Isaiah 41:14-20 – For Such a Worm as I

Do not fear, you worm Jacob,
    you insect Israel!
I will help you, says the Lord;
    your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
Now, I will make of you a threshing sledge,
    sharp, new, and having teeth;
you shall thresh the mountains and crush them,
    and you shall make the hills like chaff.
You shall winnow them and the wind shall carry them away,
    and the tempest shall scatter them.
Then you shall rejoice in the Lord;
    in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory.

When the poor and needy seek water,
    and there is none,
    and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
    I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
I will open rivers on the bare heights,
    and fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
    and the dry land springs of water.
I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
    the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;
I will set in the desert the cypress,
    the plane and the pine together,
so that all may see and know,
    all may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
    the Holy One of Israel has created it. (NRSV)

Each morning I rise and read God’s Holy Word. It is a discipline I have been doing for over forty years. In the past few years, I have begun reading more slowly and with greater contemplation – because the goal is not to check off having read some verses on a Bible reading plan. The aim is to connect meaningfully with God. The desired result is to hear the voice of the Lord, and to let the Scriptures do their incredible work in our hearts.

One of the ways I connect with Scripture, after having read the verses for the day several times, is to write it in my own words…

“My dear servant, there is no need whatsoever to worry yourself,

though others say about you,

            ‘That guy is nothing, only a wormy maggot!’

I am your holy God,

            who saves and protects you.

I’ll let you be like a big ol’ log

            covered with sharp spikes.

You will grind and crush

every mountain and hill in front of you

            until they turn to dust.

A strong wind will scatter the dust of unholy jerks

            in all directions.

Then you will celebrate

and praise me, your Lord,

            the holy God who watches your life.

When your financial budget no longer budges

and your bank accounts lie empty

            and you have no idea where to turn,

I, your Lord, and your God

will come to your rescue.

            I will not forget you.

I will make rivers of abundance flow

            on the desolate mountain peaks of your life.

I will send streams of life

to fill your empty valley of life’s tribulations.

Dry and barren places in your life

will flow with springs

            and become a lake of grace and goodness.

I will fill the parched desert areas of your needy life

            with all kinds of fruitful trees –

apple trees, olive trees, fig trees,

oak and walnut, elm and maple, fir, and pine,

like in the original garden,

all your needs will be met in and through me, your God.

Everyone will see this

            and know that I,

the holy Yahweh God whom you love and serve,

            created every bit of it.”

Whichever way we choose to view ourselves, as worm and insect, or as majestic person in the image of God, the spiritual reality continually before us is that the Lord will provide, bless, and care for us. We are the recipients of God’s gracious salvation. Although many modern hymnals do not include Isaac Watt’s, At the Cross, and if they do, the original words have been changed – it matters little. Because the action of deliverance belongs to God, and neither to you nor me. And even though we seem but lowly worms next to God, the Lord chooses to treat us with deference, accommodation, and care. Any low view of self is quickly eradicated in the face of such divine love.

Stanza 1:

Alas! and did my Savior bleed?

And did my Sov’reign die?

Would He devote that sacred head

For such a worm as I? 

Chorus:

At the cross, at the cross,

Where I first saw the light,

And the burden of my heart rolled away –

It was there by faith I received my sight,

And now I am happy all the day. 

By Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and published in 1707.

Isaiah 49:5-15 – Restoration

Even before I was born,
    the Lord God chose me
to serve him and to lead back
    the people of Israel.
So the Lord has honored me
    and made me strong.

Now the Lord says to me,
“It isn’t enough for you
    to be merely my servant.
You must do more than lead back
survivors
from the tribes
    of Israel.
I have placed you here as a light
    for other nations;
you must take my saving power
    to everyone on earth.

Israel, I am the holy Lord God,
    the one who rescues you.
You are slaves of rulers
and of a nation
    who despises you.
Now this is what I promise:
Kings and rulers will honor you
    by kneeling at your feet.
You can trust me! I am your Lord,
the holy God of Israel,
    and you are my chosen ones.”

This is what the Lord says:
    “I will answer your prayers
because I have set a time
when I will help
    by coming to save you.
I have chosen you
to take my promise of hope
    to other nations.
You will rebuild the country
    from its ruins,
then people will come
    and settle there.
You will set prisoners free
from dark dungeons
    to see the light of day.

