Let Us Keep Faith: Reflections for the fourth week of Easter
Let Us Keep Faith: Reflections for the fourth week of Easter
Specially-commissioned reflections on the wisdom of the prophet Isaiah for this time of emergency by the Revd Dr Janet Tollington.
Lift up your eyes on high and see
Please read Isaiah 40:21-26
The prophecies in Isaiah 40-55 were addressed to God’s people in Babylon. Their world had been turned upside down when they were exiled from
Jerusalem and they were still struggling to make sense of what had happened, years later. Where was God? Had God forgotten them?
We’ve only been living under ‘lockdown’ for a few weeks; but the impact for many has been devastating. Much that we took for granted suddenly ceased and while our places of worship have not been destroyed (unlike Jerusalem’s temple) they are closed. With the people of old we cry out to God to set us free and let us go back to all that was familiar.
In today’s passage the prophet encourages God’s people, then and now, to focus on God and to allow our vision, our understanding, to be enlarged. Its opening questions challenge us to think more deeply about what we already know of God. Then a picture of God is presented, high in the heavens, watching over creation, nations and governments, reminding us how small we are in the grand scale of things. The transitory nature of human history is conveyed by imagery drawn from the natural world; sometimes a storm comes to disrupt the normal pattern of life.
The exiles still thought that their captors’ gods were in control but the prophet challenges this falsehood. He imagines God asking, ‘What insignificant powers are you comparing me to?’ The Babylonians believed that the stars exercised divine power, so the prophet says, ‘Look up to the night sky, count the stars, recall their names. God created them and God assigned each one its place in the whole amazing universe.’
This Creator God, infinite in power, is still watching over everything, bringing things together in unity and restoring order. Let us keep faith.
Do not fear for I am with you
This passage continues to direct our focus onto God. Here we get a sense that God is involved in the events going on in the world around the exiles in Babylon. Change at a political level, having implications for all the nations, is coming from the east. God has set this in motion and is empowering the victor, says the prophet. God’s involvement with all generations from the beginning of time is emphasised, along with the promise that God will be present until its end. God isn’t limited by history as we understand it, nor is God remote from it; God participates in it, on a global scale.
The verses 8-10 change our focus onto Israel, as God’s chosen people. Although it is a group of Judean exiles being addressed by the prophet with these words of comfort in turbulent times, it is evident, because of the reference to Abraham’s offspring, that the whole people of God through the ages are meant. So we can rightly recognise ourselves as being included in the audience.
We are each being called a servant of God and reminded of the fact that God chose us for this role. We hear the assurance that even if we feel cut off from God by events, this isn’t the case; God hasn’t abandoned us. We are reminded that God’s covenant promise to be our God still holds, as do the promises to strengthen us and enable us to accomplish whatever service we are called to give.
As we hear these comforting words let’s thank God for them; but let us also reflect on how we might be of service to God today. Even in lockdown we can demonstrate Christian love towards other and live as people of hope; and we can give praise to the living God.
I have called you by name, you are mine.
Please read Isaiah 43:1-3a
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you” says the prophet. As Easter people, we hear these words differently from those exiled in Babylon, for we know Jesus as Immanuel, God with us, and we live in the light of the resurrection. So perhaps we have less reason to be afraid; but we are human and it is easy to feel scared when an unseen virus threatens and, as yet, we have no vaccination to protect ourselves against it.
The prophet reminds us that it was God who created us, formed us as a people, a community; and that God has named each one of us and identifies us, each as a treasured possession. A God like that will not let us go. However, belonging to God doesn’t mean that we escape all the perils of this world. On the contrary we should expect to face difficulties, for they are integral to the complex way in which creation ‘works’; and it is how we grow and learn as people and in faith.
References to passing through waters and rivers would have reminded the exiles of how God saved their ancestors from Egypt and brought them into the promised land. The idea of a fire that doesn’t consume brings to mind God’s appearance to Moses in a burning bush, a sign of God’s presence and power equipping him for his task of leading the people on that journey out of slavery. These reminders of God’s saving work in the past serve as an encouragement in the present.
The Holy One of Israel remains our God and we believe that in Christ God’s work of salvation was fulfilled. Our risen Saviour has promised to be with us always and grants us peace.
So do not fear; trust in God your Saviour, Amen.
I will make a way in the wilderness
Please read Isaiah 43.16-21
The passage begins with another reminder of Israel’s escape from Egypt. When times are difficult it is reassuring to remember how God has brought us safely through past troubles. However the text immediately goes on to instruct us not to dwell on the past, for God is about to do something new.
Ideas that resonate with the first Exodus are picked up, of wandering for years through a wilderness, of the people thirsting in the desert, of the traditions about the covenant between God and people being established at Sinai; but now they are transformed.
This time there will be a clear path in the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3) and rivers that bring the desert to life. It will abound with wild creatures instead of a once only flock of quails (Exod.16:13 and Num.11:31-4), God’s people will have water to drink instead of thirsting (Exod.17:1-6); and they will respond with thanksgiving to God for the special relationship they enjoy.
The point is, human history doesn’t actually repeat itself, nor does God repeat divine acts of salvation or judgement. We cannot search the pages of the Bible to find blueprints that offer us the solutions to today’s problems. What we find is evidence of God’s faithfulness and undying love towards creation that gives us hope and leads us to respond with praise.
God is always at work, in the present, reaching out with covenant love, transforming whatever situation we are encountering into one that is life affirming. The challenge for us is to be perceptive people, looking for signs of divine activity bringing life and hope where needed, as care, compassion and kindness are shown. We should be expectant that the Spirit is moving amongst us; and ready to join in with God’s ‘new things’, joyfully, as the body of Christ.
I am the LORD, who made all things
Please read Isaiah 44.24-28
Today was planned to begin a three-day celebration of the 75th anniversary of VE Day. It would be easy, but totally unjustifiable, to interpret v.25 in a way that scoffs at those who made elaborate preparations for this weekend, most of which cannot now take place. Rather, we should honour the work that was done and hope that much of the commemoration will still happen, albeit differently.
However this passage challenges us to realise that God is in control of all that unfolds in the present and into the future and that human planning can only be understood as provisional. Without divine blessing our projects falter and our endeavours produce little fruit.
Reference to Cyrus as God’s ‘shepherd’ who was to fulfil God’s purposes is important to note. Here, and in 45:1, language used in reference to Cyrus is clearly messianic. The exiles would have been shocked to hear that God was working through the Persian emperor to bring about their homecoming and the restoration of Jerusalem and its temple. They expected another leader, one of their own people in the line of David, to be identified in continuation with the old covenant traditions, not a foreigner who didn’t share their faith. They had to learn that God confounds our expectations and neatly worked out theologies about how God will act, or through whom, in order to bring the divine purposes to completion.
Today we remember those who led our nation through past conflicts into an era of peace and increasing prosperity. Nonetheless deep-rooted problems in international relations as well as new threats still need resolution. Let’s not be blinkered in our expectations of how God will lead humanity into a new era of security, for God will probably surprise us. But be assured, God is faithful, God is love, and peace will come.