For this post you really need Isaiah 6 in front of you. In fact, if you’re short on time skip this blog and just read the chapter. All of it. Not just the encouraging bits but the verses that don’t seem to make any sense. Isaiah 6 is God’s word to us in these difficult, disorientating times.
The chapter is rich and there are so many themes that could be followed up. The opening vision is breathtaking. Verses 1-8 speak of the majesty and holiness of God and how we’re saved through sacrifice. We marvel at God’s awesome nature and superabundant grace. We’re dazzled by what we see here.
All of this is perfectly fulfilled for us in Jesus. He dies in our place to make an intimate relationship with a holy God gloriously possible. Our sin and our guilt are dealt with. This is a message for our times – and for any time. Believe and receive.
What’s more we see he commissions us. It’s extraordinary really. We know ourselves only too well. We’re aware we let God down and of course he knows this far better than we do. But still he calls, still he commissions, still he sends. If we’ve really grasped this, we will want to say with the prophet: ‘Here am I, send me.’ This too is a message for our times. If you read this and sense God calling you to renew your commitment to him and his work then pause and do just that. If it’s only one person who responds in this way, writing this blog will have been more than worthwhile.
Yet it’s not the first eight verses that especially draw me at the moment. It’s the last four. Those difficult verses which appear so perplexing and which seem to strike such jarring, discordant notes. Because Isaiah’s ministry isn’t quite what we would have expected. After such a vision and such a call surely revival is about to break out in the land? We think the prophet will speak and people will hang on to every word. Personal transformation, community transformation – you name it, it will happen. But that’s not what we see. Rather it’s a long, tough struggle. Isaiah understandably cries out, ‘how long O Lord?’ Surely things will change now. But no, when God speaks it’s more of the same. Things are simply not working out the way anyone had hoped. These are troubled times, and there’s lots of confusion.
But here’s the thing. Isn’t this how many of us feel today? Personally, I’m frustrated and sad. Our church life was going really well. Conversions, baptisms and growth. A café had started and was helping us connect with more and more people. A new member of staff was encouraging a greater depth of missional discipleship. What’s more – I believed – this was only the beginning. And then Covid 19. The café is closed and the new group who are ready to be baptised have to wait. We can’t meet at all physically. Our online services are going well but, to be honest, it seems so much like second best. And now we’ve taken the difficult decision to furlough some of our wonderful staff. It’s frustrating, unexpected, confusing.
You may be a church leader and feeling something similar. But I suspect there are many others who could insert their own experiences here. You had great plans for mission and ministry, but they just need to be shelved for the moment. Maybe you were growing a business in a way which honoured God and contributed to the work of his Kingdom, now you’re having to tell staff they’re furloughed and that you don’t know whether the business will survive. Perhaps you’re self-isolating. Perhaps you’re grieving. Insert your own circumstances here. You don’t know what to cry to God. Except perhaps, ‘How long O Lord?’
Yet there is hope – and what hope it is. The final verse – the holy seed – speaks of the coming of Jesus. Covid 19 doesn’t have the last word. Jesus does. And that word is hope. Hope that can’t be kept down, which pushes through the devastation and blossoms into life.
What’s the practical takeaway here? It’s really to be faithful in the here and now, a faithfulness which is fired and sustained by our Christian hope. God called Isaiah to press forward in his difficult calling. And God – this extraordinary, holy, gracious, mysterious God – did his work through his prophet. He is trustworthy. Be faithful to him in what you have to do now, however unexpected and unwelcome. If you’re furloughing staff, do it well, bringing God’s wisdom and grace to bear. If you’re being furloughed, react in a way that’s different because you have Jesus. If you had big, expansive plans and find yourself stuck behind your four walls, try and be faithful there.
These are big challenges. Yet as this chapter shows us, we live for a God who is mighty and gracious. A God who always has the last word. And for today, that word is irrepressible Jesus-shaped hope.