Love, Even Now

Psalm 80:16-18 Let your hand be upon the person of your right hand, the son of humanity you have made so strong for yourself. And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your Name. Restore us, God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Introduction

I know last week I mentioned that rejoicing and having joy feels decadent in the midst of our context, however, I misspoke. Maybe love feels decadent, needing to ask: can I risk this? Can I risk love? The past few years make a person feel a little iffy about love. In an environment illuminating the transitoriness of life and people, why love? How do I keep loving when things and people are yanked out of my grasp? Can I throw bands of love into a void without anything to cleave? How do I love others in a world forcing me to compete rendering the other person either as my meal ticket or in my way? Love takes energy I don’t have; I’m crawling over the threshold at night. I have barely enough left for myself, don’t make me risk what little that is. I’m laid bare, I’m exhausted, I’m at my wit’s end … Love? Actually love so I can just be hurt again…again? I just can’t.

Most days maybe it feels safer and easier to cast off love than to embrace it. Maybe if I talk about love and loving others I’ll get that dopamine rush I crave as if I’ve done something loving or have loved someone. Maybe if I close my eyes and plug up my ears long enough, I can drown out the cries of the unloved. Maybe if I keep pressing my inner garbage down far and long enough, I won’t realize I need love. Love like fire can be suffocated, and a heavy spirit will do such.

The heartbeat of love weakens.

Isaiah 7:10-16

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore God will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

Isaiah 7:13-14

God,[1] through Isaiah, asks Ahaz to request a sign, a big one, “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (7:11b). It’s an interesting request. A sign not only preceded a divine event but was also a means by which prophetic utterances were validated or invalidated.[2] I would jump at the opportunity. But Ahaz? No. He declines, refusing to “put God to the test” (7:12b). At this point nothing seems wrong. Ahaz shouldn’t put God to the test, right? Alas, Ahaz’s response demands a quick reply of divine admonishment.

According to Isaiah, Ahaz’s inability to do what God asked indicates a much larger problem. The way Ahaz responds to God in disobedience is the thermometer by which the rest of God’s people are judged.[3] Even if individual disobedience is allowed for, there is still the issue of individual disobedience to God being indicative of the atmosphere of the society in which the individual is found, right? It’s not like Ahaz operates in a vacuum; it’s not like Ahaz isn’t influential, right? So, Isaiah declares God’s exasperation and weariness toward God’s people. So, seems nooooone of you are content exhausting each other, you must also exhaust me?!

Isaiah continues, here’s the sign God will do what God promised: a young woman of child-bearing age[4] will be with child and she will name him Immanuel. Where Ahaz could’ve requested a very clear sign, God will deliver God’s sign: something small, unsuspecting, and vulnerable. Ahaz could have asked for a chariot to descend from the clouds; a sign that was big, clear, and powerful. Now? Nah, fam, your sign, Ahaz, is a baby born to a woman; oh, and his name will be Immanuel. *winks*

The name, Immanuel—meaning “God-with-us” (hinting at trust in God) [5]—was rather original, but the other parts of that sign are rather unoriginal. God’s sign will be nestled in the lap of a ritually unclean woman who just gave birth. Here, in this precarious unseemliness, God’s blessing[6] and promise[7]of deliverance is held. Will you dare to see it, break your own rules to lay hold of it?

Prophets are caught up in the divine pathos—the divine passion—of God for God’s people. Here, Isaiah is so caught up in the blast from heaven[8] that he is wearied as God is wearied over Israel’s saccharine homage and the self-centered ceremonies. [9] Isaiah’s heart breaks for God’s people, just as God’s heart breaks. Isaiah becomes consumed with the “injured love” of God, it takes over his whole being. He, like God, is exhausted with the people’s disobedience and desertion of God’s love and law of love.[10] In this, Isaiah feels God’s sorrow because the hearts of God’s people have wondered far off; they do the rituals but there’s no love.[11]

Yet, Isaiah feels God’s patient and eager love for Israel. Isaiah feels the pain of his people, longs for them to be healed and mended, to come back to God the source of love and life. He wishes for them to stop leaning on their own understanding and ability to haphazardly get from one day to another, often getting lost between.[12] Isaiah loves God’s people because the firm ground where Isaiah stands is in God, in light, in life, in love. Isaiah isn’t dependent on himself to muster up love, rather it is given to him by God who is love, it comes with the deed to the land he stands on in God. To be with and in God, to be caught in the divine pathos is to be caught up in the divine love and the prophet, at that point, cannot do anything else but love God’s people.

The heartbeat of love revives.

Conclusion

Remember,

  1. Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world.”
  2. “this hope—this other way to be in the world because of a different story—is the means by which peace becomes a gift to us…”
  3. “Hope anchored in God’s story is the capillary of divine peace extracting us from that which entangles us, giving us new ground to stand receiving space to have joy…”

This space we’re given where we have joy because of being at peace, because our hope is in God, is the space of love. The holy ground on which we stand is love’s land and herein does love exist with and in us. Thus, we can love, even now. Remember, passivity isn’t an option here. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Love exists because God is and God is within us.

Anyone born of God is born of love; anyone found in God is found in love; anyone inspired by the substance of God is inspired by love. In other words, while love is risky and something I don’t want to do because I’ve lost enough already, yet because I follow God, love is the only thing I can do. To follow God is to follow the way of life and love, good luck not loving. Hope exists; therefore peace exists; therefore joy exists; therefore love exists. Isaiah reminds us, Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel… God with us!

Love exists because it’s the unstoppable animating force of divine substance which is love. Love exists because it has neither an end nor a beginning. Love exists because my feet are on the solid ground of God. Love exists because there’s another way, a way that love will find, a way bringing life and liberty to everyone. Love exists because possibility has yet to cease to be. Love exists because we are together and, somehow, we keep making it day after day, walking with each other and not away from each other. Love exists because in the midst of the chaos and tumult of our world we have hope, and if we have hope then we have peace, and if we have these, we have joy, and if we have all of that, we our found nestled in the lap of love.

The heartbeat of love quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. When everything appeared turned in, when no room was found for love and life, God made a way becoming knowable in the midst of dirt, hay, and animals, in the lap of an unclean woman, being the humble sign of divine promise, Immanuel…God with us!”


[1] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 65. “One would expect the subject of this oracle to be Isaiah, especially from the larger context (cf. vv. 11 and 13), but the reference directly to Yahweh as the subject functions to emphasize the divine authority of the offer that follows. It is not merely a suggestion from the prophet, but an invitation from God himself to request a sign.”

[2] Childs, Isaiah, 65. “Within the prophetic corpus, as distinct from the Priestly source of the Pentateuch (e.g., Gen. 9:12). a sign is a special event, either ordinary or miraculous, that serves as a pledge by which to confirm the prophetic word. The sign precedes in time the impending threat or promise, and prefigures the fulfillment by the affinity in content between the sign and its execution.”

[3] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 16. “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some crime measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.”

[4] Childs, Isaiah, 66. “The noun is derived, not from the root ‘to be concealed’ as suggested already by Jerome, but from a homonym, meaning ‘to be full of vigor,’ ‘to have reached the age of puberty.’ Thus the noun refers to a female sexually ripe for marriage. The emphasis does not fall on virginity as such and, in this respect, differs from the Hebrew be’túlāh.”

[5] Childs, Isaiah, 66. “The mother gives the child the name Immanuel, God-with-us. The name does not occur elsewhere in the Old Testament, but the close parallels {rom the Psalter (46:8, 12) make clear that it is an expression of trust in the presence of God integral to Israel’s piety.”

[6] Childs, Isaiah, 68. “The meaning is the same in v. 15. The sign of Immanuel is also the pledge of blessing. Within the same short period of time the blessings anticipated in the name will be visible tor the faithful who believe in the messianic rule of God. The language of curds and honey testifies to the selfsame new eschatological reality as that of the great joy of the harvest in 9:3(2), or of the earth ‘full of the knowledge of the LORD as water covers the sea’ (11:9).”

