Isaiah 48 – Listen To Me!

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.

Isaiah 44:24-45:25 – Of, Through & For the World

Notes from a sermon preached on 26th April 2009

Arriving at the service this morning was a strange experience. The first thing I saw was not the doormen who usually great me as I arrive, but blue and white tape announcing to the world that I was entering a crime scene. My first thought was that they’d caught up with me at last! Then I learnt that a young lad had a broken bottle shoved in his face at a 21st birthday party at the community service last night. The scene of crime officers were there this morning looking for any forensic evidence.

It was fascinating watching the effect of their presence on the congregation. It changed the dynamic of the start of the service dramatically. Folks didn’t seem to want to take to their seats, and were instead clustered together in the hall, near the doors, but with the doors between them and the police officers closed. Some were clearly nervous of them, others were fascinated, some tried to engage them in conversation and others still wished they weren’t there. Like it or not, we weren’t able to escape from the fact that they were there.

A… was leading the worship this morning, and she commented on this coming together of the world and the church, and this got me thinking. In many ways this episode was like a little snapshots of the way Christians see the world.

In many ways, this is the very question that today’s passage spends time looking at. How does God relate to the world, and how should we, his people see the world. There have been many answers to these questions. I wonder what yours would be?

Is the world something you’re part of? Want to embrace it? Want to avoid it? Is it important or unimportant to you? Are we more important to God than the world? Is the world neither of these, instead there, but of little impact upon your life?

Now forget what you’ve just answered, and ask yourself the question again. Maybe we think we know what the right answer is, but how do we actually act towards the world and relate to it? I wouldn’t be surprised that if we were honest with ourselves, that the theory and the reality don’t always match up.

This passage looks to the time when God’s People were exiled, defeated by the Assyrians and Babylonians, forcefully relocated from the Promised Land to alien homes, and the Temple where God dwelt and where they met with him destroyed. This is a dramatic clash between the world and God’s People. To God’s People it felt as if God had abandoned them to the world, or even that God had been defeated by the world – this was an era when the strength of a nations god was measured by who they conquered – if your nation beat another in battle, then your god was greater than theirs.

The World here is the enemy, a threat to God’s People and their ways, threatening to overcome them, to defile them, to destroy their faith and freedom to practise their religion. Some might see echoes of this in the confusing relationship between immigration, multiculturalism and the influx of other faiths today. As what is sometimes referred to as ‘Christian’ England is exposed to other ways of life, and the rise in secularism as well as other faiths (although I would argue that secularism is a faith in its own way). Sometimes it is portrayed as if these other faiths are eroding away our Christian identity challenging our faith. The World is a threat and we need to take care not to be defiled by it, or lured away by it from our walk with Christ.

The language of this passage in Isaiah supports this picture of the World as a threat. God refers to himself as their ‘Redeemer’ – one who will rescue his people (44:24), one who promises to bring them out of the world and bring them home – Jerusalem will be inhabited, the towns of Judah rebuilt and the Temple restored (44:26-28)

Remember that like now, then there were many god’s believed in, many ways of seeing the world, many competing truths. Over these, God asserts that he is in fact the only God. There is no other. He alone created the heavens and the earth. He alone is the source of power and authority. He alone knows what is true and wise. He alone knows what will be and is faithful to all his promises. There is no competitor, no rival to his position. He, and he alone, is God. Anything else set up as a god or authority apart from him is in fact an idol. Worth nothing. Lesser than him, and leaving their followers ignorant.

In the end, he announces, before him every knee will bow, and by him every tongue will swear.

God is King and he is Lord of All, of and over the World who stands against him.

*****

But things are not as black or white as this might suggest.

God has made this promise to rescue his people from the World, but wait a minute, who is it that he uses to rescue them. Will he raise up a prophet like Moses? A Warrior like Samson? A King like David? No. Instead he uses Cyrus…

Cyrus is the King of the Persians. He is a foreigner who neither knows or cares about the Jew’s God. You can hear the protests can’t you! You can’t use him God. He’s not one of us. He’s your enemy, a foreigner. He’s of the World – a threat to us who will lead us astray. How can this be!