On their way home,
they will find plenty to eat,
    even on barren hills.
They won’t go hungry
    or get thirsty;
they won’t be bothered
by the scorching sun
    or hot desert winds.
I will be merciful
while leading them along
    to streams of water.
I will level the mountains
    and make roads.
Then my people will return
    from distant lands
in the north and the west
    and from the city of Syene.

Tell the heavens and the earth
    to celebrate and sing;
command every mountain
    to join in the song.”
The Lord’s people have suffered,
but he has shown mercy
    and given them comfort.

The people of Zion said,
“The Lord has turned away
    and forgotten us.”

The Lord answered,
“Could a mother forget a child
    who nurses at her breast?
Could she fail to love an infant
    who came from her own body?
Even if a mother could forget,
    I will never forget you.” (CEV)

Restoration is a major theme in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In today’s lesson, God speaks of bringing Israel back to her original calling and purpose. This would be accomplished through the nation of Israel and focused upon God’s Servant, the Lord’s Messiah. The scope and vision of what the Savior would do is enunciated by God: rescue people, lead them home, and show unending mercy. The Servant of the Lord is made a light for the nations so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Messiah is more than a Jewish thing. The Christian tradition discerns Jesus as the Servant, the Savior of both Jews, and Gentiles – Christ is given to reach the entire planet. The incarnation of Christ was meant for more than gathering Israel together, as if it were some sort of Bill Gaither Homecoming tour. Rather, Messiah’s place and power is so significant that it is to be shared with everyone in the world.  Although Israel was to be a holy entity and separate from the surrounding culture, their mandate had always been to be a light to the nations.

This has great import for Christ’s Church and every individual believer in Jesus. The church is much more than a country club which only caters to club functions and members. The church is a missional community with an outward focus, as well. It has always been God’s vision to reach the nations. The Lord wants more than one group of people; God wants everyone. Along with caring for its own, the church is designed as a missionary enterprise which puts significant resources into shining the light of Christ to every nook and cranny of creation.

However, we are a wounded people living in a culture whose first response to differing voices is to accuse, attack, and injure. Our hurts are carried by all of us collectively and personally, and it gives rise to bitterness, isolation, and resentment. When our hope runs dry, we become marked by cynicism, apathy, and escapism.

The vision of Isaiah gives us an alternative approach. Reflection on God’s mercy, salvation, and loving guidance leads to repentance; repentance of our unholy thoughts, words, and deeds leads to a restoration of our true calling as missionaries of faith, hope, and love to the broken world around us. Restoration brings healing of the stresses and anxieties that plague our planet, and ourselves. 

Since God has a missionary heart, all of God’s people are missionaries to the world. It behooves each believer, then, to be taught, trained, and led into God’s restorative mission to the nations. Let us build caring relationships and extend loving actions both to those within the church and toward those outside of Christian fellowship so that God’s intentions are carried out. For we know that not one person on planet earth is forgotten by God.

Restoring God, you bring us back to close relation and fellowship so that we might extend your gracious purposes throughout the world.  Revive us again, God, so that we can hear your call to the nations through our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Isaiah 11:1-10 – All I Want for Christmas Is a Savior

Welcome, friends! Advent is upon us. May this season spark faith, increase hope, stir up love, and surprise the world with joy. Click the video below and let us acknowledge the coming of the Christ child…

Isaiah 11:1-10

For the Scripture set to song…

And for a traditional Advent hymn…

Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus by Shannon Wexelberg

May the light of Christ lead us to the joy of his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 11:1-10 – All I Want for Christmas Is a Savior

The Lion and the Lamb by Aaron Spong

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

 The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

In that day, the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:1-10, NIV)

Christians believe Isaiah’s prophecy to speak of Jesus in whom all these virtues exist in wonderful perfection and practice. Jesus Christ has so clearly identified with us that we are in a vital union with him.  He still exists here on earth in the person of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was sent by the Father.  With the Father and the Son, the Spirit was sent to press the redemptive events of Jesus into the believer’s heart.  This is basic Trinitarian theology.  Yet these are not abstract ideas.  Prayer, discernment, and listening are the pathways forward to discovering the wisdom, counsel, and knowledge we need to live and serve well as Christians.

