Christopher O'Keefe is a student in the Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree program.
Sometimes, a simple reminder can make all the difference. My first semester at Austin Grad was such a time.
My bachelor’s degree is in mathematics. And as you can probably imagine, a degree in mathematics is a world apart from a degree in theology. During my years studying math, I probably wrote no more than two or three small writing assignments. Writing was not a strength. In fact, writing was pretty scary at the time. When I entered the theology program at Austin Grad, I didn’t realize how writing intensive the program would be. About half-way through the semester, with mid-term exams upon me and paper deadlines getting closer, I began to feel overwhelmed. Stress, anxiety, and a fear of failure set in that crippled my productivity.
I wasn’t sure how (or if) I would survive my first semester. However, I endured. All it took was a simple reminder to relieve me of my stress.
When the reminder came, it wasn’t new information or something that I didn’t know. It was just a simple reminder of something that had been forgotten in the midst of all the stress and anxiety. I was reminded just to put forward my best effort and forget about the outcome. This wasn’t new advice but at the moment, this simple reminder was all I needed to refocus on the task and endure the trial.
The purpose of this passage in Isaiah is also a simple reminder for the Judean exiles. In Israel’s past, God had rescued them from slavery, made a covenant with them, and gave them a land. However, generations pass and the covenant is broken. The children of Israel are sent from their land into exile. While in exile, will the children of Israel lose hope? Will they endure? They need a word of comfort.
In our passage, the Israelites being referenced aren’t all of Israel and it’s not a random selection of exiled Israel. Earlier in the chapter they are specifically referred to as those “who pursue righteousness… who seek the Lord… the people in whose heart is [God’s] law…”. Here, the prophet is specifically addressing this remnant.
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In the verses leading up to our passage, the remnant is addressing their God. And specifically they are addressing the God that rescued their ancestors from Egyptian slavery. They call for the “arm of the Lord” to wake up “as in the days of old.” The God who “dried up the sea […] for the redeemed to pass over.” Though they’re in exile, separated from their inheritance, the prophet says that “the ransomed of the Lord shall return.” They will again “come to Zion with singing.” It’s a promise of returning to the land. When that happens they will “obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
But what about before that happens? At that moment, they were not experiencing joy and gladness. At that moment, some are lacking food, some are held captive, some are being oppressed by their captors. They are afraid. They need comfort. They need a word to help them endure their trial.
So the prophet brings them a word of comfort. In our passage God is speaking. To bring comfort, God gives them a reminder. He reminds them of two things.
First, God reminds them of Who He Is.
In the verses leading up to the passage, these Israelites remember the God who saved their ancestors from Egyptian slavery. And that’s good. But God wants to remind them of his even greater acts of power. God says why are you afraid of these men, they come and go like grass. Yet I am the creator, the one who “stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth.” I’m the one “who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar.” You know, your captors may have an army, but my name is Jehovah of Armies.
God reminds them of Who He Is… But, Who He Is isn’t the only thing he reminds them of. To know how great and powerful God is by itself doesn’t necessarily do someone any good. Why? Because, if the God of all creation is against you, then that would actually be pretty scary news. And so… The second thing he reminds them of is just as important as the first.
So after reminding them of Who He Is, he then reminds them of Who They Are.
To them he says, “I have put my words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of my hand.” “You are my people.” What more is needed? The God who, not only has power to deliver them from Egyptian slavery, but is the actual creator of the heavens and the earth… he calls them his people. If that God is for you, why be afraid of your human captors; why be afraid of the conditions of exile. Comfort is given by reminding them of Who God Is and Who They Are.
Let us be reminded of Who God Is and Who We Are. Our passage reminds us of the powerful creator God, who “stretched out the heavens and laid the foundation of the earth” and who calls this faithful remnant of Israel his people. However, we should also be reminded of another characteristic of this God. God who, after creating, doesn’t abandon his people to their own mess. But, he rescues his people through the death and resurrection of his son. And after rescue, he promises recreation with a new heaven and new earth.
In this act, we see a beautiful picture of Who God Is, a God of rescue and recreation. But, just like in our passage, knowing Who God Is alone isn’t good enough. If you're not included in the people that God rescued, then there is no hope, no comfort. So the reminder doesn’t end there.
After we’re reminded of Who God Is, we’re then reminded of Who We Are. Now, in our passage, God refers to a faithful remnant of Israel as… his people. However, the apostles remind us that it’s not just Israel that God included in the rescue mission of Christ crucified. But that all of humanity was included in the rescue. For the apostles, this act of God is the defining act of God’s love.
Therefore, we see exactly Who We Are and in fact Who All of Humanity Is; we are the beloved of God. If we will live our lives in light of the fact that we are the beloved of God and included in his rescue mission, then we have nothing in this life to fear. Therefore, today, the reminder is Who God Is and Who We Are.
Once we’ve been comforted and strengthened in our faith with the reminder of Who God Is (as creator, rescuer, and re-creator) and the reminder of Who We Are (as beloved of God and included in his rescue mission), let’s continue to partner with God in his rescue mission by reminding the others around us of Who God Is and Who They Are.
The Scripture: Isaiah 51
“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness,
you who seek the Lord:
look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
2 Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
that I might bless him and multiply him.
3 For the Lord comforts Zion;
he comforts all her waste places
and makes her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.
4 “Give attention to me, my people,
and give ear to me, my nation;
for a law[a] will go out from me,
and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples.
5 My righteousness draws near,
my salvation has gone out,
and my arms will judge the peoples;
the coastlands hope for me,
and for my arm they wait.
6 Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and they who dwell in it will die in like manner;[b]
but my salvation will be forever,
and my righteousness will never be dismayed.
7 “Listen to me, you who know righteousness,
the people in whose heart is my law;
fear not the reproach of man,
nor be dismayed at their revilings.
8 For the moth will eat them up like a garment,
and the worm will eat them like wool,
but my righteousness will be forever,
and my salvation to all generations.”
9 Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the Lord;
awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago.
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?
10 Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to pass over?
11 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
12 “I, I am he who comforts you;
who are you that you are afraid of man who dies,
of the son of man who is made like grass,
13 and have forgotten the Lord, your Maker,
who stretched out the heavens
and laid the foundations of the earth,
and you fear continually all the day
because of the wrath of the oppressor,
when he sets himself to destroy?
And where is the wrath of the oppressor?
14 He who is bowed down shall speedily be released;
he shall not die and go down to the pit,
neither shall his bread be lacking.
15 I am the Lord your God,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord of hosts is his name.
16 And I have put my words in your mouth
and covered you in the shadow of my hand,
establishing[c] the heavens
and laying the foundations of the earth,
and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.’”
17 Wake yourself, wake yourself,
stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord
the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
the bowl, the cup of staggering.
18 There is none to guide her
among all the sons she has borne;
there is none to take her by the hand
among all the sons she has brought up.
19 These two things have happened to you—
who will console you?—
devastation and destruction, famine and sword;
who will comfort you?[d]
20 Your sons have fainted;
they lie at the head of every street
like an antelope in a net;
they are full of the wrath of the Lord,
the rebuke of your God.
21 Therefore hear this, you who are afflicted,
who are drunk, but not with wine:
22 Thus says your Lord, the Lord,
your God who pleads the cause of his people:
“Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more;
23 and I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
who have said to you,
‘Bow down, that we may pass over’;
and you have made your back like the ground
and like the street for them to pass over.”
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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering accredited B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees. Austin Grad -- one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas -- is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.