Of flint and spit and baby birds: some thoughts on Isaiah 50
“I have not turned my face
away from insults and spitting…
I have set my face like flint…”
There is something quite visceral and troubling in that image of “spitting.” I can’t imagine not turning my face away from someone spitting at me. Even simply on a instinctive level, it seems an almost animal reaction to be horrified by someone spitting on you… And yet here we have this image of the prophet suffering this indignity willingly. He will not turn from insults and spitting. He has set his face like flint and will not turn back. He is committed to the task at hand. But, what is the task?
This is from the third “suffering servant” song. In these passages the prophet employs the image of a suffering servant to express God’s love, God’s willingness to suffer for us. These 4 songs, all found in Isaiah 42-53, speak of God’s enduring love, God’s commitment to Israel, to redeem her from sin—no matter the cost. He has set His heart on it and will not turn away. Even though it bring shame and insult, God will suffer anything for His beloved. That single-mindedness, that sense of courage, commitment and dedication to a purpose… it is something I too often lack. I will set a goal, I will make a promise, I will commit myself to some plan of action and then, before too long, I will find myself forgetting, or delaying, even making excuses for why I should just give up. I’m too tired, I should wait until after I rest, and while I rest maybe I could watch just one more episode of Midsomer Murders. Or what’s the point of cleaning the bathroom? It will just get dirty again! How many times have I committed myself to working at least an hour a day on my novel… And how many times have I just let that hour slip away because I felt ashamed, or disheartened, afraid of failure, afraid of insults and spitting…? Or what about that commitment to morning prayer? To a half hour of meditation every day? Or 15 minutes even? I might look foolish, people might judge me, or worse—no one will notice! That’s a real slap at the old ego…
And yet, God never gives up on us. Every day, every hour, every moment of our lives He is right there at our side, reaching out to us, whispering our name. In fact, according to Isaiah, He has engraved us in the palm of His hand (49:16). You, me, every single one of us… even the sparrow that falls from its nest…
Don’t be afraid of your promises, your commitments, your renewals. Yes, we all have failed, we all have stumbled, we all have turned away… But, now is a time to be renewed. Now is a time to refocus our attention and set our face, like flint, on the goal. Listen for that still, quiet voice that whispers your name. Where is God calling you? How is God calling you? What great adventure does God have planned for you? Is it to renew your family through prayer, is it to serve a neighbor who lives alone, perhaps buy groceries, pick-up medicine, or mow the lawn for them. Maybe you are being called to reach out to someone who is lonely. Call them up and ask them how they are doing, and take the time to actually listen. Ask questions about their day, their life, what they are doing to get through this anxious time. Maybe God is calling you to get outside and smile at your neighbors and the people who pass, greet them and compliment their children. Let them know there is still hope in the world.
The other morning I saw a beautiful example of this. I was out for a walk and saw a commotion of people busily and somewhat awkwardly bustling about in a neighbor’s front yard. There were three of them all seeming to be in a state of intense focus, and yet from the yard kept coming laughter and joyful sounds of encouragement and what can only be called: effortless delight.
I stopped and one of the neighbors paused long enough to explain that they were anxiously trying to rescue a baby bird that had fallen from its nest –which had been built in a hanging planter on her porch. It seems that nest itself had also fallen, so these three neighbors were busily scurrying about trying to rebuild the nest and get the baby bird back into it. They were completely focused on the task at hand, and there was wonderful seriousness—almost a solemnity—about their work. Gathering pine-needles and leaves, looking for just the right kind of nest-making materials, even comically debating which items the mama bird might prefer. The moment was filled with joy. Their faces were set like flint on the task at hand, and though they were clearly anxious for the safety of the bird, there was also delight in selflessly doing what they could. Unafraid of looking foolish or being ridiculed, they were being true to the call of that little quiet voice. There was no thought of being spit on (or pooped on, I bet...) What a blessed witness that moment was for me.
Maybe you too are being called to help a baby bird, or maybe you are being called to sit down and write a letter to someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time. Let them know they are not forgotten. They are loved. Inscribed in your heart, even. Or maybe it is that novel you’ve been meaning to write. Don’t be afraid of looking foolish, don’t be afraid of failing, just set your face like flint and follow the sound of that voice calling you always deeper into the love of God.