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God Foretells Redemption
Summer Quarter: Partners in a New Creation
Unit 1: God Delivers and Restores
Sunday school lesson for the week of June 12, 2022
By Dr. Jay Harris
Lesson Scripture: Isaiah 49:1-13
When God Has Bigger Plans
It is important to remember the larger context of our lesson scripture, which starts with the section of Isaiah beginning with Chapter 40. The words and images in this part of Isaiah are so powerful because they are giving God’s people a preview of a dramatic chapter about to unfold in their life together. What is about to happen amounts to no less than a second exodus. The first exodus was about the liberation of God’s people from bondage in Egypt. This second exodus is about the liberation of God’s people from captivity in Babylon. The first exodus was made in haste with the Egyptians in hot pursuit. In the second exodus, God will say, “For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight; for the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 52:12) If you will remember, not everything went well in the first exodus in the time of Moses. Unfortunately, the exodus generation that left Egypt complained incessantly about the journey, wishing they could return to Egypt. That’s how small their vision was. Consequently, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. In this second exodus, centuries later, God’s people are being prepared with prophetic visions of the future that God has for them. God says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19) Yes, in this lesson God foretells redemption, but God has bigger plans than just the redemption of God’s people.
A People Being Formed (Isaiah 49:1-3)
Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
Again and again, in this part of Isaiah, we hear, “Listen to me, O coastlands.” In other words, what is being said is not just of interest to God’s people, Israel. It is of interest to all people in every nation extending to land’s edge – every coast. Throughout this part of Isaiah, God asserts himself as the One God of the universe who created the earth and stretched out the heavens. Other nations, including the Babylonians, believed in lots of localized deities, but God wants his people to understand that God is not just their deity, but the one God of all who determines the fates of all nations and peoples. What God has to say is of interest to all people in all lands, and God’s people will have a special role to fulfill.
We hear over and over that God’s people are the ones called by God and formed from the womb to be God’s servant. The womb is where humans are formed. Before we took our first breath, we were being formed. God’s people were not only formed through the creative forces that bring life to all human beings; God’s people were formed through their special history, beginning with the call of Abraham and Sarah. They were formed through God’s redemptive acts in their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. They were formed through the giving of the law and their special covenantal relationship with God that emerged as they sought to live according to God’s way.
If God had a quiver of arrows, then God’s people would be that one polished arrow hidden away for a special divine purpose. Just as the archer aims the arrow at the intended target, God is aiming God’s people toward their chosen destiny. It was so important for God’s people to remember that God had been forming them for generations and God was still at it in their lifetimes.
God says, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” It should always be kept in mind that what God does in and through God’s servant, Israel, is ultimately for the glorification of God – God’s fame, God’s renown, and God’s majesty and radiance. In turn, as we bring glory to God we get caught up in the experience. As the Westminster Confession says, the chief end of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. Glorifying God and enjoying God are linked together. It is as if God is the sun, and we get to be the moon. The sun shines on its own. The moon does not shine on its own. The moon shines only when it reflects the sun’s light. The greatest joy comes to us when we glorify God through our lives. The ultimate goal of our formation in God is God’s glorification.
A People Being Redeemed (Isaiah 49:4-5)
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.”
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—
Another way God’s people were being formed was in the redemption story that was unfolding for them while they lived in exile. With their experience of exile and captivity, they were made to realize how they had squandered all the opportunities given to them as God’s covenant people when they lived in Judah. In the time before they were exiled from their homeland, they had gone after other gods. They had lived a lifestyle that bred oppression in the lives of others. In the words of confession in our Communion liturgy, they had not loved God with their whole heart, they had failed to be an obedient people, they had not done God’s will, they had broken God’s law, they had rebelled against God’s love, they had not loved their neighbors, and they had not heard the cry of the needy. They had labored in vain and spent their strength for nothing and vanity.
Yet they understood that their cause at this point was with the Lord. If their cause was to be taken up at all, it would be the Lord who would take it on. Their only hope was with God, and they understood that God was offering forgiveness and redemption. Their reward was with their God, though completely undeserved. God was graciously extending mercy to them. God, who had formed them in the womb, was aiming to bring Jacob back to him.
God’s people are referred to as “Jacob, my servant,” or “my servant Israel.” It is helpful to keep in mind that neither Judah nor Israel existed at this time as an independent, sovereign nation. The Babylonians had killed their rulers, leveled their capital city to the ground, and removed all the leading citizens into captivity. Having said that, however, God’s people still existed as a people—the recipients of God’s redeeming love.
God was turning the story of their former rebellion into a story of redemption. We all love a story of redemption. We all love a story where a life is being turned around. This is true when it is our own story. What greater way does God honor a people than to make them the object of God’s own redeeming love. In their redemption, God’s people would learn how God becomes the strength of a people.
God Has a Bigger Plan Than One’s Own Redemption (Isaiah 49:6)
“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.”
This is the point when God reveals the larger purpose of his redemptive and saving work. Yes, God intended to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel to their lives in their homeland. It was too light a thing, however, for God’s people to think that their redemption was something that was only to happen to them. God had a much weightier purpose in what God intended to do.
God intended for the redemption of God’s people to be a beacon of hope that would shine to other nations – all nations. God’s people would have a story to tell. Their story of redemption was not to be kept to themselves. God was putting his people out there to be a light to the nations. This has been God’s plan since the beginning in Genesis 12:2-3. It was always God’s intention to make something great from the offspring of Abraham and Sarah. The plan in Genesis was that God’s people would be blessed SO THAT God’s people could be a blessing and bless all the families of the earth. The exiles were being reminded of God’s purpose working in and through them: that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
An Incredible Reversal of Fortunes (Isaiah 49:7)
Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
Think of the drastic change that was happening. From being deeply despised and abhorred by the nations, the standing of God’s people was about to be reversed. From being the slaves of rulers, these liberated captives were to become the ones that rulers would admire, to whom the rulers would cater, and from whom the rulers would learn. Talk about a reversal of fortune! After living as a conquered people, they would become a liberated people. After suffering under the cruel reign of Babylonian kings, they would come under the reign of a benevolent ruler, the Persian king, Cyrus. Whereas the Babylonians attempted to wipe out their religious and cultural identity, Cyrus will offer a form of respect to the God the Jews worshiped and even give aid to the restoration of their worship of God. God’s people will once again be in the position of showing the world the living God they serve and just how it is that they serve God.
It will be as if the esteem shown to God’s people by Cyrus will help others to see how great is the esteem shown by God to God’s people. Think back to Deuteronomy 7:7, where God says, “It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you – for you were the fewest of all peoples.” Despite not being as numerous or powerful as the superpowers that ruled, God’s people were to be served by the Persian king Cyrus, because the Holy One of Israel had chosen them for a special purpose.
God Will Prepare the Way for the Second Exodus (Isaiah 49:8-11)
Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, “Come out,”
to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”
They shall feed along the ways,
on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.
And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
and my highways shall be raised up.
Those who had lived in exile in Babylon were to experience the time of God’s favor. It was God’s answer to the suffering they had experienced and an answer to their prayers. It was their “day of salvation.” God had kept them according to God’s covenant with them. Now God was giving the exiles to all of God’s people as a covenant to them. They would be returning home to the remnant left there and offer their leadership. We will see that the exiles, not the remnant, were to be the leaders in the restoration of God’s people. For in exile, God’s people had experienced the discipline that made them repent and brought them back to the Lord. The exiles would return home and establish the land. They would “apportion the desolate heritages.” In other words, they would return to the desolation wrought earlier by the Babylonian army and apportion the areas of land to each group according to their ancient tribal heritage. They will tell the other prisoners scattered around that it will be safe to come out of the darkness and into the light and show themselves.
After living decades in captivity, God’s people will not just be permitted to return home, they will be aided in their endeavor by Cyrus. With Cyrus as God’s instrument, the returning exiles will feed along the ways of their journey home. The bare heights will be their pasture. They shall neither hunger or thirst along the way. They will be protected. They will be led. Springs of water will guide them on their way home. Mountains will become roads and highways. In other words, they would not wander in the wilderness for 40 years as the people did in the first exodus.
A Rallying Point for Refugees
Lo, these shall come from far away,
and lo, these from the north and from the west,
and these from the land of Syene.
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
Finally, in our scripture lesson, we see the refugees of war coming from far flung lands to return home. It’s as if all of God’s creation is singing for joy around them as God comforts his people and has compassion on twho have suffered. All this has the making of a great story to tell to the nations.
God, the Revealer | You called Your people to a vision of being a light and carrying that light to the nations | Work in our hearts to rescue us from being so provincial and self-centered in our faith | That we might come to see the grand design of Your work in the world and join in that work | Through Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, Amen.
Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at email@example.com. Find his plot-driven guide to reading the Bible, the “Layered Bible Journey,” at www.layeredbiblejourney.com