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A chapel message delivered to the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary on 27 January 2020.

Probably the words ‘He is risen!’ best capture the explosive good news of the New Testament. If this is true, then the announcement of the end of Israel’s Babylonian captivity in Isaiah 40 may be the finest announcement of the Lord’s undying love in the Old Testament.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1–2 ESV)

عَزُّوا، عَزُّوا شَعْبِي، يَقُولُ إِلهُكُمْ.طَيِّبُوا قَلْبَ أُورُشَلِيمَ وَنَادُوهَا بِأَنَّ جِهَادَهَا قَدْ كَمُلَ، أَنَّ إِثْمَهَاقَدْ عُفِيَ عَنْهُ، أَنَّهَا قَدْ قَبِلَتْ مِنْ يَدِ ٱلرَّبِّ ضِعْفَيْنِ عَنْ كُلِّ خَطَايَاهَا.

We don’t know for sure to whom God speaks in this new commissioning of a message of comfort for Isaiah rather than the news of judgment that she has known previously. The Lord may be speaking to his Seraphim, as he does in Isaiah 6 when he first commissions his prophet Isaiah after asking ‘Who will go for us?’

Or he may be speaking to a new generation of prophets who have carefully digested both Isaiah’s message of sure judgement for Israel and his assurance that new mercy and a new beginning would follow after Israel’s term of captivity had been served.

Regardless, we read that some plural group of people is being summoned to deliver very good news to Jerusalem and to those in Babylon who must now find the courage to follow the Lord back home to Jerusalem to begin again in that promised city.

We need to pause now and listen as Rabih reads our entire passage for today, Isaiah 40.1-11. Because I am not the only English speaker in chapel today, I’ll read it first and then Rabih will follow in Arabic.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:1–11 ESV)

عَزُّوا، عَزُّوا شَعْبِي، يَقُولُ إِلهُكُمْ.طَيِّبُوا قَلْبَ أُورُشَلِيمَ وَنَادُوهَا بِأَنَّ جِهَادَهَا قَدْ كَمُلَ، أَنَّ إِثْمَهَاقَدْ عُفِيَ عَنْهُ، أَنَّهَا قَدْ قَبِلَتْ مِنْ يَدِ ٱلرَّبِّ ضِعْفَيْنِ عَنْ كُلِّ خَطَايَاهَا.

صَوْتُ صَارِخٍ فِي ٱلْبَرِّيَّةِ: «أَعِدُّوا طَرِيقَ ٱلرَّبِّ. قَوِّمُوا فِي ٱلْقَفْرِ سَبِيلاً لإِلَهِنَا.كُلُّ وَطَاءٍيَرْتَفِعُ، وَكُلُّ جَبَل وَأَكَمَةٍ يَنْخَفِضُ، وَيَصِيرُ ٱلْمُعْوَجُّ مُسْتَقِيمًا، وَٱلْعَرَاقِيبُ سَهْلاً.فَيُعْلَنُ مَجْدُٱلرَّبِّ وَيَرَاهُ كُلُّ بَشَرٍ جَمِيعًا، لأَنَّ فَمَ ٱلرَّبِّ تَكَلَّمَ».

صَوْتُ قَائِل: «نَادِ». فَقَالَ: «بِمَاذَا أُنَادِي؟» «كُلُّ جَسَدٍ عُشْبٌ، وَكُلُّ جَمَالِهِ كَزَهْرِ ٱلْحَقْلِ.يَبِسَٱلْعُشْبُ، ذَبُلَ ٱلزَّهْرُ، لأَنَّ نَفْخَةَ ٱلرَّبِّ هَبَّتْ عَلَيْهِ. حَقًّا ٱلشَّعْبُ عُشْبٌ!يَبِسَ ٱلْعُشْبُ، ذَبُلَٱلزَّهْرُ. وَأَمَّا كَلِمَةُ إِلهِنَا فَتَثْبُتُ إِلَى ٱلْأَبَدِ».

