Some years ago when my kids were at home, we decided to go white water rafting on the Big Pigeon River in North Carolina. In our orientation, the guide spoke of the dangers that lay ahead and how important it was to do what he said. He mentioned three sets of rapids in particular that would be challenging to navigate. Then he told us how important it was to follow his exact instructions, what do if we capsized and we were off on our adventure. Then they packed eight or ten of us in the huge raft and strapped us in; the guide took the rear and off we went. Just before we entered our first serious set of rapids, the guide gave someone up front an instruction that was misinterpreted, the raft spun around and suddenly we were headed down the rapids…backwards. I looked at our guide and suddenly I could read minds, “I have been down rough stretches of river before but never quite like this.”
As we enter the summer of 2020, I feel a bit like I did on that raft; we have been down rough stretches of river before but quite never like this. And it isn’t just new challenges like the COVID-19 virus that we have to deal with; unresolved denominational issues still loom and unacceptable issues of race inequality have caused cultural upheaval. Social Media has become a war zone dividing family and friends and an upcoming Presidential election is sure to further divide this country. We do well to ask, “What is the role of the church during turbulent and seemingly unprecedented times?” “We exist to connect people to Jesus Christ.” There are a lot of screaming voices out there; let’s tune our ears to voice of God.
The prophet Isaiah writes to a Jewish people who are in exile. The northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen in 722 BC and the southern kingdom of Judah had fallen in 586 BC. The best and the brightest of Israel had been exiled to Babylon and those left in Israel were uneducated, unskilled and poor; sheep without a shepherd. The exiles were growing weary and losing hope as the years turned to decades and nothing seemed to be changing. Isaiah kept the name of God in front of the people and warned against assimilation and a loss of ethnic and spiritual identity. To use our language, “Stay Christian folks. I know it is tough and everything seems against you but stay Christian.” It was a tough ask of discouraged people. Still is. In this part of Isaiah, God comforts his people by stressing that their loss of national identity was not due to the superiority of Babylonian gods. Furthermore, it even went beyond punishment for sin and apostacy. The exile presented an opportunity to return to God. What if we could learn to see difficult, challenging and disruptive times as an opportunity to return to God? What if our identity was more rooted in God than our political affiliations or positions on issues? Isaiah encourages his audience to anticipate a return to Israel, to spiritually awaken, to flee the influences of Babylon, to not grow complacent and to entrust their future to God.
It is still good advice today.
V. 1 But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says, Isaiah wants to be sure his readers know what they are about to hear is coming from the Lord; not from him. They are asked to stop talking and to listen. “Stop talking, tweeting, posting and turn your ears to the voice of God.” The role of the prophet is much like the role of a water hose; get the water from where it is to where you want it without contaminating it. The prophet must accurately hear God’s word, boldly speak God’s word and find solace that he has been faithful. If the prophecy comes from God, it will come to pass. If it didn’t come to pass; it wasn’t from God. Technically, false prophets could be stoned in the Old Testament. My guess is that if that practice where still in place today, we would get far fewer people saying, “Thus says the Lord…” I can’t tell you how many people are trying to tell me what to do these days; they attach God to much of it and they are telling me opposite things. How do you navigate that? You hear God, speak God’s word and find solace that you have been faithful. Who is God to tell us what to do? God speaks on the authority that he “created” and “formed” humanity. God knows who we truly are:
Who We Are As God’s People
- People freed from fear (God has us)
- People ransomed from their own sin (Love shown through Christ)
- People known by God (God knows us and our pain)
- Possessions of God (We are sons and daughters of God)
And now that you know who you are, God says, “Let me tell you a few things…”
V. 2 When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. Water is a two edged sword in the Bible. It is necessary for life and it is a metaphor for being overwhelmed. Water is simultaneously a life force and a destructive force. Throughout the Bible, God’s people found themselves “up against the water.” God moving the water is an essential part of the Exodus account; the Red Sea opened and the people walked across on dry land. In addition the Jordan River parts five times in the Biblical narrative. The relationship with God and water is complex; God leads through water and not only do God’s people not drown; but God’s adversaries do! The Big Idea? God delivers his people.
When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. (Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego) Don’t even smell of smoke. The Big Idea? God delivers his people.
V. 3 For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. And exactly who is this delivering God? Isaiah gives us three divine concepts; let’s look into the original Hebrew and see what we can learn about God.
1. Lord: The word refers to whoever occupies the position of ultimate power. This is universal power. God says, “That would be me.”
2. Holy One of Israel: “Holy” means set apart. It’s antonym is not profane as it is in English but “ordinary.” Holy then means extraordinary and to attach holy to a place or a people sets it in a unique and personal context. “I am God of everyone but specifically O Israel, I am your God!
3. Savior: Savior means “one who saves” but you only need saved when you are in peril. This concept as God as Savior is used 205 times in the Old Testament and is unique to the God of Israel. Other cultures saw their polytheistic gods as objects of manipulation; there was no sense that the gods cared for people. But the Lord God, Holy One of Israel actually LOVES the people of his creation; so much that saving us is an aspect of His divine character.
Navigating the Rapids
- God is uniquely ours
- We are uniquely God’s
- Be conscious of the unfolding of salvation history (return of Christ)
- Spiritually awaken (take advantage of the time)
- Flee ungodly influences (things that make us our worst self; be holy as God is holy)
- Entrust your future to God (People of faith end up with God)
So what is the role of the church as we navigate cultural rapids? Let me close with a metaphor.
A friend told me about a white water rafting experience he had in Iceland a few years back. Rapids are rated in classes on a scale of 1-6 with class 1 being a leisurely float trip and level 6 being essentially unnavigable. The higher the level, the more skillful a guide is required. This particular river had some class 4+ rapids and my friend asked the guide the difference between a level 4 and a 5. The guide responded, “The water is about the same. The chances of capsizing are quite good in both. The difference is actually the depth of the water. Class 5 rapids are in shallow water and if you turn over, you will be driven into rocks and injured or killed. Level 4 rapids are in deeper water and if you turn over, you will just get wet.”
The past three years for churches across America have been a process of navigating one Class 5 and Class 6 rapids after another. Our task is to navigate, lead people to deep water and stay on mission. I truly believe that Jesus is the answer to every question this culture is asking and I will continue to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ as long as I have breath.
These are turbulent waters. Praise God we have the ultimate guide in Jesus Christ!
Rev. Shane L. Bishop has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.