God's Unfading Word

Isaiah 40:1 - 11

After a time of great darkness, after a long pause, God breaks his silence. 'Comfort my people.' This text comes at a very low time. From the last verse of Isaiah 39 to the first verse of Isaiah 40 about 160 years have passed. During this time the kingdom of Israel disappeared with the first exile. And now Babylon has sent the people of Judah into exile. The year is 540 BCE, and they've been living in exile for just over a generation.

Now God breaks the silence. Among the heavenly council (the 'Ye' in the first verse), its been decided; 'it's time for a change'. The people have paid, more than paid. The decision comes from on high, overruling the arrogance of Babylon. To all the cries that apparently went unanswered, God's response resonates.

Then a voice cries out to prepare the wilderness. The herald comes to tell the people to get a highway ready, to get ready for God's action, the way of the Lord. Every valley will be filled, every mountain made low. All the obstacles will be cleared away. All the emotional swings of elation and depression will become balanced as the intention of God proceeds.

The writer is making a bold claim because he wants to rouse the people, to wake them up. God has a new thing in mind, and God hasn't forgotten. Against all evidence to the contrary, and that's the tricky part. Isaiah wants to spark the religious imagination, to get the people to turn from the despair of exile or assimilation, from the arrogance of the dominant culture that is telling them they are simply commodities. Isaiah uses the image of the heavenly council to show that God is gathering forces and clearing the way in heaven so that the outcome is inevitable.

Cry Out!

The voices become focused from heavenly council to angelic herald to the prophet/people. From heavenly intention, to proclamation, to call and response. The prophet is compelled to 'cry out.' To shout out this good news that God is making a new way. But in an echo of the call of Isaiah 6, this Isaiah is reluctant. 'Why should I get excited about this? The people are here today and gone tomorrow. They are not constant, not dependable. Why waste this good news on them?' The answer is: 'Yes, the people are like grass that withers, but God's word stands forever.' Its not about you, Isaiah. And it's not about the people. God has intended this all along. Nothing can stop God. So spread the word, Isaiah. Let the people know.

What a challenge. From all appearances God seems to have abandoned the people. The reflective ones have understood they deserved this punishment. The pragmatic ones have already made a kind of peace, made deals with the Babylonian bureaucracy. Have to feed the kids, have to scrape out some kind of living. And after 60 years it isn't so bad. The money's good. The Babylonians have some interesting stories and rituals. Sure we've been beaten down, had our sons stolen, our daughters raped. But we're finally making a little enclave for ourselves here. The temple seems a distant memory.

Get ready for a road trip, says Isaiah. God has plans. God is going to bring us home, return us to our vocation. A procession of victory, a highway through the desert. What an audacious vision! We've just gotten acclimatized to this strange land. The raw wounds of chastisement have begun to heal. Do we really want to go through all that again? Following this demanding God? Opening ourselves to this dangerous thing called hope?

Get up on a high place, where everyone can hear you. Because you've got something to say. Climb that tower, grab that megaphone. Don't be afraid of what's past or what's to come. This is good news, the best news yet. This is Gospel.

Isaiah understands its is about a changed imagination. He's from the reflective camp, and has been formed by the memories of the elders, the previous generation. He's well versed in the sins that led to the fall, how Israel wasn't making the covenant with God central, how they whittled away their inheritance chasing after kings and cultures. He knew they couldn't sing the Lord's song in a strange land. But Isaiah has had a vision. Something new is in the wind. 'Our punishment has ended!' Not only that but God never forgot about us. All along God was thinking of how to make a way for the people to return to Him. The more Isaiah reflects, the more he and the other priests discuss and argue about this new vision, the more it becomes clear that hope is on the rise. They can barely contain it; shout it out. The arm of the Lord will act, a powerful display of the victorious warrior. But also gathering the lambs, and gently leading those with child.

We've forgotten our true home

But is it too late? Have most of the people sold out to Babylon out of desperation? Isaiah knows that the wounds of the soul go right to the center, to the heart of imagination. And so he says, 'prepare the way.' Get ready for this trip. Get your hearts in order, get back in touch with your love for God, with the hope God has prepared.

And this is risky. Because there is no evidence yet. Perhaps Persia has defeated Babylon by this point, but Cyrus has not yet made the decree for return. Isaiah is not proclaiming after the fact; he just knows from praying, from the Spirit, from his community of learner-preachers, that something is afoot. And the best way to hear it, is to prepare a way for it. Feed the imagination by talking about the good things God has done, and what he will do. He will level the obstacles that we couldn't see past. He will topple the seemingly intractable government of the day. He will create a direct route home that will be like a parade. It will be amazing.

Like the exiles we live in a world where The Lord is not the center. We are displaced by voices from culture that tell us to be more by consuming more, that if you can't taste and touch it, it ain't real, that it doesn't matter anyways because there is no meta-narrative. We are displaced by our fear of being losers, that makes us think we have to keep proving ourselves. By our need to impress that create idols in our own image. By our sense of entitlement that keeps us resisting any kind of pain in life and makes us hard-hearted. By our insignificance which leads us to over-control others. By the horror of seeing our shadow side which causes us to break those precious rules we make. By dissipating ourselves with pleasure so we don't have to feel the heartbreak of purpose. By hiding in ideas, or despair, instead of taking risks with people. By the frustration of unlived life that rips loose in unbridled rage. By consuming so much of the earth at the expense of so many people. By letting need for convenience extort the future of other beings: human trafficking, climate change, species extinction, homelessness, child poverty.....