The Church is the carrier of God’s Word. We are the ones who know God, who have committed ourselves to him, who know his will and follow him. What does the Bible describe as standing against us? The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Apart from God we can do no good, the only way we can do good is through the renewal of our minds and lives by the Holy Spirit who transforms us to be like Christ.

To make it worse, Isaiah refers to Cyrus as God’s Shepherd. What do you think of when you hear that word? Maybe David, the Shepherd King? Maybe Psalm 23 where God is our shepherd? Maybe the priests who Zecharah calls shepherds – good an bad. With this sort of background, you can hear the fury of God’s People when they hear Isaiah using this name. Is this blasphemy? It’s certainly close. How dare Isaiah afford an unbelieving foreigner this status?

God’s reply is a strong one. Who are you to tell me who I can or cannot use! I am the one who made you – read 45:9-13. God can use whoever he wants to, and here he chooses Cyrus.

This has implications for us. Doing God’s will is not restricted to the Church. The World can work for God, know and complete his will, demonstrate his truth.

Have you ever wondered about why Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God rather than the Church. Are they the same thing? Passages like this make me believe that they are not. The Kingdom of God is wherever God’s will is being done – this could be by God’s People, but also by those who are outside God’s People, in other words the World. Wherever people stand up for injustice, that is God’s Kingdom at work. Wherever people show compassion – that is God’sKingdom. Wherever truth is held over dishonesty, that is God’s Kingdom.

This calls for humility from us.

It calls for humility from us in our theology – what we believe and say about God. Who are we to restrict what God can and cannot do.

It also calls for humility in our dealings with others outside the church. Doing good, and doing God’s will is not restricted to the Church, the World also have a part to play. Does this suggest that we should not be so quick to dismiss the world as our enemy, or unimportant. Perhaps there are times when it is right for us to seek partnership with the world in the business of the Kingdom. Should we be looking for others who are aiming for similar things in their work and supporting each other? Perhaps the Council might fit into this position – not always, but at times. Or maybe High Trees? Or the local school? Maybe local environmental groups? The list could cover many varied groups, businesses and individuals.

Maybe this passage calls us to watch our language (World vs Church) and to think in terms of conversation instead of confrontation.

It is interesting to note, though, that God says that he has called Cyrus to work for him, for the benefit of his People – 45:4. Does this suggest that the Church is superior or more important to God than the world?

***

When Jesus came striding onto the scene and Paul following in his footsteps, they caused the same sort of outrage that Isaiah was causing by sharing these words of God’s. By this time, the Jewish faith had accented the importance of God’s People over and above the World, that the World, the Gentiles were the enemy, to be looked down upon. They caused an outrage because they argued otherwise. We don’t hear the shock value behind John 3:16 because we have got so used to the words that we miss the implication. God so loved THE WORLD. Jesus and Paul in their own ways were reminding God’s People that they had been called not for their own benefit, but to bless the world – wasn’t that the Promise that all those many years ago God had made to Abraham? That through him all nations would be blessed?

This passage says the same thing. Yes it says that God will subdue the nations, that every knee will bow before him, but shortly before that it says in 45:22 ‘Turn to me and be saved all you ends of the world’. He may be King of and over the World. He may use the world to grow his Kingdom and serve the Church, but his ultimate purpose is to save and redeem the World.

The World is no perfect – then again nor are we. We are not called to stand against it, or see ourselves as superior to it, but in humility we are called to work with the World and for the World, to grow God’s Kingdom.

Isaiah 41 – The Sovereign God’s Salvation

Notes from a sermon preached by surprise on 22.03.09pm

Background to Isaiah
So what do we know about Isaiah?

We’re told in chapter 1:1 that Isaiah prophesied during the reign of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah (the Southern Kingdom). Uzziah reigned from 786 BC, Hezekiah, 697BC. Chapter 6:1 tells us that he started in the year that Uzziah died, ~736BC.

