So Shall My Word: Thoughts on the impact, certainty and hope of God’s word.

So Shall My Word

Some years ago, I decided to take up fishing.

I went out and bought an ultra-light rod, some spider wire fishing line, metal head hooks and rubber slugs with wavy tails.

I got a license to fish and off to the dock I went.

I was fishing for pan fish, particularly crappy bass.

Later, I got some sturdier tackle and even bought a small boat so I could fish for largemouth bass in amongst the weed bed at the head of Edinboro Lake.

For me, fishing was pretty relaxing and peaceful.

The reason it was so relaxing and peaceful was that I rarely caught any fish.

And when I did I just threw them back.

In the middle of my foray into “fishermanhood”, I was asked to go out on Lake Erie to fish for walleye with my friend Bob.

Cap’n Bob, as we all called him, always recited the same mantra.

“We are not going fishing; we are going to catch fish.”

He was pretty sure we would, too, because his boat had sonar and outriggers that basically allowed him to put the lure, coated with stuff fish think smells like dinner, right in front of the nose of the fish.

When the fish grabbed it, the outrigger snapped up, setting the hook, and all we had to do was reel it in.

It was rare that Cap,n Bob would send out a line that did not bring back a fish.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

Isaiah 55: 6-13

6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,
   call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
   and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
   and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
   it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 For you shall go out in joy,
   and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
   shall burst into song,
   and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
   instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Now what does Cap’n Bob have to do with Isaiah?

Listen again:

So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

When Cap’n Bob sent out his line, it almost always caught a fish.

When God sends out God’s word, it always accomplished God’s purpose.

Cap’n Bob’s line rarely came back empty.

God’s word never comes back empty.

It accomplishes its purpose.

What is that purpose?

Isaiah gives us a startling response to that question.

God’s purpose is beyond our complete understanding.

God’s word does what God wants it to do.

And we don’t know what that is.

God’s word creates and sustains.

It is the natural order.

It ties all things together.

It is cosmic and universal, intertwined with history and the natural world.

It is the DNA of all things.

It comes down from God with purpose.

We see it in the rain.

The rain that comes down from above.

The rain waters the earth and brings forth food that feeds God’s people.

It ends the dormancy of winter and causes the earth to be reborn.

God’s word comes down from above and nurtures God’s creation, which includes us.

God’s word, and its impact, is reliable, trustworthy and certain.

God is always in action.

And so, we can have hope.

Isaiah is telling us about that.

How do we know that?

Well, let me offer a bit of a history lesson that illustrates Isaiah’s message.

Who was Isaiah and who was he talking to?

The Isaiah of chapter 55 was a prophet in the time when Judah, the remnant of David’s Kingdom, was in exile in Babylon.

Judah had been captured and the people of Jerusalem were removed and scattered among the Babylonians.

Removing conquered people from their homes was a common practice in those days.

Its purpose was to make sure there was little chance of revolt among the conquered people.

Taking conquered people into captivity took away their identity as a people and assimilated them into the conquering culture.

Isaiah was speaking to the Judahite exiles in Babylon who didn’t want that to happen to them.

They didn’t want to become Babylonians.

They didn’t want to forget who and whose they were.

They didn’t want to be imprisoned in a foreign land.

Spiritually starving.

With no way out.

Then along comes Isaiah with a word from God.

It was actually a word from God about God’s word.

Isaiah said that God’s word could restore God’s people.

God’s word, like spring rain, could bring life back to a dormant community.

God’s word was going to take the exiles home.

That was God’s word for these people and it would not return empty.

Now that did not mean that everyone would return, some wanted to remain in Babylon and be Babylonians.

But God’s purpose was that there would be a return.

The community would be reborn.

God’s word would not return empty.

Isaiah’s message is one of hope and certainty.

Does Isaiah’s message resonate with us?

It should.

It is applicable to our current situation.

We are in the same circumstance as the Judahite exiles in Babylon.

We have not been conquered and taken from our homes to a far-off place, but we are certainly under siege by the Babylonians of our secular culture squeezing the life out of us and the church.

Not to mention a pandemic that has exiled us from our sanctuary.

We are afraid that we are beginning to forget who and whose we are.

