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cherrytreesJuly 13, 201

The Fertile Word

We know what it’s like to suffer through a bitter winter that seems interminable. We long for the warmth and the green and the blossoms of spring as daffodils do battle with lingering snow and overnight freezes to lift their yellow faces sunward.

In time, the Bradford pears burst into clouds of bloom, the redbuds blossom, the cherry trees explode, the dogwoods unfurl their crosses, and all seems right with the world.

Today’s text imagines a day when God will spark a spring to end all springs, a day when mountains will shout and trees applaud the homecoming of God’s people.

The text is an enthusiastic invitation for Israel – and for all who will – to get on board with God, to accept God’s gift of covenant promises, and to follow God on a journey of justice that leads to the Promised Land. The spiritual and metaphorical appeal of Isaiah 55 is universal, and it remains one of the Bible’s most beautiful invitations to relationship with God.

A thirsty people(vv. 1-5)

The oracle in Isaiah 55 may have been preached in a public marketplace, for it sounds like a sales pitch from someone hawking wares in the crowded streets of Babylon. Vendors selling potable water, bread, wine, milk and other comestibles would have been commonplace in any ancient urban setting, just as they are today.

Isaiah offered food and water that is beyond price, but freely offered. It may have been a hard sell, however, for there was no visible food or drink in his hands.

Isaiah’s offer appears to work on two levels. On the surface, he may have been promising the availability of good water and abundant provisions in the Promised Land for those who would return. On another level, Isaiah spoke of priceless spiritual food that can be found only – but freely – in relationship with God.

In either case, Isaiah charged that the “bread” his hearers were buying in Babylon was not real bread, and that their efforts to build fortunes in exile could not fully satisfy. The prophet offered “rich food” to those who would “listen carefully” and choose rightly.

In addition, the prophet promised that the eternal covenant God had made with David – that his descendants would always lead Israel (2 Sam. 7:8-16, 23:5; 1 Kgs. 8:23-26; Ps. 89) – would be transferred or extended to all Israel (vv. 3-5).

“I will make with you an everlasting covenant,” Isaiah said, echoing language from God’s promise to make for David an everlasting house. The promise, however, carried with it a responsibility. Because of God’s blessings, David became “a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples” (v. 4).

Israel was also called to be a witness, no longer in the sense of political leadership, but as spiritual guides. In particular, they were to live as a testimony before nations that do not know God: “You shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that you do not know shall run to you …” (v 5a).

While David in his promised “house” was a witness to the people he ruled, Israel is also promised an everlasting future in which she is to be a witness to people who do not know God.

The prophet believed that if the exiles would take God at his word and return to build up Jerusalem as a people fully committed to God’s way, they would become such an inspiration that other nations would “run” to them in search of the secret to success and life that they have discovered in “the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you” (v 5b).

An awesome God(vv. 6-9)

How does one enter this promised relationship? How does one “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” (v. 6)? In cultic-oriented contexts such as Deut. 12:5 and Ps. 105:4, “to seek the LORD” is to come and worship in the temple. For the prophets, however, seeking the Lord involved more than temple worship. It called for a commitment to following God’s way.

Isaiah and his fellow exiles in Babylon could not “seek God” by going to the temple, but God’s presence was not dependent on a temple. For Isaiah, seeking God began with repentance (v. 7). Thus, he called on the wicked to forsake their wicked ways, and the unrighteous their unworthy thoughts. Isaiah, writing at the end of the exile, may also have been encouraging people to accept Cyrus’ offer to return home and rebuild the temple while the opportunity was available.

The prophet’s call to repentance led to a promise of pardon. If the people would seek the Lord, they would find mercy and pardon. Isaiah believed that the exiles’ time in Babylon had paid the penalty for the sins of the ancestors. They were now free to “get out of jail” and return home to live a better life.

For some hearers, accustomed to Babylonian ways and settled in their Babylonian homes, Isaiah’s words may have sounded like foolishness. From a human point of view, the call to pull up stakes and return to an uncertain future made little sense. But God knew things the people did not know, Isaiah said. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (v. 8).

Human minds are limited, but God’s knowledge knows no boundaries: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (v. 9). As much as we may like the idea of understanding everything, we have to acknowledge that God remains far beyond our full comprehension, always shrouded in mystery. God’s ways are higher than our ways, but how can we know when a prophetic message truly reflects God’s ways?

A fruitful word(vv. 10-13)

Isaiah returned to the image of the heavens as higher than the earth and built on it to assure the people he was an authentic channel of God’s powerful and effective word. The metaphor takes on more depth when we understand that in Hebrew, the notions of “word” and “deed” are connoted by the same term. God’s words and God’s deeds go together. Just as rain and snow come from the heavens to water the earth and make it fruitful, so God’s spoken word would accomplish its purpose (vv. 10-11).

And what was that purpose?

It was the return of Israel to the land of promise. Isaiah painted the kind of glorious image you’d only expect to see in a happy-ending movie. He envisioned a joyful journey of gleeful people enjoying a new era of peace, with nearby mountains happily serenading and roadside trees applauding the people as they marched past like heroes on parade (v. 12).

We can almost hear Julie Andrews singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music …”

The rough thorn bushes and briers in the ruins of Jerusalem would give way to fragrant cypress and myrtle trees, Isaiah said, which would stand as a living reminder of God’s deliverance for Israel. The true memorial of God’s work, however, would not be seen in tall trees, but in a faithful and fruitful people.

Unfortunately, those who did return to Jerusalem did not experience a happy homecoming. The city was a ruin, the neighbors were rude, and the land was in the midst of a drought. How do we square the prophet’s pretty picture with the ugly scene the returnees actually faced?

Isaiah’s over-the-top metaphor may have been sparked by the overwhelming joy of realizing that the exiles could finally return home. Though his hyperbolic description of their return did not match the desolate scene they would find in Jerusalem, the prophet looked beyond the ruined land to a spiritual spring when God and people would live together in a joyful setting not unlike Israel’s tradition of Eden.

Sometimes, things have to get worse before they get better.

How often have we anticipated a delightful vacation, only to be sidetracked by cranky children, long lines, or bad weather? Despite the difficulties, we manage to make good memories and remember the trip fondly, carsickness and all.

I can remember imagining how much enjoyment a small shaded patio might add to my backyard – but before the first relaxing glass of lemonade, there were weeks of backbreaking labor to dig out the spot, build a retaining wall, level the ground, fill in the substrate, fit the pavers, and landscape the surroundings. I can sit in the glider and read to the music of birds and wind chimes now, but it didn’t spring from the earth like flowers leaping up to greet one of Disney’s cartoon heroines.

There is a future for us, and it is bigger and more beautiful, happier and more peaceful than the Jerusalem we know will ever be. Despite the best prophetic efforts, from Ezekiel’s visions to John’s apocalypse, we cannot know exactly what that future will be like.

The one thing we can hang our hopes on is that we serve a God who wants to be known, and who wants to bless us. As we “seek the LORD while he may be found,” we embark upon a journey through valleys and hills that may be more stressful than musical, but we do not travel alone – and when we can be confident that the end of the road brings us closer to God, every step will be worth the effort. BT

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Isaiah 55:12 – “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

with Tony W. Cartledge

Isaiah 55:6-13

LESSON FOR JULY 13, 2014  |

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