Monday, 26 June 2017

This is what the LORD says: “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away? Or to which of my creditors did I sell you? Because of your sins you were sold; because of your transgressions your mother was sent away. – Isaiah 50:1

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 26, 2017): Isaiah 50

Pain causes us to do stupid things – and make unwarranted assumptions. If you need proof, I offer you the life of Donald Trump. One of the most influential people on the planet even before he was elected President of the United States, he became President, became isolated and apparently is now a subject of constant internal turmoil and pain. At least, that is the only assumption that I can come to when I look at his social media posts. The most powerful man on the planet is scared and in pain, and that might be a dangerous combination. In his constant Twitter barrage, he is desperately trying to find an audience that will bring a healing balm to his wounds, something that the media refuses to do, and his aides and friends are apparently unable to do. So he fires off the Twitter volleys hoping that his pleas land on the right ears and that he can find the needed response from his base and healing for his soul. Unfortunately, the volleys intended to bring healing are only bringing more pain.  Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, made this comment to reporters earlier this month. Donald Trump "may be the first president in history to go down because [he] can't stop inappropriately talking about an investigation that, if you just were quiet, would clear you." And some are even arguing that the leaks that Trump is so concerned over might be an unintended effect of the out of control social media use. His public comments have caused pain, not only to himself but also to those around him, alienating many of those that work in Washington and hardening the opposition against him.

In Babylon, social media consisted of gossip from person to person. And in the midst of the exile, the pain was causing some unwarranted assumptions. It was evident, to the exiles, that they had been abandoned by God. This abandonment only served to heighten the agony that they suffered, and contributed to a loss of hope among the exiles. There was no one left who could bring healing; the exiles were on their own.

So God speaks directly to the people through his prophet. You say that I have divorced you, but if that is true, where is the certificate of divorce. You say that I have sold, but to which creditor (or god) do you believe that I have made that transaction. Produce the proof. The truth is that I haven’t sold you, I am pursuing you. You have removed yourself from my presence, and I want you back. Seek me, and you will find me. But your complaints are only serving to widen the gap between us – only carrying you farther and farther away from me. Stop speaking to your neighbor, stop trying to find a human audience to bring you consolation and talk to me. I have never left, nor will I ever leave you.

It might be good advice for President Trump. His social media cries are only widening the gap and increasing his pain and isolation. Yet, God has never left him, or us. It is we who are walking away.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Isaiah 51

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; burst into song, you mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. – Isaiah 49:13

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 25, 2017): Isaiah 49

Some years ago I watched a drama that tried to tell the stories of those who were touched by the ministry of Jesus. The story centered on the lives of these people after Jesus crucifixion. Filled with imagination, the author tried desperately to tell the story of those who had been left behind to live out their own lives in the shadow of the cross. It was a mix of people who had absolutely nothing in common, other than that they knew and were touched by the life and death of Jesus Christ of Galilee. And one of the characters in the drama was a man named Barabbas. It is interesting that the name Barabbas really means “Son of the Father.” It was a name that Jesus, by his words and actions, claimed for himself. Jesus was actually the ultimate Barabbas – the ultimate “Son of the Father.” But in the biblical story, Barabbas is also the name of the murderer who was set free as a Passover Gift to the people at the time of Jesus death. Both Jesus and Barabbas were offered to the people as that gift, but the people chose the one who was “Son of the Father” by name rather than Jesus, the one who was “Son of the Father” in deed.

During the drama, Barabbas struggles with the idea that Jesus died in his stead. He was ready to die, proud to die and feed the anti-Roman revolution with his last breath, but instead, he was allowed to live, and Jesus was chosen to die. The Barabbas of the drama talked about that day, of following Jesus up the hill, watching the nails being hammered into his hands, seeing the cross being lifted up and watching this man hanging very literally in his place. Barabbas struggled to hear the words that Jesus would utter, he hoped to hear Jesus curse the Romans with his last breath, but that never happened. Barabbas was looking for the nearest Roman guard intent on stealing his weapons and killing him and as many others as he could before they finally killed him. He was ready to do it when he heard the words “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Barabbas turned to look at the man dying on the cross. The words were addressed to the Father, but Jesus was looking at the man called the “Son of the Father.” The words pierced him. And at that moment everything changed. Maybe for the first time, the one called Barabbas realized his own identity – that he was the “Son of the Father.”

Barabbas left the hill that day along with his former life. He decided to follow the one who lived out his name better than he had ever lived it – the one who was really the “Son of the Father.” Not only did he follow him spiritually, but on that day Barabbas became a carpenter. He admits that he is not much of one, still learning the trade as it were, but he was content simply being a carpenter and leaving the world of revolution.

And as Barabbas works, he sings a song. The words for the song on Barabbas’s lips were from Isaiah 49 - Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; burst into song, you mountains! For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones. The tune isn’t much, but the words speak it all.

