It was 539 years before God would appear in a tiny Bethlehem stable. An older Jewish man was sitting among his friends in the great city of Babylon. He was old enough to remember the good ole’ days. Back in Jerusalem…Before the war…The war they had lost…The war that now left him stranded in a strange land.
Some of the younger ones had never been to the “homeland.” They’d grown up surrounded by statues to the Babylonian God, Marduk. They’d grown up under the authority of Babylonian kings. They’d been “strangers” in this land their entire lives.
Now, their parents had endured the long trip from Jerusalem to Babylon. Many of them had been stripped from the arms of their mothers and fathers. Exiled from everything they had ever known. So, now, this older man sat among people of varied memories. Some longed for the good ole’ days in Jerusalem. Some longed to see the sights they’d only heard about from stories. All of them were waiting. Waiting for the day God would finally rescue them.
In his hand, the man held a scroll—a message from far away. A prophet, they had been told. His name was Isaiah. And as this man read the words aloud to his friends, the mood suddenly changed.
Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
For your sake I will send to Babylon
and break down all the bars,
and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation.[a]
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
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?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise. (Isaiah 43:14–21)
As he sat the letter down, they all realized...God is still here. And God is as powerful as God ever was!
If nothing else, these words from Isaiah reminded those captive Hebrews that Yahweh had a track record for bringing salvation to His people. The entire text here in Isaiah is set against the backdrop of the Exodus story. Then, God made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters. Now, God had promised to make a new way. This time in the desert. This time making streams in a wasteland. In the end, this message from Isaiah to the Hebrew captives in Babylon was meant to give them hope.
You see, it had been some time since they’d seen God’s power. Some of them were wondering if there really was a God. Isaiah sent them this message to remind them of Who God really was. This is the God who made a dry path through the Red Sea. This is the God who drew out the Egyptian army and then drowned them in the waters. One would believe this message would do the trick. Surely, this reminder alone would spark hope in the Hebrew community. Surely, after hearing these words from Isaiah, they would shout for joy. But there was still a problem…These people had never seen the Red Sea parted. They had never seen the drowned Egyptians. The days of seeing the Nile turned to blood and the sky turned to darkness had passed. They were doomed to live in the “latter” days.
“God may have done great things back then, but those days are over.”
What message is there for a group of people like this? A message that promises good things to come. Through this writing, Isaiah prophesied that a day was coming (in the very near future) when God would once again display God’s power. Once again, God would rescue God’s people. Once again, God would lead God’s people out of a strange land. But this time, they were going to be there. They may not have seen a parted Red Sea, but they would certainly see a way open up through the wilderness. A path from Babylon to Jerusalem.
Later in this book, he was more explicit saying God would use Cyrus of Persia as an instrument. We know from history that in the year 528, Cyrus finally went into Babylon and defeated that empire once and for all. He immediately issued a decree sending captives back to their homelands. So, what these Hebrew exiles were reading from Isaiah would happen imminently. In only months or even weeks, the siege began on Babylon. Less than a year after reading Isaiah’s words, they made their way through the path prepared for them by God.
Have you ever felt like these captive Hebrews?
I think many Christian communities are very similar. We have people of varied memories among us this morning. Some remember the mighty things God has done among His people. The 1950s witnessed the greatest period of growth among Christians this country has ever seen. Church buildings were built. People accepted Jesus by the thousands. Missionaries were sent all over the world.
There are others whose experience with “the church” is very different. I meet teenagers and college students and young adults all the time who are fed up with church and religion. They get tired of our disagreements over doctrine. They are turned off by our divisions. To them, the “love of God” is more of a theory than a reality.
What message is there that will bring hope to a people like us? The same kind of message that brought hope to Hebrew captives in Babylon: A message that promises good things to come!
Next week is “Mission’s Sundays” here at Glenwood. This has been a long and rich tradition here. Some of you remember the excitement surrounding this Sunday in past years. This has been a time when everyone was reminded of the missionaries already in the field. Also, a time when there was a collective desire to send more missionaries to the field. It is always a time when we remember missionaries sent by this congregation into the world to make a difference. We think of these families and we remember the good things God has done!
This year, the Mission’s Committee has a renewed sense of vigor (it that a correct statement?). They’ve said, “We know Glenwood has a long history of missions.” For years (decades) we have sent missionaries all over the world. We have missionaries in Africa. We support works in Europe and South America. We have led the way in so many ways over the decades. But we don’t want to be stuck on our past. They said, “We don’t want to dwell on the past. We want to see that God is doing something new.”
They brought in Evertt Huffard, who will be here with us next week. I think the best way to say this is that he created a real sense of excitement! Our missions team is ready for us to dream new dreams together. To see God do some extraordinary things among God’s people at Glenwood. Like Isaiah called the people Israel all those years ago, our missions team is calling us to open up our eyes to see the power of God at work in Glenwood today.
There are some who look at us today and really do believe our best days are behind us. Certainly, there are not 700 people in this room like there was a few years ago. Some believe that means we are on the decline—no way to make a difference anymore. For all of you who have had those feelings, I want to ask you to do something for me this morning. Do not limit the power of God. Recognize that God is just as powerful today as God has always been.
Next week, Evertt Huffard will talk to us about the mission of this church. The missions team will probably ask you to continue to support the missions of this church financially. They may ask you to do what you can to reach their “missions goal.” I’ll let you in on a secret. I think we will blow the top off of that goal! Because I think we are ready to see God do something new. We are ready to see God continue His mighty works through the people here at Glenwood. Just like the many who have come before us, we’re ready to walk in the way God has prepared before us. Between now and then, I encourage you to pray about your role in that mission and then watch as God does something amazing…something new among us.
I received a letter. It is addressed to God’s people in a strange land. Some of whom have seen the power of God displayed in amazing ways in the past. Some of whom have longed to see it for a long time. All of whom desperately want to go home.
GOD, your Redeemer,
The Holy of Israel, says:
“Just for you, I will march on Babylon.
I’ll turn the tables on the Babylonians.
Instead of whooping it up,
they’ll be wailing.
I am GOD, your Holy One,
Creator of Israel, your King.”
This is what GOD says,
the God who builds a road right through the ocean,
who carves a path through pounding waves,
The God who summons horses and chariots and armies—
they lie down and then can’t get up;
they’re snuffed out like so many candles:
“Forget about what’s happened;
don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
rivers in the badlands.
Wild animals will say ‘Thank you!’
—the coyotes and the buzzards—
Because I provided water in the desert,
rivers through the sun-baked earth,
Drinking water for the people I chose,
the people I made especially for myself,
a people custom-made to praise me. (Isaiah 43:14–21)
God has invited us to walk in the way He has prepared for us so that we may proclaim His praise!