How many of you remember Boney M? The pop group as they would have been labelled then, rather than band, or grunge artists. Once of their famous ballads was taken from Psalm 137 – by the rivers of Babylon where we sat down there we wept when we remembered Zion. These words take us back not to the 70s but to the time just prior to the Exile, when God’s people, what was left of them (the remnant), were taken away into exile in Babylon. Isaiah has been given messages of hope to help them endure their time away, a long way from home. Our reading from Isaiah 51 is one of those messages.
This week a magazine landed on my desk from the Persecuted Church, focusing on yes you guessed it – Babylon. The focus was on the plight of Christians living faithfully in difficult times – like Christians in Syria or Iraq, or those who have been made into exiles from Sudan and South Africa.
This morning I want to consider what kept the people of God in Isaiah’s time going, and what keeps these current exiles on track? They know who Jesus is, and they continue in their faith. How? And what can we learn about running with perseverance the race set before us, as Hebrews 12 puts it? How can we stay on track?
- First, he tells them to look back. They remember the promises of God (v1-3).
If you visit the Costwolds, and one of my favourite villages, you will discover what sort of stone the local stone is – its all over the village of Broadway for all to see! The churches there were built during a time of prosperity, from money made from the wool trade. These wool churches stand out, distinctive in their yellow stone. They have stood the test of time. Look to the quarry from which you were hewn says God through Isaiah, the rock from which you were made.
For members of the people of God then, they were part of a long history of God’s work with them, taking them from being no nation to becoming his chosen people. But that was preceded by one of the great promises, one of the covenants, God made with human beings – the one he made with Abraham. Genesis tells of how God promised to bless Abraham and to give him descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, and as the stars in the sky, like the dust of the earth – for who can count the dust of the earth?
For Christians today, we are part of that Judaeo legacy. And we have the promises of God for us to hold onto. In fact living after Jesus has come we have all the direct words of God spoken through his Son – which is your favourite, from which do you find most comfort? Looking back means remembering and treasuring the words of God to his people over the ages. So Scripture reading is important, vital even, to stay on the path. But more than just reading, savouring it, like a fine wine, or a single malt – you would not just glug it down, or you miss the hints of honey, or citrus for example. It’s akin to casting your pearls before swine. We live in a time when we have the Scriptures written down, and we can re-read the promises for ourselves, in our own language. Do we take the time to savour them, to become familiar with them like the great novels such as Pride and Prejudice – I’m sure you can quote the opening line to me! “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
- Second, he tells them to Look Out (v4-5)
Some of the greatest pictures you can get are of the natural world: of volcanoes, twisters, of the Niagra Falls, or autumn sunsets, or lions about to pounce and cheaters on the run. There are some great photos too of the ripples which form when a stone is simply dropped into a pool of water. You can imagine watching the lines of the water move out from the centre, away and away, to the edge of the pool. My salvation has gone out, as Isaiah puts it in verse 5.
That is the view we have of mission – that we, in the West, have received the Good News of who Jesus is (remember the gospel reading?) and we have been sending mission partners abroad to tell others, to serve them and love them into the Kingdom of God. But times have changed – we are now in the time of mission from the margins, as the WCC report of 2013 reports it. The marginalised are challenging us in the West by their simple acceptance of the promises of God, living simply as followers of Christ. Those in the southern hemisphere are coming to us to tell us about the living God.
Isaiah’s word to the people about to go into exile is this: look out – The Lord God’s intention is that all should be saved, not just those with a western education. God’s plan is like a snowball – the further and further the good news travels, like the ripples across a pond, the more and more people who realise who Jesus is, who face to that question from the gospel, who do you say that I am, and answer – you are the chosen one, the Christ, sent to save the world.
So for Christians in Iraq, they can take courage from the fact that they are part of a much larger, global community of faith. We in the West are learning from their fortitude. But they are praying for us, that we will know the love of God in all its fullness, despite their challenging position.
For us we need to play our part in the world community of church, and to allow others to come and shape us, strengthen us – how could we do that more effectively?
- Finally, he tells them to Look Up (v6).
Katrina and I have been away exploring the islands of the Outer Hebrides this summer. We drove to Glasgow to camp, and managed to catch an evening at the Commonwealth Games too. Then we went on over Skye to Harris. During our time there we walked a short distance up a valley to bird hide, where we met Ranger Rick. He told us how to spot golden eagles, and sure enough we did, though not from the hide but on our car journey later that day. High above everything they soared, mighty and majestic. It was glorious.
Look up, says Isaiah: see the heavens (by which he means the sky) and remember that one day the Lord God will return and execute justice and mercy. He has not forgotten you, he will return as Lord and King. Lift up your eyes to the heavens…my salvation will be for ever (v6).
Now the image of the eagle is also found in the Old Testament as a metaphor for how God rescued his people out of Egypt, how he carried them on eagles’ wings (Exodus 19:4). And of course that great passage earlier in Isaiah to these same people, that those who put their trust in the Lord will renew their strength and soar on wings like eagles (Isaiah 40).God is both able to rescue you and will do so.
God’s plan of course is to restore this creation, broken and fallen that it is, and restore it to its original experienced glory. Living faithfully before the creator, redeemer and sustainer of the world means that when he returns in great power and glory they will be ready to meet him and be welcomed as his faithful people.
And for those who are a time of exile today like Christians in Palestine, to know that God has it in hand is what matters. One day he will execute judgement, and restore this world. In the meantime they are called to honour and serve him.
And for us today, we need to look to God to save us – both personally, and corporately – for without him what can we achieve? Prayer needs to be at the heart of what we do – and every meeting we have needs to look to God, carefully and intentionally, to allow him to act.
In a very small way, this parish is in a time of exile: without a Rector. But these simple steps also help us in this time – to look back and remember all that has been done here and in the name of God that has been fruitful, to look out and to know that there are many people praying for us that God would send the right person, man or woman, to come and lead this community of faith, and to look up, trusting that in his good time he will act, whether it is at this round of interviews or not. He has it in hand – and he wants this parish to flourish. He is our God and we are his people.