Scripture: Isaiah 43:1-7
When I was a kid in the ’70s and early ’80s, the television airwaves were filled with commercials and commercial jingles encouraging us to enlist in the armed services: Remember? “Be all that you can be…” Or [sing] “We don’t ask for experience, we give it/ You don’t read it in a book, you live it.” “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” Anyway, in one of these commercials, an army recruit is singing about basic training, and he says, “Muscles are a-hurtin’/ That I never knew I had.” But that was good that his muscles were hurting, because the idea was, “No pain, no gain.”
I share this with you because, let me tell you, “muscles are a-hurtin’ that I never knew I had.” Why? Because I did the most cliché thing in the world during the first week of January: I made a New Year’s Resolution to get in better shape and lose some weight. Because I stepped on the scale on January 1, and I did not like the number that came up. In spite of my strong suspicions that the scale must be malfunctioning, the truth is I want to change…
In fact, I want the very thing that God’s people Israel receive in verse 1 of today’s scripture. Look at the first two words: “But now.” These are the two happiest words in the whole Bible. I want a “but now” when it comes to getting in shape. “Yes, Brent, let’s face facts. You’ve eaten a ton of candy, and chocolate, and rich, fatty foods, and you’ve put on some extra weight… But now… But now you’re going to be different. But now… You’re going to like the way you look when you look in the mirror. But now… You’re going to like the number you see when you step on the scale.”
I want a but now! How about you?
Those two words are filled with potential, filled with promise, filled with hope. “But now” means a new beginning, a fresh start… it means things really can change. It means we’re not stuck in the past. It means a different, better future. Like I say, these are probably the happiest two words in the Bible. “But now” is incredibly good news.
And that’s precisely what the prophet Isaiah means when he uses those two words to describe God’s people: he means good news… It was good news for God’s people almost three thousand years ago, and it’s good news for God’s people today. And this good news is expressed perhaps most perfectly in verse 4: God says to his people, “you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.”
If you are a part of God’s people today, a part of his family, the same is true for you: you are precious in God’s eyes, and honored, and he loves you.
So in this sermon, I want to answer three questions: First, how do we become precious in God’s eyes? Second, what does it mean to be precious in God’s eyes? Third, what does it not mean to be precious in God’s eyes?
To answer the first question—how do we become precious to God—we have to look back at what Isaiah has just been saying about his people in the eight verses leading up to today’s scripture. Let’s look briefly at Isaiah 42, verses 18 to 25. If you have your Bibles—and you should—turn with me there. Isaiah, remember, is a prophet. God has given him a revelation about the future, which he has written down. So in today’s scripture he is looking about 150 years into the future. This is after the Northern Kingdom of Israel has been conquered by the Assyrians, and not long after the Babylonians have conquered Judah, the southern kingdom. The Babylonians have sent many of Judah’s citizens into exile in Babylon. Things could not appear to be more bleak for what’s left of God’s people Israel.
Not only have they been defeated, they believe that God has abandoned them. And they failed to understand the message that God was trying to communicate to them through this demoralizing defeat at the hands of their enemy. They remained ignorant about God’s ways, blind to God’s actions, deaf to God’s many warnings, completely unresponsive to God. And they are without repentance for their sins.
Like I said, at the end of chapter 42, things sound very bleak, don’t they?
Yet this is the context in which Isaiah speaks these glorious words “but now”: But now thus says the Lord I’m going to redeem you, and rescue you, and give you these good things because I love you, because you’re precious to me.
Let’s please notice what God doesn’t say in today’s scripture: “But now… because you’ve finally realized the error of your ways… I’m going to do these good things.” “But now… because you’ve proven to me how deeply sorry you are for doubting me and worshiping other gods…” “But now… because you have sufficiently repented of your sins…” “But now… because you’ve finally gotten your act together”… “But now… because you’ve finally decided to straighten up and fly right”… “But now… because you’ve finally decided to stop sinning so much… I am going to do these good things for you!”
