Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Letter to the Church in America

Here is my final reflection paper for my Isaiah class...sorry if it bores you.





To my brothers and sisters in the Church of America,

I write to you concerning the book of Isaiah and the words within it that continue to speak to us today. It is hard to imagine with all the chaos, pain, strife, and struggles of today that God still speaks to his Church. But I am here to tell you that God does still speak to all of us today, and it is time for us to stop and listen. The book of Isaiah will be a helpful guide for us today. The book is not comprehensive to all of our experiences, but we can glean life-giving faith and hope from the words of the prophet. We must continue to strive for the work and love that our God calls us to as his church. The book of Isaiah speaks to us in this way, highlighting many characteristics of Yahweh that we have ignored for too long. Let us take up the call from Yahweh, so we will be a light unto the nations, reflecting the love of Yahweh and his son, Jesus Christ!!!

God’s Opening Vision for Israel
Tears and sorrow. This is the picture we find in the opening chapters of Isaiah. Yahweh is upset and disappointed with the people of Israel to the extent that he is surprised about the lack of growth and vitality the vineyard of his church has produced. Israel has become so blinded by their sin and self-destruction that they no longer recognize the One they claim to worship (1:3). God is the divine parent who has been rejected by the ones he loves the most (1:2). We must be weary that this does not happen to us today. What are ways we have disappointed our divine parent? How have we denied our call as the body of Christ, whether through deed or words?
Just like the vision Yahweh had for Israel we are to be quick to offer our repentance and changed lives for the sins and transgressions we have committed. So often we look outward to the “sinners” around us; it is time that we confess to the transgressions of our communities, our families, and our nation. We must continue to strive for leadership and rulers that reflect the characteristics of our God. These decisions will reflect the justice and righteousness that God demands for his people to show towards the poor and oppressed (1:16-17). Yahweh is not interested in the many outward actions and “sacrifices” his people give to him, especially when they continue to be immersed in oppression. We too must examine our doctrines, our ideologies, and our expressions of faith, and ask if God even cares about what we are doing in our congregations. What good is it if we sing thousands of songs and listen to hundreds of sermons, only to deny God with our time, our lives, and our tithing? It is time for us to come to Yahweh in an act of repentance, asking for direction and wisdom for what He deems to be important. May we no longer offer trivial “sacrifices” and acts of worship, while we continue to deny his call to fight for the oppressed and exploited.
Finally, Yahweh offers a vision to Israel that calls for violence and war to cease. Tools of war and violence will be transformed into tools of cultivation (2:4). We can look forward to this vision God has for his people. This is not something we can make happen on our own. It is only a vision that can be completed by the work of God at the redemption of his creation. This does not mean we cannot strive for a world without war and violence, but we must be realistic about the peace we are able to bring about. The world is dominated by sin and transgression, so it is only through the redemptive work of God that we will be able to see his vision come to completion. Let us not lose hope or energy for making this happen, but we must be realistic. Our call is to reflect the love and hope of our Creator, no matter what the cost. May we pick up the vision Yahweh has for Israel, offering ourselves as God’s people to be a light to the rest of the world.

Our Present Reality
The book of Isaiah addresses the people of Israel who lived in the midst of a culture of idols and tensions for allegiance. The other nations all around Israel created different gods and idols to be worshiped. Hostility was not uncommon to the ways of Yahweh and the characteristics of his leadership. What was typically sought after was anything to serve the interest of the nations and their desire for power. We live in the midst of a similar culture, which fights for our allegiance and worship at all times. Just as Israel was blind to the their Creator, we have become blind to the cleansing work of God all around us. The consumer culture we live in demands our worship, our loyalty, and our tithing. We are bombarded everyday with images of greed, lust, pride, and exploitation. Much of these advertisements are done in the guise of feeding our egos, so we will feel a certain brand loyalty to companies and products. The average person in our congregations can expect to come across 16,000 advertisements in a single day. Israel struggled with this similar strain on their allegiance. All around them were gods and idols to lean on, which would only lead to a denial of Yahweh and his work in the world (8:1-9:1). The temptations are real and evident for our congregations to join the consumer advertisers for the allegiance of people all around. How far are we willing to go in this culture of disguised gods and idols? So often we defend our lifestyles with the Capitalistic mantra of America, but God sees through this fa├žade, and he is angry. Yes, our nation offers many wonderful opportunities and chances to reflect God’s glory, but we must be aware of the pull our society places on our lives and our allegiance to Yahweh. Do not be lulled to sleep by the seemingly easy lifestyle the church can have today. The battle is going on all around us, and Yahweh expects and demands our allegiance to his ways. We should be struck with awe and fear as we turn our lives back to the One who called us from the beginning.
In Isaiah 31 Israel put its trust in the surrounding countries for protection and leadership. Egypt seemed like the right country to join forces with. The decision to trust in Egypt probably seemed like the most logical choice. What appears to be some of the most logical decisions can be nothing more than a lack of reliance upon God. Today we tend not to have the same threat of war and suffering (at least on our soil), but we still place our trust in our economy, our homes, and our savings accounts. Our congregations tend to speak to our own personal budgets, using the example of how a person spends their money reflects their true loyalty. I wonder what would happen, my brothers and sisters, if we did the same with our Church budgets and looked at what kind of obedience our church budgets’ reflected. Does our money go to alleviating the needs of those around us, to the poor and the oppressed? Or does our money go to high salaries, air-conditioned sanctuaries, cushy pews, and extravagant sound systems? Have we bought in to this consumer culture so much that we are willing to let it dictate our spending, so we can “advertise” to the numbers around us? Yahweh longs to stand by us and to offer us strength and resilience, but do not be fooled by the false idols we create for ourselves. It is only a matter of time that these idols and allegiances will collapse under the discipline of our powerful God, revealing our true allegiance and faith in the end.

