Imagine a country…
A country that once was a well ordered powerful monarchy, proud of its origins and its accomplishments.
A country now reduced to the status of a small colony living on the borders of a huge superpower.
Its people are only there because the superpowers that surround it have allowed them to stay.
And all around countries are still fighting, empires rising and falling.
A country divided in itself and many of its people living from hand to mouth.
This was Israel around the time of the writings of Isaiah… just released by the Babylonians, they’ve been allowed back into their land. To find it devastated.
Reading the background to Isaiah… I keep finding parallels between what was happening then, and our own modern times.
A small country sitting on the edge, reduced from what it once was… well that could almost be us in the UK. We believe that we are and in some ways still are recognised as a power in the standing of nations, but not in the way we once were, as a huge empire. We are… just as Israel was, at the mercy of the whims of surrounding superpowers… only in our case rather than Assyria and Babylon, it’s Russia, The USA, and China.
Think about the people who are living hand to mouth… trying to rebuild lives amidst the devastation of their country? Devastation caused by war or natural disaster… I imagine that we can all think of at least one such place… they march through your mind like a refugee column… Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria.
The people are turning away from God… and reaching towards idolatry worship, such as Ba’al. Where there is religious observance… it is often superficial… just for the look of it. The people have become indifferent and apathetic to each other and to their God. They’ve decided that it doesn’t matter anymore, whatever they do. God does not see, hear or care… he won’t intervene. What’s the point. Is he even there?
Numbers of people attending church in our times appear to be falling, although on census returns and other such forms many will describe themselves as CofE. There’s what seems like a growing trend towards secularism in all places except a church building, together with the rise of alternative religions…
It does seem to feel that our modern world is mirroring the plight of Israel, back in Old Testament times.
Which if you look at the history of God’s relationship with us humans, it is not too surprising really, to discover that this love affair we have is rather one sided. God consistently, unconditionally and reliably loves us, we on the other hand blow hot and cold. And the book of Isaiah reflects this.
Isaiah, son of Amoz lived in Jerusalem at the end of the eighth or beginning of the ninth century BC. And there are many arguments about whether he wrote the whole book having prophetic foresight of the events, or whether the book of Isaiah was written by more than one person.
The majority view seems to be that we are looking at 2 possibly three authors, writing at different points over the next couple of centuries, but inspired by God and each other it all comes together as one.
It’s quite a long book 66 chapters. Similar themes run through the book but there are distinct parts.
The first 39 chapters are set in the time when the northern kingdom has been conquered by the Assyrians, but Judah has managed to survive by paying tribute. There are prophetic speeches about judgement and repentance, but also speaking of God’s faithfulness and… the hope and promise of a Messiah… When we hear about the shoot from the stock of Jesse at Christmas, this is where is comes from.
In the next 15 chapters it’s all gone wrong… Judah is in exile… and the people long to return. Here are promises of restoration, and an anticipation of a new golden age. Hope that God will remain sovereign in spite of their slavery to Babylon. And here we hear the poetry of the suffering servant… who is firstly a metaphor for Israel in exile… and later applied to Christ himself.
And by the time we get to the chapter we’ve just heard… the people are back in their land. But it’s not quite as they thought…
Jerusalem and the temple, the centre and core of their faith has been destroyed. So has their way of life… they have now to live alongside those who did not leave with the others and also the foreigners who have moved into the land whilst they were gone.
They try to rebuild both temple and life but, as often happens, arguments break out as to how this should be done, and bureaucracy rules whilst nothing practical happens.
So this chapter… this vision… this hope for transformation of society… is meant to unite and focus to rebuild and rekindle hope for a rebirth of God’s kingdom and his people. Like most of Isaiah… there is beauty and poetry to be found in these words, the rich use of language is employed to paint wonderful pictures in the mind.
We find all sorts of echoes forwards and back in these words…
“For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon you, and his gory will appear over you”
Reminiscent of the beginning of Genesis and St. John’s prologue – both beginnings, one of creation the other of the coming of the Messiah.
“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”
God’s people will be the new day and will draw others towards them… a theme already spoken of in Isaiah. In chapter 56
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;”
And when we come to
“They shall bring Gold and Frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord”
I bet there isn’t one person in the building who didn’t immediately think of the Christmas story!
Scholarly writers tell me that this bit actually refers to other kingdoms paying taxes and tributes to Israel, rather than the other way around… but for us it is a reminder of the centrality of Jesus – that rich people from far away would come to pay homage to the Son of God at the time of his birth.
For God is at the centre of this chapter and indeed the whole of the Book of Isaiah.
And hearing all this we might reflect… how can such a wonderful sounding vision of a bountiful God who would do so much for his people to raise them up…. allow such terrible suffering in the world?
This is often put forward as to why people don’t want anything to do with Christianity. “It’s enough to make you lose faith in God”.
But I don’t think it is so much losing faith in God as in losing faith in humankind. Let’s face it humans can bring the most darkest disasters to the world. We fight terrible wars, we have the ability to destroy half the planet if we wish with our weapons, that is if we don’t destroy it first with the way we squander and plunder the natural resources.
In many places justice is next to impossible to come by, and deprivation and hunger are widespread, even in our so called evolved societies.
What this chapter from Isaiah is doing is putting God firmly at the centre of the vision… all is only possible with his intervention. Even in the worst of times, God can work in the darkest places to accomplish his purposes.
“I am the LORD and in its time I will accomplish it quickly.”
This morning at our service the organ ran out of breath… we had to sing the last verse of the Offertory hymn unaccompanied…
Sometimes when we sing in church, it can seem that the congregation sing as one body and the choir and organ together are a separate unit. But this morning something wonderful happened. Everyone sang together and as we sang it seemed that we were joined as a full circle, the gaps at the side of the crossing were closed. All singing in reality from the same hymn sheet. And it truly felt that the whole of the Trinity were with us… the Spirit in our singing, the Father watching over us, and the Son present on the altar in the bread and the wine, right at the centre of our congregation, at the very heart of St. Matthew’s. Not that that isn’t true for all of our services… but today… it just seemed so much more so.
Just imagine what could happen if the whole of humankind were to come together to work towards bringing about a vision for the world, Peace as our overseer and righteousness as our taskmaster. The Lord to be our everlasting light and our God to be our glory.
Isaiah 60 John 6:51-59
Imagine a country…