Believe It or Not?

view from space of US east coast
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nasaearthobservatory/6389520921/">NASA</a>

Isaiah 40:21-31

You don’t know?
You haven’t heard?
Nobody’s ever told you the story from the beginning?
You haven’t understood the rudiments of creation?

It’s God who sits above the great circle of the earth,
From whose perspective people are like ants,
Who hangs the heavens like hanging curtains,
Who unfolds the sky like unfolding a tent,
Who makes even princes into nobodies,
And who nullifies the laws of kings.

They’re hardly planted,
Hardly have they hit the ground,
Hardly have they sprouted,
Hardly have they taken root,
When God blows on them
And they wither,
And the wind blows them away like grass clippings.

“Who will you compare me to?
Who is my equal?” God asks.
“Raise your eyes to the sky and see.
Who created all this?”

God brings out the whole panoply of stars
Numbers them,
Names them,
And because God is so powerful,
So awesome,
Not a single one goes missing.

How can you say, Jacob –
Israel, how can you talk like:
“God can’t see where I am,”
And “God has let my rights be ignored”?
You don’t know?
You haven’t heard?
God is forever,
The maker of everything that is.
God doesn’t get worn out or tired.
God knows more than you can even guess.
God empowers the worn out,
God revives the beat down.

Even teenagers get tired and pass out.
Even young people crash when they’re exhausted.
But those who live in God
Renew their strength,
They take off like eagles,
They run without tiring,
They walk without feinting.

This is Isaiah’s answer to the defeatist, “we can’t” attitude.

To put it into context, this is the opening scene of Israel’s return from exile. Permission has been granted to return home, but it’s going to be a long trip. Many of those who are contemplating making it are old. They’ve lived in exile most, if not all, their lives. They’ve been beat down all their lives. Now, though the way is open, some are saying, “Never mind. It’s too hard. It’s too far. We can’t. We just don’t have the energy.”

Against this tide of defeatism, the prophet reasserts that what they cannot do on their own can be done by God’s strength and help. Even the teenagers and the youngest people are going to get tired out on a trip of this magnitude. Never mind, God will provide strength for the journey.

Behind this particular story of one community’s grappling with whether they are ready to make a journey home is the story of everyone who ever had to consider taking on a task that seemed, before it began, too great a thing to even bother considering. The question for every person, and every community, behind this story is: am I (or are we) going to attempt the thing we’ve always dreamed of doing. Even for those who don’t believe in God, the question remains: Do we believe the world we dream of is worth the effort and risk and sacrifice to attempt bringing it about?

To consider that kind of question, the prophet suggests that what we really need to take stock of is whether we really believe in the viability of the worldview we say we believe in. For the Israelites (and for people who believe in their God), the question is: Do we really believe what we say we do when it comes to our God’s ability to get us through this? We’ve heard the stories of God’s deliverance and power. Do we really believe them, or are they just stories? Because if we believe them, then we are responsible to act on that belief. Whatever you believe in, it’s time to put your effort where your faith is.

Believe it, or not?

Want to Be Great? Raise a Ruckus

justice mural
Image credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/redredbuttons/2120649684/">Alex E. Proimos</a>

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

I’ll rejoice, by God!
My heart thrills because of God!
Because God has clothed me
With a winner’s sash,
Wrapped me in the robes of justice.
I’m like the groom putting on his corsage,
Or a bride donning her tiara.

As shoots grow up out of the earth,
And as a garden grows from planted seeds,
God will grow justice and acclaim
out of people everywhere.

For Zion’s sake I won’t shut up,
And for Jerusalem’s sake, I won’t sit still
Until justice shines from her like the sunrise
And until her reputation becomes a beacon.

People everywhere will see your justice,
Leaders will see your triumph,
And you will be renamed
With a name chosen by God.
You’ll be a God’s magnificent scepter,
God’s crowning achievement.

Let’s name this passage for what it is: an ode to the triumphant restoration of a nation that has seen better days.

And yet, for all it’s nationalistic narrowness and gloating, there are at least three hugely important and positive take-aways here:

  1. The central character of the nation to be re-established is justice. Here is a key understanding of politics worth underscoring, that a nation can never be truly great unless it is just.
  2. Justice is not peculiar to certain people in certain places. It’s as natural to have a sense of and to long for justice as it is for seeds to grow when planted in soil. What little kid doesn’t have a sense that something is fair or fair?
  3. A nation that aspires to be great needs citizens who won’t shut up and won’t sit still until justice shines. It’s not enough to lament that injustice is carrying the day. People, if they long to be a part of a great nation, need to speak up and make a ruckus.

