Hope in the Wilderness

by | 23 Jun, 2022 | Carey Staff | 0 comments

Hope in the Wilderness

by John Tucker

This is what the Lord says—
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“For your sake I will send to Babylon
    and bring down as fugitives all the Babylonians,
    in the ships in which they took pride.
15 I am the Lord, your Holy One,
    Israel’s Creator, your King.”
16 This is what the Lord says—
    he who made a way through the sea,
    a path through the mighty waters,
17 who drew out the chariots and horses,
    the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
    extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
18 “Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.
20 The wild animals honor me,
    the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21     the people I formed for myself
    that they may proclaim my praise.

Isaiah 43:14-21

A few weeks ago, I read a really interesting book called The Choice. It’s written by Edith Eger, a holocaust survivor. At one point she says this:

I knew a girl at Auschwitz who was very ill and wasting away. Every morning I expected to find her dead on her bunk, and I feared at every selection line that she’d be sent toward death. But she surprised me. She managed to gather strength each morning to work another day and kept a lively spark in her eyes each time she faced Mengele’s pointing finger in a selection line. At night she would collapse onto her bunk, breathing in rasps. I asked her how she was managing to go on. “I heard we’re going to be liberated by Christmas,” she said. She kept a meticulous calendar in her head, counting down the days and then the hours until our liberation, determined to live to be free. Then Christmas came, but our liberators did not. And she died the next day. I believe that her inner voice of hope kept her alive, but when she lost hope she wasn’t able to keep living.

This passage in Isaiah 43 was written for the people of Israel at a time when they desperately needed hope. Their nation has been destroyed by the Babylonians. Their leaders have been dragged off into exile. Their God has been dismissed as irrelevant. They’re struggling with all the D words: they’re disoriented, discouraged, disillusioned, despairing, doubting – doubting that God can renew them, doubting that God wants to renew them. They need a word of hope. And in this passage, that’s what God gives them – a word of hope, or two words of hope.

Passion

You might have noticed that the passage contains two separate poems, each starting with the phrase, “This is what the Lord says…” The first poem centres on a promise in v. 14 where God says:

For your sake I will send to Babylon
and bring down as fugitives all the Babylonians,
in the ships in which they took pride.

This is clearly a reference to the fall of Babylon at the hands of Cyrus, the Persian king who God will “send” as his servant to conquer Babylon and free his people. The picture here is of Babylonian ships, which had brought great wealth and pride into the city, suddenly laden with refugees escaping from the city as Cyrus invades from the north. But, like a picture transformed by the frame surrounding it, this picture or promise is transformed by what surrounds it. Look at the cluster of names that are given here to describe the One who will do this sending.

In v. 14 we read that he is “the LORD,” or Yahweh, the God who bound himself by covenant to the people of Israel. He is “Israel’s Redeemer,” the God who takes as his own all the needs of his people. He is “the Holy One of Israel,” the God who is faithful to his covenant people, even when they are not faithful. Then in v. 15 we see that he is “Israel’s Creator,” the God who created or birthed Israel as a nation when he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. And he is “your King.” In the ancient Near East the king was, in one sense, the father of his people. Do you see the theme? Each name speaks of God’s passionate personal commitment to his people, his family.

As a child I had a front-row view of this kind of faithfulness. My two older brothers were both adopted at birth, and it would be fair to say that they struggled with a sense of being abandoned, or displaced, or exiled from their family of origin. I remember late one night my brother arguing with dad at the top of his voice, then shouting, “I hate you!,” before slamming the front door shut, and storming off into the night. I’ll never forget hearing my dad and my mum sobbing quietly in the room next door. And I’ll never forget watching my mum and dad searching for their son, yearning for their son, and when he came home, killing the fattened calf and rejoicing over their son. And then on Sunday singing the hymn, “O Love that will not let me go.”

The God we worship is a God who reveals himself in this text as the Faithful One. So, he says to his people (v. 14), it’s “for your sake” that I will send Cyrus to crush Babylon. Isn’t that incredible? The Persian empire will rise, the Babylonian empire will fall, world history will turn, because of God’s passionate commitment to his exiled people. Large-scale geopolitical shifts will take place because of God’s unfailing love for his covenant people. The Lord will rearrange global forces in order to rescue and renew his people.

William Temple, the remarkable Anglican church leader, once said, “The supreme wonder of the history of the Christian church is that always in the moments when it seemed most dead, out of its body would spring new life.” I teach church history at Carey, and I think he’s right. Think about the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Think about the Radical Reformation in the 17th century. Think about the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century. Think about the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century. Think about the Charismatic Renewal of the 20th century. In those moments when the church seems most dead, God causes new life to spring up. He is faithful to his covenant people. Even when they are unfaithful.

