March 3, 2011 § 4 Comments
The grass withers and the flowers fade,
but the word of our God stands forever.
Have you ever counted on something to last forever? Not that you really thought it would last forever, but you lived as if it would? Right before I started going to Seminary, I thought it would be a good idea to buy a new laptop. I had owned a few before, but they had always let me down—their battery-life was unreliable, they overheated, they crashed. So, I decided I would pay a bit more money to get a Mac. Sure, they were a bit more expensive, and sure, there was a bit of a learning-curve, but at least I knew they were reliable. For three years of school, I used it for all my assignments. Three years of theological essays, book reviews, biblical research, and personal reflections. Three years of sermons I had written and songs I was working on. Three years of music and software I had bought. Three years of pictures—including our engagement and our wedding photos. I had poured a pretty good portion of my life into my computer. I trusted it to store important work, record thoughts, and keep memories.
As I’m sure you’ve already anticipated, my computer didn’t last forever. One evening, I was using it and everything locked up. I couldn’t move the mouse and the keyboard wasn’t working. I turned it off. I turned it back on. Nothing. Uh oh. The next day, I brought it to the Mac store to see if it could be repaired. The technician told me: “Looks like your hard drive crashed.” “Excuse me?” I said. This is a Mac, I was thinking, I thought they were supposed to be reliable! He looked at me and said, “So . . . you have everything backed up, right?” Um, to reiterate, I thought this thing was supposed to be reliable!
Long story short: I had a new hard drive installed, but I was never able to recover my data. I was able to find some of it—like our most important pictures—on discs, but most of it was gone forever. And yes, I now back everything up.
Now, if you had asked me, “Joel, do you really think your laptop will be around in 50 years, or even in 20 years?” I probably would have told you, “No.” And if you had followed up by asking, “Well, is there anything on your laptop that you do want to be around in 20 years?” I would have said, “Absolutely.” And if you had concluded by asking, “So, what are you doing to guarantee that you won’t lose that important stuff?” I wouldn’t have had an answer.
But honestly, even now, I have a backup drive, but I don’t really think that’ll be around in 20 years. I print off my assignments now, but there’s no guarantee that I won’t lose them (especially with how I am with organization). In the end, I actually can’t guarantee that all the irreplaceable things in my life will be around as long as I am. In some sense, I have to admit that I am trusting my life to things that I know won’t last forever.
In Scripture, we read, The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God endures forever. If this is true, then I’m very interested in what it might mean to trust my life to God’s word. In other words: In a world that is constantly trying to convince us to put our trust in that which fades away, what might it mean to trust in God’s word, which never fades?
I think we can start to answer this question by addressing three others: (1) What is God’s word? (2) In what sense does God’s word endure forever? (3) How does God’s everlasting word touch my own life? These are the questions that emerged for me as I studied our passages for this morning. This phrase, the grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God endures forever, occurs twice in Scripture: First in Isaiah 40, and then again as a quotation in 1 Peter. This poetic expression is used in slightly different ways in either passage, so I think it’s helpful to look at each of them in turn.
First to Isaiah 40. This passage is found in vv. 6-8. But one of the most important keys to understanding it comes by reading what comes on either side of it.
“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.”
If you’ve ever read through Isaiah, chapter 40 is like a big sigh of relief. For a good portion of the first 39 chapters, all we hear about is God’s judgment, the unfaithfulness of the people, and their punishment. Chapter 40 starts a drastically new section of hope, beginning with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people!” The tone shifts from judgement to hope, from anticipation to announcement. The opening words indicate that the message is no longer judgement but forgiveness. The time of punishment and bondage is over. Israel has endured the full—even the double—retribution for her sins. Now it’s time to deliver a message of peace and comfort.
These verses are all about preparing for a message of good news. Verses 3-5 use the imagery of a great highway: Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! The otherwise difficult terrain of the wilderness is made smooth to make a great road that the exiled Israelites will return on. Valleys are lifted and mountains are lowered so that all the land is leveled and flattened. We all live on the prairies; we know exactly what this looks like. (Basically, the idea was to transform the Middle East into Manitoba.)
The image of this great highway is just one of several images that form a larger overall picture of rescued Jerusalem. In addition to the great highway, there are also allusions to Israel’s exodus from Egypt, and descriptions of the wilderness turning into a garden, reminding us of the Promised Land, the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Jerusalem has been in exile across the wilderness, but now they have been freed, the highway has been paved for their return, and even the wilderness has produced water to drink and trees for shade.
