Sermon preached by Revd. Duncan Strathie, 16 July 2017

The Word of the Lord shall accomplish its purpose

Isaiah 55:10–13

10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
   it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 

12 For you shall go out in joy,
   and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
   shall burst into song,
   and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
   instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. 

I don’t know how familiar you are with the history of the Old Testament but our reading from Isaiah today is a well known passage that many have heard previously and which has inspired song writers into action.

The book of Isaiah is pivotal to our understanding of the Old Testament as it draws together all of the main threads of God’s redemption story.

Isaiah was a prophet and although scholars continue to dispute whether the book was written by one, two, three or more people, the Church has generally received it as having a unified message—a message ultimately of hope for God’s people in exile.

Throughout the book, God’s people and their city constitute Isaiah’s storyline and present to us God at work in human history to bring about his glory.

In chapter one verse two we read “Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken.” In a vision, Isaiah has heard the voice of God. “The Lord has spoken” pierces the chaos of history with the brilliance of divine revelation.

Let us make no mistake—in reading Isaiah we are hearing the word of God.

In the first verse of Isaiah, he tells us when all of this took place: during the reign of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah—all kings of Judah. The reigns of these kings is well documented in history which places Isaiah in the years 740-686 BC.

We know that much of the Old Testament’s history is a history of battles and conquests; of one nation invading another and carrying it’s people off into slavery.

When Isaiah begins, there is political calm but in 745 the ambitious and imperialist Tiglath-Pileser III comes to the throne of Judah’s northern neighbour Assyria, modern day Syria, and so began the expansion of Assyria until it controlled everything from the Persian Gulf through Egypt and up into Turkey.

The Assyrians had wonderful names for their kings. Tiglath Pileser II was followed by Shlamaneser V who in turn was succeeded by Sargon II, followed by my favourite—Sennacherib. All of whom were bent on conquest and expansion.

Successive Assyrian invasions flooded into Judah with the intent of once and for all terminating the dynasty of David. The Assyrians wanted to remove God’s people—a fact that has become a sad repeating refrain throughout history.

As with all expansionist empires there comes a time when they over reach themselves, things change and decline is inevitable. And so eventually the Assyrian empire declined and was replaced by the new boy on the block—Babylon, which is modern day Iraq.

War, death and destruction in Syria and Babylon. Sadly nothing is new and humanity seems painfully unable to learn the lessons of history.

The Babylonians had more success in wiping out the people of Judah and in 587BC their invasion of Jerusalem captured the city which was ransacked and destroyed. The people were carried off into exile. Fans of Boney M will remember the lament as God’s people sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept as they remembered Zion!

In Psalm 137:1 we read “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”

All 66 chapters of Isaiah present a grand and dramatic opera, a huge vision that tells history from the perspective of the script writer and director—God himself.

In chapter 10 and verse five Assyria is the rod of God’s anger. The sufferings which lie ahead for God’s people, including exile in Babylon, are the furnace in which God will purge his people we read in Chapter one and verse 25.

The outcome of all this will not simply be a new people but a new city, and a new universe as well, as we read in chapter 65 verses 17–19. History has meaning because God is taking it somewhere, and what the vision does is to set the end firmly before us and call us to live every moment in the light of it (2:1–5).

So how do the four verses in our reading today relate to us or have any meaning for us?

How do we continue in the face of devastating loss? In recent weeks we have suffered attacks in Manchester and on the streets of London, not to mention Grenfell Tower. Only this week the pain of the 1974 IRA Birmingham pub bombings has been reawakened.

So how do we continue in the face of devastating loss? It’s a real question for us here today in Moseley and it is the question that God’s people are left with in the face of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BC.

With the reality of exile, Israel's faith must find a new existence with God and project a hope for the future that takes into account their profound loss. We must do the same.

For God’s people two and a half millennia ago it was the prophetic voices found in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah that helped them project a hope for the future. Each voice, using poetry as a subversive and liberating way of speaking, painting a different picture of the door that will lead to hope and new life with God.

That was how God encouraged his people to continue to have faith and hang on in there—even in exile. Whose voices are the prophetic voices you hear today? You don’t need me to tell you that Birmingham as a city has changed unrecognisably in recent decades and so has the rest of our country.

The Church of England may still be the established church, but while Christian values and morals still largely underpin our society, they are being eroded and undermined by a liberalising agenda. This is the fruit of the post-colonial era and rise of secular humanism and a selfish consumerism.