This is not at all what Isaiah is saying. Literally nothing has changed between verse 25 of chapter 42 and this glorious “but now” in verse 1 of chapter 43. In the interest of simple fair play, we really, really want to insert a verse in between these two chapters: “And the people learned their lesson, and repented of their sins, and changed their behavior… And now God is going to redeem them and do these good things for them.”
But no… there’s nothing in between these two chapters—nothing between the bleakness of chapter 42 and the “but now” of chapter 43. The people haven’t changed one iota. Yet God still does all these good things for them… God gives them a “but now”!
This reminds me of a Ron Howard movie from 1989 called Parenthood. It stars Steve Martin and Jason Robards, among many others. More recently, there was a even a TV series based on the movie. Never saw that, but I saw the movie, and frankly, it kinda made me angry back then. It bothered me… Let me tell you why.
In the movie, Jason Robards plays an aging father to four grown children. He runs his own company, and he’s had a successful career. But now he’s looking forward to retirement. At least until the youngest child in the family, the black sheep, Larry, returns home. Larry is played by Tom Hulce, who played Mozart in the movie Amadeus. Anyway, Larry’s life is a disaster. He’s gone from one get-rich-quick scheme to another; he never has money; he can never keep a steady job. To make matters worse, he shows up at home with a previously unknown young son—who is the product of a quick fling he had with a Las Vegas showgirl!
But Larry has another, more immediate problem: He has gambling debts; a lot of debt… He owes the Mafia a lot of money. And of course he can’t pay; and they’re going to kill him if he doesn’t pay! So of course that’s why he’s come home. Not because he cares about his family, but because he needs money. And he wants his dad to bail him out again—as his father has done so many other times in his past.
And his father agrees to do so. He’s going to pay his son’s gambling debts. It’ll mean postponing his retirement. It’ll mean taking out another mortgage on the house. But he’s going to do it… in order to save his son. That’s kind of depressing, isn’t it?
But here’s what angered me at the time: His father has one condition for helping his son: His son has to agree to live at home and work for his dad’s company. And eventually, he can take the business over from his dad when his dad retires. And of course Larry agrees to do that… “I’ll do anything you want, Dad! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Finally, we think, Larry is learning responsibility.
Until, at the end of the movie, Larry has hatched upon another get-rich-quick scheme… one for which he’ll need to go to South America for a little while. “And oh by the way, Dad, would you mind looking after my son while I’m gone?” But Larry’s not coming back—not anytime soon. We know he hasn’t learned his lesson. And his father knows that. Yet his father is still going to postpone retirement, he’s still going to take out that mortgage, he’s still going to pay his son’s gambling debts, and he’s still going to raise his son’s child… all in the twilight of his life, when, by rights, he should be taking it easy and enjoying life.
It’s just not fair. And his other son, played by Steve Martin, tells him so. He confronts his father. “You know Larry’s a screwup! You know he’s taking advantage of you! Why are you letting him do it, Dad?”
And his father’s response was this: “Because he’s my son. And I love him.”
I complained earlier about how much we want to add a verse or two in between the end of chapter 42 and the beginning of chapter 43: “And the people learned their lesson and repented and were faithful to God from then on…” Because of our sins, we can add nothing to improve our situation. Only God can add something… and that’s exactly what he does, in between those two chapters, even though we can’t see it: In between chapters 42 and 43 God adds grace…
What Steve Martin doesn’t understand, what we have a hard time understanding, is that when it comes to grace, “deserving it” is beside the point.
“He’s my son,” this father says. My son is precious to me, and I love him. “What my son gets from me, he gets on the basis of grace alone. I’ll pay whatever price is necessary… I’ll sacrifice whatever is necessary…
This is grace!
