|Learning to Hear God's Voice #10
A Glimpse of Deliverance: For Once, Hezekiah Listened!
Reading: Isaiah 38
Introduction: It seemed “natural” this morning to begin with a story from Baseball, after the play-offs and World Series this year had such moments of courage and historic comebacks. A team that had not won a championship since World War I in the 20th century finally came out on top in the 21st century. But it was actually our text today that drew me to the film clip in “The Natural” where a young Roy Hobbs contemplates the baseball career that he believes is in front of him. He is on his way to try out for the Cubs. On the train ride to Chicago, he encounters a Babe Ruth like character everyone calls “The Wammer.” In a carnival-type atmosphere at a train stop along the way, Hobbs strikes out the Wammer on three pitches. It is after that experience that he encounters a young woman on the train named Harriett, who compares Roy to the gods of ancient Greece. She asks Roy if he has ever read Homer, to which he responds that the only homer he knows about has four bases. Without much laughter she tells him about the ancient author who wrote of heroes and gods and would have written about baseball had he seen Roy’s performance against the Wammer. Roy then tells her that he is going to be the best that’s ever played the game. Harriett asks him, “And then what?” “Then when I walk down the street, people will say ‘There goes Roy Hobbs; the best there ever was.’” Harriett is somewhat mystified as she asks, “Is that all?” Hobbs is equally mystified as he responds, “What else is there?” “Isn’t there something more?” she asks, “more glorious?”
What else indeed? What is the purpose of human life on this planet? In the fictional movie, Harriett ends up shooting Hobbs in an effort to gain immortality for herself and Hobbs. She dies; he lives but he disappears for years before showing up in baseball again as a 37 year old rookie who has one spectacular season.
In real life, the question of meaning tends to hit in our culture in those moments we’ve labeled mid-life crisis. What are we here for? Is it all about being successful, making a ton of money that we can give away after we are dead? Is the meaning of life summed up in the neighborhood we live in; the sports teams we cheer for; the clothes we wear; the beautiful body we maintain; the nation or state or town we call home? One of the most amazing things about our political system in this country is that, in spite of the rhetoric and noise of the last several months, life on Wednesday will look pretty much like life today no matter what the outcome of the election – or even if there is not an outcome by Wednesday morning. But Harriett’s question remains: after all of our cultural labels of importance and success and celebrity have been named, what is the meaning of life? After we read or see the next news report about death and dying in Iraq and we listen to the next speech about freedom or we watch another news segment about starvation in Chad and Sudan, what is the purpose of our existence? Isn’t there more than being the best or the worst or just about average?
Our story from Isaiah this morning is actually mirrored in the historical narrative of II Kings, and to some extent II Chronicles 32. In both Isaiah and II Kings there is an odd twist in the chronology of the story. The events described in Isaiah 38-39 take place sometime during the events described in chapters 36-37, but we’re not sure when. The King of Judah at the time is Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz. Hezekiah becomes king of Judah in 715 B.C. We are told in I Kings 18 that he is 25 years old when he begins to reign and he reigns for 29 years. Since kings reigned until their death in those days we can surmise that Hezekiah died at the age of 54. The events described in Isaiah 36-39 all seem to occur somewhere between 704 and 701, so about half way through Hezekiah’s reign as king. Chapter 36 begins with a reference to the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, which would put the time at about 701. The King of Assyria, Sennacherib, sent armies into Judah, over-running the fortified cities. At first, Hezekiah tried to bargain with Assyria. We read these words in II Kings 18:14-16: “King Hezekiah of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, ‘I have done wrong; withdraw from me; whatever you impose on me I will bear.’ The king of Assyria demanded of King Hezekiah of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the LORD and in the treasuries of the king’s house. At that time Hezekiah stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the LORD, and from the doorposts that King Hezekiah of Judah had overlaid and gave it to the king of Assyria.”
