(If you prefer audio to reading, this sermon was recorded here.)
“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.”
Good morning everyone. I’m so grateful to get to come back and preach for you again. The last time I was here, I started my sermon by saying that it was an honor as well as a responsibility to get to preach during such a tumultuous time, to bring the word of God to a world in distress. Few of us likely would’ve guessed that six months later, things would have gotten so much worse that it would make six months ago seem like a utopia. To preach today is that much more of a blessing and a burden, and I’m thankful to be here.
I bring up the state of the world right now not to simply clear the air or cause nervous laughter, but because it is crucial to how I read this text this week, and how I think we are all able to hear it today. This text from Isaiah is really good news; extremely hopeful, optimistic, and inspiring. As it took me on a journey this week, though, I experienced a lot of different emotions. The first one is what I want to confess to you this morning, because you might relate to it, and that’s that this scripture made me angry. I scoffed at this passage, and these promises. Partly, because I had a really terrible week at work. I work with people who are currently and formerly living on the streets in Hollywood, and the first two days of my week were spent encountering the devastating realities of homelessness, and the systems that are supposed to be helping. I saw over and over again the way that we fail the least vulnerable in our society and make it nearly impossible for them to succeed or get help, even when they desperately want it. Suffice to say, by only Tuesday afternoon, I had sufficient evidence to conclude that this world is too far gone, that all the systems are broken, and that there is no hope.
I don’t tell you this to bum you out, but to simply be honest about where I’m coming from. I think my reaction to this text may be extreme, but I wonder if it doesn’t resonate with some of you all too? Zooming out from my own work, it’s hard to find hope in the big picture right now. Lines are being drawn in the sand right now on racial politics, and a lot of hate is boiling to the service. As one of my friends and pastors wrote this week, “This is a war for the very soul of this nation.” These last few weeks it has felt like racism is winning the war. Similar exasperating things could be said about our tensions with North Korea, and the negative impacts of climate change on the developing world.
When the news around you is really bad and you read a passage like this, it’s hard (at least for me) to take it seriously. When I read about wildernesses being made into beautiful gardens and God’s victory and triumph, it’s easy to say, “Sure, God, but when? When are you going to do that, because right now feels like a pretty good time, but these promises always seem farther and farther off.” At first, I had no plans to preach on this text for that reason, thinking “Yeah, that’s nice and all, but we need something practical, for right now, that we can really work with.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe good news when the news around you is so bad.
But I was reminded this week of the world into which this prophecy was first proclaimed. The Israelites had lost everything; their land, their religion, their social structures, their whole place in the world. And here comes this word of promise… I wonder how ready they felt to hear it. As I think back to all the times in scripture where these prophesies were made about the future victory of God… Isaiah 2 speaks of an end to war and weapons being beaten into tools for agriculture; Revelation 21 speaks of a new heaven and a new earth where every tear will be wiped away and no more death… All of these passages were originally proclaimed during these times when it was the hardest to hear and believe them, during exile and persecution and devastation. God offers these words at times like these on purpose. The good news that God offers at times like these is not “too good to be true,” they are not empty promises, and most of all, they are not far away. Once I believed that these words might be for me, and for us, today… they began to preach to me in a way that I hope they can preach to you as well.
Now that we’ve spent enough time in our world, I want to read this passage one more time so it’s fresh in our hearts and minds. Try if you can today to hear these words as one author wrote: “A word to sustain the weary.” If you feel tired this morning of all the injustice and hopelessness in the world and in your life, this word is especially for you today.
[Read text again]
A few observations that jump out as we hear this a second time, specifically related to the language that is chosen. (1) There are a lot of imperatives, a lot of commands. This text is urgent. So if we are tempted to believe that this passage is simply some nice things to think about and meditate on, we are missing out on its call to action. (2) The tenses of the verbs change throughout from past, present, and future, active and passive… meaning that this is not a passage only about stuff that’s going to happen later; it’s about stuff that has already happened, and stuff that is going on right now, too. Already, this passage defies any criticism that it’s impractical or too good to be true.
The proclamation begins by calling on those who pursue righteousness, and who seek the Lord. Now, I know enough about this church to know that this describes you. You are a church that loves to do what is right, to talk about justice, and do the hard work of reconciliation. You don’t need another sermon telling you to “do justice”. You’re doing it! Today’s word is for you, and it’s a word of encouragement. An author I read this week correctly pointed out that those who pursue justice are very often prone to discouragement. So for all of us who love justice and feel like we might be losing hope, Isaiah 51 is a word of hope.
The first offering of hope that God gives us is to look to the past. The Israelites are reminded to look back to Abraham and Sarah and the fulfillment of the promises that were given to them. God promises Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, and God will bless the entire world through him. This is a beautiful story for the Israelites to remember, and is crucial to their theology and history. But anyone familiar with that story knows that promise was not simple or easily fulfilled. God made Abraham that promise, and then ten years passed with no children. They tried to take matters into their own hands by having a child by a servant, Hagar, and that did not go very well. It wasn’t for another 15 years that Abraham and Sarah finally had a child… almost 25 years since the initial promise! Can you imagine having to wait that long? Could you imagine finding a genie lamp and making a wish, and then waiting 25 years for it to finally happen? I give myself about 2 months, tops, before I would think I’d been tricked. Being called to remember this story is a reminder that God’s promises may be a long way out, but they are still dependable.