So, as we move into the next verses, we read about God’s eternal word in the context of comfort and hope—and not of some vague comfort and hope, but a specific hope and comfort that is tied to the expectation of Israel’s return.
6-8 A voice said, “Shout!” I asked, “What should I shout?” A voice has already cried out for the building of a massive highway through the wilderness. Now, a voice shouts for someone to shout. What should I shout? Remember that the message to be proclaimed is not some random set of propositions or predictions, but it has to do with God’s word for his people, and specifically God’s word for his people in the midst of new comfort and in the expectation of return. So what is the message?
All people are like the grass. All their glory fades as quickly as the flowers in a field. The grass withers and the flowers fade beneath the breath of the Lord. And so it is with people. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.
You’ll see that there are actually two comparisons going on here. God’s word is contrasted with the grass and flowers, because, unlike them, God’s word lasts forever. But the real contrast isn’t between God’s word and flowers, but between God’s word and people. People are like the grass; God’s word is not like the grass. People are frail; God’s word is not.
So back to some of the questions I had at the beginning: (1) What is God’s word? and (2) In what sense does God’s word endure forever? In Isaiah, God’s word isn’t “the Bible” per se. Most obviously because while Isaiah was prophesying, there was no “Bible.” They would have had some writings, probably at least Genesis through Deuteronomy, and a growing collection of Psalms used in worship. But in Isaiah, this isn’t what is meant by “God’s word.” In the context of Isaiah 40, God’s word—the word that endures forever—is what God has said.
What has God said? We’ve just been reading it. “Comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Her hard service has been completed and her sin has been paid for. The glory of the Lord will be revealed. The Sovereign Lord comes with power. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that are with young.” This has to do with God’s everlasting covenant promise. God’s word endures forever because God is always faithful to the covenant. God has promised to redeem Israel, and this word is true forever.
This passage serve an important function in the larger context of Isaiah 40-55. This section declares a new promise from God: that God will come in glory and save his people. Yet before this promise can be understood and believed, it is important to emphasize that God actually does what he says. God’s message of comfort is good news, but it is only good news if God’s word is actually true, if it actually stands as it is spoken.
Maybe we’re too used to the emptiness of words. We’re used to “reading between the lines” when people talk. We assume that there will be some level of disconnect between what people say and what they actually do. This isn’t only true of politicians and used-car salesmen, but also of people who genuinely want to be true to their word. People who say they’ll do something, with full expectations of being able to do it. When I tell Rebekah that I plan to do the dishes while she’s away at work, I (almost) always mean it. But sometimes schoolwork gets away with me, and before I know it, I’ve made my own words false.
But God isn’t like that. There is no disconnect between God’s word and God’s action. This is clear from the very beginning of the Bible, where God creates the world by speaking it into existence. There is no disjunction between “God said, ‘Let there be light,’” and the result, “and there was light.” When God says, “I will do this,” in a sense he has already done it. God’s word doesn’t come true—it is true.
The contrast is made between human frailty and God’s enduring word. God’s promises are not like our promises. God keeps his covenant through all generations, even to this day. This passage emphasizes God’s eternal faithfulness (contrasting it with our consistent faithlessness) so that the new message of comfort and hope is actually heard as a message of comfort and hope, because it is proclaimed with the certainty that God’s promises are always true.
When we talk about trusting our lives to God’s word, it’s not about trusting in a book but about trusting in God. God’s word is what God says; and what God says God does.
But let’s be careful not to forget the other side of the comparison: Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever. God’s word stands forever, unlike us. In Isaiah, this isn’t just about comparing God’s word with our mortal bodies, but about comparing God’s faithfulness with our faithlessness. In verse 6, when it says that all people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field, the word for ‘glory’ is actually one that is generally used to speak of God’s covenant-faithfulness. The NIV usually translates it as “kindness” or “lovingkindness,” but it’s a bit more specific than that. God’s “kindness” isn’t about God being “nice” but about God acting with favour toward his people, toward the whole world. His word is the revelation of his active kindness toward humanity, expressed in the Old Testament in his covenant with Israel. This word is eternal because God is eternally faithful to what he has said.
