Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you ever felt completely abandoned and rejected? We’ve all experienced rejection from time to time. Now, if you can, imagine being abandoned and forsaken, but then you suddenly and unaccountably find yourself welcomed and taken in. If you can imagine that, then you can understand what is going on in our Old Testament lesson.
Israel is like a wife who was going through a nasty separation. She committed adultery with multiple lovers, that is, she worshipped foreign gods for centuries. Israel had finally exhausted the depths of God’s patience. God’s sorrow was profound, and his anger was simmering. So, God finally sent his beloved bride away into exile in the hope that she would come to her senses and realise the error of her ways and return to him. So, Israel endured dark days in Babylon. She felt forsaken by God and desolate.
Like ancient Israel, the church in North America struggles with feelings of being forsaken, sometimes even feeling deserted by her God. In North America, the church is losing members and influence. The media is full of scandalous accounts of the sins and failures of Christian leaders. In many churches, including our own, there seems to be a general feeling that our best days are behind us. We fear that we will dwindle to nothing if we don’t do something dramatic or drastic. So we tinker with organisation, change our worship, adopt new action plans, plant new churches or partner with others—all to reach the nations. But our flame is flickering.
The situation in our text grew out of the frustration between promise and reality. What they were experiencing didn’t match what God had promised. That makes this passage an excellent piece of Good News. Notice that it doesn’t tell us to do anything. We search in vain for an action plan that we need to implement. It is an announcement of God’s plans for us. We will devote other Sundays to things God calls us to do. For today, rejoice in what God says he will do for his bride, the Church. Let’s listen more carefully.
The Lord Promises Deliverance
First, God promises deliverance. There will be vindication and salvation. The nations said that God couldn’t save Israel and that God amounted to nothing compared to their gods. They thought that the Judeans were nothing but a pipsqueak nation that bragged too much and got smacked down for it. Now here God says he will vindicate Israel. The Creator God will vindicate Israel (and himself) and save them. He’ll prove that they were right to trust in him despite the dark days and painful circumstances.
The prophet proclaims that God has more in store for his people than just exile and judgment. The prophets did not merely announce God’s judgment and punishment. They also foresaw that God would act in the future. The expression, “Where there’s breath, there’s hope,” certainly applies here. The prophet encourages the people that it is not yet time to give up. There is still reason to hope. She is not dead yet. Israel was encouraged to hope for their return from Babylon and the restoration of the glories of Jerusalem. If the Babylonian exile was punishment for sin, returning to Jerusalem was God’s act of forgiveness. This was a promise that God would restore their beloved capital city.
That’s the way it is in any age. We need to have confidence that the plan of God is more extensive than what our eyes can see. God spoke of an end to their dark days, the renewal of their lives, the restoration of their broken relationship with God. That applies today as it did then. God’s people need to be assured that the realities and disappointments of life are not the way things will always be. While we may have to live with hopes and expectations that may remain unrealised, yet our faith is securely anchored in the word and promise of God. Zion, the city of God, the church, may experience dark times. It does not always look like salvation is going forth from her like light from a burning torch. But, God has made an everlasting promise with his church. Jesus said that the gates of hell will not prevail against her and in our text he says that his salvation will go forth from her like light from a burning torch. That’s the future of the world. The Lord promises deliverance through his church. He’ll prove that you were right to trust in him despite the dark days and painful circumstances.
The Lord Delights in his Bride
The Jewish people long ago thought God forsook them. Sometimes we do too. But God comes and says that’s no the case. We see here that God declares a reversal and renewal. No longer forsaken, God’s people will be called “my delight is in her.” No longer will Israel be desolate. Instead, she will be married. This is good news that announces: if you are in Christ, God delights in you. God describes his love with that kind of emotional language. God looks us right in the eye and promises the world to us. This is what he says: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). God’s care and delight in his people will be a “crown of beauty” and a “royal diadem.” God will delight in you. You do not have to feel abandoned or forsaken. Never, ever, under any circumstance whatsoever, God will leave or forsake his people.
God says that he will marry his people. It is still common for a bride to receive a new name on her wedding day. She gets a new identity as the bride and wife. The new name she gets indicates a change in status and relationship. Like a bride, we have received a new name in Holy Baptism. You are given a new name from God’s own mouth. A new name means a new identity. Wouldn’t that be great to start over with a clean slate, a fresh start? A new identity, a new name? No matter how stained and soiled yesterday was, you are fresh and clean in Christ. You have his love, and as a result, you bear his name. Your past no longer defines you because God has redefined your identity. You are now identified with Jesus. You are joined to him in a mysterious way by Baptism through faith. He is rewriting your future. He plans to make a place for you and nothing can change it. That’s what you get in Holy Baptism. When you fall off the cart, that’s what you receive again when you confess your sins and are forgiven.
The new name given in baptism also indicates the end of the old life. Marriage marks a significant change in the bride’s life. When she is given her new name in marriage, her former life in her Father’s home is over. Every time she hears her new name, she is reminded of her special relationship with the one who has openly declared his love for her. The Lord of glory has openly declared his love for you by dying for you on the cross. He was forsaken so that you may enjoy God’s delight and love. “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord. She is his new creation by water and the Word. From heav’n he came and sought her to be his holy bride; with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.”
You see, you’ve been given a new name; the name of Christ, the name “Christian.” Your baptism marks the end of your old sinful, self-centred life. It marks the beginning of a life that loves Christ, seeks to please him, and never does anything that would harm that relationship. Yet until God’s ushers in his new order, we still live in a selfish and fallen world. Our saviour calls us to pick up our cross, to sacrifice ourselves, to give ourselves up. We are called by the prophets to pay special attention to the needs of others and to model God’s love to others. Like the prophet in verse 1, we are called to not keep silent. We are to continually tell others of God’s love for them.
There is a gap between the way things are now and the way God has promised things should be. The Church is struggling in many places and many ways. We need to hear that the ragged and broken bride of Christ has a glorious future. Even during our darkest days, God has not left us. That’s what our text promises. You have received Christ’s name and been joined to him in Holy Baptism. We may feel far away from God right now, but God promises to bring us back, to renew and restore us, to make us as glorious as he has always intended. He promises that salvation will go out from his Church like light from a burning torch. We don’t always see that happening. We do know God has promised that it will happen. In the meantime, we need to remember that God rejoices over us, the way a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. And God will not rest until his bride sees the salvation he has planned for us.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.