These were difficult days for the Kingdom of Judah, days when the Assyrian kings began to threaten and advance upon them. Ahaz was tempted to join a coalition against the Assyrians, but in the end asked them for mercy. His successor, Hezekiah, against Isaiah’s advice, led a revolt against the Assyrians. This was a disastrous move ending up with Judah being destroyed in 701BC, except for it’s capital, Jerusalem. Jerusalem eventually fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC with them being thrown into captivity in Babylon. This lasted until 539BC when Cyrus, King of the Persians, defeated the Babylonians, and the Jews were allowed to return home.

The book that bears his name can be divided up into three sections:
• Chapters 1-39 are set in the 8th Century BC – these are the years leading up to Judah’s defeat by the Babylonians and their exile into Babylon, and explain why God allowed them to be Exiled.
• Chapters 40-55 are set in the 6th Century BC – these contain prophecies that bring words of hope to his exiled people.
• Chapters 56-66 are set in 539BC onwards and speak to the Exiles who had returned to Judah

As you can see, this book covers an extraordinary scope of time and situations. This scope, and also the way it falls into these three distinct sections has made some wonder if it was written by more than one author. Perhaps Isaiah wrote the first section 1-39, and others following in his school of prophets (a bit like painters in the Renaissance had schools, learning from a master, and students paintings being named after their master). Other say that the first section is Isaiah speaking into his own time, and the other sections being future predictions God had given him.

To be honest, it doesn’t matter which it was. What is important to us is what this book has to say to us in its entirety as we’ve received it.

So what’s Isaiah about? Some have called it the Gospel in the Old Testament.

The first section talking about why they were exiled looks at human sinfulness, individual and corporate, and the consequences of that.

The second section where God brings the exile hope, talking about their being brought back home, talks about salvation, God’s plan to restore us and our world. One thing that is startling about this is the sheer expanse of salvation. It’s not just about me and my eternal life, it’s far bigger than that.

The final section where God brings words of challenge to those that return from Exile, talks about Christian living and what it means to live in the light of God’s salvation.

Isaiah is a large book, and we’re going to look at the second and third sections. Tim’s was supposed to be doing this opening sermon today, but as he’s unwell, I’ve going to look at Isaiah 41 as I was going to next week – maybe Tim might be able to come back to Isaiah 40 then instead!

41:1-7 – Invitation to the Nations Rejected in Favour for Idols
The chapter opens with an invitation from God to the world to come and meet with him. Islands and nations is a way of describing the whole of the Gentile world. It talks about meeting in the place of judgement, but this is not about judgement, but about making a treaty, building a relationship together.

The meeting begins with God describing his power and influence. He talks of a commander who is moving across the world, defeating all in his path, subduing their kings. His power is awesome. He turns them to dust with his sword, to windblown chaff with his bow. ‘Who is behind this?’ God asks, ‘Does he do this on his own? No, he is my servant, and I am the one who has called him to it and empowered him to do it’

This commander isn’t named here, but he is clearly a figure of power who changes the shape of the world. The point is clear though, God is involved in the world, planning, moving and controlling. His sovereignty is over all.

This is who I am! God is declaring. I am the sovereign God! Trust in me, side with me.

What happens now reminds me of the opening chapter of Romans 1:18-20:

18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Although God’s power and sovereignty is clear, and his invitation to them has been made, they instead say to each other that they are good enough without him, that they are strong enough. Instead of God they trust in the idol that they have just formed on the anvil and nailed down to the floor so it doesn’t topple.

Here is a warning to the nations, and an encouragement to the Jews in exile. God is in charge, and non-can withstand him. He moves nations as he will, blowing them away as if they don’t exist. His people may have done wrong, which is why he has allowed them to be exiled, but if the nations mistreat them or revile him, then he can move against them in power that they cannot withstand.

Three Pictures of Consolation
The scenery now changes, moving from the scale of the nations, to look to the Jews in exile, with three descriptions of the salvation God is going to bring to them.

1) 41:8-13 – The Victorious Servant
The first description is of the Jews as God’s victorious servant.

