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He who Vindicates: Isaiah 50

Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, chapter 50. We’ve been talking for the past few weeks about what makes us Christians, what makes us servants of God. I realized in the small groups I’ve done a very poor job of explaining what I mean by that question, so I’m going to try again, and give you just a brief, personal history of the ways in which God has formed me as a Christian.

Spiritual formation is probably one of the things I’ve thought about most over the past several years working as a pastor, and my mind has changed drastically—my answer to the question of what makes us Christians has changed drastically throughout my lifetime. When I was a child, I would have told you that Christians were the people who believe in God, who believe Jesus was raised from the dead. I read the Bible and learned the stories.

It wasn’t until middle school that I learned anything beyond believing, anything outside of my head. I actually began to love God, and I realized that Christianity wasn’t just going to be in my head, shaping my thoughts, it, he, Christ was going to shape my heart as well. Christianity is not just something you believe. Christianity is a person who’s able to change you, someone who’s able to love you even if you’re not really worthy of love, and in the process of loving you he makes you worthy. This is when I actually tuned into the songs we were singing, and the sermons, I began to care for the first time about God, who he is, what people were saying about him, and the effect he was having on my life. I began to read the Bible and seek out other spiritual disciplines out of a desire to know more about God.

At age sixteen, I remember my parents sitting me down and giving me a choice. They said, “you don’t have to go to church with us anymore.” And they were honest about wanting me to go, wanting me to continue in this, but they weren’t going to force it. That was the first step, I think, in lightening the heavy burden I had placed on myself. Having that choice helped me realize, I really did love God and want to be with his people. I didn’t have to go to church, I wanted to go.

Loving and trusting God, at first came easily for me, as trust and love do with children. We went to a playground this week with AJ, my six year-old, and he played with this other kid for about thirty minutes, checked in with us to get some water, and Anne-Elise asked him if he was having fun, and he said “yes! He’s one of my new best friends.” That’s it, that’s all it took. Thirty minutes of pretending to be panthers, new best friend. I’m over here spending years with people and still wondering, we like each other, yeah? Like, we can hang out?

And as a child, your obedience is wrote. You receive an instruction, and you face a choice—obey or not. No one asks you to decide anything very consequential, and you’re certainly not usually in a position where you’re the one caring for, making decisions for another person. When I got to college, I had to learn Christianity over again, either make it my own or reject it. I was in a new place, trying to be my own person, as people in their twenties do. I was in an honors dorm at the University of Tennessee back in the heyday of intellectual atheism, where if you were smart it was cool not to believe in God, to reject oftentimes how your parents raised you. I didn’t go crazy and live some wild lifestyle. Kind of opposite—I became a presbyterian. Louis is like, “That’s bad enough.”

That was probably actually my healthiest time—after year one, I was growing spiritually by leaps and bounds, in the word constantly and teaching my friends each week everything God was showing me. And ironically, in my very moral and quiet life in college, I learned in this time just how sinful I was. I had a relationship that meant a lot to me kind of slowly unravel because of sin on both sides. I lost friends, and had trouble making new ones. I realized I had been living my life somewhat independent of what God was trying to do, and in some ways I became pretty disillusioned with what I thought I was supposed to be doing as a Christian. I had this group of friends by that time who loved Jesus undeniably, but were presbyterians, so they were never taught not to drink or smoke, so they did—not in some wild rebellious way, but just as I would have eaten a bag of chips, like, it’s not the most healthy thing, but it tastes good and from time to time it’s ok to just enjoy yourself.

That, for me, was an earth-shattering concept—not the drinking, most of my Baptist church friends were swimming in alcohol at this point, going nuts, waking up in parks or in people’s beds. It was the freedom and enjoyment of my friends that shocked me, and the lack of pressure to accomplish anything. They talked about Jesus with people, not to close on sharing the gospel with someone, but because they genuinely enjoyed Jesus and wanted to share their love with you. They read their Bibles and went to church because they genuinely wanted to be close to him and to the community of the church.

Most of what I knew about spiritual formation up until that point was kind of accomplishment based—read your bible, avoid these sins, go to church, and the formation will come. And if it doesn’t, then you’re probably not doing enough of those things, so try harder. It was a heavy burden, if I’m honest, and these guys were so unburdened I didn’t know what to do with them. I studied them, honestly, which is probably part of my trouble making friends. I was trying to figure out—if they weren’t being Christians in the sense that I had always known, of having these certain things they were and weren’t going to do, what is it that makes them Christians?

I started dating Anne-Elise, who has been loving me well now for thirteen years, and that relationship has shaped me, changed me dramatically. She grew up Methodist, and had this fire for making peace and justice in the world. She tried to drop out of college and move to Africa because she’d read about the aids epidemic and there were children there who didn’t have parents, so she was going to go take care of them. Her degree was in social work. She told me on our second date that she was going to adopt children who didn’t have parents, and if that wasn’t something I could see myself doing, she wasn’t going to waste her time dating me. She spent her summers roofing houses in Memphis and teaching high schoolers about Jesus. She was honestly the most Christian person I had ever known, and she was in a sorority, she cursed, and I had no idea what to do with her. Still, thirteen years, and I got nothing.

