Notes from a sermon preached on the 17th May 2009
When I get the chance I love to read the children a chapter or two before bedtime. We loved Enid Blyton, the Hobbit, Roald Dahl and Stig of the Dump amongst other great yarns and story-tellers. There are days though when I look up from the book to realise that they’renot really paying attention, and at these times I play a little game with them. Suddenly one of the Hobbits might change names to Rowan and might catch a plane to deepest trifle desert where they turn green and blow up the size of a swimming pool before being eaten by a passing Land Rower – you get the idea. Its always interesting to see how long I can go on making nonsense before they realise what I’m saying… I’ll have to try it one night when I’m preaching and I see you’re drifting!
Five times in quick succession God calls people to listen,
• 48:1 ‘Listen to this, O house of Jacob, you who are called by the name of Israel…’
• 48:12 ‘Listen to me, Jacob, Israel, whom I have called: …’
• 48:14 ‘Come together, all of you, and listen…’
• 48:16 ‘Come near me and listen to this…’
• 49:1 ‘Listen to me, you islands…’
‘Listen’ …A call for attention. An offer of something important. An invitation to open yourself up to what someone else has to say.
‘Listen’ …A call to put aside your agenda, what you were doing, what you were thinking and consider what is important to someone else.
‘Listen’ …A hint of mystery, something new is about to be revealed, to be shared. What is it going to be?
God says listen, drawing us out of our world into his, inviting us to pay attention, to prepare ourselves for something special. This ‘listen’ may have been spoken thousands of years ago, but it still sounds today with meaning and purpose, drawing us as it drew them.
Listening is probably one of the hardest tasks that there is.
To listen means forgetting yourself for a while, not rushing to answer, to butt in with your own thoughts. To listen requires careful attention to what is being said – there’s a world of difference between hearing something and actively taking it on board – I only have to think of the weather forecast to realise this. So often I put the weather on as I need to know what its going to be like, only to realise after its finished that I didn’t actually pay it any attention and missed it completely, even though I was sitting there staring at the screen!
To listen means to make yourself vulnerable. It is easy to assert ourselves and push our views on others, but to listen means allowing others to shape and inform your thought, potentially changing your mind or values or plans.
To listen is an act of trust – do I trust the other person not to abuse me when I make myself vulnerable in this way.
You’d have thought that listening to God would be easier wouldn’t you, but its not the case is it. This is why the book of Isaiah was written to start with. God saw that trouble was coming for them and so spoke through Isaiah to warn them of the consequences of their current actions. Stop paying lip-service to me in worship whilst abusing others, place your trust and hope in me rather than other nations and your own military and political strength. If you do this, he’d said, then all will be fine – in fact more than fine
17 This is what the LORD says—
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the LORD your God,
who teaches you what is best for you,
who directs you in the way you should go.
18 If only you had paid attention to my commands,
your peace would have been like a river,
your righteousness like the waves of the sea.
19 Your descendants would have been like the sand,
your children like its numberless grains;
their name would never be cut off
nor destroyed from before me.”(Is. 48:17-19)
Note that here God reveals the purpose of prophecy, not so much about predicting the future, but giving his people direction and understanding.
Fairly clear message you’d have thought, easy to grasp and respond to, and yet had they listened? They’d heard the words of course, but they’d continued living as they were, placing faith in themselves and others but not God, and consequently what God had said would happen, happened. They were defeated and carted off into Exile. How is it that God describes them here, as people whose sinews in their necks were iron and their foreheads bronze. They were a stubborn people and had heard yet not listened.
It is easy for us to sit here and look back at them and think how foolish they were. Why didn’t they do what God had told them! But if we’re honest with ourselves, are we any better? God gives us the same message doesn’t, trust in me, place your hope in my provision, my ways. Most of the time we know exactly what God wants of us, but how quick are we to listen, to respond, to truly place our trust in him?
Why is it so hard?
• Maybe it’s because we can’t see God?
• Maybe it’s because everyone else around us is doing the same thing?
• Maybe it’s because our culture says this we’ll be alright if we live this way?
• Maybe we think we know best?
• Maybe it’s because we know what we already see and do and feel safe there?
• Maybe it’s simply habit?
Isaiah brought this prophetic warning well ahead of time, so that when trouble came, they would be able to look back and realise that he was trustworthy, that he was worth listening to. When they first heard, it didn’t seem possible that they could lose their land, but it happened just as God had warned them it would. No idols told them this, only he foresaw it – no model of iron or stone, no philosophy or ruler.
Sometimes God calls us to something do something new, or to think in a new way. Sometimes he does something new that we haven’t seen before, or is outside how we usually think of God. This can be difficult. We don’t like to be moved from our comfort zones. New things make us worry – there are plenty of ‘what ifs…’ that can be provoked on our lips. But here God is telling us that we needn’t worry. Instead, if we look back to other times in our lives when God has been at work, we can find encouragement from them.
The Israelites could look back to the Exodus – here was something new. God had promised to rescue them, and he did. They could look back to the Exile, as God did in this passage, and remember how what God had warned them about had come to pass. I look back to times on mission when God paid our shopping bills out of the blue, or when I came to Westcott, my last church, so many things that needed to fall into place did so, or FUSION events or Youth Conference events which I felt out of control of, but God came up trumps as he had promised to do so. Perhaps we can look back to some of the great things God has done amongst us as a church family in the past. When God has called us to new things, he has never let us down. Why should he suddenly start doing so now!
So what’s the new thing he’s calling them to listen to, to be prepared for? What’s God planning that he hasn’t done before? He’s going to defeat the Babylonians and prove to the world that he hasn’t abandoned his people. He’s going to rescue them and send them home. Again he is saying it far enough before it happens so that when it does happen, everyone will see that it is his work – ‘Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians! Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it. Send it out to the ends of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob.’ (48:20). History tells us that it was Cyrus who defeated the Babylonians and set the Israelites free. If it wasn’t for this writing written in advance, all might say that he was the cause of their freedom, but this writing proves otherwise. His was no normal earthly defeat and liberation exercise, but this was God at work!
But was this the whole of what Isaiah was talking about when he said something new was about to happen?
Isaiah was not the only one or I think the first to suggest God would rescue the Israelites from captivity. This was not a totally new idea. Is there something else going on here, another greater fulfilment?
We assume that the Lord’s chosen ally against Babylon in verse 14 is Cyrus, for that is the servant he talks about in earlier chapters, but if you read on to the following chapters, the nature of the servant gradually changes from the mighty king Cyrus to one who will achieve greatness through his suffering and standing up for and in the place of the afflicted and sinful. This is another great liberator, someone completely unlike any who have gone before. Totally unexpected!
Jesus – for this is of course who he’s talking about – doesn’t fit in so many ways. The Cross seems nuts. His teaching turns our values upside-down, and changes the way we see ourselves and our world completely. God knows he wouldn’t make sense to the Israelites, and he knows he doesn’t make sense to us today, but by telling them about him so far in advance, and reminding them about how he has always proved true in the past, he reassures them – and us – that we can place our trust in this peculiar, unique and wonderful man.