Posted by: mikebackup | February 5, 2010

Maker and provider

Isaiah 43:1-7 (New International Version)
Israel’s Only Savior
1 But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
3 For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.
4 Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.
5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west.
6 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth-
7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

God’s people had been through a time of difficulty and adversity; a time when they wondered whether God had forgotten them. Now comes a message of hope – they need fear no more for God has not abandoned them. God reminds them of their history, of the love that created and formed them. Those listening would think of God’s covenant with them, that relationship in which the Lord had promised to be their God. Here, this covenant love is reaffirmed and the promise never to leave them is repeated.

Let us look briefly at the verses. ‘But now’ marks a turning point in Israel’s fortunes, making sense only when we read of her failure and desolation in 42.18-25. As they make their way home, the people will experience the glorious truth that Yahweh is not only their ‘redeemer’, one who has ‘bought them back’ as one might pay for the release of a relative from imprisonment for debt (v. 1), but the creator of the world, in charge of the elements of fire and water, well able to protect them from danger (v. 2).

What is meant by God giving other peoples as Israel’s ‘ransom’ (vv. 3-4)? This sounds puzzling, even offensive – as if one nation was so favoured that God should sacrifice others for their benefit. We are dealing with poetry, not to be pressed in every detail, but the thrust of the message is surely that God is at work for good in the rise and fall of nations. We should remember that God’s purpose for Israel as servant was that she should be a light to the nations (42.6; 49.6) and that this great homecoming was for the display of God’s own glory (43.6-7).

Let us now reflect now on the meaning of the verses in more detail. ‘God our Maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied’ is the well known lyric from Come Ye Thankful People Come. It offers a popular understanding of God’s action in the world and arguably a certain interpretation of these verses from Isaiah. When we think of God as ‘creator’ or ‘maker’ we by default think of it in a creation based physical way. We think of God forming us like Adam and Eve, or knitting us together in our mother’s womb. God our creator made us and we have lived our life from that point. Many Christians then see God providing through the answering of prayer. I’m not going to dispel that or tell you what to think, but what I am going to do is offer an alternative way of thinking of God as maker and provider.

Let us begin with ‘maker’ and think of it as God making us into the person he knows we can be. This is in no way negative, it’s a creative journey like an artist creating a piece of art. There are stages of development, careful planning, the first marks, gradual building of form and colour towards that final realisation. God is always making us, adding layers of his love and understanding, if we are open to his marks and brush strokes.

How does God make us in this way? By providing special ways that help in all situations which enable us to get closer to God. Resources like the ability to reflect, the ability to make a difference, the ability to put the teaching of Jesus into action in all situations. Faith is a relationship, not one way traffic from God. This asks us to reflect on the nature of God’s relationship with us and is central to having a rounded view of these Isaiah verses. What does verse two mean? Is God all powerful or does he work by being alongside us in our difficulties? A big criticism Atheists have of Christians is the way many reflect on God’s ‘handling’ of a situation. If prayers have been answered favourably we praise God, if they aren’t and life goes from bad to worse we thank God for a time of testing. Those without faith bluntly and rather gleefully say Christians put their own spin on any situation denying the only truth that God has done absolutely nothing.

Belief in an all powerful or omnipotent God has been very important to the Christian faith, but what do we actually believe God can do for us? Can almighty God do anything for us, or is God’s actual power to change a situation far more limited than that due to the relationship with Creation that God has opted for? Problems with the all powerful view of God begin to surface when it is queried philosophically.

“Can God create a stone which is too heavy to lift? If God cannot create such a stone, the idea of total divine omnipotence would seem to be denied. Yet if God could create such a stone, then there is something else that God cannot do – namely, lift that stone.”

Either way, God is not totally omnipotent. Others have a view that through love for Creation God has given the natural order and human beings freedom and so has chosen to limit his power. One of the greatest acts of love a parent can give a child when they grow up is the freedom to make their own decisions. As loving parents we can do our best to persuade our children down a path we know will not lead to harm. Nevertheless they are free to ignore our advice. Likewise with God, in love he gives freedom and advice, but we are free to ignore it. So God is unable to do anything, rather he can offer his way as an option and be alongside us in our difficulties and suffering. It is here that the power of the cross becomes apparent and Dietrech Bonhoeffer’s reflection in his Letters and Papers from Prison says this:

“God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”
There is a famous story by Elie Wiesel about the hanging of three Jews in a Nazi concentration camp. Two of the condemned were large men. But the third was a young boy about the age of Wiesel himself. All the prisoners were paraded out to see the hanging as an example. Wiesel writes: When they were hung by the neck:

“The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half and hour. ‘Where is God? Where is He?’ someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again, ‘Where is God?’ And I heard a voice in myself answer: ‘Where is He? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows.”

What is being said here is that God’s power is not in being a divine superhero, but that he chooses to be alongside us in our powerlessness. Like all views it does have its criticisms. The main one is that God does not work like this through most of the Bible. He is a God who does appear to be able to do anything for his people. A response to that is God is not unchangeable in how he is active through history. The Bible supports this, from Genesis to the development of the Christian church the way God fundamentally engages with the world changes significantly. Since the cross, God has been active in this particular way. As I said at the start I’m not telling you how to understand God, that is something you must nail to your own mast of belief. Whatever is chosen you must be aware of the difficulties, criticisms and be continually reflected on.

Some parts of faith are very difficult to feel at peace with, but returning to this understanding of God continually making us and at the same time providing ways we can put Jesus in every situation is something we can be confident and take comfort in. Any Christian with a few years of faith under their belt are able to talk about how they have been changed for the better. Life might have been awful through that time, but God had been able to paint freely on their soul enabling them to put Jesus into their everyday life.

That is something we all have right now so let God paint on your soul by placing Jesus in whatever light or dark situations come your way. God wants to take you, something that is already beautiful to somewhere stunning, next to Jesus in God’s Kingdom.

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