[7] Childs, Isaiah, 68. “The sign of Immanuel (‘God-with-us’) must serve, not just as a pledge of judgment (v. 17), but also as a promise of the future, the sign of which the name anticipates by its content. It has long been recognized that the image of ‘curds and honey’ has a dual meaning. It can be a symbol of desolation, when no food is left in a devastated arable land except the wild produce of the wilderness. However, it can also be a symbol of abundance, such as a land ‘flowing with curds and honey.’”

[8] Heschel, Prophets, 16. “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 81. “In different words addressed to the king, the prophet conveys his impression of the mood of God: As happened in the time of Noah and as is happening again, God’s patience and longsuffering are exhausted. He is tired of man. He hates man’s homage, his festivals, his celebrations. Man has become a burden and a sorrow for God.”

[10] Heschel, Prophets, 81. “But the sympathy for God’s injured love overwhelms his whole being. What he feels about the size of God’s sorrow and the enormous scandal of man’s desertion of God is expressed in the two lines quoted above which introduce God’s lamentation. “Hear, then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?” (7:13.)

[11] Heschel, Prophets, 207-208. “God not only asks for justice; He demands of man ‘to regard the deeds of the Lord, to see the work of His hands’ (Isa. 5:12; cf. 22:11), ‘to walk in His paths’ (Isa. 2:3), ‘If you will not believe, you will not abide’ (Isa. 7:11)…It is not only action that God demands, it is not only disobedience to the law that the prophet decries …The fault is in the hearts, not alone in the deeds.”

[12] Heschel, Prophets, 86. “Isaiah, who flings bitter invectives against his contemporaries, identifies himself with his people (1:9) which are to be ‘my people’ (3:12; cf. 8:10; 7:14). His castigation is an outcry of compassion. He sees his people all bruised and bleeding, with no one to dress their wounds.”

Joy, Even Now

Psalm 146:4-6 Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in their God; who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps God’s promise for ever; who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.

Introduction

Every so often I look up words I know well because I know them too well; maybe I’ve lost the nuance of the word. Did you know “joy” and “happy” are not the same thing? Did you know “joy” participates in “happiness”? Joy carries the idea of “delight” and “well-being”, it’s got heft, substance, something that sticks to the bones like a really hearty stew in the middle of winter. Joy participates in exuberant exhibition of emotion and subtle contentedness of bliss. In its verbal form (to joy, joying, joyed) it takes on an extra measure of itself, “to experience great pleasure or delight: REJOICE”[1]

When was the last time you rejoiced? When was the last time I rejoiced?

If there’s a way to unjoice or dejoice or be ajoice, that’s me. I cannot recall the last time I had “joy”. I’ve had excitement. I’ve had pleasant surprises making me temporarily happy. I’ve laughed, chuckled, smiled at times. I’ve even been “content”, but that’s a slippery slope because one can be content in dire circumstances through “normalization” and “desensitization” (akin to surrender, giving up, numbing out). But “rejoice”? Have joy? IN THIS *wave arms about* ECONOMY?

If it’s been a while since you last rejoiced or had joy, you’re not alone. It feels decadent to have joy. The heaviness I’ve carried about for the past (nearly) three years has rendered me unable to be seized by something as beautiful as joy let alone something causing me to rejoice! Joy in the midst of violence? Joy in the midst of death? Joy in the midst of chaos and strife? Joy in the midst of sickness? Rejoice?! WHY. What about the gloom and doom of our socio-political world gives me the reason let alone the time and the space to have joy, to rejoice? I’m fine with drab and meh; I know drab and meh.

The heartbeat of joy weakens.

Isaiah 35:1-10

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
God will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
God will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Is. 35:3-7

It’s like Isaiah knows the turmoil of our inner worlds. Of us he doesn’t speak, though; we’re invited into this moment through words caught by ancient scrolls. Israel is his concern, the poor, the weak, the hindered, the oppressed, the widowed and orphaned, the exhausted, the threatened. Prophetic words as fruit of the prophet encountered, embraced, and captured by the divine pathos—the divine passion—of God for God’s beloved. The prophet embodies the love of God for God’s people, and the prophet’s words reflect that love, signal to it, make it audible, manifest it. They ebb and flow between sour and sweet, but all the words are dedicated as a love note from The Lover to the Beloved. Sour notes fit a melody when sweet ones speak in reply; the musical communique penetrates ears and hearts of those to whom the tune was written, eager to resuscitate feeble lungs and rejuvenate unsteady legs.[2] Isaiah’s words here in chapter 35 are filled with the promises of God; it’s in God Israel’s exhorted to anchor their hope as the conduit of divine peace.[3]

Israel can only handle so much darkness and distance; the human spirit is resilient to a point. To keep throwing one’s anchor into the void of nothingness begins to break even the heartiest of souls. When God is perceived as far, distant, gone, negligent, Israel grows faint circling around the vortex of death, exhausted by the hopelessness and peacelessness of being trapped under the kingdom and rule of humanity. But then, Isaiah. Isaiah comes calling out the decrepit kingdom of humanity and declaring the reign of God. The speaking of God’s promises unentangles Israel from their chaos (unpeace) and becomes the story interrupting their captivity which is the foundation of their hope. The prophet declares not an old thing, but a new one.[4] Words cut through the oppressive gloom, pierce brutal silence, and rupture Israel’s melancholic lethargy. It’s in these words from prophet to people, “God becomes near and clear,” and the agony of a hopeless and peaceless existence dissipates.[5] Shema, O Israel, hear the footfalls of your God drawing near, look and behold[6] your God, the God of love and life, the substance of your hope, the source of your peace, the space for your joy.

And the ransomed of God shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Is 35:10

The heartbeat of joy revives.

Conclusion

Remember, “Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world.”[7] Also remember, “this hope—this other way to be in the world because of a different story—is the means by which peace becomes a gift to us…”[8] If hope exists because there’s another story and another way to be in the world, and by this peace exists, then we can also say that by the same means does joy exist. Hope anchored in God’s story is the capillary of divine peace extracting us from that which entangles us, giving us new ground to stand receiving space to have joy, even now. But, remember, passivity isn’t an option here. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Joy exists because God is and God is within us.

There’s an audacity in Isaiah’s prophetic words daring to proclaim joy and rejoicing. Just like with divine love and life, joy sourced in the story of God is revolutionary. It’s not naïve, it’s not blind. Joy, like prophetic declaration, cuts through the darkness and gloom, not with some saccharine happiness, but with boldness arriving with something other, something new, something alive. Isaiah reminds us: we’re not dead yet. Dead bodies do not rejoice; living ones do. Hope exists, and therefore peace exists, and in this space joy and rejoicing exist. Stepping into that space daring to laugh, see beauty, and have delight in yourself, in others, in creation, and in God becomes a form of revolutionary resistance against the death and doom lurking about the kingdom of humanity—like a rainbow parting the stormy sky. Isaiah’s announcement is a summons to a party, a big one: Come, O Israel! Because of hope, come and sing! Because of peace, leap and dance! Your Beloved is near! Come and Rejoice! I dare you!

Joy exists because the story of God disrupts us long enough to give us space to see things as they are, to gather us together, and to sing. Joy exists because there’s a struggle against struggle that is divine and beautiful, the very essence of love and life and fruit of hope and peace. Joy exists because we don’t need to bury our heads in the sand, remaining ignorant to the suffering in the world, oblivious to our own suffering; rather, we can have the audacity and boldness to look it square in the eye and go beyond it. Joy exists because, to quote Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz, “The struggle for survival…is not only a struggle not to die, not only a struggle to live but only barely. It is a struggle to live fully.”[9] Joy exists because somehow in the midst of the chaos and tumult of our world we have hope, and if we have hope then we have peace, and if we have these, we have the space for joy.

