Summary: The trials we face, though difficult, refine us and draw us closer to God in such a way that we love God even more and cannot help but praise him.
How many of you have ever been to a “Third World” or “developing” country? And while you were there, were any of you able to observe the educational system? What did you see?
In 2005, I had the opportunity to travel to Uganda on a two-week immersion experience through my seminary. While we were there, we spent time in Kampala, the capital city, but we also spent time in rural parts of the country. We visited churches, and hospitals, and schools, and we even visited in people’s homes. There were many things about this trip that were eye-opening and even shocking to me; the fact that access to clean water was basically non-existent in the rural parts of the country, the lack of clothing among young children, many of whom were running around in nothing but t-shirts. I could go on and on. But today, I want to share with you something else that really stood out to me and has stuck with me in all the years since. The kids over there in Uganda crave education. Many of them walk miles to attend school. And sometimes, they live so far from the schools that they will bring a palette with them and spend the weeknights sleeping on the classroom floors. If you offer those kids a soccer ball or a pencil and an opportunity to learn, they take the pencil every time. It’s almost like a hungry person being offered food for the first time in several days. They eat it up!
Of course, we are all quite aware that here in America, kids aren’t so enthusiastic about school most of the time…to say the least. And I think that’s because we Americans take education for granted. It’s something we have to do, and so often times we grow to resent it. But in Uganda, educational opportunities are rare, and the ones available are often only available to the privileged. In order to enroll in school in Uganda, kids have to pay school fees and buy uniforms. Youngsters in Uganda are often tied to their homes, where they are relied upon to care for siblings or other family members. Or they may suffer from malaria or some other disease that keeps them from being able-bodied enough to even get to school. And so any opportunity these kids have to learn, they jump on it. They value education because access to education is so difficult.
And so it goes with so many things in our lives. We give more value to those things that are harder to access, or harder to achieve. A “job well done” is more meaningful the more difficult the task accomplished. Healing or recovery is more miraculous the greater the illness. And as we see in our scripture passage this morning, our praise is greater the more trying our hardships.
Upon first glance, this passage from Isaiah’s prophecy is a beautiful psalm of praise to God, the source of strength and salvation. Without putting this scripture in context, we might be tempted to just glance over it with some rather quaint remark like, “Oh, isn’t that nice.” But, if you’ve spent any time looking at the first ten chapters of the book of Isaiah, you know that this psalm of praise in the twelfth chapter is far more than just “nice.”
You see, the first ten chapters of Isaiah contain a litany of harsh and bitter biblical predictions of divine wrath against Israel. The people of Israel have been acting against God’s wishes and in defiance of God’s covenant. Jerusalem, God’s chosen dwelling place, has been defiled, and has to be purged by judgment in order to make it fit for God to dwell there. And the judgment is massive. According to Isaiah’s prophecy only a “seed” of one-tenth of the people will survive. By the time we reach Isaiah 12, the people of God have been through the wringer: severely punished, brought low—and then miraculously promised restoration, a new beginning, a new leader who will bring about a reign of peace. Isaiah 12 envisions what the restored community will say to God once this amazing transformation occurs. The praise of the people is immense because the suffering was immense and because the restoration was so perfectly complete.
Many of you remember just a few short years ago when a massive earthquake struck the poor island nation of Haiti. Thousands were killed, and relief organizations are still at work in Haiti, seeking to rebuild and restore all that was lost. Richard Stearns, the president of one of those relief organizations, World Vision, reflected not too long ago on a visit he made to a church in Port-au-Prince just about one year after the earthquake. The church’s building consisted of a tent made from white tarps and duct tape, pitched in the midst of a sprawling camp for thousands of people still homeless from the earthquake. This is how he describes the church and the lesson he learned in Haiti: