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God Offers Deliverance
Summer Quarter: Partners in a New Creation
Unit 1: God Delivers and Restores
Sunday school lesson for the week of June 26, 2022
By Dr. Jay Harris
Lesson Scripture: Isaiah 51:1-8
Strength to Pursue Righteousness
51 Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
but I blessed him and made him many.
The message is addressed to those who pursue righteousness and seek the Lord. Later in verse 7 these same people will be addressed as the ones who know righteousness and have God’s teaching in their hearts. This is the frame of mind of the scripture lesson’s audience. It has a different tone than the warnings
to pursue righteousness given to God’s people before
they were taken into captivity. It is as if it is being acknowledged that God’s people have received discipline through the experience of exile and have learned from it. The readiness level is there. They do not see the pursuit of righteousness as a chore or a burden, but a pursuit that they are being given the privilege to follow. Their heart has been changed, and now, due to the events that are unfolding, they will be unfettered as they seek the Lord.
Looking to the Beginning of their Story
So, what is needed in this pursuit? They are called to look to the rock from which they were hewn and to the quarry from which they were dug. Although the Lord is often called the rock, it seems as if this metaphor is being used in this instance to refer to Abraham, and the quarry refers to Sarah. Abraham and Sarah are the father and mother of faith for God’s people. They were the original partners whom God chose to begin this covenant journey with God. From one couple, God made many. The “many” includes the descendants of Isaac and Jacob.
From Jacob came the tribes of Israel. These were the tribes that in the time of Moses were given an allotment of land as they prepared to settle in Canaan – the land of Promise. These were the tribes that David united under his rule – tribes from the northern kingdom united with the southern kingdom. These were the tribes that unfortunately divided again after the death of Solomon. In the 8th
century B.C., the descendants of the northern tribes were scattered by the Assyrian army. More than a century later, the Babylonian army scattered the descendants of the southern tribes, the nation of Judah. These were the exiles in Babylon.
The exiles in Babylon are being asked to look to the rock from which they were hewn and the quarry from which they were dug. They were being reminded of the common heritage they shared with the other displaced descendants of Abraham and Sarah. They were being reminded of their spiritual identity in God. They were being reminded of the covenant that God formed with their ancestors in the faith. They were being called to renew their relationship with God under this covenant.
On the eve of their restoration, they were being called to pursue righteousness. They were being called to seek the Lord. They were being called out of the darkness of captivity into the light of a hopeful future in which they could begin life anew. God was reminding the exiles in Babylon of their brothers and sisters who all look to Abraham and Sarah as their father and mother. These brothers and sisters were scattered all around the Mediterranean region. God was rallying God’s people from all over to return to their spiritual home and unite under the banner of pursuing righteousness and seeking the Lord.
Looking to What God Was Doing in their Midst
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.
In the first two verses of our scripture lesson, we were told to look to the past. In verse 3 above and in the verses that follow in our scripture lesson, the prophet speaks in the future tense. It is helpful to discern, however, whether the prophet is addressing the near future or a distant future. When the prophet says that the Lord will comfort Zion, the prophet means the near future. In Isaiah 43:19, God said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” This draws attention to what God was about to do. It was springing forth even then. There were signs in the events happening in their midst that pointed to this near future. They could perceive this hopeful future for themselves.
In situations in which we are tempted to despair, these are the times in which we need to lean in with greater effort and heightened sensitivity to any signs of hope. When the prophet says that “the Lord will comfort Zion” and “comfort all her waste places,” the people in exile could know that God was already doing something in some place just beyond their sight. God was raising up the Persian ruler Cyrus to overthrow the Babylonians so the captives could return home and start anew.
The term “Zion” has messianic overtones. It recalls the mount where David established his capital – the place promised in the Book of Deuteronomy where God would choose to make his name dwell. Just as David’s action marked the fulfillment of the promise made in Moses’ day, the return of the exiles to Zion would fulfill God’s promise to David that the reign of David would never end.
Notice the reference to Eden. God “will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord.” Eden was the original garden paradise where Adam and Eve lived before the Fall of humankind. Every wilderness and every desert that we experience in life is a sign of Eden lost – paradise lost. Is there anything more hopeful for God to say to God’s people than to announce that their wilderness will be turned to Eden? It is no wonder that joy and gladness will be found in the exiles. The news of returning to Zion would fill them with thanksgiving and give them the ability to sing again.
The prophet Jeremiah foretold that the exile would last 70 years, which was much longer than the false hope given by the false prophets in his day. The younger people in Exile would live to see their return to Zion. The older people, who might not live to see that day, would nevertheless be consoled that their children and children’s children would experience it. They would live in terms of that hope. They would continue to pursue righteousness right where they were. They would teach the younger generation to seek the Lord.
In times of despair, not only must we lean in with heightened sensitivity to the work of God in our midst, we must also fill our minds with the promises God has made to us in scripture. We will be blessed as we feed our minds and our souls with the words and images God’s Word provides to us. These not only give us the language of our faith, they give us the language of our hope.
Listen to me, my people,
and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
and my justice for a light to the peoples.
God was using all of this to get the attention of God’s people. God was urging God’s people to listen and give heed to God. God was using all of this to teach God’s people, and teach any who would observe what was happening to God’s people. God wanted to get God’s people noticed by other nations, so that God’s teaching and justice would serve as a light to the peoples.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
my salvation has gone out
and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
and for my arm they hope.
What God was doing would bring deliverance swiftly not only to the descendants of Jacob, but also to other groups of people who had been displaced by wars of conquest. God’s salvation was being distributed. As we have learned in previous lessons, the policy of Cyrus would change the conditions of many conquered peoples for the better. God’s people must remember that it was God who was making this all happen. It was God’s arm creating the conditions of hope.
Looking to What God Will Do in the End
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and those who live on it will die like gnats;[a]
but my salvation will be forever,
and my deliverance will never be ended.
Not only must we look to the near future, but we also must look at times to a distant future on the horizon. We must look to the end. The study of end-times is called “eschatology.” We must remember that the “end” should really be thought of as the “end of the beginning.” It is the end of time as we know it, but at the same time it is the beginning of eternity. The reason we look to this more distant future is because we need to know the goal of history.
When we reach the true goal of history, we will know what really mattered and what did not. When you look both at the heavens above and the earth beneath, you are looking at that which will one day vanish like smoke, wear out like a garment, or die like a gnat. It is difficult to see anything hopeful in this description. To make sense of this you must look at the words that follow: “but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.”
Some of our concerns in this earth-bound, time-bound arena in which we live will one day be exposed as fleeting preoccupations and of no eternal importance. Much of what we see around us – our temporal, or time-bound existence – will give way to what is lasting and enduring and of ultimate concern. Our materialism and consumerism will surely be unmasked as a hugely unprofitable waste of time and energy. God’s ultimate salvation and ultimate deliverance will be experienced in the activities we do that have eternal significance. For instance, the significance of what we do for others will last longer in most cases than what we do for ourselves.
Listen to me, you who know righteousness,
you people who have my teaching in your hearts;
do not fear the reproach of others,
and do not be dismayed when they revile you.
For the moth will eat them up like a garment,
and the worm will eat them like wool;
but my deliverance will be forever,
and my salvation to all generations.
God was speaking to people who knew righteousness and had God’s teaching in their hearts. They had the basis to judge what is lasting and what is fleeting. This did not mean that it would always be easy to pursue righteousness and seek God. There will always be others whose reproach we must bear. There will be people who will revile us. Why is this so?
Whenever we pursue righteousness it may make others feel uncomfortable. Those who will become uncomfortable around us might rather live according to the status quo. When we give our lives more and more to pursuits with enduring significance, we may end up leaving behind some of our friends who see our new ways as a departure from the ways that were familiar and therefore comfortable to them.
Our scripture lesson encourages those who pursue righteousness not to fear the reproach of others. They are encouraged not to be dismayed when others revile them. The influence of the negative people will not last. Ultimately, their notions of what is important will go the way of a garment that will eventually be eaten up by moths and worms. God’s deliverance stands in sharp contrast because it will be forever. God’s salvation will extend to all generations of those who know righteousness and have God’s teachings in their hearts.
Our scripture lesson gives us a great game plan to follow. When we are pursuing righteousness and seeking the Lord, we should look to the past, look to the present unfolding right before us, and look to the distant future. What is your spiritual heritage? What has God done for you? How has God saved you? What is God doing in your life right now? How is God saving you now? How has God shown up in your life in the last week? What is God showing you in the thoughts you have about the end of life? What do you want your life to have been about when it is over? What about your life will outlive you? How will you be remembered? Is there anyone who would say that you made a difference in their lives – perhaps a difference with eternal consequences? It is not too late to begin making history.
The theme for the Summer Quarter continues to be “Partners in a New Creation.” We began our exploration in the Book of Isaiah where the prophet energized the exiles in Babylon with hopeful visions of their dramatic restoration. What we have learned this far makes the words come alive in the affirmation of faith with which we began this unit:
We are not alone; we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
O God of Abraham and Sarah, you challenged your people to look to the rock from which they were hewn and to the quarry from which they were dug. Help us see your faithfulness in our lives right now, that we may gain strength to pursue righteousness and seek you, through our Lord Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Amen.
Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find his plot-driven guide to reading the Bible, the “Layered Bible Journey,” at www.layeredbiblejourney.com