When it’s God’s fault (January 15, 2023)

A uniform lesson for January 15, 2023.

Uniform Lesson for January 15, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Isaiah 48:3-8a, 17

The overall theme of this quarter’s lessons is “From Darkness to Light.” Surely this is the basic trajectory of God’s promises. But different lessons require different teaching techniques. In this week’s passage from Isaiah, God assumes the role of a teacher and mentor. While the purpose of God’s teachings is consistent, the methods of God’s pedagogy differ (v. 17). When God had prepared a lesson of judgment for Israel – “the former things” in this passage – God gave Israel advance warning (v. 3). But now God has a lesson of redemption for Israel – the “new things” – and God will adopt a new strategy (v. 6). When was the last time God taught you something “you have never heard, [and] you have never known?” (v. 8).

The former things

Most of the first part of Isaiah is the prophet’s messages of judgment prior to exile in Babylon. Because God knows God’s students well as seen in verse 4’s comment, “I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass,” God let Israel know about her coming judgment well ahead of time. Why? So that when these events came to pass, Israel would be clear regarding their authorship. When bad things happen, we tend to go searching for controllable causes saying things like, “he should have been on a low-fat diet” or “she should have been more careful with her friends.” These are what we blame now, and the equivalent to the “carved images” and “cast images” to whom Israel was wont to grant allegiance and power (v. 8).

God’s pedagogy regarding judgment seems to be decidedly preemptory. God lets God’s people know what’s coming well in advance: “I declared them to you from long ago, before they came to pass I announced them to you” (v. 5).That way, when the judgment comes, maybe we can focus less on proximate causes and idols over which we may exercise some control, and more on the mysterious providence of God who always judges us for our own good and who is persistently trying to lead us “in the way [we] should go” (v. 17). Regarding “the former things” – God’s decision to send Israel into exile- God gave them advance warning. The warning inhibits them thinking these events arose from the powers of Babylon or Baal, rather than those of the builder of all that is (v. 6).

The new things

But what if the teacher has a lesson of hope, one that is filled with new prospects and fresh possibilities? One that’s meant to get God’s people moving – from the kind of imprisoned lives to which they’ve become accustomed, toward a new project of redemption, renewal, and resurrection? Then, maybe, you wait to the last minute to announce the good news instead of giving advanced warning. Why? So God’s people once more know God is the hand bringing these new possibilities and the heart that opens a new future for the world. Announce this kind of good news too far in advance and God’s people may just sit on their hands and spend their days looking up to heaven. These kinds of events must be “created now, not long ago” (v. 7). They are necessary to be kept somewhat hidden lest they too become co-opted by proximate causes – our work and our faithfulness – versus the ultimate cause of “light,” the beginning and the end and all points in between (v. 6).

I fear one of the most worrisome things facing the mainline church currently is the notion that the future is in our hands. Yes, we have work and witness to do, but redemption and resurrection are always new things God springs upon us. Once human beings take the future fully into their own hands, there are two options: despair or violence. We are called to practice resurrection in anticipation of the light God alone can create.

Martin Luther King

This lesson is located on MLK weekend. Maybe we should spend some time thinking about King’s pedagogy. It’s interesting how quickly we have made King’s dream speech the sum of his teaching. The truth is that King spent a lot of time warning us about the coming judgment if we continued to be obstinate in our ways as a nation. It was only on the day before his assassination he declared he’d “been to the mountaintop.” Is there such a thing as a lesson before its time?

For discussion:

Which lessons require preparation and which surprise?

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