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May 25, 2008
Isaiah 49:8-16a

Our journey with Genesis, which began last week on Trinity Sunday and continues through twelve Sundays in the season of Pentecost, is briefly interrupted this week with a reading from Isaiah 49. This reading is normally set down for Epiphany but because Easter was early this year it has been transferred to Pentecost.

While this brief return to Isaiah may seen out of place, it is far from being so following on from Trinity Sunday. It speaks about the day of salvation (v. 8), of calling prisoners to Ďcome outí (v. 9a), of feeding and leading them (vv. 9b-10), of Godís people coming from far away (v. 12), and of heaven and earth rejoicing because God has had comfort and compassion on his suffering people (v. 13; cf. Isa. 44:23 and 45:8). To this point the passage picks up a lot of imagery and themes from Isa. 40:1-11 Ė comfort, a penalty having been paid, making straight a way in the wilderness, leading the flock. What was a promise back in Isaiah 40 is described as a reality in Isaiah 49.

In addition we should note that todayís passage comes immediately after the second of the servant songs in Second Isaiah, Isa. 49:1-7. That passage was set down for reading on Tuesday of Holy Week (cf. also Epiphany 2). In Holy Week it was used to interpret and understand the suffering of Jesus leading to his crucifixion. In Isa. 49:1-7 the servant, in spite of some confidence (vv. 1-3) began to express concern over his mission (v. 4). This was answered by Godís encouragement and increase of the servantís task from restoring Israel to one of being a light to the nations (vv. 5-6). This is followed by Godís promise that despite being despised by others kings and princes will be astounded at what Godís faithfulness will achieve through the one chosen (v. 7). Todayís passage reads as the fulfilment of that promise too. In this context, Isa. 49:8-16a fits wonderfully after the story of Jesusí crucifixion and resurrection remembered over Easter and celebrated, especially the resurrection, through the Easter season. But we should not forget, as the Isaiah reading reminds us, that the suffering that the servant anticipated and endured (cf. Isa. 53:2-12) was part of the process of Godís redemption of his people. Likewise, we remember that the wonderful hope for Godís people, embodying as it does hope for all creation, is only won through suffering and death, be it of the servant or that which it foreshadows in Jesus the Christ. Such also becomes the call of discipleship for all who die and rise with Christ in baptism.

Todayís passage ends with the city of Zion, to which the redeemed flow, speaking of the despair of seeming abandonment by God (v. 14), just as Jesus had felt on the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). That cry is met by the assurance of God (Isa. 49:15-21) that he can no more forget his people than a mother forget the child she has born. Indeed the latter is more likely to happen before God should forget. The repetition of the word Ďforgetí three times in v. 15 underlines the point. Godís people are inscribed on the palm of his hand (v. 16a); such is Godís attachment to them and love for them. This image picks up the thought in Isa. 44:5 where some of the redeemed will write the Lordís name on their hand signifying a belonging and a reminder in prayer. However, that image, behind which could be the concept of the tephillim or prayer boxes strapped to the wrist (cf. Deut 6:8), is reversed here.

The Gospel reading for today, Matt. 6:24-34, has several connections to the Isa. 49:8-16a which may suggest themes for preaching. The lack of concern for what is needed in life and the need for trust in divine care which is deeply concerned for all creatures connects Jesusí words with the faith of the servant in Isaiah. The hints of present trouble in the Gospel reading recall the servantís role, especially when contrasted with a striving for the kingdom of God. Such reminders are appropriate at the start of the season of Pentecost with its focus on the growth of the church and discipleship. They are appropriate in times when the church seems to be struggling for survival.

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