Isaiah couldn’t imagine a person who had been comforted and redeemed not wanting to sing – to burst into song – about the one that had redeemed them; the one who had literally paid the price to buy them back. And neither could Barabbas. He had been purchased for a price, the man that had hung on the cross that day had paid for his life with his own. And now all Barabbas wanted to do was to shout for joy.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Isaiah 50

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Listen to this, you descendants of Jacob, you who are called by the name of Israel and come from the line of Judah, you who take oaths in the name of the LORD and invoke the God of Israel—but not in truth or righteousness … - Isaiah 48:1

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 24, 2017): Isaiah 48

Hold on to truth loosely. Truth can only sit in the palm of your hand; it can never be grasped tightly. I know, the words seem strange for those of us who believe in an ultimate truth. But ultimate truth has a way of shifting under the strain of a firm grip. And often we end up holding onto something that is not truth, but something else; something that at best is a derivative of truth.

This is the charge that Isaiah lays at the feet of the exiles in Babylon, you have grasped onto something that is not truth. It is likely that the exiles were confused about why this had all happened to them. After all, were they not the chosen children of God? Did they not have a special relationship with the Creator of the universe? How was it that that relationship had placed them in the position in which they now found themselves, forced to be strangers in a strange land? Why did God allow this to happen?

Isaiah reminds them of the truth that they had maybe forgotten. They were the descendants of Jacob, which means that they were Israel, even though they went by the name of Judah. They were not all that different from the Northern Kingdom of Israel which had been taken into exile almost two centuries earlier. And the real problem was that they had invoked the name of God, just as their cousins of the Northern Kingdom had before their exile, but they had not invoked his name in truth and righteousness. Somehow, in grasping onto the truth, they had lost both orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right behavior.) They had settled for what seemed right to them instead of what God had declared to be the correct path for his children.

I often look at the Christian Church, and I wonder what Isaiah might say to us today. The Western Church has grasped onto to truth tightly. And somehow, in our grasping of that truth, we often seem to have lost the idea of how to love – especially how to love through our differences. The danger of grasping onto truth tightly is that God never gets to adjust what it is that we believe. The path to hate, as was evidenced on a baseball diamond outside of Washington D.C. just over a week ago, is too easy. Love and discussion through our differences are hard, but it is what fulfills both our orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

To paraphrase Moses comment for the Christian Church, this is the only thing that we need to hold onto tightly. “Hear, O [Church]: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord(Leviticus 19:18).

He is the Lord, and to that, we can never let go.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Isaiah 49

Friday, 23 June 2017

That is all they are to you—these you have dealt with and labored with since childhood. All of them go on in their error; there is not one that can save you. – Isaiah 47:15

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 23, 2017): Isaiah 47

One of the, maybe, unintended outcomes of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is a universal feeling that the United States has removed themselves from the Western team of nations. Up until now, the United States has served as the Captain of the nations in the cultural West. But now, their leader has resigned. The positive aspect of this abdication is that others are responding to the need to step up. The natural leaders in Europe of Britain and Germany are have taken the responsibility to lead the new “United Stateless” west. But even countries like Canada are taking up the mantle of leadership.

Of course, the self-removal of the United States will mean that the superpower will no longer influence world policy, at least not to the extent that they have in the past. The United States will cease to be in a position to shape the future, something that the nation has committed themselves to ever since the end of World War II.

But in a more practical, and immediate, effect of the United States reluctance to be a world player is that Europe is now more vulnerable to aggression than it has been since the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945. There is no longer a feeling among the Western nations that the United States will be part of the multi-national pact to stand together in protection of each other from those who might want to take advantage of a nation’s weakness.

At the highest risk are the weakest of nations who need help just to maintain their own borders. In time past, the world map was continually being redrawn by powerful nations who would annex the land of weaker nations. In the West, Nazi Germany was the last country to try to build an empire among the weaker nations of Europe and Western Asia. Russia continues to attempt to redraw the borders of Eastern Europe, but the United States led Western Alliance has, in the past, been the force that has guarded the nations that Russia would like to annex. Now those nations wonder if there will be anyone who will step up to save them.

It is a poignant phrase that closes this section of Isaiah – there will be no one that can save you. The message of Isaiah is clear to any who dared to read his prophecy. If you refuse to rely on God, if you refuse to accept his salvation, then there is no one who can save you. There will be no earthly power that can come and rescue you. But the other side of the coin is equally clear. If you do accept God’s offer of salvation, then you can be sure that he will not abdicate his responsibility to you. He will come and save you.

Maybe the modern nations need to hear the words of Isaiah. In all of the questions that surround the future, there are many things we do not know and many circumstances that we need to fear. But in the end this is sure – God will come and save you.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Isaiah 48

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. – Isaiah 46:4

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 22, 2017): Isaiah 46

Singer and songwriter Ben Folds, in his song “Annie Waits,” writes “The clock never stops, never stops, never waits. [We're] growing old. It's getting late.” Time marches on, no matter what it is that we are doing, or why it is that we have decided to wait, time refuses to stop for us. The insistent march of time can cause panic in some. A date that is always getting closer whether or not we are ready for what that day might hold. We might wait, but time doesn’t. Time marches on.