Another aspect of this verse is particularly meaningful for those of us who feel hopeless in our pursuit of justice. This verse acknowledges that Abraham was “but one when I called him, but I made him many.” For those who pursue justice and are asked to wait, it can be a devastatingly lonely experience. Throughout the centuries, some of our best exemplars of justice in the Christian faith have struggled with profound feelings like isolation. Dorothy Day titled her memoir “The Long Loneliness”, and other phrases like “labor of love” and “the struggle” accompany these stories. It is so easy to feel alone when we seek God a world like this. The word of God for those of us who feel this way today is that we are not alone; God has made us many. We can look around this room and see those who are with us. We can look to the past and see those who gone before us.
And we can look to the future and take courage that this is all headed in a good direction. The Lord will comfort Zion, which is the word used to describe the future city of God’s people. God will comfort all the waste places, and the wildernesses will be like the garden of Eden. There will be joy and gladness and thanksgiving! This is the part about the future, and seems at first to be a little out of touch. It’s easy to read this part and say, “How do we get there from here?” How does a desert become a garden?
There’s no simply answer to that, other than to say, we will get there from here. As certainly as God has gotten us to this place, as certainly as we can believe anything about God, we must believe that this is where God is taking us. It may not feel like it in 2017, or even the 2010’s, but if we look back, to the rock from which we were hewn, we can see that the world is on a trajectory to peace and justice. For those of us who dare to believe, we can see the world undergoing transformation, and rest assured in the promises of where this is all going. Is it going to take a lot of help from God? Yes. But God has already started, a truth that this passage can’t wait to tell us next.
God says to listen again! God is going to send out a teaching of justice that will be a light to all people! This next part is so great: “my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.” Did you catch that? God’s salvation has gone out, already! God’s teaching has gone out! On this side of history, we even have the Gospels that proclaim the teachings of Jesus, God’s justice made flesh! It’s already in motion, in the church, outside the church, in the world, in our lives. Monuments to racists are being torn down. People are packing up their tents after years on the street and moving into supportive housing. This week a client who has been waiting for housing since the day I started working there moved in to his place on Thursday. The forces of chaos and destruction and racism and hopelessness are putting up a hell of a fight, but they are losing, even now. Even in 2017. Jesus, who loves quoting Isaiah, will later echo this idea when he says “the kingdom of heaven is in your midst.” All these promises we’re waiting for are already here, working beneath the surface and breaking through in unexpected places until it reaches to the ends of the earth and back again.
But this salvation is also loaded with language of victory and triumph. Other translations use the word triumph or victory instead of “salvation”, and when scripture talks about God’s “arm”, it always refers to strength and might in the sense of a battle or war. I don’t know about you, but I always get a little nervous when God and battle or war get mixed together. We have all kinds of evidence in scripture and church history that says those things don’t always go well together. But we should be reminded that Israel is not at war, because the book of Isaiah goes so far as to talk about Babylon as God’s instrument.
The victory in this passage is not against an army or a people, but victory in a struggle for justice. And it’s important to use the language of victory and God’s “arm” because it reminds us that in struggles for justice, God takes a side. In light of what’s going on in the world, it’s important to acknowledge that God is not neutral on matters of justice. To be clear: we should always be questioning ourselves to ask if we are on the same side that God is on, and we should never take that for granted. But don’t let anyone suggest to you that God is not interested in the struggles for justice in this world. This text and many others remind us that God has an agenda, that others oppose that agenda, and that leads to conflict. God is not going to swoop in one day and make us all feel silly for our squabbles. No, this is a God of victory, triumph, success… the battle is not arbitrary. We don’t fight for nothing. Our struggle for justice is not in vain. Making sure we are on the same side as God is crucial, though, because as we’ve already said, we know who wins in the end.
Finally, the passage asks us to look at one more thing… or rather, two. ““Raise your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath.” This is the ultimate call of this passage. We should look to the heavens, and also to the earth. We can’t only look at one. So much of what goes wrong, I think, with how Christians relate to the world is that we find ourselves in different camps, some looking too much at the heavens, and some looking too much at the earth. If we look only at the heavens, then we forget about the world and its injustices where God is deeply concerned. You might find yourself saying that God is going to take care of all that and we don’t need to worry about stuff like that. If we look only at the earth, we miss out on the promises of grace that God has proclaimed are coming, and are already here. We find ourselves believing that the world is too far gone, and that there’s nothing worth celebrating. This week, I found myself unable or unwilling to look to the heavens, and to see heavenly things shining underneath the earth.
But we are called to be people who look back and forth to the heavens and to the earth constantly. We must be people who look at texts like these that promise us a beautiful future, and then immediately look at the hopelessness in our world, and then watch them collide. We must constantly live and look between heaven and earth until the two become one. We are people who live in between these two realities, between the old that is passing and the new that is arriving, between the now and the not yet. Until every wilderness is a garden, we must constantly look at wildernesses in search of water, anticipating the water that is coming, carving out pathways and channels where it could one day flow; planting seeds in belief that water will come soon to nourish them. The promise – is that water will one day flow, and that earth and heaven will be made new as one. The call – is to hope with our hearts and our minds, with our hands and our feet.
May God grant us ears to hear, eyes to see, mouths to proclaim, minds to imagine, and hearts to hope; may God embolden our hands and feet to begin moving and acting in the belief that everything God promises will come true, and is already coming true. God, thank you for your word of hope to sustain those of us who are weary in our seeking for justice. Grant us faith to believe it a little more each day. Amen.