At this point in time, the Jews must have been feeling rejected and scorned by God. They had been thrown from the Land he had given them, cast into a foreign nation, away from their Temple and worship, everything that gave them their identity and relationship with God. They must have been afraid that this was it, God was angry with them, furious at what they’d done. Perhaps they thought they’d blown it. Perhaps they felt afraid of God, fearful of what he might do to them next.

Maybe there are times when you feel like this? That you’ve let God down, that he’s angry with you, or abandoned you?

Perhaps as the church today in the West, this speaks a bit into our situation where the church has moved out of the mainstream to the edges of our society? Has God abandoned us? Is the world against us? What hope have we got?

‘Do not fear’ says God. Listen to the descriptions God uses to talk about them:
• ‘O Israel my servant’
• ‘Jacob, whom I have chosen’
• ‘descendents of Abraham my friend’
• ‘I took you’
• ‘I called you’
• ‘I have chosen you and have not rejected you’

Do not be afraid, let me take you by the hand and help you. What a wonderful picture of a parent and child. On their own a child might be frightened, scared, lonely, but when a parent takes them by the hand they become invincible, confident and determined. God takes the Jews by the hand.

And what does he say about those who stand against them. I often find that if you pick out the descriptive words you get a great sense for what is going on:
• ‘ashamed’
• ‘disgraced’
• ‘nothing’
• ‘perish’
• ‘you will not find them’

Everything is turned upside down. No longer will they be the fearful opposed nation, but the confident triumphant one.

2) 41:14-16 – The Transformed Worm
The second description that of the transformation of the Jews.

The first picture talks about how God sees them – not as his enemy to be rejected, but as his chosen children. The second picture looks at how they see themselves.

When things have gone wrong for us, our estimation of ourselves tends to go down. The Jews must have had a rock-bottom opinion of themselves. They’d blown it big time – lost their homes, jobs, friends, nation, religion, maybe even their God himself. It couldn’t have got any worse.

In verse 14 God calls them a worm, little Israel. That must have been how they felt. Ever been there?

Was digging yesterday, creating a vegetable patch, removing turf and turning over the soil. Found worm after worm. Totally helpless and prone. A worm could never defeat nations. A worm could never be rich or powerful. A worm could never be on the cover of OK magazine. Bottom of the heap.

But this little helpless creature is transformed. From a worm to a mighty beast with many teeth, great strength and vigour, before whom all fall. He threshes mountains, crushing them, smashing hills to chaff, blowing them away. What a change!

Remember Gideon cowering in his winepress, scared witless of the Midianites? What did the angel say when he came to him? ‘The Lord is with you Mighty Warrior!’ We might be the smallest of the small – on our own – but with God we can be metamorphosised into something so much more brilliant.

3) 41:17-20 – The Needy Sustained
Finally the picture moves from the national scale to a more individual scale. God is not just concerned with the transformation of nations, but the plight of the individual.

The people are thirsty, desperately in need of water, sustenance. Their tongues are parched, but wherever they look for water, they find none. All they can see are barren heights, desert and parched ground. There is no water here, no hope for sustenance.

When times are tough, it’s always the poor that suffer most. The rich and powerful can provide for themselves, but here Isaiah is portraying the plight of those in the most difficult positions. But just as al is not lost for the nation, so hope is not lost for these in dire straits. God sees their need and the barren wastelands burst into water! The deserts are transformed into rich verdant gardens. All can see and know that God is at work here – can anyone else do this?

What does this picture suggest to you? I suspect that Babylon wasn’t a desert, suggesting that this is more of a symbolic description. Does it relate to the barrenness of their lives? Or their need for spiritual sustenance? Or their lack of hope? Whatever it might be, or whatever your need might be, this tells us that God is capable of bringing the sustenance that is needed in impossible ways.

41: 21-29 – Futility of the World’s Trust in Idols
Not time to go through this in detail, but having talked about these three pictures of the salvation that God will bring his people, Isaiah returns to the meeting between God and the nations. The nations have rejected him in favour of their idols. But what can these idols do? What can they say? Nothing…

But instead there is a hint of what is to come for the nations, God has stirred up one from the north, a new commander, and he’s heading their way… Good tiding for Jerusalem.