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Isaiah 66:7-11

April 18, 2014

7 “Before she goes into labor,

she gives birth;

before the pains come upon her,

she delivers a son.

8 Who has ever heard of such things?

Who has ever seen things like this?

Can a country be born in a day

or a nation be brought forth in a moment?

Yet no sooner is Zion in labor

than she gives birth to her children.

9 Do I bring to the moment of birth

and not give delivery?” says the Lord.

“Do I close up the womb

when I bring to delivery?” says your God.

10 “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her,

all you who love her;

rejoice greatly with her,

all you who mourn over her.

11 For you will nurse and be satisfied

at her comforting breasts;

you will drink deeply

and delight in her overflowing abundance.”

Points of Interest:

Image of the Day–Quick labor

The pregnancy might have seemed like it lasted forever, but now that the time has come things move quickly–so quickly that, delightfully, there’s no time for any labor pains or for labor at all. We skip straight from pregnancy to birth. I think this is another reference to the Garden of Eden story, in which painful labor is one of the repercussions of Adam and Eve succumbing to the serpent’s temptation (Genesis 3:16). So, the lack of labor pains is one more sign–like lions and lambs becoming friends, and people living to a 100–that we’re moving toward a new and better world, one that’s more like the world God always intended.

Mixed Metaphor of the DayBabies congratulating mom on their own birth

twins

Of course, it’s not an actual baby who is being born here at all. It’s twins: new heavens and a new earth. So, in a way, we’re all being born into a new experience of life. That leads to a funny change of roles for us in the last two verses:

God: Congratulate Zion. You know she’s had a rough time of it for a while. But the most exciting thing happened. She just had twins.

Us: Wow, already. It seems like that happened so fast. What are the baby’s names?

God: You. You’re the babies.

Taking it Home:

For our city: My guess is that you don’t have to look very far or very hard in our city to find something that seems heartbreaking or unfair or just altogether not that great. I want this new heaven and new earth for our city, and gosh darnit I want it quickly.   Ask God to make our city more like heaven.  Ask God for all the joy, satisfaction, abundance, and healing that is characteristic of heaven to be characteristic of our city.  I’m reminded of Jesus’ most popular saying as we he walked around the Ancient Near East, which in modern day terms would probably read something like ‘@GreaterBoston get ready #heavenishere.’  As you go through your day today, in whatever part of the city you are in, as frequently as you can look around you, soaking up the sights and smells, and ask God for heaven to be here more profoundly right in the midst of them.

Isaiah 66:1- 6

April 17, 2014

66 This is what the Lord says:

“Heaven is my throne,

and the earth is my footstool.

Where is the house you will build for me?

Where will my resting place be?

2 Has not my hand made all these things,

and so they came into being?”

declares the Lord.

“These are the ones I look on with favor:

those who are humble and contrite in spirit,

and who tremble at my word.

3 But whoever sacrifices a bull

is like one who kills a person,

and whoever offers a lamb

is like one who breaks a dog’s neck;

whoever makes a grain offering

is like one who presents pig’s blood,

and whoever burns memorial incense

is like one who worships an idol.

They have chosen their own ways,

and they delight in their abominations;

4 so I also will choose harsh treatment for them

and will bring on them what they dread.

For when I called, no one answered,

when I spoke, no one listened.

They did evil in my sight

and chose what displeases me.”

5 Hear the word of the Lord,

you who tremble at his word:

“Your own people who hate you,

and exclude you because of my name, have said,

‘Let the Lord be glorified,

that we may see your joy!’

Yet they will be put to shame.

6 Hear that uproar from the city,

hear that noise from the temple!

It is the sound of the Lord

repaying his enemies all they deserve.

Points of Interest:

Image of the DayA bigger footstool

I mentioned way back in the introduction that the people of Jerusalem thought of Jerusalem’s temple as God’s footstool. They knew their temple was too small to be a true house for God, but still thought of it as the unique place on earth where God’s feet touched down and made contact. God says here that even that thinking is too small.

God first of all reminds them that all of this is make-believe. God doesn’t need a house, nor a footstool, in any literal way. Even if God did want or need either one, they wouldn’t be able to make it, and God wouldn’t need their help to build it. God is pretty handy; after having made everything in the world, a little bit of furniture would be no problem.

ron swanson

But, to repeat, God doesn’t actually need a house or footstool at all. God has simply been playing house with the people of Jerusalem, as a way of symbolizing God’s strong desire to be in genuine relationship with people: ‘See, it’s like I live right in your neighborhood.’ At this point, even for these symbolic purposes, with the expansion project God is currently undergoing, Jerusalem and its temple are way too small. The entire earth is God’s footstool.