And this grace, this one-way love from God to us, which we receive when we become part of God’s family through faith in Christ, also requires sacrifice on our Father’s part—just like in the movie—except God pays the steepest price imaginable. He comes into the world through his Son Jesus, suffers and dies on a cross, and experiences hell—on our behalf—in order to save us from a massive debt that we, too, are unable to pay!
So that’s point number 1: How do we become precious in God’s eyes? By grace alone, through the sacrifice of God’s Son Jesus—by nothing we’ve done to deserve it or earn it or pay it back.
Point number two: What does it mean to be precious in God’s eyes?
Speaking of movies… nearly all of you have seen that great Disney-Pixar movie Toy Story. It tells the story of beloved toys that belong to a boy named Andy. In the world of the movie, these toys pretend to be inanimate objects when kids are around playing with them, but they come to life when humans aren’t around. And more than anything, the movie tells the story of a shiny new toy, a space ranger named Buzz Lightyear. But here’s the thing. Buzz doesn’t even know he’s a toy. He thinks he really is a space ranger, endowed with cool technology that gives him powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. He thinks, for example, that those plastic pop-out wings on his back are part of a rocket-propelled space suit that really can make him fly. He thinks that that that tiny, button-activated flashlight built into his plastic arm really is a laser gun that can repel enemy attacks.
But over the course of the movie he learns the truth: He doesn’t possess any special powers. He’s not really a space ranger. He has no powers to speak of. He’s just a hunk of plastic. He’s nothing special. He’s not valuable. And he’s depressed about it. At one point, he and Woody, a toy cowboy, get trapped at a neighborhood bully’s house and are trying to get back home. Buzz tells Woody, “I’m just a toy, a stupid, little, insignificant toy.” And Woody says, “Being a toy is a lot better than being a space ranger… Look, over in that house is a kid who thinks you’re the greatest, and it’s not because you’re a Space Ranger, pal. It’s because you’re a toy. You are his toy!”
And in one of movie’s best moments, Buzz looks at the bottom of his space boot, where his owner, Andy, has written his name on it.
Buzz realizes that his value, his worth, his identity, doesn’t come from who he is and what he can do; it comes from whose he is. His value, his worth, his identity comes from the one to whom he belongs.
And so it is with us… Verse 1: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
So point number two: What does it mean to be precious to God? It means that we belong to him. We are possessed by him. We belong in his family. God has made us his children through adoption.
And when we first surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, it’s not exactly like God writes his name on our foot—I wish he did! But he does something even more amazing, even though it’s invisible: The Bible says that God puts his seal on us when he gives us the Holy Spirit—a seal was a mark of ownership, which uniquely identified the owner. In Ephesians 1:13, Paul puts it like this:
In Him, you also, when you heard the word of truth, the good news of your salvation, and believed in Him, were stamped with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit as owned and protected [by God]. 1
But this is where the analogy to the movie Toy Story breaks down: because in that movie, and its sequels, those toys are always getting in trouble: getting separated from their owner, Andy, getting mistreated by others, getting lost and broken, being put in harm’s way—and Andy doesn’t know any of this is happening to them… And even if he did know, he often wouldn’t have the power to keep them from harm!
To say the least, God isn’t like that… When we’re precious to God—as opposed to being precious to a mere human being—we can be sure that God knows exactly what’s happening to us, all the time, and he has all the power necessary to help us, to rescue us, to empower us, to give us strength to endure, to see us through whatever hard thing we’re going through.