Staff Profile Thumbnail - Dr John Tucker
Dr John Tucker – Principal

In recent years, in New Zealand Church engagement on Sundays has declined. Cultural values held by the church have been dismissed. Public attitudes towards Christianity have deteriorated. Economic forces have begun to endanger the viability of many faith communities. Sometimes it can feel like we’re in exile. If you’re a pastor, for those of us with grey hair, the homeland in which we began ministry seems far away. God can seem far away.

But the word of hope for us in this first poem, is that God is passionately committed to his people. He will not abandon his church. I was talking a couple of weeks ago to one of our students at Carey. He’s Maori. He said to me, “Do you know how many Maori are coming to faith in Jesus at the moment, right across New Zealand?” It is staggering. God has not abandoned his church. I was chatting with Alan Jamieson last week. Do you know how many Christians today in Tripura trace their whakapapa to New Zealand Baptist missionaries? 115,000. And guess how many of them have come to faith and been baptised in the last 2-3 years. 15,000. God has not abandoned his church.

Power

Which brings us to the second part of this passage. If the first poem assures us of God’s passion for the church, this second poem assures us of God’s power on behalf of his church. In v. 16 we read:

This is what the Lord says—
        he who made a way through the sea,
                 a path through the mighty waters,
     who drew out the chariots and horses,
                 the army and reinforcements together,
     and they lay there, never to rise again,
                 extinguished, snuffed out like a wick.

This is clearly a reference to the Exodus, when God demonstrated his sovereignty over both people and place. Look at the verbs. Most translations place them in the past tense. “This is what the LORD says—he who made a way through the sea … who drew out the chariots and horses.” But these verbs are actually (present) participles. A better translation would be, “This is what the Lord says—he who makes a way through the sea … who draws out the chariots and horses.” This is in the present tense. The point is that what God has done, is not all that God can do, or will do. The spectacular acts of God in the past do not merely belong to the past. Because God is faithful to his people, and because he is sovereign over both people and places, he is forever leading his people into new life.

That’s why in v. 18 he suddenly pivots and says:

“Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

Do you see what he’s promising his people here? He’s promising them another Exodus, a new Exodus. He’s saying, “Just as I once made a way for you through the sea, I am now making a way for you across the sand. Just as I once turned the mighty waters into dry land, I am now turning the dry land into streams of water.”

Yes, this is a guarantee that he will guide and sustain his people on their journey from exile in Babylon. But it’s more than that. In v. 20 God says, “the wild animals honour me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” This is an image of cosmic transformation, in which all creation rejoices. God is promising that he will renovate and renew his entire creation – all people and places. And with Jesus, it’s begun. The one who calls himself “the way,” the One who offers “living water” to those who are thirsty, says, “Come, follow me, join me in the new things that I am doing.”

How might we do that? Some time back one of our lecturers at Carey, George Wieland, offered though our Centre for Lifelong Learning a course on local mission. First, he had the participants read some literature on local mission. Then he got them to walk through their neighbourhoods, engaging in some simple practices. He said, “As you walk the streets, ask God to help you see what he sees, and delight in what he delights in, and grieve over what he grieves over. Pray for the blessings of God’s kingdom for your neighbourhood and look for signs of that kingdom.” Then, afterwards, he had them write a short reflection about what they’d seen and heard, what they’d noticed and wanted to know more about, what they’d prayed for, and what they felt prompted by God to act on.

Finally, he met with each participant to discuss their experience and to help them develop a tentative strategy for bringing gospel renewal to their neighbourhood.

One of the participants walked the streets around the church building where he worshiped. He ended up on the campus of the local university, where he found himself gazing on a community with hundreds of international students, students desperate to connect with Kiwi families, students wide open to conversations about faith. God had brought them from the nations to his doorstep. It dawned on him that this was where he and his church family needed to be. God was doing something new, right under their nose.

If you’re like me, the last two years will have felt, at times, like a wilderness. Extended lockdowns, vaccine mandates, constant uncertainty, financial pressure, regular pivoting have all taken their toll.

Maybe, like Israel in exile, you’re feeling a little disoriented, discouraged, disillusioned. Hear the word of God through the prophet Isaiah: “I am passionately committed to you, my people. And I am present with all my power to bring new life, both to you, and to the neighbourhoods in which I have you placed you as my witnesses.”

See, I am doing a new thing!

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