Theology of the Day–The new rules of abomination

Verse 3 gives us four pairs of an actual ritual from the Jerusalem temple with what they would think of as a gross perversion of it: lamb’s are holy sacrifices, dogs are not; grain is a good offering, pig’s blood a very bad one; and so on. Under the new regime God is establishing, one of them is the same as the other, as far as God is concerned. I don’t think it’s so much that God all of a sudden has a complaint with the temple rituals in and of themselves; rather God rejects the spirit in which they are offered. These people are so busy performing the rituals that they can’t hear God talking; and they put such a priority on the rituals that they think it justifies mistreatment of other people. God says that their attention to ritual doesn’t replace, overcome, or excuse proper attention to the things God actually considers more important: humility, an open ear to God, and a readiness to treat others well. In absence of those things, ritual isn’t just meaningless, it’s insulting to God.

If it’s not about the building for God (as I discussed above), it’s certainly not about the rituals going on inside it. It’s about good relationships with God and people. Take care of those things, and you can forget about everything else.

Project of the Day–God cleans house

God kicks the riff-raff out of the ‘house’–even out of the whole city. The riff-raff is anyone who, in God’s name, tries to prevent humble worshippers from drawing close to God.

Taking it Home:

For you: Listening.  It’s safe to say that it somewhat seems like a big deal to God.  And fair enough.  Having spent some time or two with a raucous group of children, I know the exasperation of “WILL YOU JUST QUIET DOWN AND LISTEN TO ME!?”  Usually what helps with the kids is making it a game. Let’s try that on ourselves today: make a fun game of listening (or trying to listen) to God.

Here are a few ways to play the game throughout the day:

  1. Take a few minutes right now, whatever you’re doing, to listen. Take a few deep breaths. Tell God hello, and say that you’d like to listen to anything he might have to say to you.  Then just wait.  See what comes to mind, and then chat with God about that.  Oh! and try to follow what God said.
  2. Find a pen and paper. Write something to God or ask God a question. Hello! How are you today, God?  Then, write down the first thing that you hear back.  Keep writing/conversing with God like this for several minutes.
  3. Think of the best listener you know.  What makes them such a good listener? What is it like when they listen to you? Try to emulate those qualities to God.  This may look like being silent for a long time until God is ready to talk or maybe means asking a probing question.
  4. When you come to a part of your day when you have to make a decision, ask God what to do.  I’d start with smaller decisions: Do I take the T or my bike? Should I start this new project or keep working on that old one? Do I fold the laundry or watch TV?.  If God seems to give you an answer, try it and then see how it goes.

Isaiah 65:17-25

April 16, 2014

17 “See, I will create

new heavens and a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered,

nor will they come to mind.

18 But be glad and rejoice forever

in what I will create,

for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight

and its people a joy.

19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem

and take delight in my people;

the sound of weeping and of crying

will be heard in it no more.

 

20 “Never again will there be in it

an infant who lives but a few days,

or an old man who does not live out his years;

the one who dies at a hundred

will be thought a mere child;

the one who fails to reach a hundred

will be considered accursed.

21 They will build houses and dwell in them;

they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them,

or plant and others eat.

For as the days of a tree,

so will be the days of my people;

my chosen ones will long enjoy

the work of their hands.

23 They will not labor in vain,

nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;

for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,

they and their descendants with them.

24 Before they call I will answer;

while they are still speaking I will hear.

25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,

and the lion will eat straw like the ox,

and dust will be the serpent’s food.

They will neither harm nor destroy

on all my holy mountain,”

says the Lord.

Points of Interest:

Project of the Day–New heaven and earth

I mentioned yesterday that God seemed to be expanding the renovation project beyond the borders of Jerusalem. Here we see that God is not satisfied with a couple of local franchises in Achor and Sharon. God is going global. The whole world is being rebuilt into God’s holy mountain.

Promise of the DayNew and improved short memories

In 63:7-14, Isaiah talks about how easy it has been in the past for God’s people to forget the ways God has come through for them. In the new world God is bringing about, people will still have a tendency to forget, but what they’ll forget is the hard times. Trouble and suffering are such vague and distant memories that they slip the mind, or feel like bad dreams.

Image of the Day–Vegetarian lions

I don’t know whether these grass-fed lions are literal, metaphorical, or both. Maybe the overhaul of the way things work is so thorough in God’s new world that it even affects the rules in the animal kingdom, or maybe God is metaphorically promising that there will be no more bullies, kidnappers, or tormentors. One way or another or both, in the new world there’s no such thing as predator and prey. There’s no longer any danger of a pack of wild animals attacking the caravan. And even if the shepherds were to get drunk on the job–which they won’t–the sheep will be just fine, comfortably grazing with the wolves and the lions.

Bible Reference of the DayThe serpent eats dust

Like the lion and the wolf, the serpent is no longer dangerous. Unlike the wolf, though, the serpent ends up alone; and unlike the lion, the serpent eats dust, which sounds less delicious than greens. I think Isaiah is harkening back to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1), when Adam and Eve’s tempter is a serpent. The one who started everyone out on the wrong trail in the first place doesn’t get to join the celebration when God finally gets them back on track to where they really want to be.