The heartbeat of joy quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. When everything looked lost and drab, when gloom and doom seemed to be the only words whispered on the wind, another word broke through, heralding good news in the middle of the night to those far off, And the ransomed of God shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”


[1] Miriam Webster’s Online Dictionary.

[2] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind. …Indeed, every prediction of disaster is in itself an exhortation to repentance. The prophet is sent not only to upbraid, but also to ‘strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees’ (Isa. 35:3).” 12.

[3] Heschel, The Prophets, 12. “Almost every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with censure and castigation. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.”

[4] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 258. “Moreover, salvation is not merely deliverance from Babylonian captivity, but rather sharing in God’s new creation (65:17ff.). Isaiah 35:10 picks up this same theme, ‘sorrow and sighing will disappear,’ which is finally elaborated in its fullest form in chapter 65.”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 193. “Agony is the final test. When all hopes are dashed and all conceit is shattered, man begins to miss what he has long spurned. In darkness, God becomes near and clear.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 193. “God is invisible, distant, dwelling in darkness (1 Kings 8:12). His thoughts are not our thoughts; His ways in history are shrouded and perplexing. Prophecy is a moment of unshrouding, an opening of the eyes, a lifting of the curtain. Such moments are rare in history.”

[7] Lauren R. E. Larkin “Advent 1 11.27.22”; “Hope, Even Now” https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/11/27/hope-even-now/

[8] Lauren R. E. Larkin “Advent 2 12.4.22”; “Peace, Even Now” https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/12/04/peace-even-now/

[9] Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. p. 131.

Peace, Even Now

Psalm 72:18-19 Blessed be God, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous deeds! And blessed be God’s glorious Name for ever! and may all the earth be filled with God’s glory. Amen. Amen.

Introduction

Do we know what peace is? I mean, do we really know what peace is? I know we know how to use the word, but I’m not convinced we use it correctly. Peace isn’t necessarily about being calm or having control; and it’s not about being alone. Yet we use the word “peace” synonymously with all of those words. Peace carries qualities of those words, but also isn’t those words.

Peace seems to be something received through the process of becoming separated from something entangling and holding me captive. Peace comes as I am pulled out of the thing entangling me, placed on different ground from that which entangled me, and I’m found as me even in the midst of not-calm, in chaos, and with others—those things having lost their control and influence over me. Peace becomes mine because it is given to me from elsewhere in the collision of another story disrupting and interrupting the story I’m trapped in. In this way I have peace not because I have mustered up calm, or have asserted control, or am (finally) alone but in spite of having none of them. Peace is given to me, it becomes mine, and I move forward with it and in it.

But what happens to peace if my world can only offer me more of the same, and it’s not a very good same? What is peace in a world catapulted into a pandemic turned endemic? What is peace in a world where you don’t know when the next tragedy and catastrophe will happen? What is peace in a world where you must fortify your boundaries and never cease being hyper-vigilant? What is peace in a world where some get liberty and others don’t? What thing can the world offer me to intersect and disrupt me?

The heartbeat of peace weakens.

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Isaiah 11:1-4

Isaiah greets us with a prophetic utterance declaring a new thing in the midst of something old. Caught up in the divine pathos[1]—the divine passion—of God for all of God’s people,[2] Isaiah declares to the people that what was destroyed will be made new. God will not abandon God’s people to their world with its stories of exile and separation, of isolation and captivity.[3] God will step in and alter not only the trajectory of the history of God’s people, but will disrupt them and intersect them where they are and usher in something new and glorious in their midst.[4]

For Isaiah’s audience, the imagery of a shoot—a branch—coming up from a stump invoked thoughts of divine activity[5] and disruption. The stump is the result of destruction; everything looks as if it’s done, dead, and gone. The only life a stump partakes in is the life of the devourers, the creatures returning the stump to the earth. But Isaiah declares, that which looks dead is the medium for divine life: a shoot shall come forth. In other words, according to Isaiah, this shoot from the stump of Jesse is by God’s doing and not by human hand. No work of humanity—no matter how glorious—can summon anything from a stump if that stump is unable to generate anything. In other words, the rule of humanity is eclipsed by the reign of God,[6] and humanity’s conception of right and wrong, justice and injustice, peace and tumult are exposed as corrupted, unable to bring forth the liberation of the captives God desires.[7] God will bring it forth according to God’s will of love and life and righteousness and liberation.[8]

For Isaiah the actuality of what is—even if dire—is the realm of possibility for God’s creative word out nothing. The day rises and the day sets; out of the setting of the sun the rising of the sun is ushered in. The actuality of the night works toward the possibility of morning, as it was yesterday, so it is today, and so may it be tomorrow. As prophet, Isaiah’s hope is anchored not in actuality (the descending night) but in possibility (in the coming morning, the new day[9]). It’s anchored in something outside of himself, outside of his world as he knows it; it’s anchored in God and that in God there’s another and better way to live and this better way is disruptive. Here, Isaiah is encountered and intersected, lifted out of the muck and mire of the situation Israel finds itself in and placed on the ground of a different story told by God and not humanity; in this does Isaiah find his peace.[10] And not just any peace, but the peace of God, rendering the entire cosmos complicit in God’s love,[11] transcending boundaries of flora and fauna, and restoring creation unto God and unto itself.[12]

The heartbeat of peace revives.

Conclusion

Last week I told you, “Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world.”[13] By the same means does peace exist. This hope—this other way to be in the world because of a different story—is the means by which peace becomes a gift to us even now. Too often we jump to the peaceful imagery of the lion laying down with the lamb imagining that nothing happens with us—waiting for peace to come to our environment. But, like last week, it’s a mistake thinking Isaiah advocates for passivity. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Peace exists because God is and God is within us.

We are principle characters in this story, we are the object of divine desire—the whole cosmos and us—and in being the object of divine desire we are intercepted and disrupted. The one who comes, the righteous one, will beckon and call God’s people unto God. The burgeoning shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, the stump signifying a lack of hope becomes the foundation of hope and the means of peace not just around Israel, but within them. God is not finished with Israel. As Isaiah declares, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of [God] as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of [God], and [God’s] dwelling shall be glorious,” (Is. 11:9-10). God will contend with Israel but not in terms of death and destruction (not on their terms) but in terms of life and love (on God’s terms).

Peace exists because the story of God outside of us interrupts our cobbled together Frankenstein stories and the narratives the world hands us, the ones we’ve swallowed whole unable to imagine something better and different. Peace exists because this story of God causes us to stop and look up; in this story we’re given a moment to pause, to resist succumbing even more to the enslavement of working ourselves to death, to a hierarchy of human beings based on skin color, gender, and sexual orientation, to losing ourselves for material gain. Peace exists because we are called to consider the shoot of the stump, God’s activity intruding into our world and here we are detangled from frantic and anxious behavior desperate to control something…anything in any way. Peace exists because somehow in the midst of the chaos and tumult of our world we have hope, and if we have hope then we have peace.

The heartbeat of peace quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. In the midst of all that appears dead and forsaken, a tiny, vulnerable baby will be born to a single, unwed mother, in a cave; and this word will draw all who have ears to hear unto God, On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of [God], and [God’s] dwelling shall be glorious.”


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 310. “It is such intense sympathy or emotional identification with the divine pathos that may explain the shifting from the third to the first person in the prophetic utterances. A prophecy that starts out speaking of God in the third, person turns into God speaking in the first person. Conversely, a prophecy starting with God speaking in the first person turns into a declaration of the prophet speaking about God in the third person.”