Adopting a child has deepened, even more, my thought on what makes a Christian; because I want so deeply to raise him in a Christian home, to give him the same spiritual inheritance I received growing up, where I grew up knowing, expecting things like forgiveness from my parents. Just treatment among my brothers. Discipline, hard conversations, and loving grace together, at the same time. And I know so many other people who grew up in homes where their parents were Christians, but the home was not Christian, and they were not raised to be Christian, and they left the faith as soon as they could with a bitter taste in their mouths.

And I tell you all of that to say, being Christian isn’t just conversion—it’s not just belief. And it’s not a list of do’s and don’ts to make you a better person. It is a series of relationships, with God and with his people, that makes you more Christ-like. God certainly does have a law and discipline, just like my parents, but it’s a law which helps you thrive. Christ will change your mind, and you’ll begin to think about the world the way God thinks about it, with incredible joy about his creation, mixed with a mourning of what sin has done to it; with incredible joy about the people around you mixed with mourning about what sin has done to us. So much joy and mourning mixed that you want nothing more than to see this world, this person you love, healed of the sin bringing death and pain into their lives.

Christianity will invade your heart, as well, change your loves and desires. Without him, I am so incredibly selfish and ambitious in the worst possible way. Without him, I’m more like a machine than a person—I try not to let my emotions get in the way of whatever task is at hand. He is opening my heart to desire good for people, desire it enough to pour my life out for their sake—just like him, he’s made my heart a living heart, like his, instead of a wooden one.

And Christianity will change your actions, but maybe not in the ways you expected. I certainly never expected to marry some cursing, orphan-loving, social-worker roofer prophet sorority girl, but so it is. I never expected to pastor, or live in New Orleans, or speak to people, much less speaking in public. This is just a glimpse of the way God has shaped me, formed me as a Christian, the people he’s used, and this story is not even mentioning all of the things that have deformed me. Undone my faith, stolen my joy.

I still don’t think I’m explaining myself well, but I tried.

I want you to ask yourself what is forming you. Change is inevitable, so what, and who, are you allowing to shape your life? Is it forming or deforming you? Do they love you, or do they just want something from you? Do you love them—are you even capable of unselfish love?—or do you need God to show you how to love genuinely by loving you first? If you or I are going to be Christian, we are going to have to learn what makes a Christian, beyond just saying words, and Isaiah has so much to say about the ways God forms his servants.

Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 44, and we’re going to start reading in v.12. I know you’re like, “That was the intro? How long is this sermon?” But I wanted to explain. We’re going to go quickly here, but not shortchange this beautiful text. Read with me. [Isaiah 50:4-9] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

One, my first point this morning is that God sustains his servants, God sustains his servants and teaches us to do the same. He forms us, he shapes us into people who are able to persevere. This is unpopular; it would be more popular to say that God will keep us from suffering, keeps us from situations where we’re faced with weariness, but no, Isaiah says he sustains us, and he teaches us to sustain others.

We’ve never had more reason to doubt this statement than over the past two years, so we’ve never had more need to hear this truth.

Lord God, please make us, form us into people who follow after v.4, a people who are taught, that we “may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.” I came in on Wednesday night this week, Phil asked me how I was doing and I told him I was tired, and he immediately said “I’m tired of you being tired every time I ask you.” Me, too, Phil, and it’s not just me. The pandemic and the hurricane together was a lot, and then life doesn’t stop in the midst. There’s been joy, for sure, and a lot to celebrate, but also friends have moved. People we love have died. We’ve been displaced.

I’ve been here for almost two years now, and I’ve seen each and every person in this room experience some sort of anxiety and weariness, and with good reason. The past two years have been life on fast forward, like biking down a hill as a kid, after a long ride and you’re tired, and you get going too fast, and the pedals spin so fast you loose your footing, and then there’s nothing to slow you down. It’s a frightening situation. People admit weariness in different ways; some people just come out with it and ask for prayer because it’s too much. Some people put their weariness off on other people or things—they’re not out of control, the world is, and they’re tired of the way everyone else is acting. Some people just keep going until they hit a breaking point, like that bicycle coming down the hill hitting a tree, and they just try to pick up the pieces. Some people think it makes you less of a person to admit weariness, or fear—I don’t. I think it makes you honest, and honesty is good. Perseverance and bravery can’t exist without weariness and fear.

God shapes us by sustaining us through difficult times, so that we might learn his perseverance and hope. The kind of perseverance and hope that made it through crucifixion and mockery without using his power to come down off the cross, without using his armies to overthrow Pilate and slaughter the soldiers bearing the whip and the nails and the spear. You and I can be taken against our will and made to suffer, but not Jesus. He has all power; he can’t be forced to do anything. He wasn’t arrested, he gave himself up. Like the servant in our passage, he gave his back to those who strike, his cheeks to those who pull the beard, his face to disgrace and spitting.

