Researchers and medical professionals are reporting, in the last few months, huge increases in the number of people suffering depression and anxiety because of COVID.
The Royal Australian College of GP’s reported that in July there’s been a 31% increase in prescription of anti-anxiety medication, and a 22% increase in antidepressants, compared to the same period last year.
And Mental Health America has compared recent data to six previous years of voluntary online mental health screening tests. The number of completed questionnaires in June was MORE THAN 400% HIGHER than January of this year. And among adults under 25, 90% recorded moderate to severe depression, and 80% recorded moderate to severe anxiety. Contributing factors were loneliness, isolation, grief, loss and financial concerns.
And, anecdotally, I’ve spoken to A NUMBER of people who, normally, have very good mental health. And they’ve described feeling OFF BALANCE. And they can’t understand why. Despite being LESS busy, they’re just feeling WEARY and UNSETTLED. They’re operating at higher than normal levels of anxiety. Just coping with all the uncertainty can be DRAINING.
I don’t know whether that’s you, or not? Stressed, anxious, depressed, beaten? But if it is, then, in Isaiah 40, God himself has a word for you. See it there in v1? COMFORT. “Comfort, my people,” he says. Relax. You’re safe. Don’t stress.
And the key to that command is to focus on GOD HIMSELF. On his character and qualities. When we start counting our OWN resources, or we spend too long looking at THE THREATS AROUND US, we start to lose hope.
When we focus on our failures, our coping strategies, our connections, or our assets, we get ANXIOUS, rather than COMFORTED.
Instead, we need to focus our gaze on the infinitely powerful, wise, holy, loving, eternal God we meet in the Bible.
(Just to be clear, I’m NOT saying that anxiety or depression are simply spiritual problems. If you’re suffering from one of these problems then you need to get MEDICAL attention. That’s ONE of the ways God works.)
But there is genuine comfort and hope in the face of uncertainty, when we focus on God. On his INFINITE nature and qualities – his power and wisdom and goodness.
And God’s word of comfort goes to a people in a pretty similar situation to US. Isaiah 40 begins the second half of the book. Israel’s 70 year exile in Babylon is coming to an end. Seventy years of struggle, confusion, and feeling abandoned by God! They’ve come to the end of their own resources. Their tank is empty.
Seventy years! It makes our five MONTHS of COVID stress seem like NOTHING!
And it’s into THIS situation God speaks to his prophet, to pass on a message of COMFORT to his people. It’s comfort that comes in four big hugs.
First. You belong to God. (There in v1). “Comfort, comfort MY PEOPLE.” Despite appearances. Despite it LOOKING like God’s abandoned you. Despite being in a strange land, surrounded by strangers. Despite no temple or city or king. You still belong to God. Nothing’s changed. So take COMFORT.
Second. Your sins have been paid for. Verse 2.
2 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.
Decades of exile had emphasised that God was punishing them. (That they’d rebelled, ignored, and disobeyed him). And they’d SUFFERED the CONSEQUENCES.
But now there was the incredible news that all was forgiven. Somehow, without explanation, God was willing to forgive generations of sin. The relationship’s been restored. The offence forgiven. And so, there’s COMFORT.
But, that’s only HALF comfort if they remain stuck in Babylon. And so the NEXT part of God’s comforting hug is there from v3. God’s coming to the Promised Land, and he’ll bring his people WITH him. Back to his land! V3.
3 A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
God’s on the way. And he’s coming to restore his people to their land, just like he’s restored their relationship with him. So get things READY!
And the FOURTH part of God’s comforting hug for them is there in v6. If it all seems too good to believe, then remember THIS. God’s PROMISED it, so you can COUNT on it. God’s word can be trusted. That’s where the comfort lies. Everything else is “here today and gone tomorrow”. Everything else is falling apart. But not God’s word! V8.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but THE WORD OF OUR GOD STANDS FOREVER.”