[2] Heschel, Prophets, 169. “The prophet may be regarded as the first universal man in history; he is concerned with, and addresses himself to, all men. It was not an emperor, but a prophet, who first conceived of the unity of all men.”

[3] Heschel, Prophets, 169. “It is the God of Israel Who summons the mighty men to execute His designs (Isa. 13:3, 5). Who calls the nations of the world into judgment, and it is He Whom one day all nations shall in Zion (Isa. 2:2 ff.; 11:10; 18:7).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 183. No longer looking at Nineveh but Jerusalem “In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious (Isa. 11:10).”

[5] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 102. “The naming of Jesse signals a sure continuity with Israel’s past, but serves as a reminder of David’s humble beginnings and of a promise grounded in divine election rather on human pride and royal pretension (2 Samuel 7). … [stump] the of God’s purpose after the hardening, after the destruction of the land, and after the unbelief of Ahaz, true Israel still has a future because of Immanuel.”

[6] Childs, Isaiah, 102-103. “The following verse proceeds to describe the charismata suitable to the office. He is endowed by the spirit of God to be the bearer of ‘the whole fullness of divine powers’ (Delitzsch). The gifts are set forth in couplets: wisdom and insight, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. The spirit is the source of all new life, and a contrast is immediately who did not understand (1:3). And who heard but did not comprehend, who saw but did not perceive (6:9).”

[7] Heschel, Prophets, 184. “Had the prophets relied on human resources for justice and righteousness, on [humanity’s] ability to fulfill all of God’s demands, on [humanity’s] power to achieve redemption, they would not have insisted upon the promise of messianic redemption, for messianism implies that any course of living, even the supreme efforts of man by himself, must fail in redeeming the world. In other words, human history is not sufficient unto itself. [Humanity’s] conscience is timid, while the world is ablaze with agony. [Humanity’s] perception of justice is shallow, often defective, and his judgment liable to deception.”

[8] Childs, Isaiah, 103. “These verses then portray the nature of the coming ruler’s reign according to the will of God, which has been assured by his spirit-filled-endowments. The dominant emphasis falls on the righteousness (sedeq) and equity toward the weak and vulnerable of the world. In this sense, vv. 1-9 continue a major theme introduced in 9:6ff. Again one hears the implied contrast with Israel’s unrighteous behavior that resulted in oppression of the poor and senseless acts of violence (3:5,14). For the prophet Isaiah, the coming of the messianic age is not construed as one of heavenly sweetness and light. Rather, the attributes of counsel and might in governing are exercised in forcefully constraining the wicked and adroitly discerning both the good and the evil of human society (v. 3b).”

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 185. “The prophet is a person who, living in dismay, has the power to transcend his dismay. Over all the darkness of experience hovers the vision of a different day.”

[10] Childs, Isaiah, 103. “The effect of the righteous rule of the Messiah is depicted in terms of age of universal peace that embraces both the human and animal world.”

[11] Childs, Isaiah, 104. “Isaiah envisioned was not a return to a mythical age of primordial innocence, but the sovereign execution of a new act of creation in which the righteous will of God is embraced and the whole earth now reflects a devotion ‘as water covers the sea.’”

[12] Childs, Isaiah, 104. “Prophetic picture is not a return to an ideal past, but the restoration of creation by a new act of God through the vehicle of a righteous ruler. The description in vv. 6-9 is a massive extension of the promise in chapter 9 that focuses on the eschatological deliverance of God’s people.”

[13] Lauren R. E. Larkin “Advent 1 11.27.22”; “Hope, Even Now” https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/11/27/hope-even-now/

In Rags and Wood

Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Canticle 15: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. Amen

Introduction

Sermons on love are often so lofty the subject—God’s love—becomes too other worldly and abstract, beyond human grasp, and of no earthly good. These sermons leave congregants grasping at the actuality of God’s love like grasping at oil; there’s nothing in your hand but the residual of what brushed past it. Preachers get in pulpits on Sunday and proclaim the word of comfort—God loves the beloved and the beloved is us (all of us)—then turn around and make that word so abstract and comfortable the divine love communicated about is not communicated to those who have ears to hear. It’s safer to preach abstract love that doesn’t touch down in the material realm in action and conviction because God forbid those coins cease hitting beloved coffers. We love the idea of divine love for us. If we’re honest, we don’t know what that means apart from some safe ideas we’ve memorized from Sunday school, gathered from the repetition of creeds, and absorbed by the incessant bombardment of dogmas.

Love is a remarkable and profound thing surging through the cosmos since the beginning of time—love neither started with us nor will it end with us. While the neuro response to love—both loving and being loved—is locatable in the brain and we can describe the way it feels, science and her scientists cannot figure out the why or the source or, coupled to attraction, the reason it’s this person and not that person. While society has historically tried to dictate who we can love, love knows not artificial man-made boundaries—love transcends and tears down walls and fences built to keep some in and others out. Love is more than a feeling and full of action in a material world.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God…” (Is. 61:1-2b)

Isaiah begins by confessing: the “spirit of the Lord God is upon” me. He speaks of something beyond comfortable feeling; he speaks of ruah. Ruah, a word used to describe the breath of God animating soil in Genesis, is the spirit of God, the pathos, the passion, and the emotion of God. [1] It is this spirit that is upon Isaiah. This spirit anoints Isaiah…to do what? Not to perform sacrifices, not to stand high and mighty, not to be clad in fancy robe behind tables decorated with gold and fine stone, not to swing incense, to be solemn, or to be feared for his authority. [2] Rather, it’s significantly humbler than we could imagine. Isaiah’s anointing by the spirit of God is to herald good tidings to the oppressed, to bind and have mercy on the suffering, and to proclaim liberty to the captives. In other words, it’s to proclaim to God’s people God’s great love for them.

Isaiah speaks of being endowed with the proclamation of God’s dynamic and active love to God’s people (Ruah). He also speaks of a divine day of favor and divine day of vengeance. Isaiah intentionally throws allusion to the year of Jubilee detailed in the book of Leviticus (cf. chapter 25). The liberative activity of God’s love coming in material form to God’s people is physical and not merely psychological—debts forgiven freeing both the debtor and the creditor. [3] Thus, the juxtaposition here of God’s favor and day of vengeance is intriguing. Make no mistake, Isaiah is intentional with his words. And I’m sure, as we like to do, that day of vengeance is sitting a bit heavy. But don’t lose heart just yet, stay with me; this isn’t bad news. The day of favor and the day of vengeance are one and the same day.

The twin divine decree sounding from Isaiah’s mouth is one of comfort and confrontation, and both are oriented toward the divine art of divine love: God loves God’s people. Isaiah is exhorted by the spirit being upon him…

“…to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” (Is. 61:2c-3).

To comfort those who mourn is to confront those who caused the mourning; to take away ashes and crown with garlands is to raise up those who were made low and to remove the distinction with those who were (already) raised up, thus lowering them; to embolden spirits is to give strength to those who are weak making them as strong as those who were strong. To bring comfort to captives through their liberation is to come into confrontation with captors by liberating them from holding captive.* To bring good news to the oppressed is to confront the oppressor and illuminate the oppressor’s own oppression in the system. God’s love liberates all people from violent and oppressive kingdoms of humanity. [4]

“For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed” (Is. 61:8-9)

Isaiah proclaims God’s desire: justice. God loves justice and hates robbery and wrongdoing. Echoing other prophets of Israel: God cares about those who are suffering under and because of unjust systems. For Isaiah and the other prophets of Israel, there is a tight link between God’s love of justice and our right worship. There’s no way around it. You can be the most pious person, wear all the right robes, say the words, bow here and kneel there, you can perform the most sacred of ceremonies, but if you are also actively participate and uphold oppressive and violent systems in word and deed, your worship is “detestable” to God. [5] According to Isaiah, there’s one way to serve God: love. Specifically, the love of neighbor in the pursuit of God defined justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[6]

Let us not forget the way Isaiah opened up this proclamation: ““The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me..” (Is. 1). It’s come full circle. This spirit which is also God’s desire and pathos has become Isaiah’s. [7] The math here is simple: being indwelled with God’s spirit, Isaiah’s desire is the same as God’s: a love of justice and dislike of robbery and wrongdoing. Thus, it is for us. As those encountered by God in the event of faith, brought out of death into new life, that new life in the world is marked by the pathos of God: active love for justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[8]

Conclusion

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Is. 61:11)

God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven, Isaiah proclaims. God’s love will triumph. In other words, divine justice and righteousness prevails over injustice and unrighteousness. The day of divine favor for the oppressed will be the day of vengeance for the oppressor and love will win both out of death into life.

