In the movie The Field of Dreams, a writer played by James Earl Jones envisions a mysterious pilgrimage to a baseball field in Iowa. "Theyll come for reasons they cant even fathom," he waxes, "innocent as children, longing for the past. For it is money they have and peace they lack."
The prophet Isaiah envisions a pilgrimage as well. These people too will come longing for something, and they will part with money in search of greater riches. That pilgrimage is happening even now, as people of all nations are coming to the church of Jesus Christ, looking for the one true God and wondering if he is dwelling there.
This phenomenon calls for us to submit to the awesome plan of God to call out a worldwide people for his names sake. The plan presents a challengeboth for the people in the church and the people who are coming to the church. On the one hand, it challenges people in the church to embrace people who are coming to it, even people who are not at all like them. On the other hand, it challenges people who are coming to the church to bow before the one true God and submit themselves to the teaching of the scriptures.
In Isaiah 45:14-25, the prophet first addresses Israel (verses 14 to 19); then he addresses the nations who are coming to Israel (verses 20 to 25).
The nations come to us (45:14-17)
Although the Lord will send Israel into exile because of her idolatry, he also says that there will come a time when wealthy peoples and peoples of stature will submit themselves to Israel. This will be a stunning turnaround. The chains that the nations will arrive in are probably symbolic, because there is no suggestion that any war is in view. They will come voluntarily to "bow down" and "make supplication" to Israel. The reason for such actions is their recognition, "Surely, God is with you, and there is none else, no other God." Because of what the Lord does for Israel, the other nations will recognize that the Lord is the one true God and that Israel is the people of God. The nations are rich in products and merchandise, but they will gladly part with their riches in search of greater riches. They will submit to Israel because they want to know this God and learn about him. This desire for God will transcend ethnic barriers, as the Gentiles "come over" to Israel.
In verse 15, Isaiah himself reacts to the Lords words in verse 14, proclaiming to the Lord, "Truly, you are a God who hides himself." In saying that God hides himself, Isaiah is saying, strangely enough, that the Lord reveals himself. He has plans that are hidden from humanity, only to be revealed in his perfect timing. He hides himself only until he speaks (verse 19). Isaiah is flabbergasted by the revelation that the nations will come over to Israel in this way. Its an amazing turnaround, an amazing plan that transcends current thinkingIsrael will one day be the focus of such a pilgrimage and that the Jews and the Gentiles will share such fellowship.
In this context, Isaiah calls the Lord the "God of Israel, Savior." Israel is already being defined as something beyond ethnicity, and the Lord is being defined as savior not just of ethnic Israel but of people of other ethnicities who attach themselves to Israel.
Some come to Israel and bow down, but others will be "put to shame and even humiliated," and will "go away together in humiliation." These are people from among the nations, and from within Israel, who worship other gods, as evidenced by their engagement in idolatry.
True Israel, both Jews and Gentiles, on the other hand, has been "saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation" so that its members will not be "put to shame or humiliated to all eternity."
The church of Jesus Christ, now composed of people of all ethnicities, is Gods Israel (Galatians 6:16). People of all nations are coming to the church. They have looked elsewhere, to all their pagan gods, and have determined that there is no other God, no place else to turn. Theyre coming in search of something of substance, something that lastssomething eternal. Although they might not be able to word it this way, theyre coming in search of eternal salvation. They know theres something missing in their humanity. They want to be saved from the degrading worship of other gods. Perhaps theres some experience of shame for the way they have lived. Theyll forget their riches because theyre looking for greater riches. Theyll recognize that we live differently, that we worship a different God. They will wonder if perhaps the true God is among us. They will come to us looking for God. They will submit to us because they want to learn about this God. This desire for God is so strong that all kinds of barriers are broken, including ethnic barriers.
I want to ask those of you who know the Lord some questions. When they come here, will you come alongside them? Will you teach them? Will you tell them your own story? Will you tell them what you know about this God they have come to inquire about. Will you ask them to study the scriptures with you? Will you reach out to them instead of waiting for them to reach out to you? Will you be on the lookout in life for people who are searching for the true God, and will you go to them?
The pride that blinds (45:18-19)
Beginning with the word "for," this section offers an explanation for the worldwide salvation envisioned in the first section. It is also linked to the first section in that it introduced in the same manner, with the words "thus says the Lord."
The Lord says that he did not create the world a "waste place." This is the same word translated "formless" in Genesis 1:2, where it says the earth was "formless." Although the earth was a waste place, the Lord did not create it to be a waste place. He established it and gave it form so that it might be inhabited by peopleall peoples, not just ethnic Israel. His work in creation proves that there is "none else." He is the Lord, the Creator God.