If you don’t believe me, consider one of the most astonishing promises in all of scripture. It comes from 1 Corinthians, chapter 3. The church to which Paul was writing was badly divided—over a number of issues. Among other things, church members were split into factions based on which apostle was their favorite: Some said, “I belong to Paul; he’s my guy; he’s the best.” Others said, “No… Forget Paul. I belong to Apollos! He’s a much better preacher!” Still others said, “I belong to Jesus’ numero uno apostle, Peter himself!” Paul refers to Peter by his Aramaic name, Cephas. So some were saying, “I belong to Cephas!” But listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians chapter 3, verses 21 to 23, and prepare to be blown away. Paul writes,
So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
In other words, here these church members are, arguing over which apostle they “belong” to. And Paul says, “You don’t get it. It’s not that you belong to me or Apollos or Peter. We all belong to you! Because our heavenly Father, in his sovereign purposes, is enabling us to serve you and your best interests. Always.” In fact, Paul goes on, this is true of literally everything in the universe! Everything that happens to you… You may not be able to see it right now, but everything that happens to you, everything that will happen to you in the future—even your own death—it’s all for you… it’s all working out perfectly according to God’s plan for you. And because you’re in Christ, his plan for you is always for your good; his plan is always to serve your best interests. Because you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
And of course these astonishing words here are implicit within the promise of Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
What does this mean: It means that when you’re “precious in God’s eyes,” which you are if you believe his Son, it means that we always have a “But now” at the end of every chapter in our lives!
Did you flunk that class? “But now thus says the Lord…” Did you not get into the college of your dreams? “But now thus says the Lord…” Did lose your job? “But now thus says the Lord…” Did you get sick unexpectedly? “But now thus says the Lord…” Did your marriage fall apart, despite your best efforts to save it? “But now thus says the Lord…” Did you suffer a financial crisis? “But now thus says the Lord…” Are you grieving the loss of a loved one? “But now thus says the Lord…” Are you trapped in the throes of an addiction? “But now thus says the Lord…” Are you facing your own mortality? “But now thus says the Lord…”
So how do we become precious to God? By grace alone, through faith in God’s Son Jesus. What does it mean to be precious to God? It means he possesses us. We belong to him. Forever. And it means that no matter what our circumstances, we always have a “but now thus says the Lord.”
And this brings me to point number three… I’ll be brief… Here’s what being precious to God doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean that God will necessarily deliver you and me from difficult trials in our lives, or that God will prevent us from enduring great pain and anguish, at times. On the contrary, look at verse 2:
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.
Notice the people of Israel are promised God’s care and protection while they pass through the waters, and while they walk through the fire—but notice they still have to pass through the floods and fires!
But if we’re precious to God, we can be confident that passing through the floods and fires will be good for us.
Last week, Lisa, my wife, was in a mood for celebrating: She wrote her last check, or transferred the last payment that she’ll ever make, to Florida Southern College, the school where our daughter, Elisa, is attending. And she said, “We successfully got the oldest of our three children all the way through college. Did you think—even ten years ago, twelve years ago—that we would be able to do that?”
And she said this because seventeen years ago, when I left a relatively prosperous engineering career, answered God’s call into ministry, uprooted my family, scaled back my lifestyle, enrolled into an expensive seminary, and became a pastor…
Man, we had no idea what we were in for… in many ways… We were so naive. And we were naive when it came to the financial sacrifices! We suffered… We endured much pain and stress… We cried many tears at times.
But remember what I said at the top of the sermon about those Army recruitment ads: “Muscles are a-hurtin’ that I never knew I had”? No pain, no gain?
I’m here, standing on the other side of many storms and floods and fiery trials that we had to endure, and I’m saying that each and every one of those trials was good for us… It was certainly good for me! So when Lisa asked, “Did you think we could do it?” the answer is “yes, I did think that we could do it”—or that God could do it through us. Because God taught me, through many trials in which I was an unwilling and unhappy participant… he taught me through the school of hard knocks, the only school at which I ever learned anything… he taught me… he got it through my thick skull that I can trust him with my money… And even when I suffer today, it’s usually because he’s teaching me to trust him with other parts of my life!
Maybe one day I’ll learn… and of course I will by the time I reach heaven! But the good news is, whether I learn it or not, or whether I learn it quickly or very slowly, the good news is, my preciousness to God remains unaffected and unchanged… I am precious to God because of what Christ has done for me, and so are you. Amen.