Lifespan of the Day100 is the new 30

God starts off by promising that no one will ever again experience the tragedy of a child dying in infancy, but that’s far too small a goal. It’s not just that people won’t die in childhood; people won’t even die in old age. When they hit 100, they’re just getting started. Nothing gets cut short on the new holy mountain; everyone and everything will have the time and space to reach their full potential.

Another Promise of the Day Quick ears

Recently–for complicated reasons, it turns out–Jacob and his children have wondered whether God is a bit hard of hearing. They shout and shout, but God doesn’t seem to be listening. In the new world, the connection between people’s lips and God’s ears is so fast that it seems like they haven’t even finished speaking before God is hearing and acting.

Listening1

Taking it Home:

For our church: I was hooked at nice homes and abundant vineyards to call my own, but a place where everyone gets along? I’m in.  Let’s be honest, if you were a sheep, would you ever, ever, ever conceive of trusting a wolf?  Ask God to give our church that same remarkable sheep-wolf power in our relationships: reconciliation, trust, harmony, and the power to live (and graze) peacefully in the midst of differences.  While maybe farfetched and utopian-sounding, ask God to make our church a place where everyone gets along. Ask God to protect the intricate web of relationships that comprise our church. If you have a relationship or situation at a church that has been hard, ask God to mend it the way he’s done it with our four-legged friends.

Isaiah 65:8-16

April 15, 2014

8 This is what the Lord says:

“As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes

and people say, ‘Don’t destroy it,

there is still a blessing in it,’

so will I do in behalf of my servants;

I will not destroy them all.

9 I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,

and from Judah those who will possess my mountains;

my chosen people will inherit them,

and there will my servants live.

10 Sharon will become a pasture for flocks,

and the Valley of Achor a resting place for herds,

for my people who seek me.

 

11 “But as for you who forsake the Lord

and forget my holy mountain,

who spread a table for Fortune

and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny,

12 I will destine you for the sword,

and all of you will fall in the slaughter;

for I called but you did not answer,

I spoke but you did not listen.

You did evil in my sight

and chose what displeases me.”

 

13 Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“My servants will eat,

but you will go hungry;

my servants will drink,

but you will go thirsty;

my servants will rejoice,

but you will be put to shame.

14 My servants will sing

out of the joy of their hearts,

but you will cry out

from anguish of heart

and wail in brokenness of spirit.

15 You will leave your name

for my chosen ones to use in their curses;

the Sovereign Lord will put you to death,

but to his servants he will give another name.

16 Whoever invokes a blessing in the land

will do so by the one true God;

whoever takes an oath in the land

will swear by the one true God.

For the past troubles will be forgotten

and hidden from my eyes.

Points of Interest:

Theology of the Day–A remnant

In yesterday’s passage, God had finally come around to the idea that it’s time to part ways with the people with whom God has most closely been associated until now. I don’t know whether it’s the descendants of the forgetful Israelites wandering in the desert, or the super-religious citizens of Jerusalem, or maybe highly religious people in general that God has in mind. What is clear is that it’s a group of people who is supremely confident that they have God in their pocket, and that confidence has reached a peak at the same time that God’s patience has reached a low point. God is moving on.

In today’s passage, though, God takes a half-step back, to clarify that this rejection of the formerly special people isn’t wholesale. God is building a new people, but God is not indiscriminately throwing 100% of God’s old people out. God is willing, and in fact more than willing, to build from whatever can be salvaged from God’s old people. God actually shows more than the usual care not to throw out the good with the bad; far from one bad apple spoiling the whole barrel in God’s eyes, God makes his way through a whole barrel of bad apples to find one or two good apples worth saving.

bad-apple2-1024x766

Image of the Day–Your name used only as  a curse

Ever wonder why no one names their child ‘Adolf’ anymore? Of course you don’t; you know exactly why. Hitler thoroughly ruined the name for any possible future Adolfs–and for any possible future Hitlers, for that matter. In fact, I just read on Wikipedia that in the Netherlands people already named Adolf changed their names to Dolf after WWII. Very few people want to be associated with Adolf Hitler.

God says that the same will be true of these people who have forsaken God. Their name will be such bad luck that no one wants to use it anymore–at least as a name. Since the word is available, people will use it as an expletive instead.

Wordplay of the Day–Destiny

God’s indulges in a moment of sarcastic humor again: Since you’re such a fan of Destiny, we’ll see how much you like the destiny coming your way.

