I do not recall the headlines and lead stories of our local newspaper on January 1, 2010, but I do remember that it was not long before I was thinking that the New Year was getting off to a disappointing start: an economic crisis that was not swiftly being resolved, everincreasing ideological dissension in the USB, the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, church memberships and attendance continuing to decline, and so on.
Unfortunately, all of the above concerns will likely still be with us, not to mention others: the immigration controversy, continuing war in Afghanistan, fading hopes for peace in the Holy Land, and turmoil between those of divergent religious faiths
I mention all of the above, not to darken your day and the prospects for 2011, but to emphasize that the light we need for the living of these days comes not from the reports in our news media, but the same source from which the Prophet Isaiah brought the word of God to the conquered, despondent Jews exiled in Babylon. UNCERTAIN TIMES
The sixth century B.C. was a time of turmoil in the Mediterranean world. The conquering Assyrians were replaced by the conquering Babylonians, who in turn were now superseded by conquering Persians under Cyrus. It must have seemed to the people of Israel that, although the cast of characters was changing, the plot remained the same: they were a conquered people and many assumed that their God had forsaken them.
The good news Isaiah brought them started out sounding like bad news. In a passage we studied last week, Isaiah 43:22-28, the prophet made it clear that God had not forsaken his people, but they certainly had forsaken him. But the consequences of their sin now were old news: “Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old. Behold I am doing a new
thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
So what is this new thing? It is redemption and, first of all, redemption from their sins: “I have swept away
your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you”
(44:22). The sins that disrupted and violated their relationship with the Lord, now, were overcome by his grace “Fear not, O
Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I
will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the
dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring”
(Is. 44:1-3). (“Jeshurun” was a poetic name for Israel.) SERVANTS OF GOD
Beyond God’s grace, however, there is also another reason for their redemption: God has something he wants them to be and do: “Remember these things, O
Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant”
(44:21). God accomplishes his purposes through people, some of them who know him and some who do not – like Cyprus the Persian, of whom God says, “He is my shepherd,
and he shall fulfill all my purpose”
(44:28). This is the only Old Testament passage in which a non- Israelite is called “messiah,” the anointed one. God anoints and uses people, who though they do not know him, serve him just the same. This was true in the 6th century BC and it is also in AD 2011.
Scholars believe that 44:9-20 was inserted between verses 8 and 21 in order to warn the people of Israel not to slide back to the ways of the world, which, in truth, had become their old ways, too. Some readers skip over this section because idolatry seems irrelevant to our own times. Yet, it speaks to us and our times as surely as it did to them.
I never come across the term “idolatry” in the Bible that I do not remember how theologian John Bright put it: “For that which a man looks for his ultimate wellbeing,
his salvation no less and from which he derives
his standards of conduct – that is his god. And we have
no lack of them”*
Actually, we have more handmade idols today then when Prof. Bright first wrote those words. The names may be different – technology, political ideology, the Market, etc. – but the meaning is the same: that which really governs the way we think and live
*(The Kingdom of God by John Bright, Abingdon, 1953).