Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 31st: Psalm 126; Isaiah 43:1-7; and Philippians 2:19-24. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
The book of Isaiah is divided by scholars into three sections based on the analysis that there appear to be three separate “Isaiah” authors writing at three distinct times in Israel’s history. The first “Isaiah” consists of chapters 1-39 and gives evidence of being written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. to the Babylonians. The second “Isaiah,” commonly called Deutero-Isaiah, may be found in chapters 40-55. The final “Isaiah,” Trito-Isaiah, is heard in the last ten chapters of the book.
Today’s selection is drawn from Deutero-Isaiah. The unthinkable has happened, Jerusalem has fallen to foreign invaders. God’s Temple has been desecrated and destroyed. The people trusted in their designation as chosen based on their special relationship with Yahweh. This was a relationship that had a physical manifestation in the Temple Solomon had erected. The ritual taking place only in the Temple honouring God reached even further back to Aaron. And now it was gone.
The faith of Israel was traumatized. They were forced to wonder if Yahweh had given-up on them. The people were sent into exile in Babylon. There they were surrounded by the powerful symbolism of another god. Their conqueror constructed one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the hanging gardens of Babylon. The perceived defeat of Yahweh and the grandeur of Marduk had to threaten the continuation of their faith.
Into this gaping spiritual wound, Deutero-Isaiah opens with these words: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” The angry God of the original Isaiah who had to forewarn his people of coming destruction is now the God who offers comfort and hope. Israel in exile is not defeated. Rather, they are “a light to the nations.” (42:6) Now no longer confined to a particular plot of land they are to share their faith with all the world. Out of defeat, new life emerges: “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.” (42:9)
It is in this context that today we hear Yahweh reaffirm the personal connection that faith was always intended to build up. The Temple had become mechanical. Yahweh, in response, says to these people who are defeated, confused and frightened, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” The prophet is sharing God’s reassurance, God’s comfort, that even though things seem lost and broken beyond repair, that Yahweh knows them each by name.
In the Pauline selection, we can feel the personal connection at one level between founding apostle and church community, and at an even deeper level in the personal relationship between Paul and Timothy that is described as “like a son with a father.” It may be easier to grasp the personal connection in the limited context of Paul and his beloved and faithful disciple Timothy, but it is there as well in the love of Yahweh for His people: “I have called you by name, you are mine.” No matter the circumstance, the personal love of God for His people never weakens.
As we close the month of March and continue forward in our Lenten journey, let us apply these readings of reassurance to the personal connection between Christ and Christian that cannot be broken even by death on a cross, that are actually strengthened by Jesus’ willingness to die rather than to forsake us. It is the personal love of Jesus for each of us that makes the cross a symbol of life not death, of victory not defeat, and of hope not despair. Let us work on our personal relationship with Jesus in these last weeks of Lent as we walk closer and closer to Golgotha.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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