I preached the following message on Sunday, January 15, 2023. It was inspired in part by the book I mention below. It is based on the story found in Isaiah 36-37. My main text was King Hezekiah’s prayer found in Isaiah 37:15-20.
In her wonderful and challenging book, The Deepest Belonging: A Story About Discovering Where God Meets Us, Pastor Kara Root tells the story of a retreat she led for her and the other leaders in the church. They asked themselves the following questions: “What is keeping us from noticing what God is doing and joining it without hesitation? What unspoken fears or beliefs are holding us back?” How did they answer the questions? They came up with four unspoken beliefs that their church was living out: 1) Our glory days are in the past; 2) We are too small, too old, and we don’t have enough money; 3) If you volunteer for something, you’ll be stuck for life; 4) A few people do all the work.
But then Root asked her other leaders this question: “What is the opposite of these statements?”
Here are their answers: 1) God is doing something here and now that incorporates the past and leads us into the future; 2) We are exactly the right size and makeup, and have the resources we need, for what God wants to do in and through us; 3) Every person participates from their particularities and passions; and 4) We all share the ministry of the church.
Their situation didn’t change immediately or miraculously, but their perspective on their situation began to change. Ultimately, their change in perspective meant truly learning to trust the Lord. They began to be the church, to let go of fear and grab hold of faith, to leave the survival of the church in God’s hands. As a result, their ministry became richer and deeper, more personal and more effective.
Often more hinges on how we see our situation than the situation itself. And as people of faith, our perspective on our situation matters profoundly.
“This is what the king of Assyria says”
That’s certainly true in the larger story from which our text from Isaiah comes today (Isaiah 36-37). The Assyrians had defeated the northern kingdom of Judah in 722. This put Judah in the position of having to pay tribute to Assyria to prevent another attack and further destruction. But in 703 Sennacherib replaced his father on the throne and number of nations, including Judah, seized upon this opportunity to rebel against Assyria’s control. After putting a stop to other rebellious nations, Sennacherib turned his attention to Judah in 701.
This is the context for Hezekiah’s prayer that we read in Isaiah 37. The Assyrians are threatening to besiege Jerusalem. They are especially trying to frighten them by undermining their confidence in God’s protection.
In 37:10-11, the king of Assyria, Sennacherib sent this message to King Hezekiah of Judah: Don’t let your God, on whom you rely, deceive you by promising that Jerusalem won’t be handed over to the king of Assyria. Look, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries: they completely destroyed them. Will you be rescued?
In other words, Assyria is telling Judah: “Trusting in your God is pointless. He can’t help you. The odds against you are greater than the power of God. Resign yourself to your situation and give up. There’s no hope.” This is the voice of the Assyrian empire. It’s also the voice of fear, of hopelessness. It’s the voice of ‘pay-attention-to-your-overwhelming-situation-more-than-to-the-God-who-promises-to-be-with-you-in-your-situation.’
You see, while it’s very true that in many respects we cannot relate immediately to what the citizens of Judah were going through, and the choices that King Hezekiah was facing, we can, however, understand what it’s like to be tempted by the voice of fear. We all know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by what seems like a hopeless situation and to struggle with trusting God with that situation. We experience this individually and, I think, also as churches. And while I think we can take great comfort in what we will see in this story as individuals, I want us to think carefully about what it means for us as a congregation in the here and now.
We might not have an Assyrian army poised to attack and devastate us, but we wonder how long we can afford moving forward for the foreseeable future. Maybe we’re weighed down by the loss of those who used to come to church. Maybe we’ve resigned ourselves to believing that our best days are behind us.
To what degree does resigning ourselves to our situation or giving into our fears about the future impact the way we trust God to act in a new way? How does it affect our attitude about church? What happens to our prayers, to our conversations with one another, to our relationships, to our levels of commitment or faithfulness to God’s calling?
“Hezekiah . . . went up to the Lord’s temple”
I ask those questions because I think we also can find ourselves listening to the voice of the Assyrians, to the voice of fear. But we also need to consider what King Hezekiah did in response to the circumstances he and his nation were facing.
Now, the first thing we see is that Hezekiah didn’t hide from reality. When King Hezekiah heard their report, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, and went to the Lord’s temple. He faced things honestly. That’s important to do. To be honest. Not to avoid reality. But sometimes we hide ourselves from the reality of our situation, because that seems easier than facing it.
But Hezekiah didn’t stop there. He sent a number of priests and officials to the prophet Isaiah for counsel. These representatives relayed to Isaiah the looming Assyrian threat. Among everything Isaiah says is this: Tell your master, ‘The Lord says this: Don’t be afraid because of the words you have heard.’ That is, the words of the Assyrians.
As a prophet, a part of Isaiah’s role was to bring the word of the Lord. So when Hezekiah sought his counsel, he was looking for what the Lord had to say about what was going on.
In other words, he was looking for a voice other than the voice of the Assyrian empire, other than the voice of fear. He was afraid for his nation. But he wanted a different perspective other than the one offered by the threats and intimidation coming from Sennacherib and his military forces. He was effectively asking: Can God give me a different way of seeing this seemingly hopeless situation?
