YEAR A: ALL SAINTS
(All Saints may be celebrated on Sunday November 1 or on the Sunday after November 1)
Isaiah 51:1-6 (alt.)
In the passage the Lord speaks to a dispirited people who ‘pursue righteousness’ and ‘seek the Lord’ (v. 1) even though all they seem to experience is waste places, wilderness and desert (v. 3).
Isaiah 51 begins with three passages commencing with ‘listen to me’ (vv. 1-3; vv. 4-6; and vv. 7-8). Two of the passages belong to today’s reading. The first passage (vv. 1-3) calls upon the people to consider the past history of Israel with the Lord, who described as ‘the rock from which they were hewn and the quarry from which they were dug’. It then calls them to look to Abraham and Sarah who although insignificant and barren to begin became a great people through the Lord’s promise. The reference here is especially to Genesis 12:1-3, the summation of the promise to Abraham. The Israel which now exists is the very witness to the Lord fulfilling the promise. The writer then turns to the matter at hand, the desolation of Zion which the people have endured. The Lord makes a promise about that too and the invitation is to believe that promise. The waste and wilderness that is Jerusalem and Judah after defeat by the Babylonians will become like Eden, the garden of the Lord, a place of abundant fertility, a source of life for its people. The references in these verses allude to the beginnings of the people of Israel (Abraham and Sarah) as well as to creation itself.
Verses 4-6 then speak of the coming salvation the Lord promises and of teaching and justice that will flow from the Lord to the peoples. Deliverance will come swiftly, indeed it already has gone out to those who wait and hope for it in the Lord (v. 5). The peoples are then called to observe the heavens and earth. The world as they know it will come to an end, described in apocalyptic terms, while the promised salvation and deliverance from God will last forever (v. 6).
The third passage beginning ‘listen to me’ (vv. 7-8) goes on in vivid metaphors to describe the end of those who reproach and revile the Lord’s people. It ends in almost a parallel statement to the end of v. 6 with reference to the Lord’s deliverance and salvation and their eternal nature.
The passage echoes other material in Isaiah especially that connected with the suffering servant of the Lord. That servant will listen faithfully to the Lord (cf. Isa 51:1, 4, 7 with 50:4-5); bring justice to the nations (cf. 51:4 with 42:1); he will be a light to the nations (cf. 51:4 with 49:6); he will be involved with teaching (cf. 51:4 with 50:4); he will be reviled and despised (cf. 51:7-8 with 50:6; 52:13-53:12); and he will be delivered by the Lord from those who oppose him (cf. 51:6, 8 with 50:7-9). The way the book is set up suggests that the servant figure will be a model for the whole people. But also it suggests that the promise of a new creation, a new Eden being experienced filled with joy, gladness, thanksgiving and song, will not be fulfilled without some level of suffering, of the whole people as well as the servant. Nor will it be fulfilled without a change in the people who will listen to the Lord, receive and execute the Lord’s justice, hear the Lord’s teaching and see the light that comes forth.
In the context of All Saints Day, the passage seeks to maintain hope for a world recreated by the Lord even though much speaks against it. It also speaks of the struggle for that to come about which will involve the Lord’s people.
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