By Bryan Owen
The Old Testament passage from Isaiah this morning is about new beginnings. After nearly 60 years, a new day is dawning for God’s people. You may recall that in the 6th Century B.C., the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem and demolished the temple, effectively ending the Davidic monarchy. They removed the Israelites from their homes, hauling many of them off to a place whose language, customs, and religious practices were alien. Losing the land, the monarchy, and the temple, the Babylonian Exile destroyed the outward and visible signs of God’s presence and favor. The feelings of abandonment and desolation for the Israelites must have been overwhelming.
The exile also created a religious crisis. As one source puts it:
“The exile was unexplainable; Hebrew history was built on the promise of Yahweh to protect the Hebrews and use them for his purposes in human history. Their defeat and the loss of the land promised to them by Yahweh seemed to imply that their faith in this promise was misplaced.”
It’s true: going all the way back to Abraham, God had repeatedly promised that the Israelites would be an eternal nation through whom all the peoples on earth would be blessed. And now everything was in shambles. Could God no longer be trusted? Had God abandoned his people and broken his promises? Was there really no hope for the future? Wrestling with such questions must have underscored the people’s loss of identity, meaning, purpose, and hope.
It took a long time, but thanks be to God, exile was not the end of the story. The good news is that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ — is a God of life-renewing surprises. For even in the midst of the darkness and desolation of exile, God was up to something new and wonderful beyond imagining. We can hear that transition from despair to hope in the very first words of today’s Isaiah passage: “But now.”
Yes, God acknowledges that things have been hard. And yes, God knows that the people have wondered what in the world is going to happen next and whether God’s love and vision for the future will carry the day. But now the answer is clear.
After two generations of exile, the prophet Isaiah announces a startling, world-changing reversal. God remains faithful to his promises. And now God is sweeping away the sorrows that have come before. The time has come to liberate the Israelites from a land of oppression and false gods, raising them to new life. God initiates that resurrection with words that reaffirm the special, intimate relationship he has with his people, while also offering comfort and hope for the future.
“Do not be afraid, for I am with you,” God says through the prophet Isaiah (43:5). And “God responds head-on to the needs of a people with low self-image, who feel dishonored and unloved”: “I am your Maker. I have called you by name. You are mine, my precious possession in all of creation. I love you. I will make sacrifices to insure your good. And I will gather you up and restore you to fullness of life.” (See Jo Bailey Wells, Isaiah [The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2006], pp. 136-137.)
It’s important to note that these are not just words to a group of people who lived over 2,000 years ago. Holy Scripture is not a collection of relics pointing to a dead past. On the contrary, God’s Word is living and active. And through this Word, God continues to speak to his people in whatever situation we find ourselves.
It may not be as cataclysmic as the Babylonian Exile, but the truth is, all of us go through times of spiritual exile. It happens to us as individuals, but also as families, and even as church families. These can be times when familiar ways of doing things just don’t work anymore. Or times when we feel let down or hurt by things done or left undone. Times when we grieve a loss. Times when God feels distant and we don’t know what to believe or even if we feel like going to church anymore. Times when we’re just not sure what the future holds in store, and we’re gripped by anxiety and fear.
In the midst of all these changes and chances of life, what we hear from God through the prophet Isaiah remains an unchanging truth that we can count on: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” Bidden or unbidden, God is always present — creating, redeeming, and sustaining. God’s love and forgiveness are greater than our fears and doubts. And God’s promise of a glorious future of life and joy will find fulfillment.
How can we trust that this is really true? On what basis dare we claim that this is, in fact, what we can count on even when other things in our lives seem to contradict it?
We can trust the truth that we need not fear for the future, that God is always with us creating new life, and that God’s gracious will shall prevail because of Jesus Christ. By humbling himself to share in our humanity, submitting to baptism as a sign of his solidarity with us in our brokenness (even though he himself was without sin), by willingly giving himself over to death on the cross for the sins of the world, and by rising from death to incorruptible life, Jesus Christ is the clearest expression of God’s unambiguous promise that because he lives, we too shall live. In the risen Jesus, God’s new creation is dawning. And we who are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection share that victorious hope.
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” our Lord says in the Gospel according to St. John (10:10). Abundant life. Joy. New possibilities. Healing. Stronger lives of faith in community with each other. A well-founded hope for a wonderful future. All of these are ours to claim and live in Jesus Christ.
We won’t do it perfectly. We’ll try some things and discover that they don’t work as well as we’d like and we’ll have to try again. We’ll make mistakes. And no doubt, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice patience and forgiveness with one another.
But God’s will for joy and renewed vitality in the mission and ministry of the Church will continue to unfold — not because of what we have done to deserve or to earn it, but because God is God. And as we see in Jesus, God is faithful and so very good.
The Rev. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s, Baton Rouge, La.