Good News of the Day–God’s domain expands

Much of the most recent two passages has been focused on God’s painful breakup with God’s people. But it’s not all bad news. While only a remnant of God’s old people stick together with God, that doesn’t mean that God’s people shrinks only to that remnant. As a whole, God’s people are expanding. Over the course of our reading of Isaiah, we’ve talked a lot about the repopulating of one mountain, Zion. Now, we’re spilling over to other mountains, and to a plain and a valley or two as well.

I think the key is that God is done looking at people categorically. God no longer considers God’s old people categorically privileged, but they’re not categorically cursed either. And God doesn’t make some other people group into God’s new special people. Instead, whoever is interested in God and God’s way, wherever and whoever they are, those people become God’s people.

Taking it Home:

For your six: God’s fold seems inviting and expansive and safe.  I would like to be a part of it, and I would like my six to be a part of it as well.  I like that God is willing to take in anyone who is interested.    Ask God to draw your six to himself.  It sounds a little quirky, but try asking God to give your six a desire for God. I’m not entirely sure how it all works when someone starts to have interest in God (is it their own decision? is it God at work? I hear theologians like to debate this); but either way I see no harm in asking God to spark some interest.  Consider asking your six what their interest is (or has been) in connecting with God.

Isaiah 65:1-7

April 14, 2014

65 “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me;

   I was found by those who did not seek me.

To a nation that did not call on my name,

   I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’

2 All day long I have held out my hands

   to an obstinate people,

who walk in ways not good,

   pursuing their own imaginations—

3 a people who continually provoke me

   to my very face,

offering sacrifices in gardens

   and burning incense on altars of brick;

4 who sit among the graves

   and spend their nights keeping secret vigil;

who eat the flesh of pigs,

   and whose pots hold broth of impure meat;

5 who say, ‘Keep away; don’t come near me,

   for I am too sacred for you!’

Such people are smoke in my nostrils,

   a fire that keeps burning all day.

6 “See, it stands written before me:

   I will not keep silent but will pay back in full;

   I will pay it back into their laps—

7 both your sins and the sins of your ancestors,”

   says the Lord.

“Because they burned sacrifices on the mountains

   and defied me on the hills,

I will measure into their laps

   the full payment for their former deeds.”

Points of Interest:

Image of the Day--Smoke in the nostrils

Dealing with these people is, for God, like being in a kitchen just after the toast burned: watery eyes; sneezing and coughing; that acrid burning sensation in the nostrils. It’s unbearable. God has to open the windows, or–better yet–get out of the kitchen.

Ancient Near Eastern Religious Practices of the DayEating the flesh of pigs

What we have in this passage is a veritable tour of places to go and things to do if you are trying to make contact with some other god, any other god, besides this God. Gardens were where you went to worship fertility gods (Motyer, J. Alec. Isaiah, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series, IVP, 1999). Cemeteries were places to practice necromancy (IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 2000). Hilltops and mountaintops were common places for neighboring nations to locate shrines, but God prohibited shrines being built to him in these ‘high places’ (Deuteronomy 12:2). God expressed a strong distaste for pork, but pigs were a proper sacrifice to the Egyptian god Seth (IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, 2000). The altars in this passage are made with brick, but God’s altars are supposed to be made with undressed stones (Exodus 20:25).

egyptian-god-seth

I think the people in this passage are the same ones who are so mistakenly proud of their fasting and sabbath-keeping in chapter 58. Their religious appetite not being satisfied by their attentiveness to their twisted versions of the spiritual practices recommended by God, they are now heaping on any other religious ritual that they can find anywhere. When they’re done, they say, ‘I’m so holy now, no one can even touch me.’ God says, ‘I don’t want to. You’re intolerable.’

Theology of the DaySins of your ancestors

I’m tempted to feel like God is getting a bit carried away when God says that they’ll be punished not only for their own sins, but for the sins of their ancestors as well. Shouldn’t people be held responsible for their own actions? A judge wouldn’t throw me in jail if my father robbed a bank. Maybe crimes aren’t the right analogy for sin, though. Maybe sins are more like debts than crimes. They inherited a pile of debt from their parents, and instead of paying down that debt they’ve racked up new debts of their own. Or another way of looking at it is that their ancestors left them an unbroken string of sin, and when they took over, they kept it going. So, God is holding them to account, not just for their own actions, but for their commitment to keeping the streak alive. Their family are record-holders in sin, and to God it’s not just the individual sins but also the record that matters.

Decision of the Day--I’ll go where I’m wanted

Up until now, God has been working under the assumption that, sure, he and these people have their difficulties, but in the end God is still their God and they are still God’s people. They’re a couple, working on their relationship. But when God sees them slaughtering a pig, on a brick altar, in a hilltop garden–a collection of God’s least favorite things– it all of a sudden dawns on God: maybe they’re just not into me. It’s time to move on, to this new group of people in verse 1, people who actually seem interested in getting to know God better.

not into you

Taking it Home:

For you: I’ll be quick to admit that for better or for worse I want everything I do to be returned with appreciation and gratitude.  I mean I wouldn’t turn down a parade in my honor, even if it happened everyday.  I imagine God to be a bit more level-headed and less narcissistic than myself, but it still seems like God would appreciate some recognition for what he’s done.  Tell God today that you appreciate him; thank God for things he has done, tell God what you like about him.  Maybe even tell God you’re sorry, if you feel like you’ve been failing to notice him.