And that can be scary. As gray hairs begin to multiply it serves as a reminder that time might be getting short. The truth is that in our contemporary culture, the productive moments of our lives are relatively short. Childhood and the teenage years are spent busy with the matter of growing up. Our brain doesn’t really mature until we reach our mid-twenties. And then there are so many other fun things to do. It seems, at that moment, that there is so much time in which we can accomplish the things that we want to do. Time doesn’t wait for us to get serious about life. We know that we need to save for retirement, that we need to spend time with ones that we love, that there are important things, at least to us, that we need to be accomplished. But for right now, shouldn’t there also be time just to relax and have fun.

So our lives begin to evolve. We start a cycle. Work hard at the things that make us money during the week, and then party on the weekend. The important things can wait until some point down the road when we are a little older. Then the gray hairs begin to sprout, and we start to wonder what the important things were that we thought we needed to accomplish in this life. And we are starting to believe that it might be too late.

God assures Isaiah that, unlike the other gods in the lives of the people, he is present in every moment of life. He is not a God that cuts and runs just because we begin to grow older. But more than that, he assures Isaiah that purpose exists at every stage of life. There is never a time when there is not something that is front of us to accomplish. And the promise of God is that he will be with us every step of the way.

I love the old Ira Stanphill gospel song -

Many things about tomorrow
I don't seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand.

I don’t need to know anything more.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Isaiah 47

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. – Isaiah 45:2

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 21, 2017): Isaiah 45

Nelson Mandela once commented that “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” The great truth in life is that, for some of us, the best way to motivate us is to tell us that something is impossible. Many have chased after the impossible and have found a way through, making the impossible possible. Some have chased after the impossible out of ignorance, not realizing that the solution was outside of the realm of possibility. But repeatedly, the impossible has become possible.

In October 539, B.C.E, Cyrus led the armies of the Medes and the Persians into lower Mesopotamia. His strategy was simple. He would conquer the countryside around Babylon, much as Babylon had conquered the towns around Jerusalem sixty years earlier. Finally, with the countryside firmly in his control, he turned his attention to Babylon. Jerusalem had been placed under siege for months before it finally fell. Cyrus arrived at Babylon and diverted the Euphrates River away from the city so that his army could enter under the river gate entrance into the city. But then his army reached the inner gates of the city and found the gates unlocked. The army moved through the city and took control. God had truly broken down that gates of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, just as he had said that he would.

Just as God had led Nebuchadnezzar, God led Cyrus, and the impossible became possible. And with the ascension of Cyrus to the throne of Babylon, God set the stage for another impossibility to become a reality. The door was finally opened for Judah to return home from their exile. And the overwhelming message of Isaiah to all who heard his prophecy was that “when these things come to pass, know that it is God who has done this. His hand reached out to Nebuchadnezzar and removed you from your home, and his hand reached out to Cyrus to begin to set the conditions that will allow you to return home. And all of this is truly an act of God.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Isaiah 46

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

… who carries out the words of his servants and fulfills the predictions of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’ of the towns of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt,’ and of their ruins, ‘I will restore them,’ … - Isaiah 44:26

Today’s Scripture Reading (June 20, 2017): Isaiah 44

I love Ghost Towns. They are great windows to the past and what happened yesterday. As a teenager, there was a house I loved to visit. The house was inaccessible by car but could be accessed either by a relatively strenuous hike or, during the winter, by snowmobile. The yard of the house was littered with old equipment that had been just left behind at some point in the past. Inside the house, which was a mess, there were old newspapers that littered the floor. It was fun just to wonder what happened to make the family move out – or maybe how the house was built in the first place. Maybe at some point in the past, there had been a road that gave access to the property that had now long since disappeared. The house existed in, what at least seemed like, the middle of nowhere. The small town I lived in was not far from the house, just over the hill, but from the house, there was not another building in view. No farm land approached the house. The house existed among the trees on a hill and was long forgotten by time.

Ghost towns and ghost houses are not about the future, but the past. As has been mentioned, I believe that this section of Isaiah was written almost two centuries after the original Isaiah wrote his book in the later part of the eighth century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39). And it is passages like this one that seems to confirm that conclusion. As God speaks to Isaiah, he indicates his intention to restore Jerusalem and the towns of Judah. But during the ministry of the original Isaiah, the Jerusalem and the cities of Judah were not empty. Is it possible that God gave a vision to Isaiah that featured an empty Jerusalem? Yes, but the easiest answer is that this was written to the exiles after the fall of Jerusalem by a second Isaiah.

The truth was that an empty Jerusalem and the ghost towns of Judah had a past. The big question that mattered to the exiles was merely this - did they have a future? And God speaks directly to Isaiah to send this message to the exiles. Jerusalem has a future because I will repopulate her, and I will restore the towns of Judah. The ghost towns of the Southern Kingdom had a future because God had decreed that they did. Their future depended on the hand and movement of God.

The future has always been held in the hands of God, but that fact seems more apparent amidst the desolation and emptiness that is dominated by the past. Jorge Luis Borges makes this observation. “The future is inevitable and precise, but it may not occur. God lurks in the gaps.” For an abandoned Jerusalem, the future was bleak. But God was lurking in the gaps.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Isaiah 45