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Monday, August 18, 2008

Hope for the Exile (Isaiah 51)

August 17, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Though we have had a two week break from our summer series, we continue today studying the theme of exile in Scripture. We have heard the stories of a God who, seeing our sin, does not withdraw into Heaven, but who plunges into the muck and mire of human brokenness to reveal Himself, call us to Himself, make us whole, and bring us Home. We have also followed this parallel theme: if that’s the kind of God we worship and Jesus calls us to come follow after Him, then we have a calling and a commission to be salt and light in the world for the sake of naming, lifting up, and holding forth the One who is the Light of the world and hope for all who are exiled.

Today we are looking at the story of exile, hope, and promised redemption from the prophet Isaiah, who preached to God’s people when they were at an all-time low in terms of brokenness and perceived darkness and distance from God. I say “perceived” because to them it was darkness and distance, but God was right there! We will see that the implications of Isaiah’s words are far-reaching.

Exiles Long Ago

First, the history… throughout the Old Testament, the story of God’s people is one of cyclical promise, sin/unfaithfulness, consequences/exile/judgment, revelation, repentance, restoration, calling, and renewal of promise and faith. The inevitability and repetition of that story would be laughable if it were not so tragic. And for those who are honest, it is easy to see our own lives and faith mirrored in the corporate life of ancient Israel.

What is remarkably consistent – no, more than that – supernaturally and inspiringly consistent, is God’s character and faithfulness. God’s promise to Abraham to name and preserve a people shines tenaciously through periods of great darkness.

Isaiah is writing to a people long-exiled. Generations have lived in darkness, far from home, without their Temple, and with Abrahamic promises a distant memory. Yet, in this chapter of hope for exiles, Isaiah begins in the early verses by recalling the ancient promises to Abraham and Sarah – that God would be their God without condition and they His people. Their children would have a home and be a multitude through which the nations would come to know the Lord. Isaiah writes to remind these discouraged and shadow-dwelling people of God’s bright promise. Listen to Isaiah 51:1-3(a)…

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, who seek the Lord; look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; when he was but one I called him, then I blessed him and multiplied him. Indeed, the Lord will comfort Zion; He will comfort all her waste places. And her wilderness He will make like Eden and her desert like the garden of the Lord.

In the verses we are looking at today, let me walk you through a brief outline of Isaiah 51. We began the service with a call to worship from verses 9-11. It is there that the people call out to God for help. Three times they call on the Lord to exert His mighty arm. They remind God of His mighty deeds in history – recalling the Exodus from Egypt (Rahab) – and asking God to once again make a way for them to return to Zion – the holy hill of worship in Jerusalem. “Do it again, Lord, like you did it before!”

In the first reading, also sung by John Kaneklides, God responds through the prophet, peeling away the darkness around his people. It reminds me of Jesus encountering the lame man by the pool. This was the man who claimed he wanted healing, but who was limited by the circumstances around him – he couldn’t get in the supposed magical waters fast enough. Likewise, God questions the fearfulness of His people and the supposed power of what holds them in darkness. God asks, “Have you forgotten who I am and what I have done?” (vv. 12-13) In the light of God’s power, He asks, “Where is the fury of the oppressor?” (v. 13) And God promises, “The exile will soon be set free, and will not die in the dungeon, nor will his bread be lacking.” (v. 14)

In the second reading, which you participated in, God describes what He will do: “I have put my words in your mouth and have covered you with the shadow of my hand, to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, ‘You are my people.’” (v. 15) God’s reminder is that he has not and will not forsake His people – and He reminds them of exactly who they are – His sheep and His children.

Then God goes on to call on His people three times, even as they did in their prayer to Him. This is the part you read, as if you were the witnesses of Heaven: “Rouse yourself! Rouse yourself! Arise, O Jerusalem!” (v. 17) God continues, saying that the time for languishing by the pool, lame from weakness and sin is past. Do you want to be well? Then rise, take up your pallet, and walk! Or, as I have said more and more frequently in the past months – you who have been rescued and claimed by Jesus Christ, get up and get out into the life and ministry to which God has equipped and called you!

In the rest of the second reading, God describes the apathy and darkness that characterizes His people at the time of this Word. Many have forgotten the Lord. New generations have not produced spiritual leaders – “your sons have fainted and lie helpless.” (v. 20) But God, in so many words, says, “Stop making excuses; pick up your mat; YOU get up; I am on the move.” That has been our call: get up; get out; God is on the move!

Me, My Neighbor, My People

What is the application for this passage? I believe there are several – all of which are important. But I want to take them in a particular order, for particular reasons. First, this passage has personal application. There are many forms of exile from God, many forms of shadowed darkness that chain us like foreign captivity chained Israel in Isaiah’s day. Whether it be obvious and public sins, secretive and “hidden” acts, or the subtle and broad sins of putting our own priorities above God’s priorities – it will take us all down. Addiction and depression are almost tangible chains. Arrogance, self-reliance, and greed sometimes masquerade as useful character traits. Going my own way instead of God’s can look very holy on the surface. But it’s all darkness; it’s all life as an exile and life on my mat by the pool.

