Sermon: "Mid-Life Crisis and the Sovereignty of God"

Second in a Series on Isaiah 38,
Delivered October 10, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates
Other sermons in this series - 1 / 2 / 3

Sermon Text: Isaiah 38:9-14
9 A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah after his illness and recovery:
10 I said, "In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death [1] and be robbed of the rest of my years?"
11 I said, "I will not again see the LORD, the LORD, in the land of the living; no longer will I look on mankind, or be with those who now dwell in this world.
12 Like a shepherd's tent my house has been pulled down and taken from me. Like a weaver I have rolled up my life, and he has cut me off from the loom; day and night you made an end of me.
13 I waited patiently till dawn, but like a lion he broke all my bones; day and night you made an end of me.
14 I cried like a swift or thrush, I moaned like a mourning dove. My eyes grew weak as I looked to the heavens. I am troubled; O Lord, come to my aid!"

What would it be like to be snatched from the jaws of death? What would it be like to be written off as hopeless and confined to a deathbed, but then actually get up and walk away from that bed into new life?

Last week we saw King Hezekiah do just that as God intervenes into his life with a mighty miracle and heals King Hezekiah. But lest you think that God was in the miracle business only back in Old Testament times, or just back in Bible times, let me say this. God is still about the business of doing the impossible. Of healing people for whom there was no hope.

Don't believe me? Ask Harry Sawyer. Often times at our 8:30 a..m. service Harry is our biker with the bandana. He comes cruising in here on his Harley, and he was told he had no hope. He was as good as dead. And Harry is one of those few people who have ever walked out of Stella Maris Hospice. And now he ministers in the name of Jesus Christ to folks in that same institution.

Or if you still don't believe me, find Connie Staffa who is here at this service, and ask him. Body riddled with cancer. No hope. 'Go home and die!' And now twenty-five or so years post-healing, Connie still is a mighty servant of the Lord.

But what about my daughter Anna, who did not get up from her deathbed? Whom God in His sovereignty for some reason that is totally beyond me, did not choose to heal. I am faced every day of my life with that god-awful mystery. And in the face of that, I can only trust. But God can heal.

Are you here this morning, and you have been given a death sentence by doctors? Or maybe your career is put on the chopping block and you think it is over. It may not be. We are faced with mystery. We are also faced with a great God.

What would be going through your mind if you were on your deathbed? I can tell you what was going through my mind as I sat next to my daughter's deathbed. My mind was swirling with all kinds of things similar to what we are going to read expressed by King Hezekiah in a psalm that he wrote after he was healed. A psalm, the first part of which we are going to look at this morning, and then look at part two next week. A psalm whose first part might kind of throw you for a loop, because it is not the kind of psalm that I think I would write if I were delivered from my death bed. I would be writing a psalm about, 'Praise the Lord, I am healed!' But instead, we are confronted here with a rather candid blunt assessment of what the feelings were that Hezekiah had as he lay dying.

I would invite you to turn with me in your Bibles. Keep them open during the sermon, to Isaiah's prophesy, the thirty-eighth chapter. This morning let's take a look together at verses 9-14. Isaiah 38, beginning to read at the ninth verse, this is the word of God:

A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah after his illness and recovery:

I said, "In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death and be robbed of the rest of my years?"

I said, "I will not again see the Lord, the Lord, in the land of the living; no longer will I look on mankind, or be with those who now dwell in this world.

Like a shepherd's tent my house has been pulled down and taken from me.

Like a weaver I have rolled up my life, and he has cut me off from the loom; day and night you made an end of me.

I waited patiently till dawn, but like a lion he broke all my bones; day and night you made an end of me.

I cried like a swift or thrush, I moaned like a mourning dove.

My eyes grew weak as I looked to the heavens. I am troubled; O Lord, come to my aid!"

Join me as we pray: And now Father as my words are true to your word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

You may remember that last week, I said that birth confronts you and me with the ultimate dilemma of life, a crisis. The crisis of death. Death is that most formidable enemy. It is the last enemy the Bible says. And it is an enemy that you and I, no matter how crafty and clever we are, we can't get around it. We can't beat it on our own strength, and certainly not outside of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we think that there must be something that we can do to get around it. But it will find us. Like the tourist who was on an African safari. He became separated from the group, took a wrong turn, and found himself hopelessly lost in the Sahara Desert. After a few hours he was reduced to crawling in the burning sand, the sun baking down upon him. And then he saw someone riding toward him on a donkey.

As the man approached the tourist cried out, "Help me, please I am dying of thirst." And the man gets off the donkey and says, "I am sorry, I have no water. All I have are neckties."

"Neckties, you fool! I don't need neckties, I need water!"

"Hey," said the peddler, "I kind of like you. I usually get fifteen dollars a piece for these ties, but since you are suffering, for you two for twenty-five dollars."

