When we lived in Derby I loved going to the Easter Eve extravaganza at the Cathedral, a truly splendid feast of liturgical excellence and celebratory joy. But the highlight for me was to process out at the end of the service, at around midnight, into the thumping heart of Derby’s Nightclub district, for the ‘Proclamation of the Easter Gospel’. It was really powerful to hear the words ringing through the air: ‘The one you are looking for is not here: he is risen!’ I don’t actually know how much impact this actually had on the passing clubbers, but I found it a moving and memorable occasion.
This passage from the prophecy of Isaiah has something of this feel to it. At a first reading it looks as though God is calling the exiles, those who for decades have lived displaced and hard lives, to come back to him and receive, through his grace, the good things which are freely available to them. Indeed it may have this meaning. But there is another theme which brings this interpretation into question. The ‘summoning of the nations’ motif, which is common in Isaiah, comes in in verse 5. The OT is full of reminders that the calling of God’s chosen people is not merely to their own nation: they are to be messengers of God’s grace to the nations. So might the be a passage which hops about between being addressed to Israel and to the pagan nations for whose blessing Israel exists? And might the appeal of verses 1 to 3 to ‘come, buy, eat’ be addressed not only to Israel but also to those currently outside the covenant? Is the prophet saying, in effect, ‘What you’re looking for is not to be found where you’re looking!’? This would also make sense of the following verses.
It is a sad reflection that God’s people, whether in Israel or in the Church, need to be called back to him, and reminded that it’s all free, paid for by grace alone. We should already know that, and be living in that truth. But it’s a real challenge for us to think that others, outside our faith, might be attracted to God when they see our splendour (v5).
No doubt there is a link here. The almost total lack of people coming running to the church might have something to do with our lack of splendour. I can remember a preacher long ago wishing for the time when the Prime Minister would ring up the Archbishop of Canterbury and say ‘Help me, man of God! What can I do about unemployment, or the economy, or whatever. I need God’s wisdom!’ As far as I’m aware this dream does not often become reality in British politics, but Isaiah hold before us the hope that I might, or indeed will. When the church can convincingly say to the world ‘What you’re looking for is not to be found where you’re looking!’ we might see some more people come running. But before we can do that we need God’s splendour, a splendour which can only come when we ourselves learn more and more what it is to seek God’s grace, and, abandoning all the stuff which this world tells us will bring fulfilment, live wholeheartedly for him. While we continue as weak and compromised as we so often are, nobody else will have any interest in us.