Today we come to the last reading from the Old Testament prophets in our narrative walk through the Bible. We started out with Amos, that prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah who went to the northern kingdom of Israel, criticized the economic system there, and said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We then went to Isaiah, a prophet who lived in Jerusalem during frightening political times and who proclaimed a word of hope from God to the king by announcing the birth of a child. Next, we heard from Jeremiah, who wrote a letter to the first group of Jewish exiles in Babylon, telling them to stay there and to adjust to a new culture, and reassuring them that God had plans for their future. We then heard a story from the Book of Daniel about three men thrown into a fiery furnace and miraculously saved—a story to inspire the exiles to maintain their Jewish identity in the face of pressure to change and worship Babylonian gods. And finally, last week, we heard from Ezekiel, the prophet to the Babylonian exiles who saw a vision that God can make bones that have no life in them live once more.
We may think it strange, then, that our series brings us back to the prophet Isaiah, since we heard from Isaiah once already. Well, this is a later section of the book of Isaiah, and it is, possibly, a different prophet than the Isaiah we met who lived during the reigns of King Ahaz and Hezekiah. Scholars who are much better at the Hebrew language than I am point out that the later chapters of Isaiah are written in a Hebrew that has changed significantly from the first chapters of the book. It’s like I’ve told my Thursday morning Bible study group: we who live in 21st century North America and speak English can read the King James Version of the Bible and admire its beauty and its poetry, but we don’t speak like that anymore, and it’s sometimes difficult for us to understand. It’s the same language issue with the first part of Isaiah and the second. Scholars think that perhaps the latter part of Isaiah was written by a disciple of the original Isaiah who prophesied in Isaiah’s style, and whose prophecies, therefore, were attached to the scrolls of the original book of Isaiah.
Another reason that scholars think the latter chapters of Isaiah were written by someone other than the Isaiah who lived in Jerusalem during the reigns of King Ahaz and King Hezekiah is that these chapters are speaking to a different situation. The first chapters of Isaiah find us with the people of Jerusalem facing war against Assyria and the northern kingdom of Israel. The chapters in the last part of Isaiah are speaking to the exiles as they are being allowed to return home. Yes, the exiles are going to go back to the land of Israel. The Babylonian Empire fell to the Persian Empire in 539 BC, and that area came under the rule of King Cyrus of Persia. King Cyrus thought it would be a good idea to allow those people that the Babylonian emperor had captured to return to their homelands, including the Jewish people. And so, the prophet who speaks in today’s chapter of Isaiah is interpreting these events as the Lord relenting from his anger against the people of Israel. The Lord will renew the promise God made to David to have steadfast love for David’s family forever. And God will renew this promise to David by bringing the exiles back to Israel and reestablishing a nation and rebuilding the temple.
But when the exiles return, they find things in Jerusalem to be not as they expected. The temple is still in ruins. They have very few resources. And the land had not lain empty while they had been in Babylon. It had been settled by foreigners who did not know that this land had once belonged to the Israelites. There were fights between those who were returning, who remembered that certain plots of land had been their family’s home, and those who had moved in and lived there in the approximately 50 years that the exiles were in Babylon. The returning Jewish exiles are now asking this question: Why is God bringing us back here, if God is not going to miraculously restore our nation to its former glory? Should we have stayed in Babylon (now Persia) after all? If this is what God has promised us, why is this so difficult?
In response, the prophet tells us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways. But, he also reassures us that God’s word will not return to God empty, but that it will do what God intends for it to do. What does this mean? It means that the exiles who returned to the land of Israel to rebuild have made the right decision. It does not mean that life will be easy and that God will magically wave a wand and *poof!* the city of Jerusalem and the Temple will reappear in all of their former glory. It does mean that the exiles will have to work hard to rebuild and they will have to negotiate with the people who have moved in there over the last 50 years. But they should have confidence that God will fulfill the promises that God made to them, even if it takes many years longer than they were expecting. This God is a God that they can believe in and trust to fulfill words spoken to them.
This God that the Jewish people of that time trusted in to fulfill the promises spoken to them is also the God who we trust to fulfill the promises spoken, because they have also been given to us. This is something that the Holy Spirit continually reminds us of. God has not promised that, once we become Christian, everything will be easy for us and all will be well. God has promised that God will be with us through everything that happens in our lives, good, bad, and ugly. And God has promised that the word that God speaks will accomplish its purpose, even if it takes 50 years or more for that word to be fulfilled.
We live in a culture where we want everything right now. Why wait for something when you can have it right now? The radio station that I usually listen to started playing nonstop Christmas music at the beginning of November. Stores start putting Christmas merchandise out right after Halloween. Mostly gone (although I believe some stores still have this) is the idea of layaway, where you make payments on a larger item for several months and when you have made all of the payments, then you get the item. Most of the time now credit cards allow you to have something instantaneously and pay it off after you receive it. And if you can’t find a certain item in the stores around you, you can go on to Amazon and pay for next-day shipping. Instant gratification is so much more satisfying than waiting for something.
And even in the church, we fall prey to this, including me. I confess to you that I get frustrated and wish our congregations would grow instantaneously and be flourishing. But, God doesn’t work like we human beings do. The prophet tells us that God’s Word works more like the snow and the rain. Just because it’s snowed quite a bit in the last week and the moisture has seeped into the ground, that doesn’t mean that the flowers and the trees are going to bloom overnight and it’s going to be spring again. No, the ground needs time to absorb the moisture, and the earth needs time to travel around the sun so more light returns before the grass gets green and the trees and the flowers bloom. This is how God’s Word works: when we tell people about Jesus who have not heard of him before, we are planting seed. And that seed needs time to get the nutrients it needs before it begins to grow and blossom in the heart of a person. It needs time to be watered and fertilized. And the time for God’s Word to grow is different for every person: sometimes it will sprout overnight and sometimes it will lie dormant for 50 years before it blooms. But what we are told is that God’s Word will accomplish what God wants it to do, and that it will not fail.
It is often incomprehensible to us that the God who we believe is all-powerful and all-knowing would choose to work in this way. And we don’t know why God works this way, but there it is. But while we are waiting for God’s word to accomplish its purpose, we do not sit and twiddle our thumbs. We are to be actively waiting. We are to be sowing the seed. We are to be seeking the Lord while he may be found and calling upon him while he is near. We are a people of hope, and we are to be spreading that hope that we have in Jesus to everyone we meet. And we are doing that through many of the activities that our four area churches are doing together and separately. But we are to be doing this active waiting freely, not expecting to see the results of the labor, but trusting that God will bring about the results, and rejoicing if we are lucky enough to see those results. And another thing: those results may not look like what we think they will look like, because God is a creative God who delights in doing new things.
The Jewish people who returned to Israel from exile in Babylon did succeed in rebuilding the Temple. But it was smaller compared to the Temple that had been destroyed, and the book of Ezra tells us that some of the older people who remembered the former Temple wept when the foundation was laid, while the younger people rejoiced. So, too, as God works with our congregations in the Steelton-Oberlin-Highspire area, what is going to happen will not look like the glory days of old. God will create a new thing, and some of us may not recognize this new thing. Those who remember the former days, the glory days, may weep when they see that the church does not look like what they remember. But, we know that God keeps the promises God makes, and we can trust that God’s word will not return empty, but will accomplish that which God purposes for it—no matter how different it looks. The God who loves us is the God who keeps promises, and in that we can trust. Amen.