Today is Bible Sunday. There are 39 books in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, and 27 in the New Testament. That makes 66 in total. Appropriately our reading today is from Isaiah, which has… 66 chapters. And very broadly the first 39 chapters of Isaiah tell us of God’s holiness and justice, whilst the last 27 are about God’s compassion. And as we’ve seen before, Isaiah is quoted frequently in the New Testament. So, it’s a fantastic choice for Bible Sunday.
Some churches have an Easter Vigil service on the night of Easter Saturday. There is normally a careful selection of verses from Old and New Testaments, culminating in a Gospel reading which tells of the resurrection and an empty tomb. They are like a best-bits Readers Digest Condensed Book of the Bible.
Details may differ but often the Vigil begins with the account of creation in Genesis and then the flood. We hear of Abraham and Isaac and of the escape of the people of Israel from Egypt. We have this poem from Isaiah, which includes both an invitation and the promise of forgiveness. Then there is a reading from God’s Wisdom, the valley of dry bones from Ezekiel plus Jonah and the big fish.
The Hebrew Scriptures then lead us into Romans 6: ‘all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death….”. And between each of these will be silence or a response, either a Psalm or another reading from Isaiah 12: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid…”
Finally, we come to a Gospel reading. Perhaps Luke 24 or John 20, where the women go to the tomb and are given an angelic message that Jesus has risen and has moved on.
And there is prayer and candlelight as the night draws on and towards Easter Sunday.
In good company
So, our passage from Isaiah 55 sits in good company. It demands the same attention as those other more familiar texts. Here our poet is like someone on Bury Market shouting out their wares with a hook to gain interest. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”
And our reading ends with that wonderful promise, clung to by many a preacher or Bible Study leader, that: “the word that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty…”
This is written to a people returning from exile. They are either on the point of it about to happen or probably just arriving back to their land.
Their homes and temple are destroyed. They are a people having to live in pain and anguish, in shame and fear, struggling to make ends meet. Social and economic structures would have been weak. There would have been conflict with those who had never left, who in the meantime would have grabbed the most desirable land.
A message of hope
Thousands of years on we still have people like that. People living in camps in Pakistan having fled from Afghanistan – or Rohingya’s in Bangladesh displaced from Myanmar. And we have people here, in our own towns and cities. There is still anguish and hopelessness and people still needing to hear about a life-giving God.
And it’s not just migrant communities. This incredible, almost too-good-to-be-true reading is for anyone faced with injustice or abuse, anyone on the wrong end of wealth and power, anyone struggling with isolation.
How do we best convey this message of hope? How do we show it in words and deeds?
And we need to think too of those who speak like this poet speaks. For those who do dream dreams. Those who inspire and lead people to whatever it is that liberation means for them. We need to pray for those who give us imagination and vision – and pray for more people like them to be raised up and given a voice. Both in and out of church we need those who lead us towards a better common good. We should pray for them and encourage them.
We follow Jesus who knew exile and what it was to die out of favour with the power structures of the day. One who watched his friends turn away. But he also wonderfully and powerfully came home to dwell forever with both friends and betrayers alike.
And if it’s tough to get our head round all this then sometimes we just have to go with it and trust. To slightly misquote, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are your ways above our ways and your thoughts than our thoughts.”
Or, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:9-12: “we know only in part… For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
And on Bible Sunday we also have that sure promise that just as the rain and the snow fall, so shall God accomplish that which was purposed and succeed in the very thing for which he sent his Word.
So, let’s pray: God of restoration, save us when we find ourselves spiritually thirsty. Help us walk your road with your purpose, strengthened by your living water. Amen.
‘Bible Sunday and Isaiah’ was delivered by Ian Banks on Sunday 24th October 2021 to an on-line group from Bury and Heywood. It was based on Isaiah 55:1-11.