In some quarters of Christianity, the church exists as a mere stump of its former existence. For many Christians, daily experience of the Spirit has been supplanted by individual ingenuity, hard work, and getting ahead through accumulation of more and more.  Basic Christian spirituality then becomes a mere shadow of its former influence.  If we desire the Spirit of the Lord to rest upon us, we will seek Christ as our foremost importance.  

Indeed, it is when we are worn down to a stump and have no ability to grow or sustain life anymore that God enters, specializing in giving hope to the hopeless, justice for the poor, wisdom to the confused, and peace to all who desire a harmonious world.

In the awful feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, there is a faint sign of life. A fresh shoot becomes discernible. Could there be possibility amidst such impossible circumstances? Can there be life again? Do I dare hope again? Will things really change, and do so for the better?

The answer is “yes.” For where the Spirit of the Lord blows there is the force of resurrection power, spiritual energy, and fresh courage. Where others see only three-dimensional impossibilities, the believer has the capacity of faith to see multi-dimensional possibilities. The Spirit’s force generates possibility where none existed before. When the breath of God whispers to the sprout in the stump, pessimistic despair turns to optimistic hope, even joy.

Jesus Christ is the Christian’s hope. In Christ, there is security, well-being, and life. With Jesus, there is a vision of justice in which all persons receive what they need to live, thrive, and flourish in God’s world. Christ operates to our advantage and on our behalf without the personal greed and indifference of so many earthly rulers. The weak and vulnerable have a champion in Jesus. Renewal and restoration become very real possibilities.

I have lately taken a liking to a show called “The Repair Shop,” a British television series in which family heirlooms which have sentimental value for their owners are carefully restored by experts. What captivates me about the show is how one person can take an old broken-down item (and by all appearances now a piece of junk) and restore it to its once glorious newness.

There is more to my captivation of the show. I am struck by the sheer pleasure the restorers take in handling the old object, enjoying the process. Just by the looks on their faces, I can tell they consider it a privilege to be restoring such a precious object of the past.

Artisan Steve Fletcher restoring an 18th century French clock

I am sure this is precisely how God feels with us. Rather than envisioning the Lord as some reluctant deity who feels put out with having to rescue a bunch of dumb and wayward people, God is One who has delight in taking this old stump of fallen damaged humanity and restoring us to our original luster and beauty. Transformation is God’s specialty, and the Lord goes about the process of restoration with great care and delight.

The impossible possibility of God’s new creation is poetically described in the peaceful co-existence of animals and creatures who are inconceivably together without fear or violence. There is a time coming when death will be no more, and so, the necessity in this life of hunter and prey shall be forever negated. No more snakes terrorizing women and children. No more big fishes eating little ones. No more human fat cats preying upon and striking poison on the smaller and vulnerable.

The presence of the godly Ruler means the world will be governed rightly, detoxified of its sinful impurities; a place where the poor, the weak, and the little lambs will indeed be safe and secure forever. There will be peace because of the Prince of Peace. All creation will be full of God, and thus, free of all malice.

This beautiful prophecy from Isaiah envisions a deep, radical, limitless transformation in which there will be no more appetite to injure another; no more desire to devour another; no more lust for selfish control of another; and no more destructive passion for domination over others.

It is a thorough renovation of the human heart, human institutions, the animal kingdom, and even every blade of grass in creation. The Apostle Paul had this grand vision of God in mind when he wrote to the Church at Rome:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope thatthe creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23, NIV)

The implication for us as humanity was voiced by Paul to the Colossian Church:

Now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:8-11, NIV)

The transformation is all-pervasive, impacting everything public while also being intimately personal. It is a gift from God; it is the impossible made possible. And it is this precise thing which we acknowledge, celebrate, and long for in the season of Advent. When the angel came to Mary and communicated that Isaiah’s vision was coming to reality through her womb, Mary astonishingly retorted:

“How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel, with supreme confidence, answered Mary as a matter of fact:

“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…. For no word from God will ever fail.”

Mary’s response gives voice to our own desires and longings for the new order of things:

“I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:34-38, NIV)

This is our confession, too. I am the Lord’s servant. You are the Lord’s servant. May God’s word to us about the coming of Christ be fulfilled, just as Isaiah has said. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus on a bright starry night.