As Paul writes in the book of Romans, “we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

You can make it through all of this—not on your own, but with the Spirit of God and our Christian community. The words he teaches us to say to each other to sustain us. The tears we cry together and the embraces we share. We could make it through much worse than this. Think of our brothers and sisters around the world imprisoned or dying as martyrs for their faith. Or think of our brothers and sisters, here and elsewhere, living in abject poverty—we have that same Spirit of God. I don’t wish for hardship for myself or for you, but in this world hardship will come, and when it does, I hope to meet it with the same bravery, the same perseverance I’ve seen in others who have faced much worse for far longer.

God sustains his servants, and he makes us into people who are able to sustain others, who are able to speak words of encouragement, to offer help in times of need. This is who he forms us to be: people who persevere, and he teaches us his words to speak to sustain people who have grown weary.

God also vindicates his people. God vindicates his people. Vindicate, meaning showing someone to be in the right after all, turning shame and embarrassment into something good, like hope. May we never forget that any perseverance, and hope we have, any words we can speak to sustain the people around us, they’re not found in us and in our work. They’re found in God and in his work in the world. In our passage, the servant of God is beaten, his beard pulled out, he says his face is like a flint, struck over and over again—this is humiliation, this is what each and every exile from Jerusalem has just experienced, and Isaiah tells them not to be ashamed. God will help you, he says, he’ll vindicate you, turn your shame into something good.

Don’t be ashamed that you’re weary, friends, that you were afraid, that it was too much for you and you were conquered and broken. He who vindicates you is near; he’s promised never to leave you. Christ is with us, shaping us. Even if we look at our lives and find cause to be ashamed of times we did the wrong thing, said the wrong thing, were overpowered, overwhelmed, and afraid. Even then, Christ is able to take all of that shame and fear and turn it into honor and hope. I know it sounds like alchemy, and impossible, but it’s not.

After church last week our whole family went for a bike ride through city park, from my brother’s house to Café du Monde, and along the way—just like I was saying earlier—AJ got going a little too fast lost control of his bike, and he rode off the side of a bridge. He’s ok, the bridge was only about two feet up, but it was a jarring experience for him, for all of us, really. In addition to the physical hurt and fear, he also felt a little ashamed, I could tell, as he told us what happened, because he lost control, yeah, but he had ridden off the bridge intentionally, he misjudged how high it was and thought it would be a cool jump.

I completely failed at parenting in that moment, I’ll be honest—I was like, “Well, that was a bad idea,” just added to the shame. Annie, though, she sat on the ground and held him, mud and wet and all, until he calmed down. And I watched as pain and fear and shame turned in him into love and joy and relationship in moments. It was remarkable.

You may know this—it’s moments like those that actually physically shape our brains in the first place, as we develop. When infants are hungry and they cry and someone holds them, feeds them, over and over again, when they express a need and the need is met, their brains physically develop in balance.

Trauma occurs in a child when that need is inconsistently met, or not at all, and the child’s brain physically develops to where the survival part of the brain, called the hippocampus, grows larger, and other regions of the brain grow smaller. One author who works with kids with trauma described in her book, The Connected Child, the surreal experience of once being in a massive orphanage in the Balkans, a large room filled with infants, hundreds of children, and it was completely silent, no noise. Because the children had stopped crying after a few weeks because they had learned crying does nothing—no one comes and picks them up. They had been formed, physically in their brains, formed to assume pain and hunger and shame would be their existence.

The brain continues to form and reform throughout the entirety of a person’s life, and as you see children who have been through trauma, get hurt or afraid, even though they may not cry or come up to you to be held, you go to them, pick them up and hold them until they calm down. And if you do that consistently they will start to cry again, they’ll start to come to you when they’re hurt, and that physical imbalance in the brain begins to correct, the hippocampus literally shrinks.

What my wife did after that fall was literally, physically, emotionally, and in every other way shaping our son, forming him to be a person who has perseverance and hope through suffering, knowing that he’s able to cry and be comforted, knowing he’s able to turn to her for help and help will come. That’s the clearest example of vindication I can think of, turning shame and fear and embarrassment into hope and love and wholeness.

This is how our father forms his children as well. When we cry out, he comes and sits with us, mud and wet and all. Even if we haven’t learned to cry out to him yet, he still comes to us. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” And throughout our lives, he gives us people, community we can come to again and again and hear words to sustain us. Day by day, he turns suffering into perseverance and hope. And just like our brains can be reformed throughout the entirety of our lives, it’s never too late to allow God to comfort you and form you as a child sustained by him and his words.

My invitation to you today is to come to God with your hurt, pain, and weariness. Cry out to him. Ask him to sit with you, mud and wet and all, and vindicate you, taking your hurt and shame and forging them into perseverance and hope.

“But the Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.
Behold, the Lord GOD helps me;
who will declare me guilty?” (ESV)