Isaiah 64:4-12

April 13, 2014

 4 Since ancient times no one has heard,

   no ear has perceived,

no eye has seen any God besides you,

   who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,

   who remember your ways.

But when we continued to sin against them,

   you were angry.

   How then can we be saved?

6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,

   and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;

we all shrivel up like a leaf,

   and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

7 No one calls on your name

   or strives to lay hold of you;

for you have hidden your face from us

   and have given us over to our sins.

8 Yet you, Lord, are our Father.

   We are the clay, you are the potter;

   we are all the work of your hand.

9 Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord;

   do not remember our sins forever.

Oh, look on us, we pray,

   for we are all your people.

10 Your sacred cities have become a wasteland;

   even Zion is a wasteland, Jerusalem a desolation.

11 Our holy and glorious temple, where our ancestors praised you,

   has been burned with fire,

   and all that we treasured lies in ruins.

12 After all this, Lord, will you hold yourself back?

   Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?

Points of Interest:

Theology of the DayThe God who serves

restaurant

God has all the power, and all the authority; and God turns around and uses that authority on behalf of others. That’s pretty unusual. It was unheard of among the other gods Isaiah was familiar with, and it’s even unusual today among people who have lots of power, money, or authority. The basic way it works is that the more power, money, or authority you have, the more people you have who work for you. The weaker ones do what the powerful one needs done. The powerful one may be kind or not, give good bonuses and tips or not; regardless, it’s always the powerful one’s needs being met.

God says, ‘You know, that’s silly. I don’t actually even need anything. How about I help you instead?’ With God, being more powerful and authoritative means working on behalf of more people. God is like a waiter at a busy restaurant. You have to be patient and wait your turn, but if you do God will take good care of you.

Bad Choice of the DayBiting the hand that saves you

In the very midst of the rescue attempt, the people God is trying to rescue bite, and kick, and scratch, and struggle as God tries to pick them up and carry them away. Isaiah asks, ‘How then can we be saved?’ It’s a good question. If someone refuses to be rescued, how can they be rescued?

Image of the DayPotter and clay

pottery

This is the flip side of the God who serves. With idols, the people are the potters and the gods are the clay. With God, it’s the other way around. Despite God’s bias toward serving, the fact is that God does have all the power. The power differential is as big as the one between a sculptor and the clay–even bigger. The clay may not always entirely cooperate with the sculptor; but in the end the sculptor shapes the clay to their purposes, rather than the other way around. I think that Isaiah is, not entirely fairly but perhaps reasonably, suggesting that God stop being so polite. Instead of asking, ‘Do you know what you would like to order?’ God should serve us a plate of salvation and make us eat it. It may be the only way.

Taking it Home:

For you:  Five weeks down, and one more to go.  How’s this season of prayer (and fasting?) going for you? Do you feel like you’re waiting at the table, hungry and wondering when on earth the waiter will come to get your order? Or do you feel more like clay with God choosing to form and sculpt you in a specific way? Take some time to reflect on what you’re learning and what you’ve been praying for.  Tell God that you’re up for the wait and that you’re willing to be clay-like.

Isaiah 63:15-64:3

April 12, 2014

15 Look down from heaven and see,

   from your lofty throne, holy and glorious.

Where are your zeal and your might?

   Your tenderness and compassion are withheld from us.

16 But you are our Father,

   though Abraham does not know us

   or Israel acknowledge us;

you, Lord, are our Father,

   our Redeemer from of old is your name.

17 Why, Lord, do you make us wander from your ways

   and harden our hearts so we do not revere you?

Return for the sake of your servants,

   the tribes that are your inheritance.

18 For a little while your people possessed your holy place,

   but now our enemies have trampled down your sanctuary.

19 We are yours from of old;

   but you have not ruled over them,

   they have not been called by your name.

64 Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,

   that the mountains would tremble before you!

2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze

   and causes water to boil,

come down to make your name known to your enemies

   and cause the nations to quake before you!

3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,

   you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.

Points of Interest:

Flashback of the DayEnemies in the sanctuary

Just when I think we’re confidently striding into the New Zion era–the Servant has done his work, the ‘Grand Opening’ banner is hung, the nations are streaming in, foreigners and kings are joining in, God is doing whatever it takes to clear any last impediments to people making it there–we’re yanked backwards to the times when foreigners didn’t know God’s name and to images of the Babylonians (and their Edomite henchmen) ransacking the pre-renovation temple.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts (1850).

