THE HOUSE OF PRAYER

“My temple will be called a house of prayer for the people of all nations”.

Isa 56:7 GNB

Some residents of Jerusalem claim that their city is the centre of the world. It is perhaps the city to which more people in the world want to visit than any other. It is a holy city to three world faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The first temple, built by King Solomon in 950 B.C., was destroyed by the invading Babylonians in 586 B.C. A second, much smaller one, was built after the exiles returned. That was still standing when Jesus “cleansed” the temple during his ministry. At the time that Isaiah uttered this section of his prophecy there was no temple! But he knew that it was so central a part of their worship that God would ensure it got rebuilt.

The promise of God is so strong that it emphasizes that the temple would be central to all the worship of the Israelites. It would also become a place “for all nations”.

“The great reality which governs Isaiah’s thinking is the goal towards which all God’s purposes are moving. Something more is in view than the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple and the inclusion of formerly excluded people in the worship associated with it. To the degree that these things happened at all in the sixth century B.C. they were only signs of something that was ‘close at hand’ and ‘soon to be revealed’. It was with the coming of Christ that sign finally gave way to substance, and the gathering of the outcasts began in earnest” (B. Webb, The Message of Isaiah, p222).

Make sure that there are no outcasts excluded from your worship.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help us to worship you with an all-embracing love.

WIDE OPEN ARMS

“The Lord says to those foreigners who become part of his people, who love him and serve him, … and faithfully keep his covenant: ‘I will bring you to Zion, my sacred hill (and) give you joy in my house of prayer’”.

Isa 56:6, 7 GNB

Years ago a book appeared on the market entitled “Your God is Too Small”. It listed and looked at all the inadequate ideas there are of God. The title became something of a catch-phrase. Most people’s ideas of God are too small. So were the ideas of the Israelites. And their unwanted visit to Babylon caused them to expand their idea of God. Previously they had believed that their God would have nothing to do with the Babylonians or any other nation. Here, speaking after the first batch of exiles had returned to Israel, Isaiah revealed a new discovery about God. He had arms that opened wide to welcome foreigners who would love, worship and serve him. God would even bring them to Jerusalem. They would share in the temple worship alongside the “true-blue Israelites”.

The arms of God opened wide to receive people of all nations and the arms of Jesus opened wide on the cross to offer God’s love and his redemption to people of all nationalities, cultures and languages. Jesus had healed a Roman centurion’s servant and shown himself to be above the narrow nationalism that still dominated the thinking of many of his fellow Jews. Expand your concept of God as well. Have nothing to do with the narrow excluding ideas of so many versions of religious belief. Welcome all-comers to the family of God. God does!

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to be as welcoming as Jesus was to everyone.

THE INCLUSIVE GOD

“Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people’”.

Isa 56:3 NIV

Today we understand well that God is a “God for all people”. Whilst people of different cultures, languages and traditions sometimes find it difficult to mix together and work together, we know this is what God wants and we endeavour to work towards better harmony in the Christian community.

The exile was, for the Israelites, a devastating experience. But, like defeated sports captains today, some of them “looked for the positives” in the exile. For one thing it exposed the thinking people among them to the humanity of non-Israelite people. It opened their eyes to a wider sphere of people. It also meant that some of the people amongst whom they mingled saw them and were impressed with the high moral standards their faith created in them. Some of those foreigners said, “Teach us about your God”. And they became adherents of the Jewish faith. That is the kind of person to whom Isaiah was referring in this verse.

For Christian disciples the flood doors opened on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled them with power and the consuming desire to go out into all the world with the missionary message, “God loves you”. Paul waged a campaign within the Christian community to establish the fundamental principle “The Gentile Christians are equal in God’s love and therefore in their standing in the church with those Christians who came across from Judaism at Pentecost”. The simple truth is that God is inclusive in his love. All Christians need to recognize this and work for its implementation.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to be inclusive in my love too.

GETTING TO KNOW GOD

“My righteousness will soon be revealed”.

Isa 56: 1 NIV

We all want to know God. Who is he? How does he work? What does he do? What does he want of us? What does he do for us? What is he like? Answers to these questions appear from time to time in the Bible and in the teaching of the Christian community. The ancient Israelites wrestled with the same questions. They had the additional slant on it all because believing in him was the faith of the nation as a community and so whoever he was and what he did was tied up with their fortunes or misfortunes as a nation.

