The book of Isaiah is a microcosm of the Bible as a whole. There are 66 books in the Bible, and there are 66 chapters in Isaiah.
That’s kind of cool.
The first 39 chapters of Isaiah can be compared to the 39 books of the OT, with their emphasis on the holiness and justice of God.
The last 27 chapters correspond to the 27 books of the NT. They portray God’s glory, compassion and favor.
For 35 long, agonizing chapters, Isaiah prophesied condemnation and future captivity. And then, after a 3 chapter parentheses (in which he told the story of King Hezekiah’s sin, sickness and stay of execution), Isaiah began to speak prophesies of comfort and hope.
Our reading this morning, is among the prophesies of hope.
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.
These two verses are usually taught as one event – when God parted the Red Sea and drowned Pharaoh’s army. But the Septuagint reads differently:
For thus says the Lord, the one making a way in the sea
and a path in strong water;
The one leading chariots and horse and a mighty multitude.
They were gone to sleep, but they shall rise up;
They were extinguished as flax being extinguished.
According to the Septuagint, the Lord is the one leading the chariots and horse and a mighty multitude, they don’t belong to Pharaoh. And in the future they will rise again. So perhaps Isaiah is referring to separate events – giving separate examples of how God has acted on their behalf in the past.
When Israel and Syria were at war back in Elisha’s day, the King of Syria endeavored to capture Elisha by sending his armies to Elisha’s hometown. The armies surrounded the city by night. Elisha’s servant awoke the next morning terrified and exclaimed, “On no! What should we do?”
Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
There are many stories in the OT of God winning battles for the Israelites with his mighty multitude.
But in the gloom of the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, God was no longer fighting their battles. It was as if his armies had gone to sleep.
Now came the Lord’s assurance that He would once again arise and fight for them.
Not only would He deliver them from future captivity and protect them in battle…
“Behold I am about to do a new thing.”
Since this last 27 chapters of Isaiah are full of Messianic prophesies, that “new thing” on one level, is Jesus – a spiritual stream in the desert.
But the new thing would also be life lush with His presence. He would once again be their God. Where they once languished in the consequences of their rebellion, they would now thrive.
Have you felt the winds of change blowing? Have you ever perceived in your spirit that God was about to do a new thing in your life? About to set your feet in a spacious place? Water the parched places and cause you to flourish?
Why does He do that?
The answer is in the final line of our passage:
So that we might declare His praise.
That’s the line that jumped out at me as I prepared to preach.
It’s all about declaring His praise.
He acts on our behalf for His fame, not ours.
We bloom to show the skill of the Gardner, not to show off ourselves.
I used to ride my bike around Kensington Park regularly with Mr. Wright.
Not Mr. Right, Mr. W-r-i-g-h-t.
He was a biking buddy whom I barely knew. But I liked riding with him because he pushed me to ride faster than I would on my own.
After one exhilarating ride, we caught our breath at a picnic table beside the lake. He pulled snacks out of his bike bag and told me that right after he was baptized as a young man, someone prophesied all kinds of greatness over him. And it kind of messed him up. Sent him chasing after fame. And now there he sat,15 years later, a math teacher at a prep school, eating apple wedges and cheese slices and telling his story.
“I kept waiting for greatness to happen,” he said, “discontented with ordinary life. But now I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll always just be a math teacher.”
Just a math teacher? I thought, Isn’t there greatness in impacting the lives of students?
I read a social media post written by a young woman. She wondered, “Why don’t they ever prophesy that you’ll be a great wife and mother? Why isn’t that enough?”
Beware prophesies of greatness. They tickle itching ears. They reel us in and get us hooked.
They remind me of when Satan tempted Jesus by taking him to the peak of a very high mountain. He showed Jesus the nations of the world and all their glory. “I’ll give it all to you,” he said, “if you will only kneel and worship me.”
But Jesus wasn’t seeking personal glory, His mission was to glorify His Father.
Though the prospect of personal greatness is intoxicating, if it is your personal greatness that is being prophesied, and not God’s greatness, then the prophesy is false.
Our mission is to glory God.
He makes a way for us in the desert, He causes us to flourish for His praise.
Paul said, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: to mind your own business and work with your hands, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
Lead a quiet life teaching math, rearing children, doing small things with great love.
