Nov 22, 2011
Focus Reading Isaiah 64:1-9
If like me you’ve grown up in a mainline Christian church and have looked around you while congregations have closed and declined then it would be easy to despair. If you are like me and you’ve grown up in a mainline church and you’ve come to a living faith in God revealed in Jesus Christ, you can’t help but have hope. The glory days of the 50s and 60s may well have passed but Christ is risen and God is renewing all things. Like the people of Israel when they returned from exile in Babylon, we might feel that the glory days are gone, but though we can not see it now God is moulding us into new and better things.
Near the end of today’s message I say “today’s reading is not depressing, it has a confidence in God and a hope for the future. You are our Father, you are like a potter who is remoulding us like clay. God is still with us, we will be delivered, God has not stopped doing the work that was begun so many years ago.” This is true for your life and church too.
Just how and when this will come we can not know but this is our hope and our life.
Questions for thought or discussion.
Think of and describe something good that you have experienced which has not lived up to expectations. What do you long for, for yourself? What do you long for, for the church community you are a part of? What events of the past have made you have confidence in the future even when times may be hard?
eleven and a half years ago
Today’s Bible reading is about the people of God at a time when things weren’t going too well. To explore it I want to think about the current situation of the church in the west and compare it to what was happening in with the people of God when these words of Isaiah were put together. I want to give you two history lessons.
In the 1950s and early 1960s churches were full and Sunday Schools were overflowing. The church I’m preaching from St Stephen’s in Toowoomba Australia build a large state of the art hall to fit its massive Sunday School. The Balcony was added to the church to increase the capacity of the church. Meals on Wheels began and was to become at least for a time the biggest service in Australia. More than that St Stephen’s was at the cutting edge of technology with the Radio Sunday School. They were glory days with the church at the centre of the community and leading the way in ministry & mission.
The people of Israel had, had their glory days too. Under Kings good and bad they had created a small and at times wealthy and powerful nation. In today’s reading they remember the way that God had led them in the past, doing amazing things an hearing their cry. “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” (Isaiah 64:3, NRSV) They were delivered from slavery in Egypt, they won victory in battle, they built palaces and cities and a temple. Most recently God had delivered them from exile and brought tem back from Babylon in the most amazing way. Cyrus the Emperor of Persia the world Super Power of the day had been used as God’s anointed one to return them to the land of promise.
[The book of Isaiah is often broken up by Bible scholars into three parts. The first part is about the mess the people of Israel got into just before they went into exile. The prophet warns them to change their ways, for trouble is coming. They must start worshipping God with their hearts not just their words, take care of the poor and needy and be more faithful to the one who had been so faithful to them. The second part of Isaiah begins in chapter 40. The people have gone into exile everything seems lost. The promises of God seem to have come to nothing, but into the midst of this broken-ness the Prophet brings a message of comfort. Next week we will hear those words. Comfort, comfort O my people. God will deliver you, you will not stay exiles forever, you will return home to the place that you love. Finally beginning in Chapter 56 is a section which many scholars feel is reflecting on the return from exile. You would think wouldn’t you that the people would have been wild with joy when God brought them home, but the reality did not meet up with the expectations. The land they came back to was not the same as the one they left. The land was in ruins. It was a slow and painful rebuilding process and even then Israel never did become as great as it had once been.]
We hear that pain from the first words of today’s reading “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” This pain and fear that God had not forgiven them and that things are not as they should be is seen in the last verse of our reading: “Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” And if we go just to the next verse after our reading ends to verse 10 we hear these words “Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.” (Isaiah 64:9–10, NRSV) The return did not bring back the glory days of the past.
In 1989 St Stephen’s had a fire. This fire was like the Exile for the people of Israel. The people of this church were exiled from their place of worship not for 70 years but only until 1991. But the return did not bring the full Sunday Schools or the return of the Radio Sunday school. Even then the average age of the congregation was older. The fire was unique to St Stephen’s but decline in church attendance, aging congregations and dwindling numbers. Was happening in lots of churches from the late1960s onwards and not just in Australia but in the UK and Europe as well. The return did not bring back the glory days of the past.
But today’s reading is not depressing, it has a confidence in God and a hope for the future. You are our Father, you are like a potter who is remoulding us like clay. God is still with us, we will be delivered, God has not stopped doing the work that was begun so many years ago.
The promise that began with Abraham and the promise of the coming of a full restoration of God’s people, the church, has always believed took place in Jesus. It is in Jesus his life, compassion, healing, teaching, death and resurrection, it is in him that we are restored, that God has brought us home. But yet the old churches are not full and our pews are not filled with families. But still there is hope. St Stephen’s was rebuilt, the slaves were delivered from Egypt, the Exiles returned from Babylon, and less than three full days from the horror of the cross Jesus was raised to new life. And today, because of what is happening in China and Africa, Korea and more broadly in Asia the church is larger and growing faster than it has ever been before. We long for that restoration for ourselve in St Stephen’s, in Australia and the West. God is faithful, it will come. Just how and when it will come we can not know but this is our hope and our life.