It’s something to pray for people in the midst of the chaos of the pandemic. That they might RECOGNISE THE TRUTH OF V8. That all the OTHER things they put their trust in – homes, jobs, families, health, investments, shopping – NONE of it’s reliable. NONE of it LASTS. The world, as we know it, IS BROKEN. The only thing that can be TRUSTED is God’s word. God HIMSELF is the only trustworthy, reliable, dependable thing in a world where you can’t be sure of ANYTHING.
So, how do you RESPOND to four comforting truths like that? (Whether it be Isaiah and Israel. Or you and I TODAY.)
Firstly, by telling people ABOUT that God. Not just PRAYING for people who are struggling with anxiety or loss, or loneliness. But TELLING THEM that God’s the only reliable one. Look there in v9. God commanding his messenger.
9 You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, DO NOT BE AFRAID; say to the towns of Judah, “HERE IS YOUR GOD!” 10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with POWER, and his arm rules for him.
HERE IS YOUR GOD! What a phrase! Underline it in your Bible!
Here is your God! V10. He’s POWERFUL. He’s acted in history. He’s judged and saved. You thought he’d LEFT you. But you’re WRONG. You thought he didn’t CARE. But you’re WRONG. You thought he was DISINTERESTED, or POWERLESS. But you were wrong.
But not only that. V11. HERE is your God. He’s the gentle shepherd who forgives, protects, restores and leads his people. You thought he was cruel. But you’ll see he’s tender and gentle.
Or v12. HERE is your God. Nothing compares with God’s POWER.
12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
Or v13-14. HERE is your God. Nothing compares with God’s WISDOM.
13 Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor?
Or from v15, HERE is your God.
15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales;
Nothing compares to God. He CONTROLS HISTORY. He rules over nations and governments. The king over kings. And Lord over lords. They’re dust on the scales! A quick blow and they’re GONE! Assyria – GONE. Babylon – GONE! Global pandemics – GONE! They seem so huge to us. But to God – NOTHING!
Or from v18. HERE is your God. OTHER gods are NOTHING! Something to MAKE FUN OF! V20 A man making an idol carefully chooses wood that won’t rot! And then the craftsman makes sure he flattens the base properly so it won’t topple over. And then they bow down and worship what they’ve made. Making sure they don’t bump the table! Nonsense!
And TODAY, people worship crystals and follow astrology or Scientology, or meditate in teepees, or worship Gaia or Mother Nature. Or they worship sportsmen, or musicians or Instagram influencers.
But God is INCOMPARABLE! He’s the One who MADE the stars, and the crystals, and the forests, and the heroes that people worship. Down to v25. HERE is your God
25 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. 26 Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.
Not ONE star forgotten, or unnamed. Just IMAGINE it! That’s the power and wisdom of God!
That’s the picture the Jews in exile need reminding of. When they’re tempted to think God’s forgotten them. (That they’re abandoned). V27.
27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”?
It’s the impossible application of this passage. (God is INFINITE in power and wisdom. So, I’ll COMPLAIN that he’s forgotten me!) It’s ILLOGICAL. IT’s NONSENSE! How could the God who knows and counts off billions of stars forget his people? Or doesn’t notice them?
And yet we DO complain, don’t we? We complain about the way things turn out for us. About what we HAVE, or DON’T have. And we think we know better. And we grumble that we’d do things differently.
We believe this chapter with our HEADS. But we don’t it with our HEARTS.
What we need is to speak v28 to each other. HERE is your God.
28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the EVERLASTING God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
He’s ETERNAL. The Ancient of Days. He stands outside of time, looking at the whole of history the same way we might watch a conveyor belt rolling past. He sees the end and the beginning. All at once.
Nothing tires him, nothing confuses him, nothing surprises him, nothing out-muscles him.
And no one can understand his understanding. His IQ is OFF THE CHARTS. Knowing the number of hairs on your head! Naming each STAR! We can’t FATHOM it.
And when you put it like THAT, the right response is OBVIOUS! When things are hope-LESS, when you lack strength and understanding and influence. You put your HOPE in a God LIKE THAT. V29.