My point of saying all this is this: When we talk about trusting in God’s everlasting word rather than in things that pass away, we are trusting in God’s generous and faithful kindness toward us. But the contrast is between God’s faithfulness to us and our faithfulness to God. We need to be careful not to turn that trust itself into something that depends on us. In other words, we need to trust in God’s word; as opposed to trusting in our trust in God’s word. You see this kind of thing when you hear people tell you that you would be healed, if you only had enough faith. If only you would give up a certain sin, God would show you more love. As soon as we trust in our own faithfulness to God, we’re right back where we started: trusting in that which fades away.
In Isaiah, God’s word is God’s covenant promise, and God is faithful to his promises for all generations, which means he is even faithful to us. That is how we can say that God’s word endures forever. But the question remains: What does it mean to trust our lives to God’s word? What is the relationship between God’s trustworthy promises and our personal trust in those promises? How does God’s eternal word touch our own lives?
1 Peter 1:24-25
This leads us directly into Peter’s use of this passage. I always find it interesting to see how New Testament authors use the Old Testament. 1 Peter is full of Old Testament quotations, and many come from Isaiah. Maybe this is because Peter’s audience was strikingly similar to Isaiah: both wrote to people who were strangers and aliens in their land, people displaced from society and despised. Let’s see how he uses Isaiah 40:6-8 (1 Pet 1:22-25):
You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart. For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God. As the Scriptures say, “People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades. But the word of the Lord remains forever.” And that word is the Good News that was preached to you.
Peter quotes this passage while speaking about new life in Christ. This is a pretty radical reinterpretation of Isaiah’s words. Peter is interpreting the Old Testament prophecy through the lens of the gospel. The key to Peter’s reinterpretation of Isaiah is that he identifies God’s word—the word that endures forever—as the message of the gospel. God’s word is still about God’s faithful action in history, but Peter knows that now God’s word has entered history so completely that it became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ, and now it is truthfully proclaimed by the apostles.
This is integral to Peter’s message. Because he is writing to strangers and aliens, the outcasts of society, he shows a great concern for showing them how their true home is in being part of Christ’s family. The church is a home for the homeless. Peter speaks about being born again into this new family—and this is not just a new family, but a new sort of family. Unlike our human families, through which we are born into mortality and sin, in this new family we are born of God’s eternal and incorruptible word. God’s word is the foundation for our new life. And our new life is eternal because God’s word is eternal.
Yet this word isn’t just any word. In Isaiah, we saw that God’s word is God’s promise to his people. That the eternal God will be eternally faithful to his word, and so we rightly say that God’s word endures forever. Peter understands that God’s word has found its full expression in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. So after he quotes Isaiah, he adds one simple line of commentary. After affirming that “the world of the Lord remains forever” he adds, “And that word is the Good News that was preached to you.”
So, to return again to my questions, (1) What is the word of God? and (2) in what sense does God’s word endure forever? (1) For Peter, the word of the Lord that endures forever is none other than the message of the gospel. In fact, it is not merely the words about Jesus, but Jesus himself. (2) This word endures forever because it is spoken by the eternal God. Peter can still understand God’s word in light of God’s covenant promises, but in the Word made flesh, in Jesus, we can see the full extent of God’s covenant-faithfulness to us. How do we see God’s faithfulness in the Word Jesus? We see it in the most remarkable way. Not only does God extend his faithful hand to us in Jesus Christ, but in Christ’s life of obedience—from his temptation in the wilderness to his final surrender on the cross—Christ is the faithful human response to God’s faithfulness. In Christ, God is both faithful to us and he takes up our own unfaithfulness in his unending faithfulness.
One writer explains it this way: “Many years ago I recall thinking of the marvelous way in which our human faith is implicated in the faith of Jesus Christ and grasped by his faithfulness, when I was teaching my little daughter to walk. I can still feel her tiny fingers gripping my hand as tightly as she could. She did not rely upon her feeble grasp of my hand but upon my strong grasp of her hand which enfolded her grasp of mine within it. That is surely how God’s faithfulness actualized in Jesus Christ has hold of our weak and faltering faith and holds it securely in his hand” (T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 83).
That illustrates what I mean when I say that Christ’s own faithfulness takes up our weak attempts at being faithful. God has always been faithful. 2 Timothy says that “If we deny him, he also will deny us; [yet] if we are faithless, [God] remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2:12-13). Here we see that for God to go back on his faithfulness would somehow be tantamount to God denying his own self. In other words, God cannot be faithless because God is faithful. It’s not just what he does; it’s who he is. We can be faithless (“if we deny him”) and he can accept our faithlessness (“he also will deny us”) but he cannot go back on his faithfulness, “for he cannot deny himself.” Paul understands this when he tells the church in Rome, “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? Of course not! Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true” (Rom 3:3-4). God’s faithfulness is not somehow contingent on our faithfulness. So even though we are like the grass, even though we wither and we fade, still the word of our God endures forever.