One thing that becomes clear in the Old testament is that he himself was righteous and he demanded righteousness of his people. That is to say some behaviour was good, as God was good. Other conduct was unrighteous or unacceptable to God. And in the reinstatement of the Israelite people in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas after their Babylonian captivity God was revealing his nature. What he did in restoring his people was righteous – loving, healing, renewing, and making them good.

Christian believers find what God is like by looking at Jesus, seeing his nature, hearing his words of truth, observing his deeds of goodness, healing and befriending the outcasts. And in forgiving people for their sins and making them acceptable to God the Father. Jesus enables us to stand before God the righteous Father completely cleansed, restored and free from sin. That is the righteousness of the Father and the Son. Stand in that righteousness, renewed and empowered by his Holy Spirit.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, reveal yourself to me more and more.

HE BRINGS SALVATION

“My salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed”.

Isa 56:1 NIV

An old hymn used to have a line which read, “There’s a hush of expectation and a quiet in the air”. When the prophets of the Old Testament wrote their messages they usually conveyed the sense of “something is about to happen”. They lived with their ear close to the ground on spiritual matters and sensed when God was getting busy.

When Isaiah wrote these words many of the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem to discover that everything was not as wonderful as they had been led to anticipate. It gave rise to a sombre mood and a questioning as to just what God was about. The fulfilment of some of the promises made to them in Babylon was still being awaited. So there developed a feeling that God had done certain of the things he had promised but not all. They were waiting for the rest of God’s salvation work to happen. It was a kind of interim period that kept them guessing. But always God was likely to break in at any time and do mighty things.

A similar period happened in the New Testament after Jesus had ascended. The disciples and all the believers were expecting the imminent return of Christ in his glory and there was a sense that the future was likely to break in at any time. As the lapse of time increased, the expectation dimmed – or stretched out into a more distant future. We still live in that interim period between Christ’s first coming and his second. But always God is promising us his full and final salvation.

Be patient and keep waiting for God to act.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, come with your full and free salvation now we pray.

DO WHAT IS JUST AND RIGHT

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand’”.

Isa 56:1 NIV

The life of the people of God has to be carried on during all the turbulence of historical and political developments. It does not exist in splendid isolation in some spiritual vacuum or retreat centre. And the men and women who are leaders of the people have to give guidance whilst they are busy on the job – and also in that hurly-burly busy-ness that crams in on everyone.

The scene depicted in these later chapters of Isaiah reflect the time when the first waves of Israelites had returned to Jerusalem. But not all the exiles went home straight away. Some remained in Babylon. And the blissful expectations of those who did return were tempered by the difficulties they came across. They were still not “free” – they were now under Persian rule which involved only a partial degree of self-rule. Still Isaiah had to “squeeze God in” so to speak. Some of God’s promises had been fulfilled but not all, and problems of a practical nature abounded. They are called to “maintain justice”.

It was not maintaining justice that had caused their ruin in the first place. God will not allow his people to specialise in a faith that bears no responsibility for the social justice of society in general. Pleasant and easy as it is to withdraw from involvement in the world, God requires his people to engage with the “real world” in order to effect his engagement with it – and to defend the weak and do “justly”.

This is still so today for Christian believers. God calls us to be in his world, “boots and all”.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help us to be your presence in the structures of the world.

A REMINDER OF GOD

“This will be a sign that will last for ever, a reminder of what I, the Lord, have done”.

Isa 55:13 GNB

We have the wonderful faculty of memory. Some of us have better memories than others. Many of us wish we had better memories than we do have. And many in their later years wish they still had the kind of memory they used to have forty or more years earlier! And most of us need to be reminded of God and what he has done quite frequently.

The ancient Israelites needed to be reminded. They were prone to forget God and what he had done as they went about their business, work, family life and making a living. Now God was about to do a great thing. After their nearly forty-year-long exile in Babylon they were about to go home. God was directing the history of the nations and Babylon was about to fall to the Persians. The outcome was that the Persians were going to release the Israelites. Isaiah wanted this event to become a God-centred happening, not a human political celebration in which the Israelites slapped themselves on their backs with the whole thing deteriorating into an orgy of self-congratulation.

