I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing…
Over one hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt gave what would become one of the most widely quoted speeches of his career. In addition to touching on his own family history, war, human and property rights, Roosevelt railed against cynics who looked down at men who were trying to make the world a better place. People like Isaiah, trying to turn the people of Israel back to God, and yet failing miserably at it.
Teddy Roosevelt in this speech said:
“A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not … of superiority but of weakness.”
Life is made up of challenges – for each one of us they are different! And there is always going to be someone on the sidelines criticising your performance, as you struggle to be “wonder woman” or “super man”. And that intimation of failure often causes us panic, even despair.
Failure is considered an unpardonable sin in a world where we sanctify the successful and worship winners. Everybody wants to succeed – no one wants to be considered a failure! How many people do you know whose life goal is to fail? But this emphasis on success can put an enormous stress on us. No one wants to be called a failure. If I fail, what will happen to me? What will others think? Will they reject me? Are they going to think I’m worthless? And yet, our responsibility is to rise from mediocrity to competence, from failure to achievement.
Simply put: your task on earth is to become your best version of you. You are unique. God made you specially just like you – there is no one else exactly like you – and you have a special purpose on this earth, otherwise God would not have made you and put you here! And if you haven’t done it already, you need to take a day or two and sit and medidate (in silence – and for pity’s sake, stop talking and turn off the mobile devices!), and listen to hear what that purpose is. The Bible of full of examples of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. We’ll talk more about that next week!
The world has a few examples of failures that went on to do some remarkable things:
- I’m sure you’ve all heard of that guy Henry Ford, bankrupted 2 automobile industries and ruined all his chances of good investors.
- Or maybe that guy Fred Astaire. His first screen test didn’t go so well: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Slightly balding. Can dance a little.”
- Then there’s that guy that had trouble adjusting to the culture and classes at Yale, so he dropped out. He went back again later, and it still wasn’t for him, so he dropped out again. His name’s Dick Cheney. Never going to amount to anything!
- Or there’s that single mother on welfare who was trying to write. I think her name was J.K. Rowling or something.
- Or that kid whose teacher told his mother he was “too stupid to learn anything”. He was unfortunate enough to be called Thomas Edison.
- And there’s that guy who was so frustrated trying to write his first novel, that he threw away the entire first draft! His wife found this manuscript for a book “Carrie”, and rescued it from the trash. You might have heard of him – Stephen King.
There’s a reason you are in church this morning – maybe you are stuck in a place of despair, ready to give up, not sure how to keep up the good fight. But men and women can change: once again we have a Bible full of examples of people who stopped in their tracks and had a heart change, which became a totally new person. To mention a few of the better know examples from the New Testament: Saul who became Paul; Simon who became Peter; Jonah (in spite of his best efforts to the contrary); Levi the tax collector who became Matthew the disciple.
But on the road to that transformation, there are holes. And if we’re not careful, that hole becomes a rut. And before you know it, you’re stuck in that rut, and your following that rut instead of the path that you’re supposed to be on, because it’s much more comfortable to stay in the rut than to try to get out of it. And let’s be honest, sometimes getting out of that rut looks impossible! You tell yourself, it just can’t be done! This is is – the best I can do, the most I can be.
Isaiah is in a rut (and feeling sorry for himself), in verse 4 of our reading this morning:
“But my work seems so useless! I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.”
This is the same servant that said:
“Before I was born, the LORD called me: from my birth he has made mention of my name.”
He knew what his calling was! He was predestined to do God’s work! There’s an amazing amount of expectations upon him! And God gave him all the gifts and tools he needed for the task. Remember verse 2:
“He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me: he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in His quiver.”
I was MADE for this.
But his progress report in verse 4 is not very encouraging:
“My work is so useless! I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.”
Probably a good time just to go back to bed! The task is too great! I’m inadequate. I can’t do it!
Now the whole book of Isaiah can be divided into 2 principle sections:
- Part one is chapters 1 to 39, which address Israel’s continuing sin and rebellion, where their hearts are so hardened that no matter the strength of Isaiah’s tone and words, nothing will turn them. They became self-centered and inward-looking; they forgot their covenant. They forgot they were a people belonging to God. Finally, Isaiah brings a message of judgement and exile – the Old Jerusalem is condemned and will be no more.
- Part two, chapters 40 to 66, opens with words of consolation “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”. It finishes with the emergence of the NEW Jerusalem.
So we see in Isaiah a transformation – from the old to the new: the old Jerusalem is torn to the ground and then rebuilt as a new Jerusalem. You see, when everything is stripped away, our spirit starts to show through, and then our relationship with God and the eternal comes clearly into focus. Maybe right now you’re sweating and you can’t see the results of all your hard work: and instead of giving up, maybe it’s time to take a small rest and remember WHO you are and WHY you were put on this earth!
1 Peter (2:9-10) reminds us:
You are a chosen people… a people belonging to God… Once you were not a people, but now you are a people of God…”
And I have another little gem for you, God expects you to fail! Yes, you heard that right: God doesn’t expect you to get it right the first time. In fact, he has an expectation that you are going to fall!
How many of you have children and have taught that child to ride a bicycle?
The first time you put them on the bike – did they get it right? How many chances did they need to learn? How many got it on the 2nd time? the 3rd? What do you mean it took 54 times before they learnt?
Well, why are you so hard on yourself? Why do you expect to learn in just one go? Let’s go back to the kid on the bike: you have a little hill (without a main road down the bottom!), it’s a safe place to learn to ride. So you have this kid who has finally mastered balance and steering (for the most part), and they riding down the hill now pretty well! So you finally reach the moment when you think they are ready, and instead of pushing the bike back up to the top of the hill again for the kid, you tell, well, why don’t you ride UP the hill now? And what’s the first thing that happens? They fall off! Because it’s easy to ride the bike down the hill and keep your balance when you have a little momentum! But when you meet resistance and you have to keep your balance AND pedal hard, and you’re new at this, you fall over the moment you push too hard on the left side without adjusting your balance on the right side to counterbalance the force you’re using to get yourself up the hill! Right?
And God knows this! God’s been watching us since the Garden of Eden. How many people has he seen fall off the proverbial bicycle since the world was created?
Matthew 26 reminds us that on the night of the betrayal, when Judas betrays Jesus and gets him arrested, that Jesus said to ALL the disciples (not just one of them, not just Judas):
Tonight, all of you will desert me.
We all remember Peter’s response to that, right? Oh no, not me! I’m good. Even if everyone else does. I won’t. I’ll be the man. And in the garden, when Jesus is taken, Peter tries to live up to his word, taking out his sword and cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers. I’m sure he’s flabbergasted when Jesus heals the ear!
But there was one lesson that Jesus hadn’t taught his disciples yet, and they needed to learn it the hard way – enough with parables and teaching. They needed to experience this first hand.
How do you handle failure? What do you do in the face of fear?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we are going to talk about next Sunday.
I want to leave you with one parting thought today from Teddy Roosevelt’s speech in 1910:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”