What happened to the series in Matthew 8 & 9 we’ve been doing? We only got half-way through chapter 9? It’s OK, you didn’t miss anything. Today we’re taking a quick detour in Isaiah, to give us some background before we hit the final stretch of our series.
The world’s a scary place, if you stop for long enough to pay attention. Downright frightening. But that’s the world we’re used to. For many of you, it’s the world you’ve grown up in. The threat of global catastrophe has become wallpaper. It’s always there, so we hardly notice it. We’re used to life in a post 9/11 world.
The day the world changed
Ah yes, September 11, 2001. That’s the iconic event that symbolises what our world has become, isn’t it? The day we lost our innocence. The day we woke up, turned on our TV sets, and were transfixed by images of planes flying into buildings. Not just any buildings. But iconic buildings that represented the heart of Western civilisation. Thousands dead. And not just the thousands we were used to. Those distant human tragedies we see on TV, and had come to expect on a regular basis. No. These were people with jobs and clothes and lives that looked just like ours. Wiped out without warning by evil fanatics just because they showed up to work one Tuesday morning.
The day the world changed.
But did it really change? I mean, that was the narrative told by the media at the time. Because for a little while apparently we’d all been feeling pretty optimistic about things. Many of you might be too young to recall the heady days of the 90s, full of dot-com millionaires, Oprah, and a renewed confidence in humanity. After all, the Berlin Wall had only just come down. Back in 1989. And this wasn’t just a wall. It was a symbol of the end of the shadow of the Cold War that had been hanging over us for all of my life. Turns out Sting was right: the Russians did love their children, too. And some fat guy named Boris who couldn’t dance. And so a new world order was proclaimed.
Not only that, back in 2001 we still had a collective sense of relief that we’d gotten through Y2K without having to use our bomb shelters and bottled water supply. Even Windows 98 still kind of worked. Here in Sydney we were still on a high from putting on the best Olympic games ever. And for what would be the last time in more than a decade, even our public transport was working! Could life get any better than this?
And then 9/11 brought us crashing back to reality. It wasn’t the day the world changed. But it was the day our collective perception of it did. Where we again saw the world as it really is. A scary, uncertain place. Where evil people do evil things and get away with it. Where suffering can happen anytime. And we all cried out, looking for some source of hope in the midst of our brokenness.
2,700 years ago…
But nothing had changed, really. The world’s always been like this. Let me take you back about 27 centuries, to the city of Jerusalem. A city living in fear of attack. It’s nearest neighbouring capital, Samaria, had just been destroyed by the marauding army of the Assyrians. Its people slaughtered, or taken away into slavery. And it looked like Jerusalem might be next. A scary, uncertain, evil world.
And not only was there a threat of evil from the outside; there was also plenty of evil going on inside Jerusalem as well. This is how the prophet Isaiah described it:Isa 1:21-23 See how the faithful city has become a prostitute! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her— but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.
Isaiah pronounces a warning of judgement on a society full of economic exploitation and immorality:Isa 5:8, 20-23 Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land… Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.
This is a picture of a society like ours. One rotting from the inside. And under threat of attack from without. A people crying out, looking for some source of hope in the midst of their brokenness. The world’s always been like this.
When the movie Bruce Almighty came out a few years ago, one scene had God’s phone number appearing on Jim Carrey’s pager. It wasn’t one of those fake ‘555’ numbers, but a real number that actually connected in some US area codes. This led to some interesting conversations as the people who owned those numbers were forced into being God’s answering service.
One woman told an answering machine in Colorado: ‘I’m in jail right now. Like I said to you last night, I love you.’ She promised to go straight and prayed to be able to return to her husband and children.
Another caller said, ‘Hey God, I’ve done some really bad things in my life, and I need to repent. So please answer my prayers.’ Someone else said, ‘I know this isn’t the number for God. But I’m calling to see if you have the other number.’
In San Diego, callers who used the movie number got the mobile phone of Cathy Romano, an executive in a medical firm. After overcoming her initial irritation at getting as many as 40 of these calls a day, she started playing along. ‘Hello, this is God,’ she answered one call. Her female caller exclaimed, ‘I can’t believe it; it’s God – and it’s a woman!’
A movie shows a glimpse of a phone number, and hundreds, maybe thousands of people try to get in touch with God. Most of them had one thing in common – well, two if you count being gullible Americans. Most were at the end of their own ability to cope with life. They wanted an end to their suffering; their guilt; their shame. They were without hope, and would do anything just to reach out to God.
For thousands of years, the world has been like this.
And it’s into this kind of world that Isaiah speaks a word of hope. A prophecy of renewal and restoration. Of this world being put right. Listen to what he says:Isa 35:3-6a Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
God will save. Suffering will be alleviated. Sickness and disability will be undone. And even our ultimate enemy – death – will not hold sway:Isa 26:1,19 In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah… But your dead will live, LORD; their bodies will rise — let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy — your dew is like the dew of the morning; you will make it fall on the spirits of the dead.
A message of hope. Sight to the blind, speech to the mute, mobility to the crippled, and life to those who are dead. And for 700 years, the people of Jerusalem held their breath in hope. Waiting, longing, for its fulfilment.
(To be continued…)
To think about
What about this world most scares you?
What makes you most long for the fulfilment of God’s promise of a restored world, as we see in Isaiah?