But…How? In a dire and precarious way no one expects: a baby born to a young woman. God will descend into the human predicament to suffer the human predicament and will not remain above it. This is divine love: to come low, to descend to the beloved. “The coming of Jesus is the bond, the event of descending love, is the appearing of new life, of life undreamt of, of eternal life in the earthly life.”[9]

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

Love drives us toward and into each other’s burdens, to share the weight, to call things as they are, to provide relief and to comfort. This love knows no bounds, it descends to the depths of human existence, into the muck and mire of suffering and pain and grief; it searches out across vast spaces looking for the beloved who is missing; it surges into the fringes and margins of society to proclaim in word and deed “Beloved” to those who’ve only heard “unlovable”. [10] It’s not found in our personal piety defined by the superiority of our self-righteousness, it’s not found in glory but in humility,[11] not in gold but in wood, not in rich and clean robes in stone buildings but swaddled in rags in a manger.


*The Work of David Justice on Martin Luther King, Jr., and King’s conception of the Beloved Community and Creative Rage does excellently to detail out in more detail how the liberation of the oppressed is good news for the oppressor.

[1] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets NY, NY: JPS, 1962. 315. “The word ruah means, according to standard dictionaries, ‘air in motion, breath, wind, vain things, spirit, mind.’ What was not noticed is that one of the chief uses of the word ruah is to denote pathos, passion or emotion—the state of the soul. When combined with another word, it denotes a particular type of pathos or emotion.”

[2] Heschel Prophets 195 “Sacred fire is burning on the altars in many lands. Animals are being offered to the glory of the gods. Priests burn incense, songs of solemn assemblies fill the air Pilgrims are on the roads, pageantries in the sacred places. The atmosphere is thick with sanctity. In Israel, too, sacrifice is an essential act of worship. It is the experience of giving oneself vicariously to God and of being received by Him. And yet, the pre-exilic prophets uttered violent attacks on sacrifices…”

[3] Brevard Childs Isaiah: A Commentary TOTL. Louisville, KY: WJK 2001. 505. “…the theme of proclaiming liberty in ‘the year of Yahweh’s favor’ (v.2) is formulated in the language of the Jubilee year…and articulates succinctly the great change in Israel’s fortunes initiated through God’s favor. Finally, to ‘bring good tiding’ … is to assume the mantle of the herald…who first sent out the message of God’s return to his people in power.”

[4] Childs Isaiah 506. “It has also been rightly pointed out that the description of Israel’s deliverance has shifted a way from Second Isaiah’s portrayal of captivity and exile to that of release from economic slavery within the land.”

[5] Heschel Prophets 195, “However, while Samuel stressed the primacy of obedience over sacrifice, Amos and the prophets who followed him not only stressed the primacy of morality over sacrifice, but even proclaimed that the worth of worship, far from being absolute, is contingent upon moral living, and that when immorality prevails, worship is detestable.”

[6] Heschel Prophets 195. “Questioning man’s right to worship through offerings and songs, they maintained that the primary way of serving God is through love, Justice, and righteousness.” See also: W. Travis McMaken’s book on Helmut Gollwitzer, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Fortress Press, 2017). “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy,” p. 91.

[7] Childs Isaiah 506. “The speaker in these verses is clearly God, who confirms the word of the servant figure. The grounds for the mission of the one endowed with the spirit in vv. 1-7 rest on God, who loves justice while hating injustice.”

[8] McMaken Our God Loves Justice “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy.” 91 And, Speaking in terms of principle, however, the demand is more exacting…’The conversion to which the Christian community is daily called by God’s Word also includes the renunciation of their integration in the dominant system of privileges and their active exertion for justice, and so for social structures no longer determined by social privileges’…Christians are called to resist the social structures that imbue some with privileges while disadvantaging others.” 113-4 . And, “But if Marx turns theology into politics, Gollwitzer transforms politics into theology. That is, he clarifies for us that there is no such things a theologically neutral political position. Either one advocates and undertakes political steps to combat the socioeconomic privilege that oppresses immense swaths of the world’s population, or one is a heretic—unfaithful to the God encountered in the event of faith. For this ‘wholly other God wants a wholly other society’ in which all forms of privilege are abolished and social structures ever increasingly approximate the true socialism of the kingdom of God. And why does God want this? Because our God loves justice.” 166-7.

[9] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1981. 80.

[10] Gollwitzer 79. “…he did not remain above, did not count his superiority a thing to be grasped at, but came down into human existence, into a slave-existence, to a place where he was spat upon, trodden down, and put to death. Thus anyone who wishes to find the ‘above’ of which the whole Bible speaks, must, w strange though it may seem, go right down below here on earth. The paradox is that what is of the earth, the thought that is of earthly origin, is actually a striving upwards, everyone wants to get on top; while on the contrary what is here called the true divine ‘above’, is a string downwards, and is only to be found at the lowest point of the earth, on the gallows among the most downtrodden and outcast of society, with one who has no longer a place in it, in the grave which is the destiny of us all.”

[11] Gollwitzer 79. “There in the depths the Lord of glory of the religions is not to be found, but the servant God of the Gospel, the ministering, self-sacrificing brother Jesus who ‘and no other one’ is the living Lord of the Gospel.”

Disruptive Comfort

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:8-9: “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” Amen (50)

Introduction

Have you ever thought about the word “comfort”? What is comfort? If you ask me, I may reply with some description of the darker recesses of a library, hidden from sight, nestled among books, coveting the quiet, the alone, and my beloved texts like Gollum and his precious. If you ask one of my children the answer may involve some form of “no school” and “video games” and “friends”.

Comfort is something we describe with adjectives soliciting the tactile senses and align more with “comfortable,” which contends with bodily senses. But are the words “comfortable” and “comfort” synonymous? I’ll argue they’re similar but not interchangeable. When we talk about something being comfortable we imagine some of the images mentioned a moment ago (things that bring us relaxation and pleasure), or a fuzzy robe with corresponding slippers, or a bed, or a couch, or a pair of jeans, or those old sneakers. Comfortable is something that doesn’t disrupt our state of rest; it affirms it. In fact, when presented with too much of what is comfortable, we become complacent with numbness. The old axiom exists for a reason: lethargy breeds lethargy. We can become so comfortable in what is because it is what is, it is familiar and known and doesn’t require that we reach too far out of our own spaces. In fact “comfortable” encourages resistance to anything infringing on that which is comfortable and known and familiar. It’s why change can be so scary.

But comfort is something altogether different because it disrupts us and our rest, our groove or rut, and our familiar and known. To bring comfort to someone is to alter their state in a way so they can catch that breath, breathe a sigh of relief, come down a few notches, and, sometimes, to push us into that scary unknown and unfamiliar.