Small things with great love brings us to our gospel reading.
It was six days before the Passover. Since the raising of Lazarus, Jesus had been living quietly at Ephraim with His disciples. Now it was time for His public entry into Jerusalem. He would enter as both king and lamb, fulfilling both the prophecy of God’s promised King and the promised redemption pictured in the Passover celebration.
The crowds in Jerusalem for Passover were so great it was impossible to book enough rooms for Jesus and His entourage. Bethany was close enough to Jerusalem to be appropriate for pilgrims’ lodging, so they headed there.
When Jesus and His disciples arrived in Bethany, His friends held a dinner for them. After raising Lazarus from the dead the way He did, Jesus was a celebrity, a local hero. So of course they held a dinner in His honor.
Back when Lazarus died, in those moments before Jesus raised him, it was Martha who demonstrated unwavering trust in Jesus.
Now it was her sister Mary’s turn. Mary had been the quiet, meditative sister, preferring to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from Him. But now she dropped her reserve and unabashedly poured out her love.
Perhaps she felt the winds of change blowing, perhaps she realized His end was near, perhaps she sensed His grief. The political tide was turning against Him and she wanted Him to know He had her support.
So she poured pure nard over His feet.
Matthew and Mark said she poured it first over His head, from an alabaster jar. Then she let down her long hair that, in Jewish custom, would have always been bound in public.
She poured on his feet the most precious ointment possible as a token of honor and worship and then she lovingly and intimately dried His feet with her hair.
This vulnerable expression of love surely touched Jesus deeply.
This small thing done with great love.
The men around the table may have been uncomfortable as Mary knelt before Jesus and loosened her hair. They may have been speechless. But as the fragrance filled the house, Judas broke the silence.
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” He demanded.
As if he cared about the poor.
Jesus didn’t call Judas out for embezzlement, as John did parenthetically, He called him out for harassment.
In Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, Jesus said, “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
It’s the only time Jesus ever used the word beautiful. And He used it to describe an action. Beautiful had nothing to do with how Mary looked, it had everything to do with how she loved.
According to John, Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
It’s wonderful to care about global poverty and injustice, but don’t overlook the need right in front of you.
Jesus’s grief – His impending blood, sweat and tears – was the need right in front of them that day, and Mary seems to be the only one who perceived it.
We always have the poor with us.
When Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah way back at the beginning of His ministry, when He proclaimed His mission, He didn’t say anything about alleviating poverty.
He said He came to set prisoners and the oppressed free. He came to restore the sight of the blind. He came to proclaim good news to the poor – the good news that they have a Savior.
But He didn’t wave a wand and make everyone rich. Even though His Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills.
Jesus was concerned with spiritual poverty. That has always been the greatest need standing in front of Him.
Perhaps He isn’t concerned with physical poverty because it has purpose.
It keeps us reliant on God.
I met a woman who suffered horrific things at the hands of her father. So horrific that they left her emotionally disabled. Her physician father was a member of a satanic cult. Horrific things were done. Her mother finally left him and now they were living on a small disability check. Money was very tight.
The woman came to Bible study one morning rejoicing. She and her mother had gone to buy groceries the day before. They stood in the checkout line with a dilemma: If they bought the toilet paper they needed, they wouldn’t have enough to buy all the essential groceries they needed. They put the toilet paper back.
On the way home the woman spotted something laying on the shoulder of the road in front of them. It was toilet paper! They pulled over and scooped up their gift from God.
She came into Bible study rejoicing the next day as though she had received a million dollars. Of course she did – it’s the same thrill whether God gifts you with a 4 pack of toilet paper or with a million bucks because the thrill isn’t in the value of the gift, it’s in the fact that God sees you. And cares.
When was the last time you had the thrill of knowing that God sees you?
Take a second and say thanks.
Gotthold Lessing said, “A single grateful thought toward heaven is the most complete prayer.”
Poverty also gives those who have been gifted an opportunity to express compassion and generosity. A privilege that we will only have here on earth.
And the beauty of it is, everyone – no matter how physically poor – has been gifted with something to share. We all have compassion to give, love to lavish.
So what are we waiting for? Are we waiting until we get to heaven to exercise compassion and generosity? By then it will be too late. There’s no need for generosity and compassion there.
Now is our chance to do small and beautiful things with great love.
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.