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, by David Roberts (1850).

Are Isaiah’s Judean listeners having a hard time tracking with the grand story Isaiah is telling: ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s all very nice. But what we want to know is, when is God going to kick the Babylonians out of the temple?’ Apparently, ‘It already happened, in chapter 48,’ is not a satisfactory answer.

Or maybe these are different enemies, merely modeled after the Babylonian conquerors. Perhaps it’s the drunken shepherds from chapter 56, who haven’t yet been removed from their positions and are stomping around the temple like a bunch of Edomites. Or maybe a new set of enemies has popped up, foxes in the henhouse just when we thought everything was safe and orderly.

Either Isaiah’s listeners aren’t keeping up, or we have a plot twist. I’m not sure which one.

Theology of the DayHardened hearts

God’s people here claim that God is ‘making them’ wander and ‘hardening’ their hearts. I’d be tempted to chalk this up to just another effort to shift the blame for their situation from themselves to God: ‘Well, we would have stayed on the right path if you just gave better directions!’ And that may very well be what’s going on. But maybe not. A couple of times in the Bible, most famously with the Pharaoh of Egypt during the Israelite escape (cf. Exodus 4:21), God admits to hardening someone’s heart against him so that God can punish them.

To me, that sounds an awful lot like cheating. Using your supernatural powers to make someone mad at you so that you can be angry back would be like grabbing someone’s wrist, forcing them to slap you in the face, and then slapping them back.

I wonder, though, if there’s a less magical, more relational way to look at this whole idea of hardening someone’s heart. Say I’m in a simmering conflict with a friend. There are things I could say that would turn the temperature down on the situation–things that would soften their heart toward me. There are other things I could say that would send the situation straight into full boil. Sometimes, in a sort of blind anger, I do the thing that propels us toward boil. Sometimes, in my better moments, I choose to say the thing that turns the temperature down. In the most difficult situations, I know what will soften the situation, and I know what will harden it, and I have the self-control to choose; but for whatever reason I feel that, this time, I just can’t afford to say the thing that will dial us down. Peacemaking can’t be my highest priority here. I wonder if that’s what going on with God and Pharaoh. Maybe it’s not so much that God is waving a wand and making Pharaoh do something he doesn’t want to do; it’s just that God is going to say something that God knows Pharaoh will really hate.

Maybe that’s what’s going on with God’s people in this passage as well. It’s not so much that God drives them off the road, as that God is doing something that irritates them, such that they tromp off in a fit of pique. And this time God won’t, or can’t, make it easier on them.

Taking it Home:

For our city:  Most of my prayers have a central focus; it’s often myself. I’m struck in this passage, and so many others, that all of these prayers or conversations (or in this case frustrated bickering) begin with ‘we’. They’re collective cries and pleas, and the concept seems so foreign to me.  Take some time to pray for our city, however instead of praying for it as a distant object or other entity, pray for it using only the plural pronoun.  As you spend time out and about in the city, think of yourself as a part of it, connected to it and affected by the collective whole.

Isaiah 63:7-14

April 11, 2014

7 I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,

   the deeds for which he is to be praised,

   according to all the Lord has done for us—

yes, the many good things

   he has done for Israel,

   according to his compassion and many kindnesses.

8 He said, “Surely they are my people,

   children who will be true to me”;

   and so he became their Savior.

9 In all their distress he too was distressed,

   and the angel of his presence saved them.

In his love and mercy he redeemed them;

   he lifted them up and carried them

   all the days of old.

10 Yet they rebelled

   and grieved his Holy Spirit.

So he turned and became their enemy

   and he himself fought against them.

11 Then his people recalled the days of old,

   the days of Moses and his people—

where is he who brought them through the sea,

   with the shepherd of his flock?

Where is he who set

   his Holy Spirit among them,

12 who sent his glorious arm of power

   to be at Moses’ right hand,

who divided the waters before them,

   to gain for himself everlasting renown,

13 who led them through the depths?

Like a horse in open country,

   they did not stumble;

14 like cattle that go down to the plain,

   they were given rest by the Spirit of the Lord.

This is how you guided your people

   to make for yourself a glorious name.

Points of Interest:

Dramatic Change of Tone of the DayGod’s many kindnesses

In yesterday’s passage, God and/or the Servant showed their willingness to do the dirty work involved in a rescue attempt, if necessary. But they don’t relish the task. They’re not looking around for more objects of wrath. As soon as they can, they shift their attention back to their main job of looking for people to show kindness and compassion. The anger is carefully measured out, but the kindness is bottomless.