Comfort comes as a person, a word, a space, an action thus it is disrupting. Something enters our sphere seizes us, speaks to us, creates space for us, and moves us into a different spot.  Comfortable keeps you where you are; comfort moves you. Comfortable is denial; comfort comes with acceptance. Comfortable is the saccharine colloquialism smoothing over tension, sadness, anger, frustration; comfort is the honest, “damn, I’m sorry…” that enters the tension, the sadness, the anger, frustration. Comfortable is pretending you don’t see that dragon; comfort is everyone you know showing up to fight it. When comfort arrives, in whatever form, we are never the same as we were before, and we are altered in some way forever—death into new life.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Through the humble yet bold voice of the prophet Isaiah, God declares, “Comfort, O comfort my people…Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (40:1-2a). It is time to move Israel from one state to another,[1] and God declares that God’s ministers are to bring comfort to Israel. According to the text, it is God’s presence with Israel that will bring comfort; it’s God’s voice, God’s word that soothes the troubled soul and the broken hearted. Thus, the ministers of God are to bring this voice and this word to God’s people. They are to elevate the heads of the Israelites, much like a mother gently grabs the chin of her distraught child and with love in her eyes and reassurance in her smile moves the child into comfort. Israel is beckoned by the great prophet, look to the Lord your God and be comforted and have joy, for deliverance and restoration come![2]

Israel plagued by captivity and complicity, tumult and turmoil, despondency and desperation needs the good divine word to instill them with profound divine joy. Israel is not only plagued for her own internal and external issues, but by a mutuality in suffering. Israel suffers as the nations around her suffer, too. As they are held captive, so is Israel; as they are in pain, so, too, is Israel. [3] As God feels the pain of God’s people, so does God’s people feel the pain of those around them.

A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (Is 40:3-5)

Isaiah declares God’s forgiveness, peace, and restoration to Israel; the great comforter comes, joy will exceed sorrow, God’s presence will eliminate exile, redemption will overturn condemnation. Here in Isaiah, God reaffirms that God is their God and they are God’s people. [4] And thus, Israel is commissioned[5] to fulfill Israel’s great call: to be the “herald of good tidings” to the nations, [6] to proclaim the word of God, God’s truth and God’s comfort.[7] “…lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” (Is 40:9).

The revelation of divine glory will be seen and witnessed and beheld by all. [8] God will gather up God’s flock like a shepherd, God will tend and carry the weak, smoldering wicks God will not snuff out, broken reeds God will not break. God will come for God’s people a group defined no longer by boundary markers, but which will extend beyond Jerusalem to all Judea, into Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Conclusion

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her…Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper… (Lam 1:1-2, 5).

The words of Israel’s lament to God here in these opening verses to the book of Lamentations, echo our current feelings of being abandoned. Lonely, widowed, weeping, held captive by foes, and without comfort. 2020 has thrust us deep into a long season of chaos soliciting our crying out. And while we may be able to find things that are comfortable it’s to numb the discomfort we feel; yet, the more we reach for the comfortable, the further comfort remains. We need not what is comfortable but to be comforted; we need to be disrupted in such a way that we see things as they are for what they are and to feel the umbilical connection to the rest of humanity who is sick, who is in pain, who grieves, and who fights for the right to breathe.

God’s presence has always meant comfort for God’s people manifest in the people’s liberation from captivity by forces internal (Israel’s sin) and external (those who are holding Israel captive)—this is salvation. Thus, the promised divine nativity of the Christ, God born in flesh, will be salvation for all flesh and this salvation is still intrinsically linked with human liberation. And this liberation isn’t solely from mythical forces of evil, threats of hellfire, and the intellectual burden of a burdened conscience. It is bodily liberation from religious tyranny, from marginalization, it is healing from sickness, it is bringing in and bringing together those who have been forced out and into exile by the rulers and authorities, it is dismantling of malignant systems born to create hierarchy between divine image bearers.[9] Jesus is the word of God, the word of comfort, born into the world to save and redeem God’s people…all of God’s people bringing low the high places and raising up the low places. So, we, as those who have been disrupted become disruptive, like Israel declaring the divine word of comfort rousing the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert
far and near, calling us to repentance
since the kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise to meet him
and the hills bow down to greet him.[10]

Advent is a season designed for disruption. The announcement that the divine nativity draws near and being asked to sit and wait and re-experience Israel’s pain and anguish waiting for God to act is to be disrupted in a marvelous way. God’s promised comfort comes and disrupts our comfortableness. Borrowing from Isaiah, John declared, “prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mk 1:3). In the announcement that God comes, we, the comfortable, have been disrupted by the divine word of comfort of the afflicted, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. The divine word of comfort comes to desperate ears, tired eyes, and exhausted bodies. All is disrupted. Behold, salvation comes to God’s people; the great comforter arrives in flesh to liberate (disrupt the captivity of) the captives.


[1] Isaiah 40:2b-d, “…that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

[2] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets Ny NY: JPS 1962. 152, “To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, says your God’ (40:1). And also, ‘I, I am He that comforts you’ (51:12). ‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you’ (66:13). His comfort comes from compassion (49:13), and will bring about joy (51:3), deliverance from captivity and the restoration of Zion and Jerusalem.”

[3] Heschel 149, 40:2 “As a rule we reflect on the problem of suffering in relation to him who suffers. The prophet’s message insists that suffering is not to be understood exclusively in terms of the sufferer’s own situation. In Israel’s agony, all nations are involved. Israel’s suffering is not a penalty, but a privilege, a sacrifice; its endurance is s ritual its meaning is to be disclosed to all men in the hour of Israel’s redemption.”

[4] Childs 297, “Most important is that God confirms his relation with the people of Israel. He is their God and they are his people, a formula that reverberates as a distant echo from the ancient covenant tradition.”

[5] Childs 296, “Seitz writes: ‘God speaks again from the divine council as he had done formerly in Israel’s day…[T]he word of God goes forth directly, commissioning the heralds of good tidings’ (245).”

[6] Childs 300, “Zion and Jerusalem are now personified as the evangelists of the good tidings. They are appointed to proclaim the news to the cities of Judah.” And 301, “Zion and Jerusalem are not portrayed simply as awaiting the coming of imminent salvation. Indeed the emphasis is not primarily on the return of the exiles, but focuses foremost on the coming of God. Jerusalem and Zion are now described from the perspective having already received redemption. Their task is rather one of the proclamation of the good news to the remaining cities of Judah.”

[7] Brevard Childs Isaiah TOTL Louisville KY: WJK 2001. 294, “in the prologue of chapter 40 God announces his will for a new dispensation toward Israel of forgiveness, peace, and restoration. His redemptive message is then proclaimed from the heavenly council as a confirmation of the truth of his word, and redeemed Jerusalem is called as a herald of the good tidings.”

[8] Childs 298, “A voice from the heavenly council now picks up the divine message of coming redemption with a cry that continues the urgent imperatives to a plural addressee…Then the imagery of the highway is further expanded. Valleys will be raised, mountains levelled, and the rough terrain made flat. This is in preparation for the unveiling of the glory of God that will be revealed to all.” And 299, V.5 tie to chapter 6 “The prophet overhears the liturgy of the seraphim bearing witness to the whole earth’s being filed with God’s glory. However, the point of his experiencing God’s presence in chapter 6 is that only to the prophet was the revelation disclosed. However, in chapter 40 a sign of the inbreaking of a new age of salvation is that the glory of God will now be revealed to all flesh.”