This brings us to the final question: (3) In what sense does God’s word enter my own life? For Peter, God’s word enters our lives because our new life in Christ is born of God’s everlasting word, the gospel of Christ. In fact, he quotes this passage as a way of supporting his moral instruction: Love each other deeply with all your heart. For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God. Our new life in the Word Jesus is the foundation for all we do as Christians, for all we do to show love to one another. It’s the foundation for our faithfulness to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And it’s the foundation for our faithfulness to God as his children.
Isaiah teaches us how God’s word endures forever in God’s everlasting faithfulness to us; Peter teaches us how we receive life eternal in this same word, Jesus Christ. God’s word is living and eternal, and in this word, we are born into new life. This is explicit in Peter, but it’s already hinted at in Isaiah. In ch. 55 (as the major section that began with ch. 40 comes to a close) the prophet says this:
Come to me and listen to my words,
hear me, and you shall have life:
I will make a covenant with you, this time forever,
to love you faithfully as I loved David. (Isa 55:3)
God’s word is the revelation of God historically in speech and action, and it is this eternal word that causes the grass to wither and the flowers fade as it blows over. Yet, paradoxically, this same word that reveals our own frailty is also the word that gives us new life. Our eternal life in the Word Jesus comes from the eternal outpouring of God’s life to us in Christ. This is how we can be “born again,” as Peter says, “but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God.”
The grass withers and the flowers fade,
but the word of our God stands forever.
Though this passage is used in slightly different ways in Isaiah and in 1 Peter, maybe we can summarize it like this: God’s word is what God says, and what God says is true forever. Ultimately, this is about God’s faithfulness, God’s active kindness toward us. The word of God is true forever because God faithfully and continually makes his word true.
By contrast, we are like grass because we are ultimately incapable of being faithful. Our words, like our lives, are short-lived. But we see that God’s eternal word touches our finite lives: Isaiah showed us that God’s word is his covenant faithfulness to his people. Peter was able to see this fulfilled: God’s spoke his faithfulness to us so completely that he became human. God’s word touches our lives because God spoke into our very lives in the person of Jesus Christ. And through this word of God, we are born into eternal life.
I spoke at the beginning about how I had, in a sense, poured my life into my laptop, even though I knew wouldn’t last forever. It seems ridiculous to think that I had counted on something so transitory to sustain even a small part of me. But if you use your imagination and think about it from my laptop’s perspective, the situation is rather different. My laptop could never sustain me, but in a way, by pouring myself into my laptop I was actually sustaining it. By using it, I gave it some kind of “life”. Without me, it was essentially dead. Similarly, we have no life apart from God’s word. God sustains us by pouring his life into us in Jesus.
This isn’t a perfect analogy, but hopefully it helps illustrate the point a little. When we think about the eternal nature of God’s word, we need to understand that God’s word both endures forever and is the source of eternal life. Apart from God’s word—without God pouring his own life into ours—we pass away like grass. We are sustained by God’s word Jesus Christ. Not just our minds or our morals, but everything we are.
The problem is, we don’t hear God’s word like Isaiah or Peter. Isaiah received the word of the Lord in a special way. Peter spent three years with Jesus himself. Even if we believe that God will be faithful to his word, how do we hear it? Maybe that would be a good question to take with you this week: How do I hear God’s word? To give you a place to start, I would say it’s always best begin with where you know God’s word has been revealed and proclaimed: in Christ, in Holy Scripture, and in the church community. But still ask yourself (and be specific): How do I hear God’s word?
But more important than this question is the truth that is attested in Scripture: God has spoken in Jesus Christ. God continues to speak to us through his Spirit. God’s word simultaneously reveals his faithfulness and our unfaithfulness. Yet, in Christ, God’s unending faithfulness takes firm grasp of our weak and feeble faith, so that we can cling to God’s word of promise—even if it means mostly God’s clinging to us. In Christ, we can endure forever by holding to God’s word that endures forever—even if it means mostly God’s holding onto us. Yes, we are like grass. Yes, our faithfulness is like the flower of the field. And yes, the grass withers and the flowers fade, but—but the word of our God endures forever.