Bible History Lesson of the DayForgetful people

Perhaps it’s understandable, after a passage like yesterday’s, that Isaiah would feel the need to remind himself and his listeners of God’s kindness. And, what do you know, as he looks back on God’s history with the Israelites, what he sees is not the story of an angry God, but of a gracious–though sometimes exasperated–God and a forgetful people. Again and again, God would rescue the Israelites from some difficulty; they’d thank God for it, and things would go along well for a while. But whenever they came across a new problem, it’s like that new problem completely pushed out of their minds the help they just received from God. Instead of remembering God’s help, they ask, ‘What are we going to do?’ or even, ‘Where is God?’ or, ‘Why doesn’t God ever do anything?’

Forgetful-Batch

This happened just after the Crossing of the Red Sea. God miraculously extracts them from slavery, walks them through the sea, and protects them from a pursuing army. When they get to the other side of the Red Sea, they realize they’re in a desert; there’s not enough food for them. They panic, and yell out, ‘Is God just going to let us die here?’ They don’t end up dying from starvation, but that isn’t the last time–by a long shot–that they panic or complain as they walk through the desert. The same thing happens again when the Israelites settle into the Promised Land. Continually, when there’s a drought or they’re having trouble with their neighbors or something, they say, ‘God’s never around when you need him,’ and they start worshipping the neighbors’ idols instead, which never helps the situation.

Eventually, someone thinks, ‘You know what, I vaguely recall that God’s been pretty good at helping us out of these predicaments in the past. Maybe we should ask God for help.’ And it’s like God has had an ear cocked listening for those exact words. God comes to the rescue: sending miraculous bread in the desert, kicking out the encroaching neighbors, sending rain.

All God needed was to be asked. And all the people needed to do was remember to ask.

Taking it Home:

For you: I self-righteously think, ‘If I ever walked through a parted sea–even just a small lake for that matter–there is no way that I would ever ever forget that.’ I look down on the Israelites constantly. And later, I am always humbled.  Following Isaiah’s advice to the Israelites, take sometime to remember the past. I’d suggest just starting with a year, but go as far back as five if you’d like.  Write down every good thing you can remember: things you are thankful for, answered prayers, etc.  Look back on the list and take time to remember, contemplate, and thank God for the things he has done.

Isaiah 63:1-6

April 10, 2014

63 Who is this coming from Edom,

   from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson?

Who is this, robed in splendor,

   striding forward in the greatness of his strength?

“It is I, proclaiming victory,

   mighty to save.”

2 Why are your garments red,

   like those of one treading the winepress?

3 “I have trodden the winepress alone;

   from the nations no one was with me.

I trampled them in my anger

   and trod them down in my wrath;

their blood spattered my garments,

   and I stained all my clothing.

4 It was for me the day of vengeance;

   the year for me to redeem had come.

5 I looked, but there was no one to help,

   I was appalled that no one gave support;

so my own arm achieved salvation for me,

   and my own wrath sustained me.

6 I trampled the nations in my anger;

   in my wrath I made them drunk

   and poured their blood on the ground.”

Points of Interest:

Geography and History Lesson of the DayEdom and Bozrah

Edom (aka Esau) was Jacob’s semi-estranged twin brother. The two of them mostly went their own way in life, and when they did happen to run into one another it was always a bit tense. The nations descended from each of them ended up with a similar relationship to that of the two brothers. The people of Edom settled just to the south of Judah; Bozrah was their capital.

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I don’t know whether Edom is mentioned here just to bring some local color to this image of the striding giant warrior, if Edom is a stand-in for all of Jerusalem’s enemies, or if Edom particularly gets God’s ire. Apparently, during the famous conquest and exile which serves as the backdrop for our Isaiah readings, the Edomites had joined the Babylonian army and played something of a central role in that army’s sacking of Jerusalem (Obadiah 1:8-12). When they should have had a brotherly response to Judah’s misfortune, they instead celebrate it and even side with the enemy.

If I were to look at it from the Edomites’ direction, I might call this a tad bit unfair. Jacob was far more likely to steal Esau’s food than the other way around (see Genesis 27:18-35, for instance). And later on in history, David–the king of Israel and Judah–conquered Edom, and they were a Judean vassal state all the way until the time of the Babylonians 400 years later. So, it’s not like they primarily played the bully role in the relationship.

I guess God is kind of like a parent when two of their kids are fighting: ‘I don’t care who hit whom first. You’re both grounded.’

Grisly Moment of the DayThat’s an interesting shade of red ...

When the warrior is seen from far away, it looks like they’re wearing one of those new splendor garments; the fabric has a really interesting pattern, in a vaguely familiar shade of red. As the warrior gets closer, the watchers start to think, ‘Maybe it’s actually not splendor at all. I think that’s a wine spill.’ Finally, in a dreadful moment, it becomes clear that that’s not wine at all; the warrior is spattered with blood.

