Here’s the thing about the Bible–and what we Christians call the Old Testament (more correctly, the Hebrew Scriptures) in particular: It tells the story of Israel, a centuries-long narrative of God choosing an individual who became a tribe which became a nation which became a people (all of whom continually screwed things up, yet God was still there with them–go figure).
Lurking behind the narrative events in layers of theological understandings are deeper, bolder, longer-lasting meanings. And then as if that’s not enough, we Christians come along and read it all through the lens of a crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. To top it off, followers of the risen Christ then added a whole other second half to the book, giving it not just a new ending but a wider and deeper purpose, as well,
Situated somewhere in the middle of all this is the prophetic book of Isaiah. The first half of that book (chapters 1 through 39) reflects the history of God’s interactions with a chosen group of human beings, not the least of which is a call to justice and judgment. It’s almost as if those 39 chapters are really trying to explain the whole time line from Abraham to the destruction of the holy city Jerusalem and exile of its inhabitants in far-off Babylon.
Chapter 40 begins a move out of exile and a restoration of hope and, ultimately, a return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and renew the people’s relationship with God. (Many biblical scholars view this as not just a move but a dividing point where a “Second Isaiah begins.) In a curious literary move the prophet (in chapter 49) identifies himself as Israel. Just as Isaiah was called by God for divine purposes before he was born (and still in his mother’s womb), so too had God called Israel to fulfill a divine mandate long before the tribe/nation/people had been formed. But how had it all ended up?
But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” (Isa. 49:4)
The prophet had failed to get the nation to repent, but he’d given it his best effort. Just because the people had failed to hold up their end of the covenant, you’d think that might be good enough—a truly worthwhile effort by the prophet. Anyway, now it appeared God was at least going to send them back home to Jerusalem. That’s good news, right? Yes indeed, but apparently that wasn’t enough. God had more in store for this people.
And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (vs. 5-6)
As amazing and remarkable and significant as it was for God to not give up on this ragtag bunch and reestablish them in their ancestral homeland (and at the same time for Isaiah to accept his calling as God’s messenger to a people who would not listen), all that was “too light a thing” as far as God was concerned. It’s as if God is saying, “I’m just getting started with you people; you haven’t seen anything yet!”
Wait a minute here, God. These people have a long, established record of screwing up. Given even half a chance, time and again they were unfaithful, unresponsive, unreliable, petty, arrogant, self-serving—well, you get the idea. So these are the ones to receive this promise and challenge? “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
In short, God has named this people, restored them, and now calls them to a task far greater than anything they’ve experienced in the past. The salvation of the world depends on them! Now, any human with half a brain would most likely cut his or her losses at this point and go find a better, more qualified group of people to get the job done. Yet one more instance where God’s ways are not our ways, I suppose.
God sees something in Israel that they themselves (and others) do not comprehend. Much the same can be said about those of us who call ourselves Christian disciples. We, too, have been “named,” we’ve been nurtured and challenged and supported and forgiven. But that’s still not enough in God’s eyes. We’re to be a light to the nations, making disciples of those nations, all in the name of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
As disciples we know the world is filled with unfairness and injustice. Darkness and evil abound. Bad stuff happens every day. Tragedies strike unexpectedly. Fatal diseases are diagnosed. People suffer. And this is precisely why God sends us out into that kind of world to be light, to be instruments of healing and comfort and hope—when, most likely, we’d prefer to just go home and withdraw into the security it offers us.
“Pay attention,” God says. There’s a world out there—both down the street and halfway around the globe—residing in darkness and despair. Certainly there are better folks than us who could do something about it. But God calls us. Go figure.
Note: Because I’m away on a little winter vacation, I’ve reprised this previous ForeWords post.
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.</em