I may even call out to God, “Save me! Save me! Save me!” wanting answers on my own terms. Isaiah reminds us that God is faithful and true and capable of far more than we can ask or imagine – but, God acts on His own terms. God says when and where and how, and sometimes, God replies, “Wake up! Get up! Get up and about doing my work!”

Second, this passage has local ministry implications. As we have noted, God does not withdraw to Heaven, but plunges into the muck and mire of our lives in order to call us out and bring us Home. As His followers, we are challenged to follow after Him – to be salt and light in the world, even while not becoming of the world. It is far too easy for Christians in the church – in any church – to find a safe place of refuge and a comfortable Christian sub-culture with safe music and safe friends, and miss what God really intends for us. Church is not one hour of pre-fab worship each week, or even 7 day a week Christian music, Christian friend, Christian education, Christian entertainment, and Christian food. We’ve taken a good thing – being set apart and worshiping God – and turned it into a distortion of the real thing.

God’s intent for the community of His people is that we come together to encounter and yield to God, be reminded who and whose we are, and be unleashed on the world in Jesus’ name. Far too often we are like a happy version of the man by the pool… we may not be lame on the mat, but all we ever do is play in the pool. And we can start to look a lot like the exiles in Isaiah – weakened, no real leadership, no real memory of God’s great promise and calling, and no real awareness of God’s presence right here among us, leading us. And to us God says, “Wake up! Get up! Get up and about doing my work!” I believe we are in the process of waking up here at Good Shepherd – and that is exciting!

Third, I believe this passage has implications for us as we relate to our denomination and our nation. The PCUSA is neither the local congregation nor the full extent of God’s Church (which includes all believers). But, it bears some semblance to ancient Israel. Our church is part of a larger community of believers who have, like Israel, strayed far from faithfulness in a number of areas. I have shared some of the actions of our recent General Assembly with you. There were some expressions of faithful intentions and a number of actions I believe were unfaithful. I have shared some about that in the newsletter and my sermon after the Assembly. I am willing to answer questions or talk as long and hard about it as you want to.

But you know what, the situation is really much darker than any one Assembly, including this one. The PCUSA, like Israel, is made up of weak and sinful human beings, which includes me. I believe the denomination, like Israel, is in a time of darkness and exile. And we do not stand apart from that, but within it.

And this is a good a time as any to also mention our nation. I love our country, but I do not understand us to be a Christian nation, to be identified as a Church-state or as the “new Israel.” I do believe our country was founded on Christian principles and is experiencing a similar time of exile and darkness as more and more we turn away from godly truth and standards of morality. Both for the PCUSA and for the United States, verses 18 and 20 are a frightening description of the world we live in: “There is none to guide her among all the sons she has borne, nor is there one to take her by the hand among all the sons she has reared… Your sons have fainted, they lie helpless at the head of every street… full of the wrath of the Lord, the rebuke of your God.”

I don’t believe the question for us is “How bad is it?” It’s bad! It’s dark. And that is true whether you are talking about our nation, our denomination, our community, or our own lives. The question we must wrestle with is not “How bad is it?” but “What are we going to do?” That’s exactly the question our Session is in the middle of wrestling with, and it’s a question we each must ask, first about self, then about neighbor, then about the larger context we are in. Those are the questions of Isaiah 51.

If there is anything Isaiah says clearly in all this, it is to make sure we first ask, not “What are WE going to do?” but “What is GOD going to do?” He reminds us of the promise to Abraham. He reminds us of God’s faithfulness to deliver His people when the entire lot of them had been enslaved in Egypt as a result of not listening to God. He claims that God will be faithful to deliver his people in his day, though they have been exiled as a result of complete national spiritual and moral unfaithfulness and though no spiritual leaders are in sight. He reminds us that God is a God who does not forsake the exile, but pursues them – pursues US, pursues YOU – through thick and thin and into the fearful cover of darkness.

What God has done and what He promises to do

Why did I order these applications in the order I did? I did it because I believe that experience of God’s redemption must begin with you and with me. God speaks through Isaiah to each of us, “Wake up! Get up! Get up and about doing my work!”

How will our local neighborhood and community be blessed to be a blessing? It will be through God’s witness through us as we wake up, get up and get about doing God’s work.

How will the denomination and the nation be reminded of God’s truth and hope, particularly if there is a deficit of new leaders to guide and lead? It will be through God’s witness as we wake up, get up and get about doing God’s work.

I put them in that order because I don’t believe we can be faithful with large things until we have been faithful with little things. But hear that not as me saying, “Don’t be involved with big things.” Hear it as a challenge to respond to God’s invitation to find a personal ministry and mission, to respond personally, having a local witness, and if God wills, to have a larger impact.

Get up and get out! God is on the move – and He calls us to be a part of what He’s doing here at Good Shepherd and in our neighborhoods, and beyond. If you are ready to explore what that looks like in your life, share that with me. The Session and I want to encourage, equip, and support you in every way we can.

Finally, I will save the benediction for the benediction – but note what good news this is! Our God reigns! When we get up and get out, following after Jesus, we bear the light of the world out into the darkness. Amen.

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