Keep God in the centre of the picture! Find Christ in all the comings and goings of your own personal dealings. Learn how to look back and trace God in the events of your life and in the blessings you have received. Thank God for the people who have brought love into your life, and thank him for those people into whose lives you have brought love. Include him in those landmark celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, constantly give me reminders of your love and actions.

A SIGN FROM GOD

“This will be a sign that will last for ever”.

Isa 55:13 GNB

It often happens that some significant event takes place that people want to remember for a long time. On Sunday, 20th July 1969 the first man set foot on the moon. Neil Armstrong left a memorial plaque on which were inscribed these words: “Here men from the planet earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind”. It was a sign of man’s mastery of science and a significant moment in human history. Whether the elements will allow that sign to remain there “for ever” we do not know.

The departure of the Israelite people from Babylon in 538 B.C. was a “red letter day” for them. From the misery of defeat and forced exile it marked a new beginning for them. It could only have come about as a result of an act of God. And God did intervene finally, even though when Isaiah wrote these words the future departure date was still unknown.

For Christian believers the cross of Jesus is the sign of God’s mighty act to bring salvation and hope for all humanity. The cross signifies not only the crucifixion but the resurrection as well, since it is usually portrayed as an empty cross. We look back to that event again and again, always at Easter time but often at no particular time. It is the sign of God’s love, his miraculous intervention and his ongoing care for all humanity, his act of binding himself to the human race in order to save and redeem them. It is a sign of hope, of renewal, of reconciliation and of faith. And it is a “sign for ever”.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, thank you for all that the cross of Jesus stands for.

NEW GROWTH

“Cypress-trees will grow where now there are briars; myrtle-trees will come up in place of thorns”.

Isa 55:13 GNB

When God acts, things start to happen. And they go on happening. God’s acts bring joy to the human beings who witness them. People feel far better when God acts because it reassures them that he is in control and is directing the course of history. People are so happy that it seems that nature is joining in the joy. And, says Isaiah, it will impact on nature around them. Unproductive scrubland will give way to impressive and beautiful trees. The Cypress tree is a well-shaped tree with decorative leaves. It adds beauty to any garden or park. The Myrtle tree has beautiful leaves and a pleasant, aromatic smell.

The transformation Isaiah envisaged taking place when God brought his people out of Babylon would trigger off this new natural growth. For ugliness there would be beauty. For thorn trees that were both inconvenient and unpleasant for people there would be pleasant and exciting growth. Isaiah was saying that when God gets going he “gets going big”.

Look for God’s actions in the world at large, in your church community and in your own life. Look for where there is new life. Keep your eyes open for spiritual developments, increased prayer, people coming from an absence of faith into deep commitment to Jesus Christ. Look for joy in worship, acts of compassion and kindness to those who are underprivileged, new groups studying the Bible, creative things being done for the glory of God, and sacrificial giving that indicates a love for God translating into action, and beneficial deeds being done.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, in your mighty deeds help me to see the spiritual growth.

JOY IN NATURE

“The mountains and hills will burst into singing, and the trees will shout for joy”.

Isa 55:12 GNB

Human beings live within their natural environment and whilst nature changes with the passing seasons there are times when people find themselves uplifted and inspired by its beauty or its invigorating air. A man once found himself alone on a holiday in Devon, England. He knew from the map that a river ran close by and that its source was in the mountains less than a mile away. One evening he set out to trace the stream up the hillside to its source where he knelt down and drank from the cool sweet water. He made his way down again singing in his heart for joy that he had experienced an unforgettable moment of oneness with nature. Cool breezes, lush green grass, the singing of birds, blossom on trees, the majesty of mountains, the light and warmth of the sun – all these “get to” the human heart and cause joy, wonder, and even worship.

The Israelites would find their spirits elated by witnessing the act of God in ending their Babylonian captivity and would sense that nature itself was rejoicing. The wind in the air would seem to be the music of singing and God would seem to be very near.

Most people do not have too many of these “one with nature” moments. They do not happen every day. When one comes to you, savour it and give praise and thanks to God that you are alive to experience it. Thank God for the beauties of nature and for all the blessings that God has granted you – and for the gift of life itself.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, thank you for the heartbeat of nature, its music and its joy.