"You dummy! I don't want your ties! I don't need your ties! I need water!" And in disgust, the tourist crawled off into the sand.

About three hours later, off in the distance he sees a palm tree, an oasis. And standing under the palm tree is a man wearing a tuxedo. He crawls up and he says, "Please, I am dying. Do you have any water?" And the man says, "Yes, we have plenty of water here."

"Oh thank God. I am saved. I have beaten death. Where can I get it?"

The mans says, "Right back here in the restaurant we have plenty of water. Oh, but I am sorry I can't admit you without a tie."

Hezekiah is confronted with this formidable enemy of death. Actually, Hezekiah is confronted by the ultimate mid-life crisis, because Hezekiah is in the prime of his life. He is king of Judah, and suddenly finds himself on his death bed. Thinking that he had the whole second half of his life before him, he suddenly finds out that what he thought was going to be the second half, turns out to be the two minute warning. How would you feel?

How would you feel if all of the sudden you were told that this is it? There is no second half. How would you feel if you suddenly found yourself laying on your deathbed? All kinds of feelings would go through our minds.

Frank Sinatra was heard to mumble, "I am losing." Joseph Stalin, former seminary student turned god-hater there on his deathbed, right before the moment of death was thrashing around and then threw his clenched fist into the air as if he was taking a swing at God, and then was gone.

How would you feel? How did Hezekiah feel? Well in this text before us, Hezekiah lays out pretty bluntly how he was feeling as he lay there dying on his deathbed. Let's take a look. Look at verses 10-12 of your text. Here Hezekiah is basically saying, 'Here I am in the prime of my life, the best part of my life ahead of me, and suddenly I am going to die. I am being robbed of my life. All of my relationships with God and with other people are being destroyed. My tent pegs are pulled up, and I am not through camping yet.

Which reminds me of the story of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, who went camping one time. They had been hiking through the mountains and they were tired, and they lay down at night to go to sleep. Laying on their backs looking up at the sky, Holmes said, "My dear Watson, look up at the sky. What do you see?" And Watson says, "I see stars, thousands of them."

"And my dear Watson, what does that mean to you?" Watson says, "Well, I guess it means that we are going to have a pretty good day tomorrow. Holmes, what does it mean to you?"

"Oh my dear Watson, to me it means that someone has stolen our tent."

This is how Hezekiah feels. He has been robbed. His tent pegs are pulled up, and his tent has been torn down. Robbed! Like an unfinished tapestry Hezekiah says, "My life is rolled up. He has cut me off from the loom. He has made an end of my days. It is he who has brought this mid-life crisis into my life. It is he who is robbing me of my years." Who could "he" be? Hezekiah is getting pretty accusatory isn't' he? Toward God.

Well, it is not over. He gets even more graphic in verses 13 and 14. Take a look. He says it is like being thrown to the lions; and "God, you are the lion who has come in here and broken all of my bones. It is a mismatch. I am like a bird going up against this lion of Judah. I'm shrieking like a thrush or a swift. Mourning like a dove. And it is totally unfair." Anyway that you look at it, this is not a very flattering picture of God that we get in this text.

And yet, this is Holy Scripture, so it has got to be true, Right? Timeout, half time. We need to stop at this point, and remind ourselves about a key principle of biblical interpretation. A question that you and I need to ask any time we handle any text of scripture is this: Is this text before me descriptive or prescriptive? In other words, there are a lot of texts in the Bible that describe certain events, the way people feel, their attitude toward God. But it may not be prescriptive. In other words, you are to feel like that. You are to act like that. You are to have that appraisal of who God is.

Let me give you an example: The story of David and Bathsheba. David lusts after Bathsheba, commits adultery with her. It is in the Bible, and is very descriptively laid out. It is not prescriptive, though. It is not saying you are to go and do likewise. Just the opposite. There are a lot of things that happen in the Bible that are immoral. There are a lot of attitudes that people in the Bible have that should not be attitudes that you and I have. There are lots of pictures painted by people of God that are about as far from reality as anything can be.

Job's friends come along side of him, and they lay out what seems to be a very attractive portrait of who God is. It is attractive because it is the way many of us think about God. But it is bad theology.

I would put before you today that what we have here in Hezekiah's psalm is a very genuine, authentic expression of how he was really feeling as he lay dying on his deathbed.

But erroneous feelings in terms of who God is and how God acts. He arrives at some very bad theology because he already has some very good theology. Hezekiah believes in the bottom-lined doctrine, the key foundational doctrine of the Christian faith, and that is the sovereignty of God. But as you and I, as we should, build our whole lives upon the sovereignty of God, at the same time, it creates a real problem for us.

