God pleads with his people

Breakfast with the Bible 21 August 2016, a sermon on Isaiah 48.

Children, it has been said, begin as a head-ache and end up as a heart-ache.

Yes it is tough being a parent – here I have in mind not the sleepless nights induced by a crying baby, but the sleepless nights caused by a wayward child.

Children can be a pain – and yet in spite of that we love them.
Even when children reject their parents, few parents can reject their children.
We have four children – we love them, and they love us.
And yet there has been pain in the relationship.

All this comes to mind when I read Isaiah 48.
For here we see the cost of God’s love for his people
For in spite of Israel’s rebelliousness, God cannot give up on Israel
Israel has turned away from God, but God cannot turn away from them.

The Greeks used to say that God had to be ‘without feeling’ – for if God could be moved to feel anger or love then this would mean that God could be influenced by others and in turn that others could in that moment be more powerful God. But that is a nonsense.

The God of the Bible is a God who feels for the sufferings of his people.
So here in Isaiah 48 we have a picture of God pleading with his people.

Look at the number of times that God pleads with Israel to listen to him:

  • V1: “Hear this, O house of Jacob
  • V12: “Listen to me, O Jacob
  • V14: “Assemble, all of you and hear
  • V16: “Draw near to me, hear this

God is desperate for his people to listen to him – but there is no certainty.

Unlike some parents who are afraid to tell their children how disappointed they are in them, God speaks the truth as it is. There is no pulling of punches here. God says some pretty harsh things to his people. It has been said that this chapter contains “the most agonized and the most confrontational of the addresses” that we find in Second Isaiah (Goldingay, Isaiah for Everyone):

  • V1: God says of his people that they “swear by the name of the Lord, and invoke the God of Israel, but not in truth or right” – or as the GNB puts it: “you don’t mean a word you say”. Like the Pharisees Jesus condemned, they are ‘hypocrites’ – they are playing at being religious. Or in modern terms, it is not good enough turning up to church and going through all the right motions, if your faith doesn’t affect the way you live.
  • V4: “You are obstinate; and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass”. ‘You’re brass necked’ – sorry never ever crosses your lips
  • V8 “From birth you were called a rebel”. Israel acted like a teenager while still in nappies. Right from the very beginning of its relationship with God, Israel never listened – “from of old your ear has not been opened”
  • V10: “See, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tested you in the furnace of adversity” – and nothing positive has emerged. As the GNB puts it: “I have tested you in the fire of suffering, as silver is refined in a furnace. But I have found you to be worthless”. Israel is a dead-loss.

But in spite of their appalling behaviour, God cannot give up on them

  • V9: “For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, so that I may not cut you off”. REB: “For the sake of my own name, I was patient; rather than destroy you I held myself in check”. Peterson: “But out of the sheer goodness of my heart, because of who I am, I keep a tight rein on my anger and hold my temper, I don’t wash my hands of you”
  • V11: “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for why should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another”. It is almost as if it is for the sake of his own reputation that God cannot give up on his people. God doesn’t want to look stupid. So Eugene Peterson, The Message: “Out of myself, simply because of who I am, I do what I do. I have my reputation to keep up. I’m not playing second fiddle to either gods or people”.

The pain of God’s loving is intense

  • V18,19: “O that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your prosperity would have been like a river, and your success like the waves of the sea, your offspring would have been like the sand, and your descendants like its grains…”. This is God’s “if only” moment. Indeed, that is the way some versions translate this verse (REB/GNB). All this suffering and destruction could have been avoided, if only Israel had been faithful. “The blessings would have flowed for you like a stream that never goes dry” (GNB). But, in the words of a commentator of a previous generation: “The actual history of Israel had been like the wadis [dried up streams] of Judea, transient gleams of prosperity being interrupted by long intervals of misfortune” (John Skinner quoted by John Sawyer, Daily Study Bible 11).
  • If only you had listened to my commands” (GNB). Commentators have often drawn a parallel with the cry of Jesus over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matt 27.37).

It is against this backdrop of love and pain that we come to God’s final appeal in v20: “Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth; say, ‘The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!’”. In empowering Cyrus to remove the yoke of Babylon, God has opened up a new future for Israel. But will Israel see that God is using Cyrus? Will Israel believe that “the Lord loves him; he shall perform his purpose on Babylon” (v15) and in that faith leave the comfort of the exile to return to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple?

All very interesting you might say, but what has Isaiah 48 to say to us today? Do these words penned in the 6th century BC have any relevance to people living in the 21st century AD?

Is God presenting us this morning with a challenge?

Do we need to see afresh that God’s heart aches for his world.

  • We see that above all in the sending of his Son, not to judge the world, but to save the world (John 3.16-17).
  • God longs to welcome the Prodigal home (Luke 15.11-32)
  • The Apostle Peter says that the Lord has delayed his return in glory because he “is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3.9).

And if God’s heart aches for his world, then presumably our hearts should also ache.

Indeed, it seems to me that this is the primary challenge.

I wonder whether the way in which the Cathedral celebrates communion runs the risk of narrowing our concern for the world. In order to ensure that there is never bread or wine left over, the church wardens count the number of people present and presumably convey that number to the clergy. However, in churches with which I have been associated, there has always been too much bread and too much wine – for me the left –over bread and wine have been a potent sign of God’s love for those not with us!

In the context where God is addressing the people of Israel, I believe another lesson we should draw is that God’s heart aches for his church. God longs to see his church respond to his call to be the church.

Let me at this point quote Chris Wright as he reflects on Isaiah 48.18,19:

The echo of Abraham is unmistakeable here in the mention of the numberless grains of sand, the promised extent of his progeny. It is also notable that the blessing Israel could have been enjoying by this time is not merely numerical growth but the qualitative and relational blessings of peace and righteousness. In its immediate context the longing probably refers to the growth of national Israel. The fear of the exiles that they might diminish and die out would remain unfounded. But in the wider context, the very reason why God would not let Israel perish but on the contrary would revive and refertilize them (see Isaiah 44.1-5) is that God intended them to be the means of a wider multiplication – the multinational growth of God’s people among all the nations. The Abrahamic promise of a ‘great nation’ and ‘all nations’ lies under the surface

The tone of this passage is divine wistfulness. God is indulging in the very human emotion of ‘If only… then imagine what could be’…..

So the link between ethics and mission is here found in an unusual key – the divine ‘if only’. The effect is to show how close that link lies to the heart of God. God longs for innumerable offspring for Abraham (missional growth), but he also longs for the existing offspring of Abraham to walk ethically in the way Abraham modelled (missional obedience). We might reflect on what divine frustration there must be with a church that sometimes lacks both, or with a church that even in its missional enthusiasm for Abrahamic growth in numbers ignores God’s demand for Abrahamic growth in ethical commitment to righteousness and justice” (The Mission of God 258, 259).

If this is so, then primary challenge here is not in the first place for the world to ‘turn back to God’ – but rather for his church to turn back to him!

All Scripture is contextual. What within our context is God saying to us this morning? What do we need to ‘hear’? What do we need to ‘see’?

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