The theme of this year’s VBS is “Rolling River Rampage,” which seems like a direct attack on my speech impediment. As an 8 year old trying to say those three words would have sent me into a coma. But as you might be able to guess from that and from the picture here the curriculum centers around White Water rafting, navigating a river, and what can be found in that experience. The tagline is “Experience the thrill of a lifetime with God,” and each session will touch on things that might be found or experienced on a good white water rafting experience that ultimately come from God – adventure, acceptance, joy, rest, and peace. The memory verse, you know VBS has to have a memory verse, the verse that frames the entire time is one we’ve already heard, the first part of Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” In true VBS fashion I’m gonna make you repeat it with me, ready “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” If you have it memorized next week there will be a prize.
This portion of Isaiah speaks to a nation of Israel that is coming out of crisis. Earlier in Isaiah we read prophecies and warnings about God’s coming judgement if the people don’t change their ways and repent. By this point we’re past that, the judgement has already come, they’ve been taken into exile, now instead of words of warning they’re getting words hope. Just like, after generations of slavery in Egypt, God parted the waters of the dead sea to lead them to freedom, God is going to lead them out of exile, through the waters, back into their land. And what’s more, God will always do that for them. God is always there when the waters rise and storms rage and the fires threaten, God will always make a way, if they’ll let him.
Y’all know I love verses where one word or a couple of words are doing a lot of work, we’ve got a great example of that in verse 1, right at the beginning: “but now.” That tells us, hopefully obviously, that we’re about to get a comparison, that what comes next is being held up against and distinguished from what came before. So that means we need take a look back at what comes before, Isaiah 42, which, if your Bible is like mine, has a final section with the heading “Israel deaf and blind.” Right above verse 18. And what that section spells out is that Israel had opportunity to hear the warnings of the prophets, but they didn’t listen. They had opportunity to see the warning signs coming, but they didn’t look. Verse 23 of chapter 42:
Which of you will listen to this
or pay close attention in time to come?
24 Who handed Jacob over to become loot,
and Israel to the plunderers?
Was it not the Lord,
against whom we have sinned?
For they would not follow his ways;
they did not obey his law.
25 So he poured out on them his burning anger,
the violence of war.
It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand;
it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart.
They were so deaf and so blind that when the warning signs came they didn’t recognize them. They made the same mistakes over and over again. There’s one mistake in particular that we see haunt Israel over and over again in scripture: when difficult times come up God is always a last resort. If you read the histories, Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings you’ll see that there’s a pattern when a threat arises, for example, when an enemy army is coming. First, Israel raises up their army. If that doesn’t seem like it is going to work they send out feelers to their neighbors, they try to forge alliances, sometimes the even give away the treasures in the temple in hopes of making those alliances stick. And if that doesn’t work, when there’s no other place for them to look, they turn to God. And God is a good last resort to have, but God’s an even better first resort. Because what happens, when they and when we, put God off as a last resort, is that more and more temptations come up when we look to other places. Looking to other nations for help let Israel towards those nation’s gods, it caused them to keep looking for some other source, some other hope, and it moved them farther and farther away from God.
I used to take youth groups to the White Water Center up in Charlotte every summer. And despite my best efforts I would always end up on the raft with all the boys. Which basically guaranteed I was going to end up in the water. Because, despite the fact that there was a trained guide in the raft with you telling you exactly what to do, a person whose entire job was to guide you through the waters safely, teenage boys always think they know what they’re doing. And they think its funny to flip a raft over, but the bigger problem is you’d always have one who would do the exact opposite of what the guide was telling them because they went white water rafting three summers ago because they’re experts. And they’d only start listening after we’d all fallen out at least once. Some of us wait way too long to listen to God. Some of hunt down so many different options and look for so many different things to try before we’ll admit we won’t find the strength and the help we need on our own. God says “if you will put your faith in me I will lead you through the waters, I will see you through the storms, I will help you face the fires.” Israel got to the brink of extinction before they would listen. How much are we determined to go through before we’ll take a chance on God telling the truth. We don’t have to face the waters alone. We can trust the guide. So that when the water rise we don’t have to fear, because we know he’ll lead us through.