a sermon on Isaiah 51:1-6
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on August 24, 2014
The exile had come to an end, and the people of Judah were finally returning home. It had been a long forty years since a substantial group had been forced to leave Jerusalem and go to Babylon, and even though that first generation of exiles had largely died, the continuing generations did not let go of the hope of returning home that had been shared with them. But what would they find there? They knew that Jerusalem had already been largely destroyed during the multiyear siege that predated their forced departure, and they had to suspect that things had been left to decay even further, that the symbols of their culture and faith, especially the temple, would have been completely destroyed.
So as they made their way home, the prophet Isaiah knew that they needed some words of encouragement. He started out by calling out to get their attention. There was so much going on around them, so many things to distract them, so many things to keep them from being able to catch this new word, so much that would make it easy to ignore what he had to say, yet they so needed to hear him. Once he had gotten their attention, he pointed them to the past, offering reminders of how they had made it through all of the struggles that they had faced along the way in hopes that they would be inspired amidst the new challenges ahead.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Isaiah made it clear that all the stories of the past still mattered. Everything that would emerge from this time of transition and change would be rooted in what they knew very well, in God’s continuing faithfulness from generation to generation. The stones of their life together might be cut and chiseled and shaped in new ways, but they wouldn’t miss that it was all from the same rock.
The prophet continued by directly invoking the story of Abraham and Sarah. Just as God’s faithfulness broke through the bleak desperation of their lives in giving them a son after years of barrenness, so God would make a new way for them as they returned from exile. They too could count on God for amazing faithfulness, to comfort Zion amidst continuing distress and change, to transform the wilderness and desert into the lush beauty of Eden, and to show them a way of joy, gladness, and thanksgiving for the journey home.
In our world these days, we too need the prophet to remind us of the rock from which we are hewn. We certainly may not have all the burdens of the returning exiles, but there is plenty that weighs on our hearts in these days. Our world is filled with much strife and sorrow: war in too many places, conflict that simmers and so easily boils over, the devastation of infection attacking people and places in our world that already face incredible struggle, people who face persecution or death because of their confession or the color of their skin. All the pain and hurt is enough to make you want to move as far away from it all as possible. But then we still face the grief that emerges so close to home on days like today, when we mourn the death of one of our own and carry all the other concerns that weigh on our hearts and minds each and every day. There is so much to distract us from the source of all things, from “the rock from which [we] were hewn,” from the one who bore us into this life and who journeys with us every step of the way.
So when the prophet invites the exiles of Judah to listen, he might just be speaking to us too. He might just be offering us a memory of God’s promises that we have experienced in our own lives. He might just be giving us a reminder of God’s presence amidst all that weights on our hearts. He might be showing us a way of comfort amidst all the pain of our lives. And he might just be giving us hope for new life when we find ourselves in our own desert places, places where joy and gladness can blossom abundantly and thanksgiving and rejoicing will spring forth.
The prophet might have stopped there, thinking that comfort would be enough to get the returning exiles through their first days back home. But the comfort and hope we have in God is not the end of the story—there is more still ahead. These promises, this comfort, this new life—all these things are not just for self-preservation but rather are given so that they may be shared. As much as the returning exiles were desperately desiring the fullness of God’s hope for themselves, they also needed to share it with others. All their actions in rebuilding the city, in reshaping their life together, in restoring God’s promises in their midst, would help demonstrate God’s salvation and God’s hope to others in the world who needed to see these things for themselves.
Just as the exiles had waited so patiently and hopefully for God’s new life to emerge in their midst, so the prophet said that even “the coastlands wait” for this good news and that God’s salvation will reach to every shore. All the new things ahead would not just be for the benefit of the returning exiles—they would be for the blessing of all creation. These new things would replace the old in a dramatic transformation:
the heavens will vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and those who live on it will die like gnats.
But this was not the end but rather a beginning, the beginning of a world where God’s “salvation will be forever,” where the old things, as good as they might have been, will be replaced with something far greater.
Just as the prophet’s words of comfort and confidence speak to both the exiles and us, his words of challenge call to us as well. Amidst all that weighs us down, amidst all that distracts us from God’s new thing, amidst all that keeps us focused only on ourselves as we seek God’s comfort in our lives and our world, we too are called to bear God’s new life into the world. We are called to share the teaching and justice of God with all people and to work to make it real here and now. The faithfulness of God that sustains us also calls us to share that faithfulness with others, to share our confidence that God’s salvation and new life will prevail amidst everything that changes, to make God’s deliverance clear here and now and forever.
So amidst all the things that weigh us down in these days, with death and sadness and pain near and far, with all creation crying out for a new way, God’s promise of comfort and new life resounds loud and clear, inviting us to make these things real not just for ourselves but for all people, reminding us to return to the source of our being and find the hope of new life.
So amidst all the challenge of these days, amidst the pain and hurt and sorrow of our lives, amidst the war and strife of our world, may we return to our roots, look back to that rock from which we are hewn, find our comfort in God’s promises, and share this hope of new life with all the world each and every day. And when we struggle to hear and live amidst all the noise around us, may the rock of our salvation, the comfort that comes from God alone, and the promise of new life in Jesus Christ our Lord, bring us back to our faithful God, who promises to bring us comfort and peace and to make all things new. Thanks be to God. Amen.