[9] This paragraph influenced by this quote from James H. Cone For my People: Black Theology and the Black Church  Ny, ny: Orbis, 1984. 80, “In the process of rereading the Bible in the light of black history, black clergy radicals concluded that both biblical and black histories revealed God’s unqualified solidarity with the poor in their fight against injustice. This revelation disclosed God’s salvation as being identical with human liberation. In the United States, black theologians were the first to identify liberation with salvation, and thus with the ore of the Christ gospel. It was in this context that they began to refer to God as the liberator of the oppressed Hebrew slaves in Egypt and to Jesus as the liberator whom God has anointed ‘to preach the goodness to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, an to set a liberty those who are oppressed’ (Luke 4:18, 19, RSV)”

[10] “Comfort, comfort ye my people” hymn 67 v.2

Divine Nativity Draws Nigh

Psalm 80:3, “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

Introduction

When we moved to Louisiana, something drove me crazy having nothing to do with the new culture or context but with one simple human verbal behavior: it’s okay. That phrase and its twin, “It’ll be fine,” met me at nearly every turn. At school, at church, among my neighbors, anytime someone asked me how I was doing and settling in, my reply was met with a quick and sweet, “it’s okay,” “it’ll be fine,” or the more sinister “don’t stress…”

But, see, things weren’t okay.

I *was* stressed. I had just asked my family, my partner and three young children, to move to an unknown location for me to take a job I had no idea if I was going to be successful. We left family and friends and home to make new friends and make a new home. Little things like where do the plates go and does it make sense to put the silverware here and can we seat 5 this way in that room caused stressed and anxiety even if small. Resettling and re-establishing…stress was part of that, anxiety was part of that. I was a mix of sadness having left that place and those whom I loved and excited about meeting those I would grow to love. And even if I knew full well that a new normal would present itself, nothing was “okay”.

We dismiss others’ anxiety and stress because it strikes to close to our home. If I can calm you down with a quick “It’s okay” then I can keep my own anxiety and stress under control. Don’t bring your mess here, that phrase says, I’m barely keeping the closet door shut on my own mess. We gaslight ourselves with the “it’s okay” and we drag others into that altered reality to make it true for us. I tell you it’s okay because I need them to be okay because I’m afraid things aren’t okay. And, deep down we know:

Things are not okay.

The grim reaper stands on every corner of every neighborhood looming over hearths and homes, reminding us our fleshy existence is reduceable to dust by a sub microscopic infectious agent. Covid’s count and toll creep closer and closer to unnecessary heights. Things are not okay. Racial tensions surge as white people across this country make the bold statement that white supremacy is just fine. Black bodies are being destroy and most white people will go to brunch bemoaning the anger and the charged political and civic atmosphere. Things are not okay. We are anxious, stressed, isolated and alone, our pillow damp with tears of frustration and sadness, we have no idea what comes tomorrow, and feel that each new day is one more where risk exceeds reward. Why? is fresh on desperate lips and exhausted bodies bear the when?… When will this be over? Why is this happening? When will we have life and liberty for all people? When will it be okay to embrace and touch and sing with my neighbor without fear? Why does this hurt so much?

Isaiah 64:1-9

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Is 64:1-2)

These prescient words preserved in Isaiah 64 address the weight of why and when. Isaiah shares the yoke of suffering and stands in solidarity with oppressed and burdened people. [1] The request is that God makes God’s self known in such a way that the earth quakes and nations tremble.[2] A holy plea for revelation of divine presence setting the world right, establishing justice and peace, and stripping power from corrupt leaders. The book of Isaiah is replete with images of divine glory manifest in ways reorienting human beings to what they are: human. To see God revealed in God’s splendor is to also realize our humble: not God. [3] This is Israel’s call: to direct the eyes and ears of all people of all nations to this God who has done “…awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (Is. 64:3).

The world Isaiah speaks from and to is sick and is in a desperate way. There is, Isaiah sees, a deep and fleshy need for the revelation of divine intervention of divine presence. Isaiah’s voice cries out on behalf of all the people suffering, cries out for those who have lost their voice under the weight of oppressive rule and regulation, and cries out in solidarity with the marginalized. [4] What we have here in this Isaiahic moment is petition, prayer, and plea. In recalling God’s divine engagement and encounter with and for Israel in the past, Isaiah confesses Israel’s need for God to do again what God has done before.[5] “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him” (Is 64:4). [6]

This confession is twofold: it is both a confession of what is needed and what has been done. Isaiah takes up the priestly mantel of confession on behalf of the people:

“You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (Is. 64:5).

When Israel feels abandoned, when help seems distant, they grow weary in keeping the law. It is easier to give over to selfish desire than to fight against it; it is easier to give into greed of power than resist; it is easier to play along with oppressive systems than to stand with the oppressed, calling out the oppression; it is easier to be violent than just; it is easier to confuse evil and good than to call a thing what it is. “We are like a polluted garment, our virtue like filthy rags, and as for God, he has hidden his face from us.”[7]

One scholar renders 64:5 like this,

“You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, they remember you in your ways. Because you were angry, we have sinned. For a long time we have been immersed in them; how then can we be saved?”[8]

The feeling of hopelessness is visceral. It’s been so long and you’ve been so absent, how then can we be saved? There has been so much violence and so much oppression and so much death, how can we be saved? Isaiah puts words to Israel’s lament, her frustration, her confession, and her fear. Isaiah knows that things are not okay; and as far as Isaiah can see, it won’t end well if God remains silent and seemingly absent (64:12). [9] Israel cries out: Do you hear our cry, O Lord? How Long?!

O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear

Conclusion

Things are not okay. But hope is not tethered to facts and is the flip side of divine love. That we love, there is God; that we hope, there is God. Israel’s feeling of being abandoned and her cries to God are seen, heard, and known by God. Isaiah’s recounting of God’s activity with Israel is to draw his audience into the story line of Israel and her encounters with a God who hears and acts. It is God who made the covenant with Abraham and kept it through threat and famine. It is God who heard the cries of Israel so intimately and intensely that God knew in God’s being the pain of his people and acted by calling Moses to liberate the captives. It is God who comes to dwell with Israel, to see her forward in to fertile and fruitful existence, out of death and into life.

Today we enter Advent as those who are grafted into Israel’s story through encounter with God in the event of faith. It is part of our tradition to slow down here, to pause and reflect, to resist the urge to run to the liturgical “it’s okay” of Easter’s promise of future resurrected life, to viscerally feel the deep pining pleas of Israel for God to hear and to act, and to ask the desperate question: how can we be saved?! 2020 has made this penitential feeling and corresponding question easy. While I cannot tell you when the travail of souls and burdened bodies will end, I can point you to a distant light illuminating this midnight sky over our heads, warming the fringes of this long chill, drawing our eyes from death and destruction around us up toward life and hope. It is this light that will invigorate us to stand where we are and be present; to get up once again and take our places in this world knowing that what is isn’t all there is, that possibility has priority over actuality. It is not the dawn of the sun, but the bright star of the Son of God, the Christ.

Advent begins the ascent of this bright star high into the midnight sky, signaling the depths of divine hearing and knowing. Hold tight and stand firm, Beloved, do not lose heart, the great encounter with God in the divine nativity draws nigh.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel


[1] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets New York, Ny: JPS 1962. In re: second Isaiah “The message of Second Isaiah as he is conventionally called, is of no age. It is prophecy tempered with human tears, mixed with a joy that heals all scars, clearing a way for understanding the future in spite of the present. No words have ever gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries.” 145

[2] Brevard Childs Isaiah: A Commentary The Old Testament Library Louisville KY: WJK 2001. “The prayer returns to the urgent plea for God’s direction intervention from above: ‘O that you would rend the heavens and come down.’ That the plea is for a theophany is clear from the imagery of quaking mountains, flaming fire, and streaming liquid.” 525

[3] Heschel “The grandeur and presence of God are strikingly apparent, heaven and earth are radiant with His glory it is enough to lift up the eyes on high and see Who created these (40:26). Yet men are blind; spiritually, they live in a dungeon. Israel’s destiny is, as we have seen ‘to open the eyes that are blind.’ Yet the tragedy is that the servant himself fails to understand the meaning of his mission.” 156

[4]  Childs “The form is that of a communal complaint that shares much with the common oral pattern of the Psalter, but especially with other late psalms such as Psalms 76, 106, Nehemiah 9.” 522