The pay-off makes no difference as the Assyrian army lays siege to Jerusalem. Even in those days, we discover that there are political “spin-doctors” at work. The commander of the Assyrian army stands and calls out to the people and armies of Judah:
“Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on the LORD by saying, The LORD will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me; then everyone of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Do not let Hezekiah mislead you by saying, The LORD will save us. Has any of the gods of the nations saved their land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of these countries have saved their countries out of my hand, that the LORD should save Jerusalem out of my hand?’ ” (Isaiah 36:13-20).
The people of Judah choose not to heed the advice of the Assyrian army commander, and this time Hezekiah turns to the Lord, mourning in sackcloth at the Temple, sending priests also dressed in sackcloth to the prophet Isaiah where they say to Isaiah, “Thus says Hezekiah, This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. 4 It may be that the LORD your God heard the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the LORD your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left” (Isaiah 37:3-4).
Isaiah sends words of assurance back to Hezekiah, telling him not to be afraid, for the LORD is going to handle the king of Assyria and his underlings. In fact, there is a temporary withdrawal at that point, but then the king of Assyria writes another threatening letter to Hezekiah, telling him that the gods of the nations already destroyed did not help them and neither will the God of Judah stop the armies of Assyria. We then read the first of two prayers that Hezekiah himself prays in the Temple:
“O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see; hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Truly, O LORD, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands, and have hurled their gods into the fire, though they were no gods, but the work of human hands—wood and stone—and so they were destroyed. So now, O LORD our God, save us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the LORD” (37:16-20).
The rest of Isaiah 37 is a prophetic announcement by Isaiah that the LORD is going to take care of the Assyrians. Listen just to the opening words of Isaiah to Hezekiah: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Because you have prayed to me concerning King Sennacherib of Assyria, this is the word that the LORD has spoken concerning him” (37:21-22). Because Hezekiah has trusted in the LORD, because of his conversation with Yahweh, the destruction of Sennacherib is immanent. The chapter closes with an announcement that an angel of the Lord struck down 185,000 troop overnight, and soon thereafter Sennacherib himself was assassinated.
Chapters 38 and 39 both begin with vague time references – “In those days” (chapter 38) and “At that time” (chapter 39). In the midst of the national crisis, Hezekiah himself becomes deathly ill. In the midst of him trying at first to pay tribute to the Assyrians and only after that fails does he turn to Yahweh, at the age of 39 it looks like he himself is going to die. That is the context for his prayer and God’s response:
“In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, ‘Thus says the LORD: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.’ Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the LORD: ‘Remember now, O LORD, I implore you, how I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.’ And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: ‘Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the LORD, the God of your ancestor David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city. ‘This is the sign to you from the LORD, that the LORD will do this thing that he has promised: See, I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps.’ So the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined” (38:1-8).
In chapter 39, a Babylonian king sends envoys to Hezekiah when he hears of his miraculous recovery from illness. “Hezekiah welcomed them; he showed them his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them” (39:2). In fact, the hospitality shown is a bit much from God’s perspective and Isaiah is told that the freedom of Judah will be short-lived. Hezekiah’s descendents will be enslaved to the Babylonians. In an almost cavalier way, Hezekiah thinks to himself, “There will be peace in my lifetime” (39:8). The Chronicler actually states that Hezekiah was “proud and did not respond to the kindness shown him; therefore the Lord’s wrath was on him and on Judah and Jerusalem. Then Hezekiah repented of the pride of his heart as did the people of Jerusalem; therefore the Lord’s wrath did not come upon them during the days of Hezekiah” (II Chronicles 32:25-26).
I believe that last bit of information is very important when we reflect on the great prayer of faith that leads to a fifteen year extension on Hezekiah’s life. Hezekiah is human, all-too-human in this story. We are tempted to look at Hezekiah’s faith and his prayer for healing and make pronouncements about healing and faith and the power of prayer in our own circumstances. There are sermonic points to be made about God’s gift of life extension, about the healing that is both miraculous and also makes use of medicinal cures (v. 20), about the miracle of the sun-dial that no-one then or now can explain.
