God is God; you are not, and this is a very good thing.
This basic message, grounded in the comfort offered by Isaiah 40, was a regular refrain early on in my ministry to teenagers. Those three basic statements have stood as a constant reminder of where true comfort is found, both for the students under my care as well as for myself.
Because of the persistent voice of the culture around them, teenagers entering into your youth group will spend the next few years discovering themselves and their full potential. In the process of searching for their path to success, students will naturally lean into the cultural belief that their success lies entirely within themselves. The jr. high and high school years often bring with them a roller coaster of emotions as kids are regularly told of their limitless potential (while simultaneously facing the confusing disappointment of their limits). In their years spent in student ministry, it is important to actually remind them of those limits, while not crushing their overall hope in the gospel. This is where the complete and counter-cultural message of God is God, you are not, and this is a very good thing is so imperative.
God is God
The immediate future of Isaiah’s audience was far from bright. They were facing a promised time of Babylonian captivity. Yet in the face of that bleak future, Isaiah begins his message with these words:
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
For a people facing captivity under the rule of a harsh and powerful enemy, this declaration, although truly glorious, would have been somewhat difficult to fully comprehend. And while our students might not face a future quite as bleak, their own circumstances are similarly filled with questions of uncertainty (Will I pass this test? Will I make varsity? Will I ever be popular? etc.). In the midst of so much uncertainty, a mere declaration of forgiveness or deliverance is not enough. Like Isaiah’s audience, our students need further exploration of how their deliverance is possible.
Isaiah points not simply to the grace of God, but also to God’s God-ness as “the how.” By “God-ness,” I simply mean those things that separate God from all else, those incommunicable attributes that God alone possesses (His omniscience, omnipotence, sovereignty). When trying to convey that God-ness, I cannot help but think of the language found throughout Isaiah 40:
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighted the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?
Behold, the nations are like a drop in the bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust…the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness…
To whom, then, will you like God, or what likeness compare with him?”
Many of us have at some point been struck with awe over the sheer immensity of creation. It’s the feeling you have while looking out over the Grand Canyon or while standing on Pikes Peak looking out over the expanse of land beneath you. And yet, as Isaiah powerfully illustrates (which we must press upon those we teach), all those things are nothing compared to the grandeur of God. The tallest mountains in the world are taken up in his hand and placed on a scale like a mound of dirt. All the peoples of this world are as nothing compared to God. There is nothing we could possibly compare to Him.
To put it simply, God (alone) is God. And if we are to ever find comfort in this life, this “God-ness” must first be established. But this is not where the comfort ends.
You are Not [God]
The description of humanity throughout this chapter is far from its depiction of God. Speaking to humanity, the prophet offers these words:
“All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
The audience of Isaiah 40 was, by the prophet’s own words, weak, fatigued, and would eventually face an inevitable death. The same is true for us today. But how often do we stop to consider our frailty? How often do we remind our students of this initially bleak truth?
Regardless of how dark our present circumstances might seem, our culture insists on preaching the following message: “You can do anything you set your mind to.” At first glance, that message sounds far more encouraging than the one of Isaiah 40. Yet, as we already know and as our students have probably already begun to see, the picture of humanity painted by Isaiah is the one that actually lines up with reality. There is no clearer evidence of this than between the walls of a high school, or behind the screen of a teenager’s smart phone.
The truth is that all of us, regardless of our age, are surprisingly weak and our lives are relatively brief. Regardless of what this world might proclaim, the fact remains that all of us are grass and we will soon dry up under the scorching sun of this fallen world.
God is God. And you – very clearly – are not.
But how can one possibly find comfort in this message?
This is (Very) Good
The comfort proclaimed by Isaiah (and the reason why this message is good) is this: the great incomparable God of Isaiah 40 is our God. Let that sink in. The almighty God before whom all nations tremble is the God who lifts us up, who forgives our sins, who gives us strength, and who (like a good Shepherd) carries us to the end.
We can be comforted that our salvation does not rest in our own strength, but in the strength of this mighty and capable God.
The comfort of God is far different from the “comfort” offered by a world which relies on the naïve belief that things will work out if we just try hard enough. That is simply an exhausting lie.
To help ensure that our students (and all of us) feel the comfort offered in Isaiah 40, we must preach a comfort that declares the awe-inspiring “God-ness” of God, that humbly acknowledges the fragility of Man, and that rejoices in the fact that God uses his strength for our good. Like Isaiah, we must find comfort in the fact that the hand of God that crushes his enemies and causes them to tremble is the same hand that lifts up his children in salvation.
We all will grow weary and we all daily need the comfort found in this message. God is God, you are not, and this is good. I pray that the students I have served understand this message and feel the comfort it brings. And I pray that I never fail to allow that message to crush my own pride and bring necessary comfort to my own weary soul.