Back to series
Good morning, friends. I had a friend text me recently saying he was tired of living through historical events, and truer words have never been spoken. My wife and I coined a phrase in all this, to save time: hurridemic move. But, kidding aside, I’m very glad to see each of you.
This has been a time of anxiety and loss. Les is preaching this morning in a tent, LaPlace and Avondale and so many of our brothers and sisters are meeting on their church grounds this morning because their buildings are destroyed or uninhabitable. Some of you lost your home, all your things, all your food, almost all of us have been displaced for weeks, unable to come home, Momma Rose had to put up with Greg. AJ’s been out of school, so we’ve had to keep him at our house, where I live. To everyone who has texted or called each of us to make sure we were ok, I just want to say thank you. And also, I think I speak for everyone when I say, please stop texting and calling us.
And now, and I love God’s providence in this, because I wrote this sermon three weeks ago, but now we turn to a passage on the hope of restoration. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and this morning we’re going to be reading from chapter 38 as we continue through our series in Isaiah.
I want to confess something to you this morning. I was nervous about this sermon series, because we had planned to spend the majority of the year on it. I doubted, this is the confession part, I doubted the sufficiency of God’s word to feed and nourish us through this whole time. And here at the turning point in this text I realize I could not have been more wrong.
I don’t know if for you it has been the same experience, but I have loved every moment I’ve had the chance to pour over and through this text. These 40 chapters have been to me like cool water in the summer. In this troubled, unsure, exhausted time of life—yes, I wrote that before the category five hurricane—to read over and over again about the kingdom of God, to pray over and over again as we do each morning for God’s kingdom to come and his will be done here, on Earth just as it is in heaven.
In the midst of societal unrest, to read about a good king who is a father to his people, a just judge who is able actually to achieve justice and peace together, at the same time, for all of his people and not just some of them.
Seeing the Lord systematically dismantle the weapons of the enemy—things like death and oppression—and take up his own tools that he is using to shape and craft this world. Our God is so holy, so unlike anything we know and have experienced here in this world.
To see what our lives are meant to be—peaceful, everlasting, together with each other and with the Lord. Childlike again, continually growing and learning and wondering at the Lord and his creation. Able to trust him, healed and whole, every sad thing come untrue.
And today, friends, today we reach a kind of end within the book of Isaiah—that’s why I’ve been hitting all of the main themes in this section trust and healing—Isaiah is going to distill down for us everything we’re meant to hope for and in.
Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 38, starting in v.14. [Isaiah 37:14-20]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Lord, please show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
Charles Dickens starts his autobiography with this line: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” When I first read that book, first heard that line, I imagined writing my own autobiography, reading through my own life story and asking the question: am I the hero of my own story? Am I even the main character of my life?
Hezekiah was a good king, one of the last good kings of Israel. Way back at the beginning of the book of Isaiah, if you can think back to the Spring, when the fortunes of Judah first begin to fall off, when trouble first comes to the gates of Jerusalem, Isaiah comes before the king, Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father and begs him to trust in the Lord—God had promised always to be with his people, to save them from death, he had promised them life everlasting, peace in the kingdom of God, justice, everything we’ve been talking about for the past four months of this series.
But Hezekiah’s father was not a good king. He trusted in this nation and that one, and clever political moves and allies and payments made, tribute paid, anything he could do to keep his kingdom, and it began to shrink around him, and Isaiah promised Hezekiah’s dad, in chapter 7; we read it at Christmas every year: God is going to give you a sign, he says. A sign that everything God has promised—the kingdom come in peace, death overthrown—a sign that everything would come to pass, and the sign would be a child who would be king. And to a people who felt God-forsaken, this child would be called Immanuel, God dwelling with his people again.
Then Hezekiah is born, and like I said, he was a good king. He trusted in the Lord—and the Assyrian army, which had conquered all of Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem, the Lord himself destroyed it. Jerusalem was miraculously saved, Hezekiah was hailed as a hero, and it seems in the text Hezekiah started to believe that he might be the hero of his own story. He really might be able to ordain the coming of the kingdom of God, to bring peace on the earth. And far from feeling God-forsaken, all the people would say again, God is with us.
Then in our passage, he gets sick. Hezekiah at this point is 39 years old, not that much older than I am, a few years. He’s sick, and the prophet Isaiah sends him word: you will not recover. You are going to die. Hezekiah desperately needed to hear that massage. He was going to die. His response is to weep and pray with his face to the wall. This is one of those desperate prayers, the kind where you forget propriety, and you are bare before the Lord. Usually in my life, the prayers with my face to the wall involve shouting and some language—and the content of his prayer is confession.
Hezekiah quotes the promise God gave to Abraham when he first promised that Israel would be given the city of Jerusalem to live in at peace, God told Abraham that if he would walk in faith, with a whole heart and do what is right, he would live long in the land. Hezekiah, a king presiding over the downfall of God’s people in the promised land, having just heard that he, at 39, is going to die, prays that promise back to the Lord. This is a moment of doubt, a moment where he feels as though God has forgotten him, abandoned his people, that he’s not actually going to do what he promised.
And God responds miraculously. God does the one thing every rich and powerful person in the world has always tried to do and failed—he turns back time and adds years to the life of the king.
This is God telling Hezekiah he is not going to get to be the hero of his own story. He is not the miraculous child sent to save the people of God. Hezekiah doesn’t have power enough to save anyone. He doesn’t even have power enough to save himself from a simple infection. But God has enough power to turn back time itself, to number the days of a person, to turn back death and restore the world to rights.