God actually acts to bring healing when Hezekiah himself does not ask to be healed! Hezekiah laments the apparent contradiction of his life – he has been a faithful servant and witness for God. How could this be happening to him?
It is in the heart cry of Hezekiah that I believe we hear this morning an answer to those meaning-of-life questions I started with. No, it is not in the fact that Hezekiah weeps bitterly or that he calls on Yahweh to remember how good a person he has been in his life. It is in the act of conversation itself. In the midst of national crisis and personal crisis, Hezekiah engages Yahweh in a conversation that only asks God to remember. He doesn’t ask for healing, and his weeping suggests he doesn’t expect to be healed. The healing itself is God’s sign that he also will bring healing to the nation. The sign given is not just to guarantee fifteen more years but to guarantee God’s promises to the whole nation.
Oddly, after the song of praise and thanksgiving for the healing a medicinal treatment is prescribed. And the chapter then closes with a strange question from Hezekiah, “What will be the sign that I will go up to the temple of the Lord?” We don’t quite know what to make of the question. Does the reception of one sign produce the need for more? Do these verses actually fit the chronology of the illness itself back before the song of thanksgiving? The song does end with a reference to singing in the temple all the days of our lives. The song also reveals the Old Testament conviction that conversation with God ends at death. “For Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness” (38:18). In other words, conversation with you is what the living can do. It is that conversation, throughout Isaiah, that not only brings salvation to people, it brings life and meaning to human existence.
Remember, we titled this series “Learning to Hear God’s Voice.” The truth is, God wishes to hear our voices as well. This is about the Creator in conversation with Creation. The meaning of life as humans were created was for conversation and relationship with creator. Problems occurred when humans started talking to other members of creation and stopped listening and talking with God. Once they trusted in conversation among themselves, they were afraid to have conversation with God. That is the story of the Fall, isn’t it? Evil, by definition, in the Fall is creation listening to itself rather than to the Creator. Ever since, God has been trying to get us to listen to him. The meaning of life in that context is not determined by how many years we get on this planet but by how well we learn to engage in conversation. Sometimes it takes illness to get us engaged! Sometimes God heals for the purpose of engaging others? The meaning of life is not to be found in athletic contests and being the greatest – it consists in discovering our real conversation partner. To be in conversation with Creator-God is then what makes possible trustworthy conversation among the rest of his creation. That is the call of this text this morning. Yes, we bring our physical illnesses before him and ask for the miracle of healing. But perhaps the real healing is not in how much more physical life is granted, but in how meaningful the conversations become in the process.
By the way, Hezekiah’s prayer of thanksgiving is hardly one hallelujah after another. It is a reflection of his reality. That is the same conversation Jesus had with the Father when he was on this planet. It is the conversation and meaning-of-life purpose we are invited to follow this morning.
“I said: In the noontide of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years. I said, I shall not see the LORD in the land of the living; I shall look upon mortals no more among the inhabitants of the world. My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me like a shepherd’s tent; like a weaver I have rolled up my life; he cuts me off from the loom; from day to night you bring me to an end; I cry for help until morning; like a lion he breaks all my bones; from day to night you bring me to an end. Like a swallow or a crane I clamor I moan like a dove. My eyes are weary with looking upward. O Lord, I am oppressed; be my security! But what can I say? For he has spoken to me, and he himself has done it. All my sleep has fled because of the bitterness of my soul. O Lord, by these things people live and in all these is the life of my spirit. Oh, restore me to health and make me live! Surely it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but you have held back my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back. For Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, they thank you, as I do this day; fathers make known to children your faithfulness. The LORD will save me, and we will sing to stringed instrument all the days of our lives, at the house of the LORD” (Isaiah 38:10-20).
Delivered at Woodmont Hills, October 31, 2004.
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