We begin to turn to “foreign gods” that promise a false security.

A promise that is never kept.

A promise that leads to … well … meaninglessness.

This is nothing new.

Our faith stories tell us that.

God’s people periodically forget God.

God sends out God’s word to lead God’s people back.

Look at Moses.

The Israelites had loved in Egypt for 400 years.

They forgot God and became enslaved.

God sent Moses to lead them back to God.

God gave the people meaning and purpose and community.

But it did not last.

Read Exodus.

Read Joshua.

Better yet, read the book of Judges.

Judge after judge after judge rescued the tribes of Israel when they “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord”, only to have it happen again and again and again.

And that kind of thing has never really stopped.

That’s why the prophets came.

That’s why Isaiah came.

That’s why Jesus came.

It is happening again today.

According to a report form NPR:

Fewer than half of U.S. adults say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, according to a new Gallup survey that highlights a dramatic trend away from religious affiliation in recent years among all age groups.

The new Gallop Poll, published Monday, indicates that religious membership in the U.S. has fallen to just 47% among those surveyed — representing less than half of the adult population for the first time since Gallup began asking the question more than 80 years ago. …

In conclusion, Gallup states that though the “U.S. remains a religious nation … far fewer, now less than half, have a formal membership with a specific house of worship.”

Then there is the more recent Barna research that found one third of Christians have stopped participating in church during the pandemic, including 50% of millennials.

That is the case even though most churches have streamed worship online.

Here we go again, right?

People seeming to turn their backs on God.

They are in spiritual danger.

Where is God’s word?

Right where it always is.

Right here.

When Barna did its research, the data also suggested that people who remained connected to their faith communities, whether in person or online, managed the challenges of the pandemic much better than those that dropped out.

God’s word does not return empty.

Will all those people who have walked away come back?

No.

They like their false gods.

But those that do come back are most welcome.

That is what Isaiah said was the impact of God’s word.

It reconciles and restores.

And Jesus, the incarnate word, is the final manifestation of that promise.

Jesus Christ, the incarnate word, came to liberate us from our perceived meaninglessness.

Jesus came to teach us a way to live and thrive.

And we can have confidence and trust that it will happen!

Our job, as disciples of Jesus, is to reach out to those exiles with what we do and what we say and what we stand for

We must live as best we can consistent with the Jesus way.

If we do that, we, too, are proclaiming God’s word and it will not return empty.

Isaiah told the exiles, and tells us today, that in a broken world where sorrowful things happen, God will always be a part of our future, a future filled with hope and purpose.

But this is not always easy.

We are still living among the Babylonians.

Sometimes we cannot see the return on God’s word.

Maybe you have some friend or relative for whom you have prayed for a long time.

They live as secular people, as if there is no God.

You talk and pray, seemingly to no avail.

Your heart is broken.

At times it seems like a hopeless cause.

Nothing seems to change.

The object of your affection, a son, a daughter, a wife or husband, a father or mother, dear friend just seems lost.

Here in today’s word, there is hope.

God tells us: “My Word goes forth … it shall not return to me empty.”

So have your say with them.

Have your prayer for them.

Know that even one word from God will have its impact.

And they can be changed.

They can be different, even if you cannot see it.

According to Isaiah, there are few things in life which you can count on, but you can count on these two: the Word of God goes forth, and the Word of God does not return empty.

God speaks.

His words cause action.

His words have results.

And for those who look for them and are led by them, the world is a different place.

The Kingdom of God.

Isaiah describes that scene:

We shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before us
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;

And it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

All creation will rejoice at the event.

We will be joyful.

All will be at peace.

The mountains will sing, and the trees applaud at the work of the word.

The dangerous conditions of the world from which we are saved will become the cool shade of the cypress and the soft green groundcover of the myrtle.

The natural order will be returned to its intended serenity.

And it will all be a monument to the word, proclaiming that it will be eternal and undefeated.

That was good news to the exiled Jews.

It is good news for us today.

It is our hope and our certainty because it is the promise of God.

The hook is set.

We are bound to the lifeline.

Transported into the Kingdom of God.

So says Isaiah.

So says God.

Amen!

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