Hezekiah’s prayer then is this song we read. When I first read it, I misunderstood it. I thought this song was Hezekiah rejoicing at the extension of his life, but then I learned this song is in the form of a lament, mourning, the kind of song you would sing at a funeral. Hezekiah may not have died, but his idea of himself has died. This is not Hezekiah rejoicing at receiving years onto his life, this is Hezekiah realizing that he is not the hero everyone hoped he would be. He’s not going to be able to save the nation, he’s not even going to be able to save himself.
In this same moment, this is Hezekiah learning that God is a God who hears prayers, who allows himself to be moved by his people. Far from forgetting and abandoning them, he would literally move heaven and earth, turn back time, to speak and be with them.
Sarah Sparks is one of my favorite new singer/songwriters in recent years. She has a song entitled “the artist” where she imagines, instead of an autobiography, a self-portrait she’s drawn, and then she meets God the artist, and she very hesitantly tells the artist he can paint on her portrait, change her life, but she asks him not to use any dark colors, no pain, no suffering. But his first stroke is a dark shade of blue. Then she writes, “I begged and then I pleaded. I do not understand the means; why would you put this hope inside me if you would not paint the dream?’ He said, ‘don’t let glory’s reflection distract you from glory’.”
She hides her eyes, and at the end of the song, she looks back at her self-portrait and discovers the artist wasn’t painting her at all, and instead, he had entirely covered the picture of her face with one of Christ on the cross.
We have a tendency—people, you and I—to think ourselves the heroes of our own stories, for good and for bad. Some of us, like Hezekiah, think well of ourselves, feel accomplished in life, and we’re tempted to think our lives have gone well through some accomplishment of our own. We humble brag, show only the parts we want people seeing. We fill our houses with pictures, we create pages on the internet with all of our many accomplishments, and we put our own faces at the top of the canvas.
Others of us obsess over our mistakes. We feel like we’ve ruined our lives, or wasted them. We feel like we’ve gone so wrong we can’t come back, and we give up. We don’t post about it, we don’t even talk about it; we don’t let people get close enough to us to know about it. We’ve wasted too much time, we’re too old, it’s too late for you. But my friend, time doesn’t belong to you. You can’t affect it; God can. You can live more life in one day in his courts, than you can in a thousand elsewhere, and there is always hope for change in him.
I think if you go and read through all the pages of your life, if you read them thoroughly and well, you’ll find that you are not the hero. You’re not even the protagonist, the main character. Your portrait is not on the front cover of the book of your life, rather it’s a picture of the cross, and that’s by the grace and mercy of God the artist.
If the story of your life is about you and what you’ve been able to do in your life, that story will be brief, and it will end in tragedy, which is why I would invite you to give up trying to be your own hero. Pray, like Hezekiah prayed, with your face against the wall, weeping, and just admit that you don’t have the power to turn back and undo any of the wrong that needs to be undone in this life.
The rest of the book of Isaiah is going to continue Hezekiah’s song, this lament that we aren’t able in and of ourselves to make the world as it should be, that we aren’t going to be the heroes of our own stories. So then, of course, the question is, if not us, then who is the hero? Isaiah spends the rest of the book describing this servant of the Lord who will be able to bear our sufferings and, in bearing them, bring an end to them. The messiah, the Christ, God himself come to live and die with us, as one of us. Our lives, our stories and portraits, need to become less about us and more about him.
Less about us, and more about him. I remember a moment of my life God used to begin to call me towards ministry, completely against my will. It was during a sermon on the cost of discipleship, and as I was praying through the sermon, God began telling me just a small amount of what it would cost to follow, he said there are five things in your life you love more than me, and I’m going to take them away from you so you can be a disciple. He was faithful to that promise, and “I begged and then I pleaded. I did not understand the means; why would you put this hope inside me if you would not paint the dream?”
But that began a chapter in my life that was less about me and more about him. As I said, it was completely against my will, but God just started painting over, crossing out everything I had planned and put down that was supposed to be my life. And I’m so grateful. His life has more meaning, more love, more vibrancy than I could have imagined at that time.
I wonder what the Lord is writing in your book this morning. I wonder what chapter you’re on, if it’s closer to the beginning or the end. I wonder how many more times you’ll cry and pray with your face to the wall. I don’t know—but I do know this. If you ask God to put you in his book, you will no longer get to be the author of the story, or the main character, certainly not the hero. But his book is the only one that ends in life instead of death. It’s the only book where everything sad comes untrue.
Hezekiah, in his lifetime, was mocked and mistreated. He made mistakes, and even though God gave him fifteen more years, he still died young—one of the last, good kings over God’s people. He thought he would be the difference Judah needed, the start of the kingdom come and peace to his people. But even through the fall and exile of Judah, there was another good king coming.
Even though Hezekiah didn’t get to be the hero for God’s people—I’m guessing most of us haven’t heard his name before—he did get to be a part of the larger story of God, himself, being our hero. He got to participate, in a small way, in the coming of the kingdom of God.
My friends, I would invite you this morning to give up on writing the story of your own life. If there are things you love more than God, I pray he would strip you of them. It may hurt, but it will be ok—all you need is him. If you are still the hero of your own story in your mind, I pray you would call out to him to save you before your story ends in tragedy.
I hope that in daily ways we would learn how to make our lives less about us and more about him. When we wake up in the morning, we would know he’s brought us to this day with purpose and reason. As we look in the mirror and care for our bodies, we would know God crafted us and delights in us. As we eat, we would know he nourishes and sustains us. As we work, we would know if there is any glory to be gained it belongs to the Father. As we interact with the people around us, we would remember they are people God loves and Christ died for. As we lie down, we would know our lives, like our days, are brief, and then we sleep.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.