Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 10, 2016
Isaiah 43:1-7 Commentary
Scholars tell us that there may have been at least two, probably three (perhaps four!) “Isaiahs” whose prophetic words make up the one Old Testament book we call Isaiah. If so, then the version of Isaiah we get in this 43rd chapter is definitely the “Happy Isaiah” as compared to the doom-and-gloom Isaiah from earlier in this vast and sprawling prophetic book. Like several of the surrounding chapters (and beginning with that clarion 40th chapter), so also Isaiah 43 is shot through with lyric imagery and hope. “All’s forgiven!” declares Yahweh, Israel’s God. “All will be restored! The lost will be re-gathered. And you will be protected by Me come what may!”
As divine prophecies go, it doesn’t get much better than this. But there are two features to this passage I find striking and that I’d like to highlight here in an effort to jumpstart your own thinking.
The first striking item is easy to miss but it speaks volumes in terms of what Israel had to know and accept. In a kind of inclusio bracketing the larger passage, Yahweh makes clear that the people he is addressing through Isaiah belong to Him alone.
Verse 1: But now this is what Yahweh says, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel.
In other words: I made you and so you are mine. You belong to me. I am the potter, you are the clay and whatever shape you have is due to my creative work. I own you.
Verse 7: Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.
In other words, my name is your name and you don’t exist for your own sakes or to make a name for yourself or to generate some national sense of glory or pride as an end unto itself. No, I made you so you could glorify me. You exist to make me known to the nations, not yourselves or your own accomplishments as a people. The bragging rights are mine, says your God!
Interesting! Apparently for the good news of Isaiah 43 to be good news for you, you must accept your place in the divine pecking order. Israel is and had always been the covenant people of God alone and their existence always pointed beyond itself to the purposes of God as first revealed to Abraham way back in Genesis 12: God would create a people who would ultimately be a blessing to all nations. God’s would be the glory through Israel because God’s was the power and the grace to make it all possible in the first place.
But there, as Hamlet might say, is the rub. Nations have always had a tendency to become self-serving and self-aggrandizing. Israel was no exception. Samuel about pulled his beard out over the people’s request for a king so they could be “like the other nations.” Samuel tried to point out that the entire purpose for Israel was precisely not to be like the other nations. The other nations and their insular, self-glorifying ways were the problem to be solved, not the model to be emulated. People living cut off from the one true and living God of the universe was the sin that needed to be atoned for on a global scale, not that toward which Israel itself should aspire. But it didn’t matter: the people wanted a king and that’s what they got. And eventually they got an empire and, not too much further down the historical line, they got a corrupt and selfish empire at that, filled with desires for riches and glory and using God’s Temple as, at best, a kind of national security blanket whose God would authorize and bless everything they did or wanted to do (whether it was in accord with the Law of God or not).
In fact, all the doom-and-gloom stuff from earlier in Isaiah was the result of just such a wanton disregard for the things of God, for not putting God first, for failing to realize that their national purpose was to bring God, and not themselves, glory and honor.
Israel wanted all the protections and hope and comfort of Isaiah 43 without that bracketing reminder in verses 1 and 7 that what accompanied all that was divine ownership. Period.
It is a curious question how similar people in the church may be today. It’s too much like shooting fish in a barrel to point out the easy ways by which some TV preachers proffer divine-driven prosperity without commensurate talk about devotion and service to that God who then, by the way, owns you completely and has a lot to say about what you will do with whatever wealth or property or prosperity you may have. Too often we want the divine perquisites without the divine requisites.
The other striking feature to these verses is the use of the little word “When . . .” in verse 2. This is one of the more famous of the Old Testament but in our imaginations we too often assume that the promises here run along the lines of God’s saying that his people will avoid deep waters, raging rivers, and fiery trials altogether. But that, of course, is not what is being promoted here at all. Indeed, one could properly assume based on these verses that believers in Yahweh may all-but expect to face such trials. The promise is not wholesale avoidance of difficulties but an abiding divine presence in them.
Here, too, however, we find a tension set up even within verses as redolent of hope as these. It reminds me of the tension inherent in all those Psalms of Lament in the Hebrew Psalter. Because the simple and unhappy fact of the matter is that when we pass through the waters or the fires of life, those are precisely the times we find it the most difficult to locate that sense of God’s presence. First off, we wonder why such trials would come if God is on our side (yet we’re never promised to be spared such things—Jesus even promised persecutions for this followers!). Secondly, however, the pain that accompanies such things can so easily blind us to whatever signs of God’s presence we might be able to find. It is more than good to know, in short, that God sticks with us in life’s trials. That fact, however, hardly renders the trials themselves feeble or easy-to-take after all.
Yet there it is. Isaiah 43 reminds us of twin facts in which we properly take comfort: first, God loves us because he made us. And even if we exist mostly to witness to God and to give him the glory for all he is and does, the fact is that we are held by loving hands. When we abandon ourselves to the God who made us, we may know that this God will in turn never abandon us, even when trials come for whatever the reason.
If you preach on Isaiah 43 in this Lectionary cycle, it will be one of the first sermons of a new year. All preachers would revel in the opportunity to make sunny promises to their congregations along the lines of assuring people that it’s going to be a great year: the economy is finally adding jobs. Things are looking up.
That would be nice to say. And the day will come in God’s kingdom when just such things may well be proffered once and (literally) for all. But not now. For now we can only proclaim that trials do come and will come.
We still live in the shadow of ISIS and of several other dreadful mass shootings in 2015. We’re only fooling ourselves if we think we can avoid any such thing ever again (much though we simply must do what we can do make such horror less likely). We live in the shadow of all the dear folks who died in our various congregations this past year. And there will be more hurt in our congregations this year. There will be disappointment. There will be announcements in the church bulletin that will have to use that dire word “Hospice” again. We’ve not seen our last funeral.
What we cling to in utter hope, however, is that God goes with us in and through all that. We will not be finally swept away or drowned or burned up. There will always be a new thing yet to come in God’s grace and in his slow kingdom coming.
That had to be enough for Israel when Isaiah spoke these words. It must be enough for us now, too.
The popular preacher Robert Schuller died not long ago. He was known for any number of pithy quotes, most all of which tied in with his theme of “possibility thinking,” of thinking your way to a better you and a better way of life. One of his most popular lines was “Tough times never last, but tough people do.”
With all due respect to Rev. Schuller, there is actually much to dislike here. First, there are too many people in our churches whose lives are altogether Job-like in terms of their enduring one long, tough stretch of bad things. Maybe it’s one bad thing after the next. Maybe it’s one overarching bad thing that goes on and on for decades and that colors everything else in this person’s life. But the fact is that sometimes tough times do last. They really do.
But in the Christian context—whether tough times come and stay for years or whether they prove to be more fleeting—it’s not finally the toughness of the people that makes the difference but the tough and fierce providential love and care of God that makes the difference. Nowhere in Scripture are we thrown back onto our own resources. We’re not told that our own optimism or strength of character is what will see us through. When the waters get deep, when the rivers in which we’re sunk neck-deep get violent, when the fires of life’s trials lick at our flesh, it is the abiding presence of God that reassures us. We may not know why God permits such tough times and trials, but they come. And when they do, our assurance is not derived from our own toughness. In the grand scheme of things, we’re nothing. What matters is how closely God sticks with us.
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