29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but THOSE WHO HOPE IN THE LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Put your HOPE in him. That’s the application. (The OPPOSITE of GRUMBLE). You may get nothing else out of the talk today, but at least hold on to THAT. Put your HOPE in the LORD.
The word for HOPE is “Wait”. WAIT for the LORD. Hope is FORWARD LOOKING. There’s no guarantee that God’s help will be immediate. It took SEVENTY YEARS for Israel. But WAIT for him. Patient waiting is faith in action.
Because those who hope in the lord will RENEW THEIR STRENGTH. That word “renew” – it’s normally translated as change, or EXCHANGE. That’s what’s happening when we trust him. The infinitely STRONG One gives us HIS strength. We exchange our WEAKNESS for his STRENGTH.
Yes, there’s help in medication, and support groups, and counselling, and government assistance, and public health guidelines. But they’re not enough. It’s only as we look to GOD that we gain HIS strength.
The strength of patience and perseverance to cope with uncertainty and fear. To pray for a non-Christian family member, to cope with chronic illness, or a ministry that’s thankless, or raising kids who exhaust us. Because he’s the INFINITE, INCOMPARABLE God who gives HIS strength to those who hope in him.
And if it was clear for those Old Testament believers. How much clearer is it FOR US who’ve seen JESUS. The perfect man, the Word who was with God and who WAS God. Whose life was the light of men. The visible image of the invisible God. His strength and wisdom are incomparable TOO.
God is INFINITE. But in Jesus we see the INFINITE God in a FINITE package. If God’s the SUN, then he’s the RADIANCE around the Sun.
Jesus. God’s Zip file. He compresses all of the data of Godness into a manageable package. The incomprehensible shrunk down to human comprehension.
Jesus. God’s hyperlink. Just ONE WORD. But click on Jesus. And you go to a whole other website. FULL of all the characteristics and qualities of the eternal and infinite GOD.
Let me leave you with a COUPLE OF EXAMPLES. Mark ch 4 v35. Jesus and the disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee at night. He’s been teaching all day, and he’s exhausted. The disciples are doing all the work. Perhaps they look at Jesus with mild irritation that they’re doing all the work, and Jesus is too tired to help.
But then a furious storm blows up. And the waves are breaking over the side of the boat. And it’s filling up quickly. And even these professional sailors are scared they’re going to drown. They stop bailing out the boat just long enough to wake Jesus. “Don’t you care if we drown?” they blurt.
And v39, he got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, Be Still. And they DID. Everything was CALM. And he says to the disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you STILL have no faith?” HERE is your God!
And they were TERRIFIED and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” Who is he? He’s your INCOMPARABLE God. So TRUST him.
Or let’s finish with one more. Matthew 28. Jesus has been raised from the dead. Because it’s impossible for THE AUTHOR OF LIFE to be conquered by DEATH. He tells Mary to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee.
And, v16, the eleven are there. On the mountain where Jesus told them to go. And then Jesus arrives. HERE is your God! And when they SEE HIM, the WORSHIP him. Because he’s their GOD, the source of life.
And Jesus says to them, v18 All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
He’s got ALL THE AUTHORITY OF THE INFINITE GOD AT HIS DISPOSAL. The authority to control wind and waves. The authority over kings and governors. The authority over disease and disaster. He’s the Alpha and Omega – the beginning of everything, and its goal.
What’s our response to that authority? Jesus continues. V19.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
The authority of the infinite God over everything given to Jesus means that he deserves the loyalty and submission and obedience of everything. Everything bowing before him.
And the authority of the infinite God over everything given to Jesus means THAT POWER is available to US as we work to make that plan happen. (To make disciples of all nations.)
That’s a task it’s worth GIVING YOUR LIFE TO.
And, as we do, we’re not alone. Because, just like God who spoke to Israel, Comfort, my people. Jesus speaks to US
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”