Not only did Hezekiah seek counsel from Isaiah. When he received another threatening message from Assyria, he went to the temple, spread the letter out before the Lord, and, we’re told, Hezekiah prayed to the Lord. And that, of course, is the passage we read.
In his prayer he acknowledges the very real threat Sennacherib poses to Judah. Lord, it is true that the kings of Assyria have devastated all these countries nd their lands. Like we said, he doesn’t hide from reality. But more importantly he acknowledges the Lord as the only God: You are God — you alone — of all the kingdoms of the earth. All the gods of all the other nations Assyria have trampled were not gods but made from wood and stone by human hands.
Then Hezekiah prays this: Now, Lord our God, save us from his power so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are God — you alone. It’s a prayer of confidence and faith in God. Or it sounds like it. What I mean is that we can pray confident words even if we’re struggling to trust, even if we don’t feel confident in God. Indeed, sometimes the key to growing more confident in God is by praying in this way — reminding ourselves over and over again who exactly God is and why we can trust him.
All throughout the situation, Hezekiah repeatedly went into the temple to come before the Lord. Not only was he aware of the actual situation, he knew how helpless Judah was without God’s help. That’s also what prayer is: acknowledging our need for God’s help, for him to intervene, to act on behalf of his people.
And notice this: the reason why Hezekiah wanted God to act wasn’t simply so Judah could be saved. As he prays: So that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, Lord, are God — you alone. He wants Assyria to realize who God is. He wants the reality of who God is and how God acts on behalf of his people to silence their threats and topple their confidence. He wants the voice of fear to be shut up. Of course, Judah also needs to remember who God is. That they are his, that he brought them into existence as a people, loves them, and has a purpose for them.
And can’t we say this about the church — our church — today? Isn’t what was true of the kingdom of Judah also true of God’s people now? And more importantly, isn’t who God was then also true of God now? Has he grown weaker and less able to help us? Do we have less reason to trust him today than yesterday?
“He will not enter this city”
Following Hezekiah’s prayer, which we read, Isaiah sends the king a message from the Lord. It begins this way: Because you prayed to me about King Sennacherib of Assyria. In other words, because you trusted me with your situation. Because you came to me with your fears. Because you were open to having your perspective transformed. Because you wanted to hear my voice instead of the voice of the Assyrian empire.
And towards the end of the message it says this: This is what the Lord says about the king of Assyria: He will not enter this city . . . I will defend this city and rescue it for my sake. And God did. An angel of the Lord miraculously struck down thousands and thousands in the Assyrian military encampment. Sennacherib withdrew his forces and returned to Nineveh. The story ends with his death and his son becoming king afterwards.
In other words: the very one Judah had every earthly reason to fear, the one who gave them every earthly reason to surrender, the one whose voice was seemingly unstoppable, was defeated and died. God shut up the voice of fear. God responded to the cry of Hezekiah on behalf of his people, the prayer of a king who saw the reality of the situation, heard the voice of fear, and turned to him in order to hear from a different, more powerful voice.
God still does this. God is doing this all over the place. God responds and is responding to the prayers of his people, when they come before him knowing how hopeless they are apart from him.
So when we pray, do we pray with all of this in mind? Just as Hezekiah came to the temple and spread out the letter from the Assyrians and prayed, we can lay out all of our often unspoken fears before the Lord. And we can trust and believe that he listens and that he answers.
Because it’s not always the situation but how we see it that matters. Because it’s not always the situation but the voice we’re listening to that matters: is it the voice of Assyria or the voice of the Lord ? The voice of fear or the voice of faith?
I began by sharing a little from the story of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church, the congregation Kara Root pastors. I want to share a little more from that story.
“Again and again, this little community I pastor chooses to live in trust instead of fear, to be guided by purpose instead of pressure, to recognize that this ministry is God’s and not ours . . . And so, over and over again, we make the choice. Which voice will we trust? The powerful voice of might and logic? Or the one that says God uses the weak and the broken, calls the unexpected and unimpressive, works through the less-than-perfect instead of the have-it-all-togethers, whoever they may be?”
Their journey began with a few honest questions. What if I were to ask us a few questions?
What prevents us from seeing what God is already up to? What unspoken beliefs and fears are holding us back? How does our perspective need to be transformed?
First, we need to ackowledge the unspoken beliefs and fears that hold us back. What is the voice of Assyria saying to us? We need to be honest about reality rather than avoid it.
Second, we need to seek a word from the Lord. We need biblical counsel and wisdom. What does Scripture tell us about God and what it means to be his people?
Third, we need to seek God in prayer. We need to acknowledge our need for his action on our behalf, our need for him to save us. We need him to rescue us from false assumptions or any fears and beliefs that keep us from hearing his voice more clearly.
As we do this, if we do this, and do this together as the people of the Lord, we can have — and grow in — the confidence that our Lord is God, that he alone is the one who can defend us.
So may we continue to be the church, to be the people of the Lord, living in relationship with him and one another, and doing so with humility and grace. And may our Lord in his grace and mercy grant us the ears to listen not to the voice of fear but the voice of faith, to his voice, to the voice that assures and protects, that speaks hope and life into our circumstances.