God’s Present Reality
In Isaiah chapter six we see a picture of the magnificence of God’s glory. This should call us to a greater hope in the midst of this culture seeking for our constant attention. However, we must not stop with the opening of this chapter. We tend to stop at the end of the ninth verse, singing of God’s majesty and glory. We miss the call to Isaiah to bring a sobering message to the people of God. Punishment and cleansing is coming, and it is Yahweh who will cause his people to be blind and deaf to the demands he will make (6:10). Yahweh is not afraid to cause his church to stumble. The response of Isaiah in this passage is the example of how we are to respond to God. Isaiah must draw back from God because his glory is too much for him to handle. The reality of Isaiah’s sin is something that keeps him approaching the glory of his Creator. We must have a healthy respect and awe for the Lord we worship, realizing that God is not just our friend , but He is the One who demands obedience and repentance. This is the all-powerful God, who will have no problem bringing punishment and cleansing upon his church when they have turned their ways from the Lord.

Visions of Leadership
Throughout the book of Isaiah, Yahweh shows the people of Israel the types of leadership he looks for in his people and for the future. We can learn from this call of Yahweh to see what we should strive for in our congregations and in this nation. The child ruler described in Isaiah 9 shows the “righteousness and justice” that Yahweh anticipates coming in the future. We live in an age where our rulers and politicians reach their high stature with donations and contributions from companies that expect favors. It is nearly impossible for our rulers and leaders to reflect the exact justice that Yahweh demands for his people and this world. However, this does not mean that our local congregations cannot take responsibility for the world around them. Our local neighborhoods cry out with the poor and the oppressed, and we must heed their call. All too often these characteristics that Yahweh demands are passed off to the 2nd coming of Christ. We think to ourselves, “there is nothing we can do, so let’s just hope Jesus comes soon.” There is nothing wrong with wanting Christ to return today; I would love to see the pain and strife come to an end in this world. However, we must not let our future hope be an excuse to ignore the cries of despair around us. Yahweh is prepared to bring punishment and cleansing to his people who ignore the cries of the oppressed and poor (24:1-25:12). Take notice of the vision of Yahweh, so we might partake in the furtherance of Christ’s kingdom here on earth. It is our privilege and call as God’s people to take up the cross of discipleship. Things will not be easy, and it is not to be taken lightly, but we have the strength and the hope from the One who created all things. It is only through this Almighty Lord that we will prove to be fruitful and helpful to those all around us. So, let us remember the call of leadership Yahweh longs for: a leadership that fights for those who have no voice, no food, or no hope. Let us be the ones to offer the hope of our God, extending our arms and hands in acts of obedience to our God. Even as we ask God for our daily bread, may we search for ways to be the vessel of another’s daily bread. Lord, help us to be an extension of your hands, embracing your call in the midst of the forgotten and hopeless.

Growth After Pruning
The book of Isaiah speaks of our God bringing punishment and discipline upon the people Israel. This parental discipline is done for the sake of lifting up the faithful remnant of Israel. Yahweh uses the image of cutting down some of the tallest trees so that the plants will be able to spring up again in fruitfulness and shade (10:33-11:10). It is important for us to take a look at the lives we lead in the Western culture. All around us the church appears to be declining in numbers and in influence. In many ways this is seen as a sign that God has left his church. However, this could not be further from the truth. Yahweh may very well be in the midst of pruning his church, so the faithful remnant can stand strong in reflecting the love of Christ in this skeptical land. The church has relied for so long on its influence in the world of politics and morals, yet we see this power slipping on a daily basis. Our secular culture appears to reflect more of the culture the early church dealt with in the 1st and 2nd centuries. It is important for those of us in Seminary or in higher education to not assume that we know all there is about God. Our pride and arrogance may only reflect our lack of trust in our eternal Creator (Isaiah 14).
Although it is hard to see God as one who will discipline his church, we must be ready and willing to accept this discipline. The image of the vine in John 15 provides a highly intimate portrayal of Christ and his disciples. In order to know Christ more, we must abide in the vine, close to the center. To be able to abide in the vine requires our fruit and leaves to be pruned and cut back. This process may be painful at first, but it is only through this pruning that we will experience the abundant life Yahweh promises to his people. Just like a parent who weeps over the loss of a child, Yahweh weeps over his people who have turned their backs on him. It is because of this that we must stay strong and pray that we will continue to be the faithful remnant of God’s people in this culture of America. This does not mean we will make perfect decisions or that we will always get it right. Yahweh still works with his people in the book of Isaiah, even when their passion and certainty leads them to make poor decisions (Hezekiah). Let us welcome the pruning of our lives, our congregations, and our nation. God is faithful and has promised to water us and to take joy in our growth. Let’s stand fast to the call of discipleship, so we may cause our Lord great joy and pride over his children.

God Loves All the Creation
It is all too easy to lose hope in these troubling times. My brothers and sisters, I do not write to you to chastise you or to cause unwarranted guilt. I long for us to look at our lives and to reflect the kind of obedience we need to show towards our Lord. Yahweh has called Israel to be the image of Servanthood for the world around it. This image calls for bringing justice to the ends of the earth (ch.42), to receive a blessing from the Creator (ch.44), and to offer themselves as the suffering servant, bringing about a righteous state for those around them (ch.53). We know that many of these images cannot be fulfilled until the day Christ returns, but it is our call and role of obedience to serve and love Yahweh’s with all we are. We must not be lax or complacent with the comfortable and easy church services we attend. Do not let our rich nation drive us into a mode of apathy and laziness. We have the love of Christ and our Creator to compel us to be better stewards with the blessings we have. May the love that our God has for Creation cause us to live for that same type of love in our daily lives.

Amen.

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