All these things keep us from God and God's hope for the world. They keep us circling around ourselves and cloud our imagination so we can't hear the comfort that God is bringing to us and wants to bring through us. We can't see past our own failures of faith, hope and love. All we see is the withering of our best intentions. We are not constant.

And into this we hear at first the gentle cry of 'Comfort my people.' Then the excited 'Cry out in the wilderness.' Then the urgent 'Shout it out from the mountains..the good tidings that God has won.' Do we believe it? Do we have anything to base our belief on?

We Do

'The grass withers and the flower fades. But God's word lasts forever.' God does what he promises. Our hope is not in our own abilities but God's proven reliability. But we only experience this saving grace when we let go of all the ways in which we try to make it on our own. Mark says that 'John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.' Repentance is the way back. We see that our ways fall so short of what is good, and yet in God, we are given new hearts, new eyes, new minds, a sense of 'at home', where ever we are. God brings us home, when we let go. Or more to the point, when we repent of our striving, we see God has been bringing us home all along.

Prepare the way ... the way is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. There are sins as deeds we've already listed: unkind words, hardness of heart, losing sight of God in our self-absorption. But there is also the sin of not believing God cares anymore. Like the exiles in Babylon, we may have given into the despair and cynicism of assimilation because we don't want to risk trusting this unpredictable, uncontainable God. Or maybe we've never known anything other than a relativistic, post-modern, anti-meta-narrative world. We are fickle and we are wounded. Or we are terrified to proclaim the word because the culture bellows back with derision at us. 'Don't you know there is no meta-narrative?' But the good news that kept Isaiah up at nights was that it didn't matter about us. What mattered was God's intention was forever: 'God's word stands forever.' This is the bedrock we can anchor ourselves to. We repent by having hope in God's constancy. We repent by calling each other as a community to hope. We don't know exactly for what, but Isaiah tells the exiles, tells us, we can trust God is present, God is doing something, because God is true to his word. And if God is present with us, that's all we need. Like Calvin said, we can have all the riches and status of the world, but if God isn't present for us, these things will never be enough. So we can practice hope. Practice going against our own grain. Almost like Seinfeld's George Kostanza, doing the opposite of what we would normally do. Not to 'fake it until you make it'. But as a ritual of expecting God to act.

Practice expecting God

And the biggest way to practice expecting God, according to Isaiah, is to tell, to shout, to cry out, to be the bearer of glad tidings. To feed the hope by telling the stories of hope. I think we do this best when we tell each other the gospel stories in our own words. Helping each other to see life through scripture, to see God in unexpected places. Hearing the Spirit as we learn to interpret the Scripture. Praying the news, interpreting movies and books through scripture. Encouraging and admonishing each other to keep trusting in the Human One, the Risen One. Reminding each other of how God has been present, and has created a way in our midst in the past. Like Handel's Messiah, as we 'sing' (interpret) these truths over and over, we see more clearly the in-breaking Kingdom. Living together, as the Spirit leads us, we open our hearts to God's word by encouraging each other to live more deeply as the people of God. We help each other strip off the slime of assimilation, to break from the 'same old,' from the conventional 'way its always been.'

But the way home is through suffering. Walter Brueggeman talks about how we can't avoid the truth that we are saved by the bruises of another. In the text the suffering of Israel through the exile prepares them to truly be the covenant people for the nations of the world. They wouldn't have had that understanding if the Davidic kingdom had stayed intact. The Servant Songs talk about the servant who is bruised, and through whose bruises we are healed. This Servant is both Israel and a message to Israel. Centuries later the imagination of a peasant carpenter was so formed by these texts that he began to live as if God were his Father, as if marginal people were welcome. In turn this Jesus so impacted those around him, that his followers came to identify him as this Suffering Servant of Isaiah. They came to understand that in Jesus, God entered the human story so deeply that he entered suffering willingly, so that all could enter the kingdom, all could travel the highway home.

Maybe the delayed parousia is just this compassion entering all of time. God so loved the world ... that he didn't give the hard-hearted ones a cold shoulder ... he didn't dismiss the status-seekers ... he didn't avoid the whiners ... he didn't control the over-controllers ... he didn't logic-chop with the knowledge-hoarders ... he didn't lord it over the power-seekers. Instead he entered his death willingly so that mercy and truth could kiss each other. He loved us. And when we see the paltriness of our goodness, when we suffer our delusions to fall away, when we are left with our powerlessness and turn ourselves over to Jesus as our Power, then this love of Christ seeps into us and changes us from the inside. And we enter the world as new creatures. To think and respond christologically towards our hurting world. To be more like Jesus, and therefore more human/e towards those we meet in our days. To turn around because we remember we're called to something deeper. Then the valleys are lifted up and the mountains laid low. Then we are home.

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