The first reading for Sunday August 28, Isaiah 51:1-6, was composed during the time of the Babylonian exile. The Israelites had come to understand their captivity as punishment for having abandoned their worship of God. They longed for freedom and a return to both Israel and their covenant relationship with God. It was a time of yearning and of spiritual renewal.
While Isaiah spoke and wrote in Babylon, his intended audience was not the whole citizenship of that city but just the Israelite captives. He gave voice to God’s words when he commanded the captives to,
Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness
and who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock from which you were cut
and to the quarry from which you were hewn;
look to Abraham, your father,
and to Sarah, who gave you birth.
When I called him he was only one man,
and I blessed him and made him many.
Listen and look are invitations as much as they are commands. God instructs the Israelites who pursue righteousness, to recall their origins in Abraham and, by extension, his faithful following of God’s instructions, regardless of how counterintuitive those instructions seemed.
At this point in the reading, Isaiah stops speaking on God’s behalf and adds his own commentary based on his personal experience with God.
The Lord will surely comfort Zion
and will look with compassion on all her ruins;
he will make her deserts like Eden,
her wastelands like the garden of the Lord.
Joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the sound of singing.
Isaiah’s poetry swells with the joy of expectation for the coming comfort and compassion, joy and gladness. His similes dance in his promises that God will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Isaiah conjures up a garden like Eden in the face of the harsh conditions of the Babylonian exile.
Returning to his prophetic task of conveying God’s invitation, Isaiah then repeats a form of listen and look:
Listen to me, my people;
hear me, my nation:
Instruction will go out from me;
my justice will become a light to the nations.
My righteousness draws near speedily,
my salvation is on the way,
and my arm will bring justice to the nations.
The islands will look to me
and wait in hope for my arm.
Righteousness means ‘right relationship’. When God speaks of it, he refers not only to his relationship with humanity, but also between nations. Justice will define that innate senses of fairness.
Then God offers the Israelites a different reference point, his own.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
look at the earth beneath;
the heavens will vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment
and its inhabitants die like flies.
But my salvation will last forever,
my righteousness will never fail.
God’s scale is more than cosmic. Though the heavens and earth will pass away, God promised that my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail. The grandeur exceeds anything the Israelites could see or imagine.
Just as Isaiah spoke to a select group of people within Babylon, Jesus, in the gospel for Sunday (Matt 16: 13-20), narrowed his focus from the crowds to his disciples. A pivotal exchange for Jesus, Peter, the church and the history of the world follows:
Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven….
Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
The Son of Man was a reference to Daniel 7:13: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.” In other words, the Son of Man was a holy one, very close to God, the Ancient of Days.
Jesus asked the disciples who they thought this person was. The list of people they offered… John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets, included people acknowledged to have lived by the spirit of God.
Then he asked who they thought the Son of Man was. It was then that Peter spoke. He may have suspected, he may have thought about it as he reflected on the miracles, the teaching, Jesus’ very presence …or he may have blurted it out without thinking…inspired by grace. Regardless, it was Peter who voiced the truth, without fully appreciating it himself.
As a sentence, Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah, does two things. First, it hints that there are other things that need to be accomplished before publicizing Jesus role (such as his transfiguration, further teaching of the disciples in parables and his crucifixion and death). But second, the sentence confirms for them that he, Jesus, was the Son of Man, the Messiah. He was to personify and fulfill Isaiah’s promise,
my justice will become a light to the nations…
my salvation is on the way.
One reason for telling the disciples his true identity at this time may have been because he wanted to sharpen the focus of their attention. He may have known that he impressed them, that they liked him and enjoyed his companionship. But he wanted them to grasp a deeper significance to his life that could only come with this understanding that he was the Messiah. He had many things yet to teach them, (including some stark and sobering lessons that we will hear about next week) and that they needed to appreciate the full paradoxical nature of his Messiahship before proclaiming it.
He needed them to be in right relationship with him.
- Have you ever looked to the past for reference and speculated about how you would respond to historic events? It could be to wonder about what it was like to be the first to hear great artists such as Bach or Mozart, before their music was familiar. It could have been to see Van Gough’s paintings that were so different from conventional art. Imagine what it was like to hear Isaiah draw a reference to Abraham and to invite the Israelites to embrace the same kind of spirit.
- What does righteousness mean to you? How do you try to live in right relationship with God? Does it mean living in understanding that God is with us at all times? Does it imply some kind of behaviour?… Gratitude? Praise? Prayer for others? … that would bring you closer to God?
- What do you imagine Peter thought after he spoke the words, You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God? I’ve wanted to tell him this for a while? I’ve wondered about this but am surprised at myself that I said it aloud? I had no idea that this is what I’d say…but it sounds right?