عَلَى جَبَل عَال ٱصْعَدِي، يَا مُبَشِّرَةَ صِهْيَوْنَ. ٱرْفَعِي صَوْتَكِ بِقُوَّةٍ، يَا مُبَشِّرَةَ أُورُشَلِيمَ. ٱرْفَعِيلاَ تَخَافِي. قُولِي لِمُدُنِ يَهُوذَا: «هُوَذَا إِلهُكِ.هُوَذَا ٱلسَّيِّدُ ٱلرَّبُّ بِقُوَّةٍ يَأْتِي وَذِرَاعُهُ تَحْكُمُ لَهُ. هُوَذَاأُجْرَتُهُ مَعَهُ وَعُمْلَتُهُ قُدَّامَهُ.كَرَاعٍ يَرْعَى قَطِيعَهُ. بِذِرَاعِهِ يَجْمَعُ ٱلْحُمْلاَنَ، وَفِي حِضْنِهِ يَحْمِلُهَا،وَيَقُودُ ٱلْمُرْضِعَاتِ».

I don’t know if you heard it while Rabih read, but in those last three verses, there is contagion. Jerusalem—or Zion—begins this chapter as the one who receives the astonishing news of her soon redemption. But then, in verses 9-11, she becomes the messenger—the communicator—of that same news beyond her boundaries to the ‘cities of Judah’.

Good news is contagious.

When we hear the word contagion these days, our minds may run to a different kind of contagion, the kind that has the world on edge as the corona virus sweeps through China and across her borders into countries like yours and mine. When I return to America on Saturday, I expect to be greeted in airports in London and in America by new measures that attempt to stop the spread of this mysterious and fearsome virus.

Contagion is mysterious and, sometimes, unstoppable. It moves from person to person in its own quiet and invisible way, spreading what I have to you and then on to your family members and your neighbors and so on …

It is quiet and it is invisible, but it is most real.

Happily, the contagion we glimpse in Isaiah 40 is a contagion that transmits life rather than death. It is a contagion that announces and creates a new beginning and a new future rather than taking that future away. It is a contagion that begins in the merciful and restorative heart of God himself, rather than in some broken corner of his twisted and suffering creation.

It is the announcement that a terrible thing has come to its end … has run its course … has expired. In its place, a profound comforting of Israel has come, for Israel shall be born again … this nation will start over … will now experience the right hand of the Lord’s restoration rather than the left hand of his judgment.

It is simply spectacular to me that this first announcement of comfort already anticipates that, when Jerusalem has received this good news and begun to live in it, she will become the herald of that same news to others who must hear it, live it, and in time become announcers of that news to still others.

This kind of contagion is natural. It is often both quiet and invisible, yet is it powerful and world-changing. It is God’s work and yet it is ours.

  • Have you received comfort? Let it flow to those who are afflicted.
  • Have your sins been forgiven? Forgive those who sin against you.
  • Has someone shared with you the news that Christ is for us? Share it with others.
  • Has someone loved you when you hated them or were still indifferent to them? Love those who hate or ignore you.
  • Have you been fed when you were hungry, sheltered when you were exposed? Feed someone else.
  • Was your heart once anxious and yet now has become calm? Share that peace with someone whose heart still races, who is still consumed by his fears, by her anxiety.
  • Has this seminary community been a shelter to you, a challenging school of personal transformation? Have you learned here how to live in community? Has God’s Word been opened to you here in fresh and new ways? Have you learned to love reconciliation, to believe that enemies can become friends, and that this too is God’s work?

Then return to Sudan, to Morocco, to Palestine, to Egypt, to Syria, to Iraq, to the cities and villages of Lebanon, to countries that I will not name here.

There be the living proof that God’s word is still ‘Comfort, comfort my people.’

Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:9–11 ESV)

عَلَى جَبَل عَال ٱصْعَدِي، يَا مُبَشِّرَةَ صِهْيَوْنَ. ٱرْفَعِي صَوْتَكِ بِقُوَّةٍ، يَا مُبَشِّرَةَ أُورُشَلِيمَ. ٱرْفَعِيلاَ تَخَافِي. قُولِي لِمُدُنِ يَهُوذَا: «هُوَذَا إِلهُكِ.هُوَذَا ٱلسَّيِّدُ ٱلرَّبُّ بِقُوَّةٍ يَأْتِي وَذِرَاعُهُ تَحْكُمُ لَهُ. هُوَذَاأُجْرَتُهُ مَعَهُ وَعُمْلَتُهُ قُدَّامَهُ.كَرَاعٍ يَرْعَى قَطِيعَهُ. بِذِرَاعِهِ يَجْمَعُ ٱلْحُمْلاَنَ، وَفِي حِضْنِهِ يَحْمِلُهَا،وَيَقُودُ ٱلْمُرْضِعَاتِ».

Be contagious!

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Isaiah’s 37th chapter puts on display the subtle interplay that is prayer in the moment of crisis.

The threatening king of Assyria may be a cartoonish villain. Nevertheless his shadow casts over little Judah the power of extermination. The Assyrian tyrant is, in a word, invincible. The carcasses of nations that once were, lying with their scorched gods by the side of empire’s highway, bear mute testimony that Assyria and its king are unstoppable.

Judah trembles for good reason, for it would seem that its final hour has come.

As soon as King Hezekiah heard (the threat of the Assyrian emissary), he tore his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth and went into the house of the LORD. And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz. They said to him, ‘Thus says Hezekiah, “This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the LORD your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the LORD your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.”‘

The vestige of King Hezekiah’s scrawny hope lies in two realties. First, the prophet may know what to do. There are, as they say, no atheists in foxholes. (more…)

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41DqbK37PdL._SS300_I held this little puppy in my hand after about five pencil sharpenings, and I says to myself, ‘Self, this is simple, effective, strong, and European-modern. I bet it speaks German.’

Turn it over and read: ‘Staedtler/Noris, Germany’

It’s not a Bimmer. But it’s German-made pencil sharpener at two for $3.69.

Look no further.

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This may not be your one-size-fits-all dog bed. It’s a bit lightweight for that.31PPnBYaIIL._SS300_

But it is as excellent product for the dog on the move. By way of example, we drove our mid-size Whipador ‘Rhea’ from Pennsylvania to Miami on a two-week road trip, then shipped her in a dog crate to our new home in Colombia. Here, she’s got a plush bed on the floor of our bedroom, but still uses this AmazonBasics Padded Pet Bolster Bed as her day-time crash. Plus, we can move it outside to our patio if we’re going to spend an extended time out-of-doors. She follows it wherever it goes and finds it a great mobile couch/bed.

I don’t know when Amazon introduced its AmazonBasics moniker, but it has proven very reliable to us. This product is one example. The price is certainly right, the materials are excellent, and it rolls up and carries in couple of seconds.

Rhea’s black fur eventually means some strong-armed learning, so we wish it came in a darker color. But you won’t go wrong snagging the Bolster Bed for your dog’s part-time lolly-gagging.

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31kEtZTvobL._SS300_Don’t overthink this. Good pencils, cheap.

You have other things to worry about.

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The poet who stands behind our 104th psalm contributes to a compendium that adds to YHWH’s activity in history a celebration of his work in creation. It is a beautiful oddity.

Curiously, two features of divine participation in creation interweave the psalmist’s celebration. (more…)

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hell bent: Micah 7

Truth be told, the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Micah throws in front of its reader some very grim reading.

Yet it ends with an inspiring flourish:

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old. (Micah 7:18–20 ESV)

A strong instinct in the biblical literature interprets Israel’s misfortune as the result of intergenerational rebellion. This is particularly true of that most intense crystallization of woe that we call the ‘Babylonian exile’, when all that Israel had been and felt herself entitled to become in future was lost, by all lights lost forever. (more…)

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