At the end of the Gore-Perot debates in 1993 concerning NAFTA, U.S. News and World Report reporter Thom Greier regrets the ill-informed demagoguery we all witnessed during the debates. “Six score and 10 years ago this week, Abraham Lincoln first recited the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address . . . But . . . Perot and Gore demonstrated there’s reason to think that oratory of that kind has all but perished from the earth.” “The problem is not so much with the oratory as with the orators,” says Ronald Reagan’s highly regarded speech writer Peggy Noonan. “Lincoln grew up reading the Bible and William Shakespeare and thinking inescapably in big themes. Modern politicians have to give their intellectual energy to arguing about the arcane of NAFTA. If that is what you give your energy to, you lose sight of the big flow and the big river.”

Israel, in Isaiah 48:17-22, has lost sight of the big flow and the big river. This new generation, born in Babylonian captivity, is now ready to return home. Their new Persian lords are letting them go–but will their sin? Will they be able to change their ways so that they can finally know true peace, wholeness, and Shalom . . .

There is only one means to achieve shalom and that is through judiciously following the commandments of God. This is the bigger picture. And this generation needs to get the bigger picture. Babylon, with its allure of safety and comfort, promises all kinds of riches–even if it means slavery. But captivity to Babylon can never give Isaiah’s generation peace or happiness.

Alan Thein Durning in his book entitled How Much Is Enough? argues that increasingly “people measure success by the amount they consume” and “people living in the nineties are on average four-and-a half times richer than their great-grandparents were at the turn of the century.” But how many of us are any happier?

Our text challenges us to plumb the depths of our commitment to God. How much are we willing to give up for Him?

The Bible challenges people to face the temptations of worldly wealth. Jesus warns His people “what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matt. 16:26)
Measured in constant dollars, the world’s people have consumed as many goods and services since 1950 as all previous generations put together. And we are no happier.
Durning argues therefore that “the main determinants of happiness in life are not related to consumption at all–prominent among them are satisfaction with family life, especially marriage, followed by satisfaction with work, leisure to develop talents, and friendships.” Yet, even though many of us know that fact, how many of us are willing to sacrifice everything in the eternal quest of possessions?

This quest captures the heart of Isa. 48 where God is looking wistfully at His people and desiring with all His heart that His people would obey Him, trust Him, follow Him . . .

Isa. 48 is addressed to a people ready to go home. To leave exile and return to responsible freedom.

But, to return to Jerusalem, after a generation in exile in Babylon, presupposes a new commitment to God’s commandments. God is aching in this passage. The God we meet here is like a yearning parent who, after punishing His children, wishes like everything that they have learned their lesson and He will not have to send them into captivity and bondage again. God is more ambitious, as it were, for His children than they are for themselves!

The bridge from captivity–Babylon–to Zion and freedom–Jerusalem–is obedience to God’s commandments. V. 18 makes it clear that the keeping of God’s commandments is critical to shalom, or health and wholeness.

The commentator Walter Brueggemann suggests that Isaiah in this passage is arguing forcibly that obedience to the commandments is a pre-requisite for healthy human relationships. The commandments as guidelines for covenantal social relationships intend an end to greed, acquisitiveness, exploitation, disrespect, and brutality of the strong against the weak (Brueggemann).
So, in Isaiah we see a patriarchal God who both loves us and also wants us to live under the shelter of His love. The prodigal son story (Luke 15), the lost sheep story (Luke 15), the lost coin story (Luke 15), and the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) all portray a loving father.

In order, though, for us to know this shalom, we must leave behind the comforts of Babylon and risk new forgiveness and grace.

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