspective we’re waiting. And the truth is, maybe we’re waiting for God to come through… for God to do something for us… for God to answer our prayers. And in the meantime, we can grow frustrated and discouraged. That’s what was happening to Israel in today’s scripture: They would have to wait 70 years for God to enable them to return home to Judea… and obviously many of them wouldn’t even live long enough to see that.
But we can go back to Paul’s story and learn another lesson—this time about waiting. Paul wrote his most contented, his happiest, his most joy-filled letter while he was waiting… in prison. That letter was his letter to the Philippians. Paul is waiting for God to set him free so he can continue his ministry, spreading the gospel among the Gentiles. He doesn’t know for sure whether he will be set free, but he’s waiting.
But get this: Just because he’s waiting for something to happen, that doesn’t mean God is waiting. God is doing something! And on your own time you can read chapter 1 of Philippians and see this for yourself. But in chapter 1, Paul describes three great things that are happening because Paul is in prison: First, he’s chained 24/7 to members of the elite “Roman imperial guard”—they were officers who reported directly to Caesar. And guess what happens when you have the world’s greatest evangelist chained to you for your 12 hour shift? You hear the gospel… And some of these elite soldiers were getting saved, and they were sharing the gospel with others. And then Paul says that his imprisonment has inspired Christians in the area to be bolder in sharing the gospel. And even people in the church who were Paul’s opponents in the church—even Paul had enemies there—were preaching the gospel more… because they didn’t want to be upstaged by their rival Paul, or by the people in the church who loved Paul. “Paul is no one special. Watch us! We can preach the gospel just like him!”
Paul doesn’t care what their motives are: He’s delighted that God has used what the world would consider a fatal setback in Paul’s ministry—his imprisonment—to advance the cause of Christ in the world and bring more people into God’s kingdom!
But not only that. Look at Philippians chapter 4, near the very end of the letter—verses 21 and 22. Paul writes:
Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.
Hold on… did you catch that? The “saints… of Caesar’s household” greet you. Somehow, there are influential people on the inside of the household of the most powerful man in the world who are Christians. How did this happen? Connecting the dots between chapter 1 and chapter 4, it happened because Paul was chained to Roman soldiers who got saved through his witness… and these same soldiers, who reported to Nero Caesar, went and witnessed to people in close proximity and contact with Caesar. And they got saved. Do you see how unbelievable this is?
Nero Caesar is responsible for Paul’s imprisonment. He will ultimately put Paul to death in order to prevent this dangerous, subversive message about a crucified and resurrected Savior named Jesus from spreading any further, now has followers of this same Jesus working alongside him in his household—and this happened only because he tried to rid his empire of the gospel message! By arresting Paul, Nero thinks he can keep Christianity from spreading out there, around his empire, when in fact—because he arrested Paul—he can’t even keep it from spreading among the people who are closest to him!
Who’s in charge here? The most powerful man in the world at the time, Nero Caesar? What a joke! God is in charge! So Paul understood that this “giant of a man,” Caesar, was nothing more than a grasshopper in God’s eyes!
And if it’s true for Paul, brothers and sisters, it’s no less true for us present-day Christians! God isn’t any less involved and active in transforming our setbacks, our failures, our sins, our disappointments, our defeats into victory.
And God can do this even while we’re waiting on him to do something else!
Eleven years ago, Lisa and I were just beginning to climb out from under a mountain of debt we had accumulated from my quitting my engineering job and going to an expensive seminary for three years while I was also trying to support three young children. By 2010, I’d been out of seminary for a few years, and things were very slowly starting to get better financially. We were still living hand to mouth but we were paying the bills, paying off debt, and managing to get by.
One legacy of my drastic career change, however, was that we were driving two very old Hondas. And one of them, Lisa’s minivan, was demon-possessed. No, not really… But maybe. Anyway, we replaced the transmission in it three times in three years. I’m not kidding. Each time the transmission failed just outside of the one-year warranty. How convenient! And it set us back financially, as you can imagine.
So one time the minivan was in the shop for another new transmission. It was 4th of July weekend in 2010. I was getting in my 18-year-old Honda Accord, which was just shy of 300,000 miles. And I cranked it. [Imitate crank sound.] It wouldn’t start. No big deal. This was a recurring problem. When it was really hot outside, for some reason, the car sometimes wouldn’t crank. So I tried again, Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch.
But in that moment, I was thinking to myself, “We are driving two embarrassingly old Hondas—trying desperately to keep one of them running with bailing wire, chewing gum, and duct tape, while the other is facing yet another expensive repair.” And we’re driving these two old cars, holding our breath each day, hoping that they will get us from point A to point B—and why are we doing this? Because I decided to answer God’s call into ministry eight years earlier—completely unprepared for the huge financial sacrifice that it would require of my family and me!
So I’m sitting in my driveway, cranking my car in vain. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. Feeling sorry for myself. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. Thinking, “I was doing fine as an engineer.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. “We didn’t have to live on such a tight budget before.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. “We could’ve bought a couple of new cars by now.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. “We didn’t have these kinds financial worries back then.” Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch… Ch-ch.
So I go back in the house, and I’m beside myself with anger. And Lisa told me, among other things, that I did not trust that God would really take care of us—that, despite what I preach, I don’t actually believe these pretty words that I tell you each week. And she reminded me of how much God has taken care of us so far, how faithful God has been to us, how happy and healthy our family is, how nice our home is, how, in spite of all the challenges, we’ve made ends meet. And how, in spite of our car troubles, there hasn’t been a single time when we couldn’t get from point A to point B.
And she said, “Maybe God keeps sending us this car trouble, because he’s trying to get your attention—to teach you something about what it means to trust in him!” And I’m like, “Whoa!” I thought I was the theologian in this family! Her words literally brought me to my knees.
Listen: Back in 2010, this financial struggle felt like a terrifying, fearsome, menacing, overwhelming giant in my life. And I’m sure that the devil was using it to harm me. And he certainly hurt me with it. And yet… as frightening as this giant seemed to me at the time, it was a grasshopper to the Lord. And the Lord transformed it into something that was good for me… he’s made me—even me, as stubborn and stiff-necked as I am—into someone who trusts in him more, who depends on him more… someone who doesn’t need to be strong… because Jesus will be strong for me.
Listen… It’s okay if we feel like grasshoppers… because if we’re God’s grasshoppers, he can do mighty things in us and through us, I promise!
But let me encourage you with one final thought. Look again at today’s scripture… In verse 27, we hear what God’s people are thinking during this time of waiting: “My way is hidden from from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” In other words, “God can’t see me as I sit here struggling, suffering, hurting. He’s forgotten about me. He doesn’t see how unfairly I’m being treated. He doesn’t care about me.”
And isn’t that the temptation whenever we face giants in our lives. But look at verse 26:
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
and because he is strong in power,
not one is missing.
What is Isaiah referring to? The stars in the night sky… At this very moment, he says, God created them in the past, and is upholding them in the present—sustaining them, causing them to obey the physical laws he’s created. God never loses track of even one of them. Even more, God has named every star!
Now consider this: In ancient Israel, about 5,000 stars were visible in the night sky. Astronomers now estimate, however, that there are more than 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, our galaxy, alone. And there are 125 billion galaxies in the universe… which means there are about 10 billion trillion stars.2 God has named every one.
How could God not see you? How could he forget you? How could he not know what you’re going through? It is easy for God to be infinitely more familiar with whatever trouble you’re facing than you are!
Remember Jesus’ own words:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.3