Theology of the DayVengeance

You may remember from Monday’s passage that the Servant’s mission is two-pronged: bring about (1) the year of God’s favor, and (2) the day of God’s vengeance. I have to say that, at first blush, I’d be more comfortable if, as in Jesus’ reading of it in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:18-19), part 2 were simply left out. I don’t think it can quite work that way, though. Good news for the poor may feel a lot more like bad news to the rich. Rescuing a prisoner means robbing the guards. If you’re going to protect the caravan, it means killing the wild dogs. Retribution for those who’ve been robbed or cheated means punishing the thieves and bullies. Salvation and vengeance are two sides of the same coin.

I’m comforted by the fact that God’s favor lasts a year, and God’s vengeance goes on for only a day.

Also, it seems like everyone has a choice about the side of the coin they will see. Whether you’re the object of God’s favor or God’s wrath isn’t pre-determined. A foreigner who treats others well gets rewarded by God; an Israelite who uses the sabbath to abuse the wait staff faces punishment. God is committed to moving people down the highway to the new city he is building. Anyone who gets on the road, stays on it, and helps others along gets God’s protection and provision. Anyone who puts up roadblocks better beware; God very well could get God’s people safely home over your dead body.

Taking it Home:

For your six: Even if it kind of, sort of, logically makes sense that compassion and vengeance are different sides of the same coin, I still just don’t really like it.  I’d like it to be compassion and more compassion; compassion all around.  It’s just one of those things about God that’s hard for me to get.  I really don’t want to hear about anyone’s blood being smattered on anyone.  Are there things that are hard or confusing for your six as they each relate to God? Ask God to make a way through any roadblocks your six might have when they think about relating to God.

Isaiah 62:6-12

April 9, 2014

6 I have posted watchmen on your walls, Jerusalem;

   they will never be silent day or night.

You who call on the Lord,

   give yourselves no rest,

7 and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem

   and makes her the praise of the earth.

8 The Lord has sworn by his right hand

   and by his mighty arm:

“Never again will I give your grain

   as food for your enemies,

and never again will foreigners drink the new wine

   for which you have toiled;

9 but those who harvest it will eat it

   and praise the Lord,

and those who gather the grapes will drink it

   in the courts of my sanctuary.”

10 Pass through, pass through the gates!

   Prepare the way for the people.

Build up, build up the highway!

   Remove the stones.

Raise a banner for the nations.

11 The Lord has made proclamation

   to the ends of the earth:

“Say to Daughter Zion,

   ‘See, your Savior comes!

See, his reward is with him,

   and his recompense accompanies him.’”

12 They will be called the Holy People,

   the Redeemed of the Lord;

and you will be called Sought After,

   the City No Longer Deserted.

Points of Interest:

Image of the DayChattering watchmen

I don’t know who ‘I’ is at the beginning of this passage, the Servant or God, but one or the other of them hires watchmen to the task of pestering God. Every few minutes, they’re supposed to yell out, ‘I still don’t see anything,’ and then, ‘No, still nothing,’ and after a brief pause, ‘Important update: nothing’s happening.’ It’s a whole crew of them, so that they can work around-the-clock shifts until God acts.

I think the point is to nudge God more in the ‘quickly’ direction, over the ‘when it happens’ side of the equation.

Promise of the DayThe one who does the work gets the reward

This feels like a small but important promise from God: freedom from the bullies and the oblivious.

Imagine a patient and industrious wine-lover. They grow the grapes all the way from vine cuttings. They wait all season until the grapes are perfectly ripe. They press the grapes, let them ferment, age the wine, bottle it, and wait for the perfect occasion to uncork that first bottle–only before they ever get the chance to taste it someone else comes along and, either out of malice or simply out of ignorance, gulps down the whole bottle. Maybe you feel like something like that has happened to you one time or another. Maybe you feel like it’s the story of your life.

God’s promise here is that that will never happen again. You don’t need to be afraid of being scooped. There’s no need to pre-emptively gulp it down yourself, no need to install a security system for the wine cellar. You will have the chance to savor the fruits of your labor, at your leisure.

Announcement of the DayOpen for business

Send out the news, have a banner made, hire people to wear those sandwich boards and hand out fliers. Let everyone know, ‘God’s new Zion is now open for business.’

open-rwb

Jerusalem’s Nickname of the DayDaughter Zion

Isaiah keeps piling on the images to describe just how dear Zion is to God. It’s like God is a famous architect, and Zion is God’s masterpiece. No, it’s more like Zion is the love of God’s life, and it’s their wedding day. Or maybe God is a doting parent, and Zion is God’s favorite daughter.

Taking it Home:

For our church:  I think there are ways where our church feels like the watchman: waiting, and looking, checking the clock, walking in circles, and keeping our eyes peeled; waiting to see God act and fulfill promises made to our community of faith.  Talk to God about church. Are there promises you feel like God has made to our church? Remind God about them.  Would you like to see God act in a specific way in our church?  Tell God so.  As we get closer to the end of Lent, ask God to act quickly and in an affectionate-Zion-loving way toward our church in the year ahead.


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