Although a stunned Isaiah earlier declared that the Lord "hides himself," the Lord himself says, "I have not spoken in secret, in some dark land." What he has spoken about, what he has spoken about from the time of Abraham, the first Israelite, is his plan for all the peoples who inhabit the earth he created (Genesis 12:1-3). His plan was to bless the entire world through a particular people, Israel. That plan was his reason for calling Abraham, and it was revealed to Abraham when he was called by the Lord, and it was revealed to Israel with increasing vividness as the Lord spoke to his people.
In verse 18, the Lord said he didnt create the earth to be a waste place; in verse 19 he says he didnt command Israel, the "offspring of Jacob," to seek him in a "waste place." Again, the Lord is saying that the revelation of his plan for the Gentiles has been evident. In declaring the plan, the Lord speaks "righteousness"he speaks the truth. And he declares things that are uprighthe expresses the truth of the plan in a plain and straightforward manner.
In that the Lord spoke openly about this plan, it should not catch Israel by surprise when it is more fully revealed. Yet ethnic Israel never could embrace the plan. To Israel, it was as if the Lord spoke about the plan in secret or in some dark land or waste place. The truth is, Israel was blinded by national pride and could not see the beauty of the Lords plan, though he laid it out for Israel.
The Lord created the world to be inhabited by all sorts of peopleincluding people who are very different from us. He has revealed to us his plan to call out a worldwide people for his names sake. Is there any part of us that would push it away from us, as Israel of old pushed it away? Is there any pride in usbe it ethnic or otherwisethat is reticent to embrace people who are not like us? Will you be part of this plan? Will you embrace it? Will you embrace others who are not like you?
Fugitives looking for God (45:20-25)
Having spoken to Israel in verses 14 through 19, the Lord now speaks to the Gentile nations. In verse 14, he said the Gentile nations would come to Israel; now he is inviting the Gentile nations to come specifically to him. The "fugitives of the nations" are those who are fleeing the idolatry of their homeland to worship the Lord. Those who continue in idolatry, who worship wooden idols so helpless that they have to be carried about and who pray to a god who cannot save, have no knowledge that their gods are worthless.
The Lord, inviting those who worship other gods to state their case for such worship, says that only he has long ago announced "this" and declared "it"his plan for worldwide salvation. The idolaters could not begin to dream that their wooden gods could announce such a plan, let alone execute it. No, it is the Lord alone who has revealed the plan, demonstrating once again that "there is no other God besides me," that "there is none except me." He further identifies himself as a "righteous God and Savior," whose word can be trusted, in this case regarding his determination to save the world.
Therefore, the Lord says, "Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth." He invites all nations to turn from gods who cannot save to the God who can save, to the only God.
The Lord now takes an oath, demonstrating the seriousness of what he is promising. Because there is no greater name by which he can take an oath (Genesis 22:16, Hebrews 6:13), he swears by himself. The Lord paints a picture of this promise going forth from his mouth in righteousness without turning back, like an emissary commissioned to complete his task. The word is this: "That to me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance." All people will one day acknowledge the universal sovereignty of the Lordsome willingly, some unwillingly. But the emphasis here, at least through the first line of verse 24, is on those who willingly worship and confess their allegiance because they have discovered that the Lord is the only God.
Not only will they recognize that the Lord is the only God, they will recognize that "only in the Lord are righteousness and strength"dependable character and the power to bring about that which he promises. Those who are forced to acknowledge the Lords sovereignty, but who nevertheless cling to their idols, will be angry with the Lord, because he is not the God they wanted, and they, once again, will be put to shame. On the other hand, all the offspring of Israel, both Jews and Gentiles, will be "justified"vindicated for their worship of the Lord. They will also "glory"worship the Lord with great joy.
There may be some of you here today who feel like fugitives, that you are fleeing from something that didnt work and youre looking for something that will work. You cant find another plan like this onea plan rooted in Gods creation of the world, an ancient plan to bless the entire world through a particular people that resulted in the creation of the church. No one else has articulated it; no one else could execute it. It is a plan that invites you to turn from gods who cannot save to the true God, a righteous God and saviora God who can be trusted and a God who can save.
Everyone is going to bow one day. It may as well be willingly, and sooner rather than later. Only the Lord is truly dependable, and only he has the power to bring about that which he promises. If you bow to him and commit your life to him, you will vindicated, and you will worship the Lord with great joy forever.
Now I want to ask those of you who have come here looking for the true God some questions. Will you go to someone here and ask him or her what they know about God? Will you ask someone to tell you his or her story? Will you ask someone to lead you in studying the scriptures? Will you reach out to someone instead of waiting for him or her to reach out to you?
A story told by Anne Lamott in her book Traveling Mercies illustrates both aspects of this passage well; she shares how someone from the church reached out and taught her, and she shares how she began learning to bow to the one true God:
Mine was a patchwork God, sewn together from bits of rage and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew, everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus.
