Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 11 – Isaiah 51:1-6 (Related)

It’s a pretty well established opinion that the book of Isaiah which we have comes from three different authors and three different periods of history. In a nutshell part one (chapters 1 – 39) warns the people that if they don’t stop it they’ll end up in exile, part 2 (40 – 55) tells them that they are soon to come home from exile, and part 3 (56 – 66) asks the question ‘Now what?’ in the light of the previous two parts. Last week’s passage came from part 3, and reminded the people of Israel that their calling was to everyone, not just themselves. But now we have to make a mental leap backwards a few decades to imagine the people still in exile, far from home, and smarting at the punishment they are receiving. The good news, though, is that soon they’ll be home. The challenge often thrown out by the prophet who wrote this section is ‘Can you not believe it?’ This parallels the challenge thrown out by Jesus in the Gospel to his disciples: who do you really think I am?

We know something of the pain and bewilderment of the exiles, because several times the prophet quotes, no doubt from what he has heard on the streets, the plight of the people. 40:27 and 49:14 are two examples:

My way is hidden from the Lord,
my cause is disregarded by my God …
The LORD has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.

The prophet faces this despair head on, and our passage reassures the people that there will be an end to their troubles. So what does this passage say to us today?

We too are exiles, yes, in the sense that our real home is heaven and we’re not there yet, but also because we’re in exile from the life we used to know pre-Coronavirus. There is a widespread feeling (which of course you may or may not agree with – other political views are available) that we are in the grip not just of an evil little bundle of genetic material but also an incompetent (at best) or downright evil government who are completely out of their depth, headed for an isolated future as the laughing-stock of the world. Life as we knew it has been suddenly snatched away from us, we are unclear what the latest instructions are, and quite honestly we can see no end to it, with the threat of future spikes and a second (and third …?) lockdown on the cards. Whether or not this is God’s punishment on us is a question I won’t stop to debate now, but I do know, because like Isaiah I listen to what people tell me, that it’s really hard to see how on earth we’re going to get out of this. Yet the passage is full of reassurance and glowing promises for a glorious future. So the $64,000 question is this: is this God’s message to Britain today? To put it another way, just because you have a little plaque with Jeremiah 29:11 on your fridge or in a greetings card, does that mean that life for you is going to be great from now on? How do we discern which bits of the Bible are God’s words for us now?

Personally I think we have to remain a bit agnostic, but while to place the passage in its historical context does at least tell us about the Word of the Lord for the exiles, that isn’t the real point of this particular bit of part 2. It deals, I think, not so much with whether God is going to rescue them, but rather with whether or not they believe he can. And there’s the rub.

The people had not just lost their home and the life they once knew: they had lost faith in their God’s ability to do anything about it. That’s a much more serious problem. The prophet here is telling people that God will rescue them, but he’s also telling them that he can. We may not be sure about the first in our Covid-ridden world, but the prophet would, I believe want us to take note of the second. Like the exiles Christians have been praying fervently for God’s mercy on our land, for the removal of the virus, for the scientists to find an injection which will make us immune, and, in some cases, for us to learn whatever lesson it is God is trying to teach us through it. Will he? Dunno. Can he? That’s the real question, and Isaiah would tell us without a shadow of a doubt that he can.

That might not answer all our agonised questions, or bring back those we love and have lost to the virus, but it certainly ought to spur us on to prayer, to fervent crying out to God for his mercy on us.

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