Back to the future

When the people of Israel return home to Jerusalem, there are many challenges.  But they still have the covenant.  And they are still called to be a blessing to all nations.

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Back to the future

December 16, 2012 – Isaiah 61:1-11

 

            Today we come back to Isaiah.  This may surprise you.  If we are working chronologically through the story of the Bible, why do we have Isaiah again?  Didn’t we read from Isaiah a few weeks ago?

            Yes, we did.  We read from Isaiah 6 on November 18.  But students of Isaiah have long observed that different sections of Isaiah seem to reflect slightly different settings.  There are themes and images that are the same.  But the writing expresses slightly different concerns.  The first 39 chapters appear to constitute one unit – the time leading up to the exile to Babylon.  Chapters 40-55 make up a second – the time during the exile to Babylon.  And chapters 56-66 still a third – the time of the return from the exile to Babylon.

            We know that Isaiah, son of Amoz, lived in Jerusalem in the 8th c. B.C.  In the eighth chapter of his book, he speaks of disciples.  It is not unusual for prophets to have disciples.  Of course, Jesus did, but also John the Baptist had disciples.  What some scholars believe is that these disciples – and perhaps even a whole school of students – carried on the spirit and work of Isaiah for hundreds of years.

            So, the reading we had four weeks ago from Isaiah 6 is the story of the call of the historical Isaiah.  The second section is called Second Isaiah.  Today’s reading comes from what many call Third Isaiah.

 

            The return from Exile was a joyous time for Israel.  They were released from captivity.  They were no longer prisoners living in a foreign land.  But the return from Exile was also a very difficult time for Israel.  There was destruction all around.  The temple was gone.  Money was scarce.  One commentator I read this week suggested that it was probably closer to the task of rebuilding after Katrina than anything else in our experience.

            Many, in fact, chose not to return.  After 50 years, there would have been few who remembered Jerusalem.  They had heard stories from parents and grandparents.  They had a longing for their ancestral homeland.  Yet they knew life would be difficult there.  And it was.

            There was much work to be done.  There were buildings to be built.  There was order to be restored.  And there was the question – This was the most terrible thing that could have happened to us.  Where did we go wrong?  How can we keep it from ever happening again?

            Some said the problem was that they got lax on the rules.  They weren’t strict enough in keeping the laws of Moses.  They didn’t keep themselves pure as a people.  And what they needed to do was to get hardline about the laws of worship and purity.

            Isaiah saw the problem differently.  He believed they had wandered from their calling as God’s people – their call to be a blessing to others, just as they had been blessed by God.  Chapter 56 begins with the words, “Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance to be revealed.”

            Isaiah that the keys to “maintaining justice and doing what is right” are observing the Sabbath day and welcoming foreigners and outcasts.  In fact, Isaiah goes so far as to say that eunuchs and foreigners – who observe the Sabbath and hold fast to the covenant – should have access to the temple – something unheard of in the law of Moses!  Why?  “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (56:7-8)

            Isaiah goes on to say that the practice of justice is essential to the life of faith.

            “Is not this the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover the, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

            “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.  Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’” (58:6-9)

 

            Today’s reading is one that emphasizes healing for Israel.  God promises renewal and restoration, liberty to the captives and comfort to those who mourn.  This promise is accompanied by an announcement of celebration.  But this promise is also bound together with the declaration that Israel – as defeated as they may feel – still has a purpose in God’s work in the world.   Their purpose is not the same as other nations.  They are priests – intermediaries and intercessors – of the LORD on behalf of the nations.  They do not exist for themselves.  They exist for others. 

            So that raises a question for us – how is it that we exist for others?  What is the work of God that we have?  More particularly, how is the celebration of Christmas, for which we now prepare, how might this celebration serve others?

 

            You are all old enough to remember the transition you made in regard to Christmas.  When you were a child, your anticipation of Christmas was centered more on what you were going to get rather than what you were going to give.  But, at some point, maybe about the time you had children, Christmas became more about what you were going to give than what you were going to get.  For some of you, this may have happened much earlier.  For some (including me, I confess) it happened later.  But the joy of Christmas now is in giving and in seeing the delight of others at their receiving.

            Many of you have taken a step beyond this.  Your giving goes beyond your own family to others – perhaps in the gifts that you buy or the financial support you provide or even the volunteer hours you donate – so that the joy of giving continues to spread.  This is the joy of Christmas.  This is the joy of the birth of Jesus.  It is in giving to others.

 

            In another month, we will come back again to Isaiah.  Then, it will be through the mouth of Jesus.  At the beginning of his ministry, he returns to Nazareth.  He attends services at the synagogue.  He stands up to read and takes the scroll of Isaiah. 

            Jesus announces good news to the oppressed.  And the people are glad.  But when they start asking for him to do his miracles among them, he points them to outsiders.  Just as Elijah fed the widow at Zeraphath and Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian, so his work is among those outside the community of Israel.

            But this is also good news that binds up our broken hearts.  We have a place in God’s kingdom.  We have a role in God’s work.  We have a part in God’s mission – that righteousness and praise will spring up before all nations.  This is the joy of our faith.  It is the joy of Christmas.