Monday, February 06, 2017

The Whole World

The Whole World
Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29[1]
I find it ironical that in this era of instant communications that span the globe, our world is moving farther apart. After decades of working to improve understanding and cooperation among different peoples and cultures and nations, many countries seem content to go their own way. All over the world, nations are withdrawing from cooperative agreements out of an impulse to “take care of our own.” In fact, many who study these trends are talking about a process of “de-globalization” that is already well under way.[2] To be fair, there is an argument to be made that this might be beneficial in some ways.
But I find this trend troublesome on a couple of levels. For one thing, nations that isolate themselves from others, even from those who are their physical “neighbors,” are more likely to be drawn into conflict than those who seek to work together. If you are familiar at all with the history of the World Wars of the last century, you know that at least a part of what fueled the compulsion to go to war was the belief that “they’re not like us.” When we go down that road, our relationships with other nations are characterized by suspicion, mistrust, and even hatred. That leads me to wonder whether, less than 100 years after two “wars to end all wars,” we will forget that history and repeat it.
But I’m equally troubled by this trend to isolate ourselves from those whom we consider “different” from us because it runs contrary to God’s purpose in Scripture. This is especially the case in the latter portion of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Although there are passages that speak of the destruction of those who have opposed God’s ways, there are also those that speak of the salvation of the whole world. God’s redemption of his people Israel would be like a catalyst that would result in the salvation of “all the ends of the earth.”[3] Based on Isaiah, it seems clear that God’s ultimate purpose is for “all flesh” to turn to him and be saved.[4]
If there was a people who might have isolated themselves from those around them, it would have been the people of Israel to whom these words were addressed. They had been conquered by a foreign power, carried off to Babylon in captivity, stripped of homes and families and even their places of worship. It would be easy to understand why they might not have much interest in building “cooperative” relationships with the nations around them. Rather they were much more interested in self-preservation. But the word that came to them from the LORD would not allow them to remain in the relative “safety” of their isolation.
For one thing, they believed that God was the creator of all the ends of the earth. That faith served as one of the most important foundations for their confidence that God also had the power to deliver them from their captivity.[5] If God is the creator of all the ends of the earth, that includes the nations that they would have liked to consider their enemies. But equally important is the fact that when God chose Israel to be his people, he chose them as “priests” to represent him before all the nations of the world. They were chosen for the specific task of calling peoples from the ends of the earth to trust in and serve God. For these reasons alone, they could not remain content in their self-imposed isolation.
Our lesson from Isaiah reinforces the view that it is God’s purpose for his salvation to reach the ends of the earth. And yet the lesson begins with the “servant” of the LORD, the one who is chosen to proclaim God’s word to the people of Israel, lamenting his lack of success. He was given the ability to speak clearly and effectively to the people, and yet they remained closed off to God’s message and God’s ways. Throughout this portion of the book of Isaiah there is a tension between God’s saving purpose for the people of Israel and their continued unbelief and disobedience toward him. And so the “servant” of the LORD says, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isa. 49:4). It would seem that he was frustrated by the lack of results from his efforts.
In response, the LORD reminds the “servant” that there was a further dimension to his calling: the LORD 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” (Isa. 49:6). That was not enough. He was called to a bigger task: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). In the midst of his frustration, the LORD was reassuring the “servant” that his mission would succeed. And it would succeed so well that God’s salvation would reach to the ends of the earth.[6]
The truth of the matter is that it is all too easy for us to let our faith turn in on itself and for us to become preoccupied with our own affairs. When we do that, we are like people wearing blinders, incapable of seeing those who are different, let alone caring about them. But the kingdom of God that our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ set in motion is one that embraces all people everywhere. According to the message proclaimed by prophets and apostles, nothing that God has created is left out of his saving purpose. As John the Baptist put it, Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). That means the whole world. And for us that means that like the “servant” of the LORD, we are called to be a light for all peoples, because God’s salvation is meant for the whole world.[7]

[1] © 2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/15/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Simon Nixon, “Risk of Deglobalization Hangs Over World Economy,” The Wall Street Journal 5 Oct 2016, accessed on 2/6/2017 at .
[3] Cf. Isaiah 52:10: “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”
[4] Cf. Isaiah 45:22-23: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. … ‘To me every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall swear.’” Cf. Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 6-7, where he summarizes the message of “Second Isaiah” by saying, “his message on its most fundamental level presents a comprehensive vision of the entire creation restored to its divinely intended wholeness” and “Second Isaiah presents the vision of divine purpose not as an avenue of escape from the nitty-gritty of that world but as an invitation to join in the restoration of that world to a realm of universal justice and shalom.”
[5] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book Of Isaiah 40–66” New Interpreters Bible VI:433, where he refers to God’s creative power as “the sovereign God’s ability to form out of the ‘stuff of nothingness’—the desert, the barren womb, the grave of exile, the depths of despair—new life and abundance.”
[6] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40-66,” NIB VI:433: “To be a ‘light to the nations’ does not, therefore, mean going out and converting “peoples from far away” by word and thereafter associating with them on equal terms. Instead it means bearing affliction and hardship—brought about on account of obedience to God—and precisely thereby conveying the knowledge of God. To witness to the God of Israel is not to share information with others but to be faithful to God in such a way that confrontation will occur but will not be an end in itself. The witness leaves the final accomplishment to God, assured that affliction and hardship will be the means through which ‘my salvation shall reach to the ends of the earth’ (49:6).”
[7] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 127: “God’s plan is a universal plan, and the community that responds in obedience to God’s call becomes a part of a redemptive process that embraces all peoples.”

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