Predictions about the global economic outlook for the new year are not encouraging. Nor is the news of the ongoing aggression by Russia in Ukraine. Given the rise of powerful despots and divisions within western democracies, is there anything that we can do?
Two and a half millennia ago the Jewish people were in exile. In 586 BC Babylonian forces had rampaged through Judah, conquering Jerusalem, razing its walls and its temple to the ground. Political obliteration seemed inevitable as the cream of the population was taken to Babylon.
Yet the extraordinary thing was this: Judah’s morale was not destroyed. There was a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Isaiah, one of the prophets who had spoken of God’s impending judgment on the nation, had also sounded a voice of hope.
“Comfort, comfort, my people,” Isaiah chapter 40 begins and in the following chapters the prophet speaks of a ‘Servant’ whom God would raise up to rescue and restore his people.
Isaiah tells us that God’s plan involved Cyrus, an insignificant prince from the north of Babylon. Despite humble beginnings Cyrus rose to defeat the Babylonian forces and paved the way for the Persian Empire under Darius. With his rise to power Cyrus had the authority in 520BC to decree the release of the Jewish exiles, permitting their return to Jerusalem and the restoration of their city – a miraculous event. Isaiah speaks of Cyrus as God’s anointed (45:1).
But as we read on, we learn from Isaiah chapter 49 that God had greater plans for his Servant. In verse 1 we read God’s words: Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away!
God’s people were crying out for rescue, but this Servant doesn’t speak directly to them. Rather he speaks to the world at large, the islands and distant nations. The mission of this Servant is not just to God’s people, but also to the nations. His vision is global.
Yes, his work would involve the restoration of Judah, for in verse 5 we read: 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—
But there is something more. A needy world is waiting to hear the truth about God: “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” (Isaiah 49:6).
In fulfillment of his promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:3b), God’s plan is to extend his salvation to the nations. And, while verse 7 says that God’s Servant will suffer at the hands of the nations, a day would arrive when they – and even their leaders – would come to him.
Centuries before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah was opening a window on elements that would characterize his life. Wise men did come from the East to pay him homage at his birth. People from around the world have been coming to him ever since.
As we look back on Isaiah’s words through the lens of the New Testament we see that he was right. God’s king has now come. In his words and his actions Jesus revealed that he is God in the flesh. He not only taught with great authority but he also revealed God’s compassion for a needy world – feeding the hungry and healing the sick, overcoming the powers of evil and even raising the dead. But most of all, he dealt with our greatest need – our selfish, broken relationship with our Maker. Once and for all, at great cost to himself, he offered himself to die the death we deserve.
As yet, most people don’t know about Jesus, let alone acknowledge him as Lord. Many who do know about him may agree that in Jesus we have the greatest moral teacher who has ever lived. To follow his teachings, the world would certainly enjoy peace: nowhere did he ever encourage violence or evil. In fact, even when he was betrayed in a most ugly way, he told one of his followers to put away his sword. Jesus taught and exemplified truth and love, compassion and peace.
The Getty Music Compassion Hymn sets out the theme of God’s love and compassion and his commitment to rescue the lost:
There is an everlasting kindness You lavished on us when the Radiance of heaven came to rescue the lost; You called the sheep without a shepherd to leave their distress for Your streams of forgiveness and the shade of Your rest… / How beautiful the feet that carry this gospel of peace to the fields of injustice and the valleys of need – to be a voice of hope and healing, to answer the cries of the hungry and helpless with the mercy of Christ / What boundless love, what fathomless grace You have shown us, O God of compassion! Each day we live, an offering of praise as we show the world Your compassion.
The 17th century philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal observed: ‘Humanity despises religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is just to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men and women wish it were true, and then show them that it is’.
Will you join me in praying for God’s grace to let the light of his love and truth shine in our lives? Will you join me in praying that the Lord will open our eyes and give us the words to say to family and friends so that they too will come to learn of God’s goodness and compassion through reading one of the Gospels? John’s Gospel using TheWord121 (www.theword121.com) is a good place to start.
A prayer. Almighty and everlasting God, ruler of all things in heaven and on earth, hear with mercy the prayers and petitions of your people, and so grant us your peace all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.