[5] Childs “The wording evokes again reference to God’s past intervention with the awesome signs of power displayed when he descended at Sinai and the mountains quaked. The confession of God’s sole rule as sovereign also reverberates from the Sinai tradition: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (ex. 20:3), but now understood as an affirmation of God’s uniqueness (‘no eye has seen any God besides you’).” 525

[6] Childs “The voice of faithful Israel had confessed its own unrighteousness in the light of the appalling conditions of national wickedness (59:1ff.). Then in 59:15ff. and 63:1-6 the promise of salvation is repeated with the coming of God as redeemer, but must first be preceded by God’s terrifying judgment on his people…In 63:7ff. the voice of faithful Israel is heard in a prayer that contains all the stereotyped features of the complaint: recital of God’s past mercies, confession of sin, call for divine intervention, and plea for aid in need.” 522

[7] Childs 526

[8] Childs 521

[9] Childs “this proposed reading seems radically to reverse the traditional theological sequence of first the sin, then the divine judgment….In my opinion, the power of the verse lies in the unexpected sequence, which is an ad hoc formulation, and its literary function lies exactly in its outrageous formulation. The sentiment is not to be abstracted into a theological principle, but serves only to identity the frustration of the confession community. The statement is congruent with the intensity of the rest of the lament that follows…” 525

Zion Comes; The Christ is Born

Isaiah 53:1-10 (Sermon)

Have you ever been trapped? I have. I’ve been trapped by my big brother. As kids, he’d chase me through the house, yelling, “Pick your exits!” Meaning: make the choices you need to make to get outside. However, I’d panic and make just one irrational choice, and end up hiding deep in a closet or locked behind the bathroom door. Waiting…waiting for help or for the menace to leave.

I’ve felt trapped when as a young adult struggle against a destructive lifestyle that was running me into the ground. I was powerless against these forces that were controlling my days and night. No matter how hard I fought, I couldn’t break free from self-destructive behaviors. I was trapped and I need help, something or someone to intervene.

Have you felt trapped? Unable to break free? Liberty just so close but so far away?

I’ve felt trapped now, not always knowing what to do or how to move forward. Sometimes we put on a façade that things are all put together, but they aren’t always put together. False confidence, soothing and charming grins, and white lies pave our fool’s gold paved roads.  Bills demand, cars break, foundations crack, family strains, and there seems to be no way through.

And I’ve not mentioned the world yet; feeling trapped and being trapped are realities in our world.  Our world seems to groan and sigh under the weight of oppression and injustice, sicknesses and despairing unto death. The world and her inhabitants are weary to the point of death. As I’ve asked many times before: is hope lost?

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.” (Is 35:3-4)

Isaiah addresses the people of Israel in words of hope; hope in darkness. In the chapter preceding the one read, God promises to execute judgment on the nations. Thus, God demonstrates his great power over the nations and his promise that a cosmic battle will ensue to defend his own. Those who come against the beloved, will have to contend with God himself and his retribution.i God does not play nice with those who use their power for evil, get drunk on authority and greed, oppress and willingly participate in the oppression of those who can’t help themselves. Mark Isaiah’s words: Zion will come to Israel; justice will flow; salvation will be Israel’s by the retributive power of God.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there. (Is 35:8-9)

Hemmed in on all sides, Israel can’t defend itself from the oppression of the surrounding nations and enemies. The oppressive nations and enemies will be parted like the waters of the red sea at the boarder of Egypt; God will usher Israel out of enslavement and captivity into Zion, life, and salvation. As if lead by the hand through that verdant garden nearly forgotten, God will walk Israel through a deadly desert on his road, protected on every side.ii

Israel will not travel on just any road, but on the “Holy Way,” the golden road paved by God himself.iii And this road is for Israel and Israel alone; for those called and sought for by God, those freed and liberated by God, those whom God defends and rescues. It is these who are the clean and pure who are in God’s company.iv Isaiah prophesies, “Behold, God’s on the move; ‘He will come.’ All will be well; keep your hope, small nation.”v

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

‘Til He appears and the Soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees; O hear the angel voices!vi

This movement, this divine arriving, this promise all will be well is the crux of Advent. We wait, along with Israel, for the great “Holy Way” of God to be made before us, for God to place our feet upon its firm foundation. With Israel, strengthening our hands and our feeble knees, fortifying fearful hearts we wait for our God. And in a way no one expected, he shows up. He shows up in tangible redeeming love.vii

It’s in the arrival of a vulnerable baby, the one born of Mary, who will be the way, the truth, and the light through the deadly desert into Zion and Salvation. It will be upon his back our burdens will be laid as we walk unburdened out of our cages and our captivity into liberty and freedom. It will be by his hand we are led into God’s presence, where the unclean become clean, the slave become free, and the lowly are lifted. The birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the one pined for under the weight of sin and error is the advent of God’s cosmic battle against the powers of sin and death running rampant in the world. It’s in Christ, born in a manger, where those trapped reach out and grab not cold, restraining metal (bars and chain-link), but the warm, liberating, loving hand of God, and who are brought into great joy and gladness, into rest and peace, into life our of every present death.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord; O praise His name forever!viii

 

 

i Brevard S. Childs Isaiah The Old Testament Library Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 255About chapters 34 and 35, “The relation is that of a reverse correspondence and together they summarize the two major parts of the Isaianic corpus: God’s power over the nations, and the exaltation of Zion for the salvation of Israel. The crucial decision to make regards the peculiar function of these chapters in their present position. Chapter 34 picks up from chapters 13-23 the call to the nations to bear witness to God’s sovereign power and to his imminent cosmological retribution. The geographical sweep is far broader than in chapters 28-33. Already the rod of punishment has been transferred from Assyria to Babylon (13:15), and the proud boasting of Assyria before its destruction (chapters 36—37) is paralleled by the taunt against the king of Babylon (chapter 14).  

ii JSB; JPS. “Isaiah” Benjamin D. Sommer. eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: OUP 2004). 852. “This ch [35[ is the converse of the previous one: In ch 34,  a land inhabited by Judah’s enemies becomes a desert; in ch 35, the desert is transformed so that Judean exiles in Babylonia can pass through it with ease on their journey to Zion. Normally, travelers from Babylonia to the land of Israel would move northwest along the Euphrates, then southwest through Syria, avoiding the route that went directly west through the impassable desert. But this prophecy insists that the exiles will be able to go directly and quickly through the desert, because the Lord will provide water and safety for them there. This passage borrows extensibly from Jeremiah’s prediction of the exiles’ return in Jer. 31.7-9. It amplifies that prediction, while changing its historical referent from another (Israelite) exiles in Assyria to southern (Judean) exiles in Babylonia. It also deliberately recalls the vocabulary of Isaiah 32.1-6.”  

iii Childs 256“The same typological tendency to transcend the specificity of earlier texts and to extend the prophecy in a more radically eschatological mows cam to in chapter 35. The same imagery of Second Isaiah recurs–the eyes of the blind opened, the transformation of the wilderness, the highway for the returnees–yet the images have increasingly taken on a metaphorical tone. The highway is not just a means of improving the route home, but now is portrayed as a holy path reserved for the pure of heart.  

iv JBS 856 “No on unclean: Since God would personally accompany the exiles (v. 4), they would have to be in a state of ritual purity.”

v Childs 257. “…chapter 35 immediately launches into an elaborate portrayal of the salvation of Israel. The imagery is not only closely related to that of chapters 40ff.—the desert blossoming, the joyful singing, the seeing of Yahweh’s glory—but the vocabulary of v. 4 offers a parallel to 40:9-10: ‘Behold, your God! He will come.’” 

vi Oh Holy Night 

vii Abraham J. Heshel ”Chastisement” Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 194.”God’s anger must not obscure His redeeming love.”  

viii Oh Holy Night