• Steven Marsh

Hope–Recounting the Gracious Deeds of the LORD: a Reflection on Isaiah 63:7-9

Today is New Year’s Day. 2016 is over and 2017 has begun. But, let us not forget the past year too quickly. In our celebrating last night, how many of us recounted the gracious deeds of God, the Lord, in our lives? Our past has a profound impact on the present and the future.

The movie Les Misérables, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, opens with a vagabond curled up on a stone bench on a desolate French street corner. His bedraggled appearance makes him seem dangerous and causes the townspeople, from whom he sought food and shelter, to snub him. Finally, he slumps over in dejection—until a passerby points to a place where he can find refuge.

He goes to the door and knocks. The homeowner, the town’s bishop, is startled by the late-night visitation but attentively listens to his story. His name is Jean Valjean, and he reveals that he is a recently released convict and marked by the authorities as dangerous. Even so, the bishop welcomes him into his home and serves him dinner.

Later, in the middle of the night, despite the bishop’s kindness, Valjean double-crosses him. Valjean remembers the sparkling silver spoon he used to eat his soup at dinner and sneaks to the dining room to steal the bishop’s valuable silverware. The clanking of metal arouses the bishop, who rises to inspect the clattering below. When they meet face to face, Valjean strikes the bishop, leaving him unconscious, and escapes with a heavy knapsack of silver.

The following morning the bishop’s domestic servant laments the loss of her silver, but the bishop seems unperturbed, telling his domestic servant, “So we’ll use wooden spoons. I don’t want to hear anything more about it.” Moments later, authorities appear at the bishop’s manor with the stolen silver and Valjean handcuffed. Looking deeply into the thief’s eyes, the bishop says, “I’m very angry with you, Jean Valjean.” Turning toward the authorities, he asks, “Didn’t he tell you he was our guest?” “Oh, yes,” replies the chief authority, “after we searched his knapsack and found all this silver. He claimed that you gave it to him.” Stooping in shame, Valjean expects the bishop to indict him. A new prison sentence awaits him. But the bishop says, “Yes. Of course, I gave him the silverware.” Then, looking intently at Valjean he asks, “But why didn’t you take the candlesticks? That was very foolish. They’re worth at least 2,000 francs. Why did you leave them? Did you forget to take them?” The bishop orders his domestic servant to hurry and fetch the candlesticks, while the authorities stand dumbfounded. They ask, “Are you saying he told us the truth?” The bishop replies, “Of course. Thank you for bringing him back. I’m very relieved.” The authorities immediately release Valjean, who is shocked by the turn of events, and the bishop thrusts the retrieved candlesticks into Valjean’s knapsack.

Once the authorities leave, the bishop drops the heavy bag of silver at Valjean’s feet. After peeling away Valjean’s hood, which was cloaking his guilty face, the bishop sternly looks him in the eyes and orders Valjean, “Don’t forget don’t ever forget you’ve promised to become a new man.” Valjean, trembling, makes the promise and with utter humility asks, “Why are you doing this?” The bishop places his hands on Valjean’s shoulders, as an act of blessing, and declares, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I’ve bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred. Now I give you back to God.”[1]

Our souls have been bought. We too have been ransomed from fear and hatred. The writer of Isaiah makes two points for our consideration. First, the Lord is a God of gracious deeds. And second, the Lord’s most gracious deed is God’s presence.

Verse 7 begins an articulation of a historical prologue recalling Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Israel is called, protected, exalted, delivered, and safely led through Sinai into Canaan. Despite Israel’s rebellion, God followed through on the promise made to Abraham. Abraham and his people would be a great nation and a blessing to all nations. Despite Israel’s sin, the Lord was gracious and merciful to the people. During the suffering, the people could recount the gracious deeds of the Lord. The people of Israel experienced consolation during desolation by simply recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord throughout their history.

Why did God remain faithful to a disobedient people? Verses 8-9 remind us that God is the people’s savior. God could not, nor would not, break the promise made to Abraham. God promised to be with Abraham and the people. God continually lifted the people out of the mire of their sin and suffering. God carried them throughout the days of their lives. The Lord saved the people through “presence.” God’s presence with the people was, is, and always will be God’s most gracious deed.

All of us have a past. All of us are living in the present. All of us have a future. The past, present, and future are all part of what God is doing in and with our lives. If you do not believe in God through God’s son Jesus Christ, then I invite you to eavesdrop on the following discussion. And those of you who have trusted your life to the love, care, and mercy of Jesus Christ listen too. Nothing has happened in our past, is happening in our present, and will happen in our future took place, takes place, or will take place outside of the presence of God. God was, is, and will be with us. God’s gracious deeds of calling, protecting, exalting, delivering, and safely leading the people of Israel are the same gracious deeds that God has done, is doing and will be doing in the lives of those who have believed the promise made to us in Jesus Christ.

How has God met you in your past? How is God meeting you in your present? How will God meet you in the future? Only the very presence of God will save you. And assurance of God’s saving presence comes by placing your trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. That act of faith does not mean life will become distress free. To the contrary, distress remains, but by and with faith, you have the perspective to recount the Lord’s gracious deeds in and through whatever comes your way.

Hope is experienced as we recount the gracious deeds of the Lord in our world, communities, and lives. Jesus continues the deliverance of humanity occurring in Isaiah’s day. God’s acting in Jesus makes the hope of salvation real in that all people now have access. Emily Askew, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Lexington Theological Seminary, writes, “[Isaiah 63:7-9] speaks of a God who has delivered and will again deliver God’s people from exile…God stands with humankind to work for our liberation; love and mercy characterize God’s engagement with us.”[2]

New Year’s Day calls you to walk in the interval between birth and death by recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord. As Martin Thielen writes, “…forgiveness is a major biblical theme and a huge emphasis of Jesus. I’ve concluded that at heart, forgiveness is a gift, in at least three ways. First, forgiveness is a gift to others…Second, forgiveness is a gift to God…Finally, forgiveness is a gift to ourselves.”[3] By recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord, we are embraced by forgiveness. By recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord, we participate in the ends that God desires.[4] Liberation for humanity is at the heart of God. Happy New Year!

[1]Taken from http://www.preachingtoday.com/ Les Misérables, rated PG-13, released 1998, based on the novel by Victor Hugo; written by Rafael Yglesias, directed by Bille August; submitted by Melissa Parks, Des Plaines, Illinois | posted 4/16/2001.

[2]Emily Askew in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 149-150.

[3]Martin Thielen, Searching For Happiness (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 69-70.

[4]Idea gleaned from Emily Askew in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, 150.

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