Then one afternoon in my dark bedroom, the cracks webbed all the way through me. I believed that I would die soon, from a fall or an overdose. I knew there was an afterlife but felt that the odds of my living long enough to get into heaven were almost nil. They couldnt possibly take you in the shape I was in. I could no longer imagine how God could love me.
But in my dark bedroom at Pats that afternoon, out of nowhere, it crossed my mind to call the new guy at St. Stephens .
It took me forty-five minutes to walk there, but this skinny middle-aged guy was still in his office when I arrived. My first impression was that he was smart and profoundly tenderhearted. My next was that he was really listening, that he could hear what I was saying, and so I let it all tumble outthe X-rated motels, my fathers death, a hint that maybe every so often I drank too much.
I dont remember much of his response, except that when I said I didnt think God could love me, he said, "God has to love you. Thats Gods job." Some years later I asked him to tell me about this first meeting. "I felt," he said, "that you had gotten yourself so tangled up in big God questions that it was suffocating you. Here you were in a rather desperate situation, suicidal, clearly alcoholic, going down the tubes. I thought the trick was to help you extricate yourself enough so you could breathe again. You said your prayers werent working anymore, and I could see that in your desperation you were trying to save yourself: so I said you should stop praying for a while, and let me pray for you. And right away, you seemed to settle down inside."
"What did you hear in my voice when I called?"
"I just heard that you were in trouble."
He was about the first Christian I ever met whom I could stand to be in the same room with. Most Christians seemed almost hostile in their belief that they were saved and you werent. Bill said it bothered him too, but you had to listen to what was underneath their words. What did it mean to be saved, I asked, although I knew the word smacked of Elmer Gantry for both of us.
"You dont need to think about this," he said.
"Just tell me."
"I guess its like discovering youre on the shelf of a pawnshop, dusty and forgotten and maybe not worth very much. But Jesus comes in and tells the pawnbroker, Ill take her place on the shelf. Let her go outside again."
When I met him for the second time in his office, he handed me a quote of Dag Hammarskjolds: "I dont know Who or What put the question, I dont know when it was put. I dont even remember answering. But at some moment, I did answer Yes." I wanted to fall to my knees, newly born, but I didnt. I walked back home to Pats and got out the Scotch. I was feeling better in general, less out of control, even though it would be four more years before I got sober. I was not willing to give up a life of shame and failure without a fight .
Slowly I came back to life. Id been like one of the people Ezekiel comes upon in the valley of dry bonespeople who had really given up, who were lifeless and without hope. But because of Ezekiels presence, breath comes upon them; spirit and kindness revive them. And by the time I was well enough for Bill even to consider tapering off our meetings, I had weaseled my way into his heart. I drank, he led a church, and together we went walking every week all over Belvedere Island, all over the back of that great green turtle. (1)
A true Israelite
In Ann Lamotts story, we see how Gods amazing plan reached out and embraced her, and we also see the climax of the plan. We see Jesus. Gods plan, remember, was to call out a people for his name through a particular nation: Israel. Because of national pride, that nation failed. But there was an Israel that didnt fail. More specifically, there was an Israelite who didnt failone faithful Israelite. The plan reached its climax when one from that nation took Gods plan so seriously that he bore the sins of the entire world so that it might be brought to God. Here is his story:
"Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:5-11).
The Apostle Paul, the writer of these words, clearly has Isaiah 45:23 in mind when he says "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow...and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." Isaiah 45:14-25 is a fiercely monotheistic passage: "Surely, God is with you, and there is none else, no other God" (verse 14). "I am the Lord, and there is none else" (verse 18). "And there is no other God besides me, a righteous God and Savior; there is none except me" (verse 21). "For I am God, and there is no other" (verse 22). To the Lordand to the Lord alonewill every knee bow and every tongue will swear allegiance. Yet it has dawned on Paul, a fiercely monotheistic Jew, that Jesus, the Jewish messiah, is the Lord, the one true God to whom every knee will one day bow.
And when it dawns on us the way it dawned on Paul, Gods plan becomes irresistible. God, the author of the story, entered the story in the form of a man. He lived the life marked out for Israel. He demonstrated that what it meant to be God was to pour yourself out and to draw unto yourself all the pain of the world.
And when you realize that Christ Jesus, the one true God, drew all of your pain unto himself and that he reigns over all creation, thats when you want to get in on the plan. Thats when you, if youre a part of the church, want to embrace those who are seeking God. Thats when you, if youre seeking God, want to bow down to him. Thats when all of us want to pour ourselves out for this God who poured himself out for us.
(1) Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 1999. Pantheon Books, New York. Pp. 41-44.
Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE ("NASB"). © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Where indicated, Scripture quotations were also taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ("NIV"). © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
April 9, 2000
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