Monday, 20 January 2020

Unshakeable Conviction Isaiah 49:1

Could you resist preaching on a passage which begins “Listen to me O you coastlands?” Well of course not, for here we are on this most beautiful of coasts able every day to see the sea, the marshes, the birds, the geese, the sand the tides, the tussocks and to be blessed with it all. Isaiah is an extraordinary prophet known for his grand imagery, use of poetic language and the the musicality of his writing - this passage from Isaiah 49 is known as one of the five Servant songs - not that there is any suggestion that this or other parts of the writings were ever sung  but the writing of these five is distinctive and especially lyrical. But as well as these things a chief characteristic of Isaiah is his unshakeable certainty.  He wants to communicate that above all, whatever has happened to the people of Israel who were beginning to believe that God, had abandoned them, that he was certain that this was  not so.

We find ourselves in a world where the Babylonians who had taken the people of Jerusalem into captivity and exile are the world power but are about to collapse and fall to the emerging Persian empire under the leadership of Cyrus. One great empire is about to fall before another ; Cyrus will in time create an administrative system that will last a thousand years and was unusually tolerant of the customs and religions of his conquered peoples and will indeed allow the Israelites to return to rebuild the temple. But we have not got there yet and right now Isaiah is writing to the second generation of exiles who are losing heart are becoming inured to the Babylonian way of life and need to be propelled back to their mission.

There is a question as to who is speaking for Isaiah does not make it explicit he says only  “The Lord called me before I was born” but for me at least and for many Christians this prophecy is about Jesus Christ  - even before the formation of the worlds Jesus was formed for the task of proclaiming, redeeming and saving. Like a sharp sword he was always ready , with powerful words, but as we know He will be rejected and despised by those who received him as John says in the opening of his Gospel:  “He was in the world yet the world did not know him - and his own people did not accept him”. As Isaiah foretells:  “I have laboured in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” But again following this lament of despair and failure Isaiah’s unshakeable confidence bursts through - “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord and my reward with God.”

“Listen to me you all you peoples far away” this summons in contrast to those previously in earlier chapters is not directed just at the house of Jacob but to the whole world - the message is to be proclaimed to everyone even to us, who live on the very edge of the land.

In some ways this is surprising, after all the jerusalem and the tribes of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrians, the Babylonians and now were to be subject to the Persians; It is if the refugee Syrians of today set about a mission to bring their beliefs to all those who have overrun their country and sent them is a modern diaspora. Yet here is exactly what the Lord commands - the geat commission of the Old Testament:


“O it is too light a thing that you should talk only to Israel, I will give you (my servant) as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.””

Isaiah talking to the tired and forlorn, discouraged exiles in Babylon reminds them of what their mission is - to proclaim the Lord everywhere to everybody, friend and enemy alike  - he foresees the coming of the suffering servant and importantly for us in these days of empires clashing with empires, of a world with more than 65 million refugees , where our stewardship of the earth is questioned, Christains are persecuted and the churches less attended, he reminds us to be unshakeable, that even though we may not be believed it does not diminish our faith or its truth.


Amen

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