We must also flag up the Church’s inability to offer a coherent explanation of why it’s here in the emerging market place of faiths and ideas. We now live in a largely post-Christian culture.

The reality is that as Christians we are now exiles ourselves; exiled in our own homeland and so in need of a message that will help us to project a hope for the future that takes into account our sense of profound loss.

Walter Brueggemann, a well known American scholar and preacher writes that “Only memory allows possibility”. We need to remember what it was like to enable us to move forward and make a new way of being—with God’s help.

The poet Isaiah attempts to create a “homecoming mentality” in the midst of exile. Memory of God’s decisive acts in history is the bridge between these two worlds: the world of exile and the world the exiles long to return to.

Isaiah appeals to the old memories and affirmations in an astonishing way to jar the way Israel thinks and so move them to discern a new reality. Even if their return was to be immediate, things would never be exactly as they were before the exile—things move on.

Much has been said and written concerning Western culture being in the throes of transition. It seems to me that exile may not be too distant a metaphor for our churches. We are caught between relinquishing and receiving. Our hope will also come through grief, holiness, and memory.

This is where Isaiah helps us out. Through the following fifteen chapters the prophet creates a vivid, expansive vision of what comfort will mean for the exiles of Judah and assures them that it is coming soon.

Restoration and renewal are germinating just under the surface of the earth: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth (literally “sprouts”), do you not perceive it?” the prophet challenges in 43:19.

Isaiah 55:10-13 echoes the promises of the earlier chapters, declaring that these promises will be as life-giving for the exiles as the rain and the snow are for the earth. 

Using the natural imagery, the prophet expresses both the thrill as well as the inevitability of the people's approaching redemption. Verses 10–11 describe the work of the word of God in terms of the way precipitation works when it falls to earth. The NRSV translation uses the participles “making” and “giving” in verse 10 which communicate the ongoing action of the rain, or word of God: “For just as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower…so shall my word be…”

The word of God has come down from heaven and it cannot return, already it is working steadily, accomplishing what it was sent to do. It is only a matter of time before the signs of the people's restoration will appear. Restoration is as inevitable as the sprouting of greenery after rainfall. 

In the second half of the reading, verses 12–13, Isaiah continues to draw from the imagery of the natural world, but in this case the natural world displays human characteristics. Mountains and hills are singing; trees are clapping their hands. The natural world serves as the stage on which the glory of God will be revealed (40:3–5).

All of creation experiences and benefits from the revelation of God’s glory. Even the other nations are blessed when God’s blessing is poured out on the exiles we read back in chapter 42.

In the parable of the sower in our reading from Matthew, God appears as an irresponsible steward of the seed, scattering the seeds of redemption even where they don't have a hope of sprouting.

In Isaiah, God’s act of redeeming a small group of exiles will transform the entire world. We might read this as both a cause of great rejoicing as well as humility.

God’s unstoppable desire to bless and re-create is overwhelming in its immensity and power. Before such a God, our imaginations are alight with wonder and joy, not only for ourselves, but for all of God’s creation. 

The last verse from our reading ends with the promise that the word of God will be a memorial—an eternal sign that shall not be cut off. Referring back to God’s covenant with David that formed a central theme earlier in this chapter (vv. 3–4), the prophet once again reminds his audience of God’s loyalty and steadfast love.

It is with this promise of the eternal God that the prophet concludes his words to the people in exile. It is a promise of a God that is with God’s people always: even in exile; even though they may sometimes feel very much alone in the foreign land in which they were forced to dwell; even though they may struggle to live out and communicate their faith in today’s Moseley.

The prophet did not have an easy task to speak a word of hope when everything around him seemed hopeless. However, he succeeds in proclaiming a word that is counter to the words of the world; a word that stands over and against the policies of the empire whose intent is to kill and destroy; a word that is able to imagine a world where everything is possible, where all of creation is mended and restored, where the exiles can go home and live in peace.

Even more challenging than speaking a word of hope in an improbable situation is to hear and to embrace this word, so living into the promise.

Centuries later, this point is still valid. It is true that if we cannot imagine it, we cannot live it. In making real this prophetic word for a contemporary context, the preacher once more has to engage in the prophetic task of painting a picture of the world as it ought to be, which seeks to transform the world as it currently is.

Let us remember that the outcome of all this will not simply be a new people but a new city—and a new universe! God’s word will not return empty!