Let me give you an example. God is sovereign. Okay, I believe that. Tragedy or crisis hits my life. Okay, God is sovereign. If he is sovereign then he can avert this tragedy, or he can deliver me from this crisis. If he is sovereign, he can do that. But what happens when he doesn't? Well we don't let go of the sovereignty of God. Then God must be doing this to me. Therefore, God must be out to get me. He is the culprit. He is the perpetrator of this crisis in my life. You see, that is where Hezekiah moves. Bad, bad, bad theology. But very attractive. It does away with the mystery.

You and I have trouble with the mystery of God. Bad theology does away with the mystery. And Satan fuels that all of the time. Now there is another type of theology on the other end of the spectrum that also does away with the mystery, and is also very attractive, but is equally and maybe more bad than what Hezekiah comes up with. And I myself have played with it for a while.

When our daughter was not delivered from her deathbed, somebody shoved into my hands, a book entitled, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, by Rabbi Kushner. And man I ate it up. It was so wonderful because it took God off the hook as to somehow being involved in this at all. Which if you are a minister, it creates problems if you get angry at God and it looks like he is doing stuff like this. It is hard to be a pastor. It is hard to be a Christian.

I started eating that book up. It took God off the hook. I did not have to blame God. It felt so good, but it was sort of like if you are starving to death and somebody comes up to you and gives you a case of Twinkies. It is great for about ten minutes. But then I began to think through this theology which is called "process theology", which says that God loves you. That God is with you. That God doesn't create any crises. That God is with you in a crisis, and if he could he would avert them. He would deliver you from them, but he is in the process of becoming God. Kind of growing up with the universe, and the only reason he didn't avert it is because he was not able to. So when you are looking around for somebody to blame, you can't point to God. You know God is on your side and that feels good at first.

But then as I began to logically theologically think that out, I arrived at the point, 'Okay, if God couldn't have prevented it, then wow, this universe is up for grabs. Everything is really out of control. I hope God finishes growing up before something else bad happens to me like maybe when my salvation is on the line'. There is no comfort in process theology. None whatsoever.

Hezekiah is expressing bad theology here. But much to his credit, Hezekiah toys with the bad theology for only so long, but then decides to come out of it. If you look at verse 14 of your text, you see that Hezekiah laying there on his deathbed, things growing faint about him, and he turns his eyes to the heavens. He begins to reevaluate what is gong on with this mid-life deathbed crisis, and he regrasps good theology. He says, "I am troubled; O Lord, come to my aid."

You see, God as adversary now turns into God as hopeful savior, deliverer, rescuer. What God is doing in this text is revealing himself to Hezekiah, and through Hezekiah's psalm revealing himself to you and to me as a God who is not the author of death. Not a God who is a tent tearer upper, a loom liquidator, a God who comes roaring at us like a lion to chew us up and rip us apart. No, but as a God who loves you and me so much, who is invested so much in your life and mine, that our tears move him to tears. Our mortality, be it our physical death here on this earth or the possibility of a second death in eternity, moves God to the point of becoming man in Jesus Christ, and becoming the death of death. Destroying the ultimate power of sin, evil, and tragedy, and sickness, and death over your life and mine.

The interesting thing about this text is that verse 14 is prescriptive. This is the prescriptive verse, other than the concept that we can also bring our full expressions of how we are feeling before God. But Hezekiah's psalm, though it is descriptive when it is on the lips of Hezekiah, if we take that psalm and put it on the lips of Jesus Christ as he hangs on the cross in your place and my place, then this entire psalm of Hezekiah becomes prescriptive truth.

Jesus, who was cut down in the prime of his life. Jesus, who did not get to live out the full span of his years. Jesus, who was totally separated from God and not cast into the world of Sheol (as Hezekiah heard) but is cast into literal hell. Complete utter separation from God. Jesus, the good shepherd, whose shepherd's tent is pulled up and ripped down. Jesus, whose life is rolled up like an unfinished tapestry, who is cut off from the loom, who is cut off from God to the point of where he cries out on the cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.' You see, Jesus is living proof that God is not our adversary when we find ourselves in the midst of crises. Whether they be deathbed crises, mid-life crises, illness, whatever.

He is not our adversary, but is the God that you and I can turn to, that we can trust, who hears our prayers. And who has promised in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit to somehow, some way make a path for you and me through our crises. Praise be to God our deliverer.

Join me as we pray:
Lord God we bow before you in your mystery. We can't figure you all out, but thank you that in Jesus Christ we see that you are bigger than the mystery. That in Christ we see your love poured out on the cross. That in Christ we have that pioneer who has gone ahead of us. That perfecter of our faith, who is molding and shaping us even amidst our crises, and who will make a way. Lord, help us to trust. Give us that gift of faith. For we ask in Jesus name, and in his name alone, Amen.

© 1999, Dr. Ronald W. Scates
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145