Nations come and go. But the power to dominate and influence splotches on a world map by force only gets you so far. To have real clout, to have a reputation like a beacon, you need to get in touch with your inner kid, whose still wanting to get up and yell, “It’s not fair!”

Party at Sunrise

sunrise
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/sbh/5335360630/">Stephen Heron</a>

Isaiah 9:2-7

People who were groping in the dark
Have been enlightened.
Dawn has broken
For those who were living in the night.

You have made the nation great,
You have heightened the nation’s joy,
They rejoice in your presence,
Like the revelry when the harvest is in,
Like when people are looting with gusto what’s left behind .

For the weight of their burdens
And the chains that bound them
And the night-sticks of their oppressors
Have been broken as on V-J Day.
All the boots of the marching soldiers
And all the bloody battle fatigues
Shall be burned as bonfire kindling.

For a child has been born
A son given
Who will be the one in command.
We’ll call him:
An amazing adviser, a powerful God,
Forever our founder, a peaceful ruler.
His empire will extend throughout the world
And finally bring a lasting peace.
He will restore David’s dynasty and empire,
And will administer it fairly and for the good,
So that it will never fall again.

The passion of God will make it happen.

Picture, if you will, the scenes you’ve seen of looters running from smashed storefronts, their faces lit with glee.

Picture the faces of inmates as they emerge from their cells in the midst of a mass jailbreak.

Picture the faces of victorious college students after a football game tossing the dorm furniture onto a huge bonfire.

Picture the faces of soldiers returning home to embrace their children.

Picture the Bacchus revelry of mardi gras or carnaval.

Picture the celebrations in the streets of Egypt and Libya earlier this year when people were celebrating their liberation from years under oppressive dictators.

Picture a party in celebration of the birth of a child.

Put it all together into a wild and jubilant celebration that in it’s wildness is just a little scary, the way in the recesses of your mind you begin to think, “Can this much celebration really be good? Or safe?”

That’s what Isaiah is saying it will be like when God makes it happen.

What happen?

Redemption. Resurrection. Freedom. Peace.

Of course all of these things will be the end of the world as we know it. And of course, none of these things is safe.

Go ahead, Isaiah says. Bring it.

We’re Depending on You

rejoicing
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/blmurch/3382804237/">Beatrice Murch</a>

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

God’s spirit is on me.
God has chosen me,
And sent me to rally the oppressed,
To mend broken hearts,
To announce the captives’ emancipation
And the prisoners’ release,
To declare that this year God will rescue
And today God will be vindicated.

To comfort the mourners:
To take care of Zion’s mourners,
Replacing their ashes with trophies,
Replacing their funeral clothes with party clothes,
Replacing their dejection with celebration.

They will be called Oaks of Justice
Planted by God to show how great God is.
They’ll rebuild what’s been long destroyed,
They’ll raise what’s been written off,
They’ll restore cities from shambles
Abandoned for generations.

I, God, love justice.
I hate robbery and deceit.
I’ll surely give them what they’re owed,
And I’ll make them a binding contract.
Their descendents will be famous all over the world,
Their children among every race.
Everyone who sees them will agree
That they have God’s blessing.

I’ll be glad because of God,
My whole being will thrill with God,
For God has dressed me in the trappings of victory,
Wrapped me in robes of justice,
Like a groom puts on his corsage,
And a bride puts on her jewelry.

As the earth grows plants
And a garden grows seeds,
So God grows justice and gratitude
Wherever there are people.

It’s worth stopping to think about how radical, even revolutionary, this poetry is. Start with just the idea that God would make a binding contract with people who have no legal status. Let alone rallying the oppressed, emancipating the slaves, and orchestrating a massive jail break. Think about it. There is a reason those cities have been destroyed, abandoned and not rebuilt. Someone wants them that way. There’s a reason why we (yes we) write some people off. But this poem will not allow people to remain written off.

No less radical the idea that justice and gratitude are going to grow in people as naturally as seeds grow in soil. It’s just not how we typically see people behave. Sure, there are lots of just and gracious people. But in the present situation, it’s hard to say whether they are so far in the majority as to be viewed as a “natural occurrence.”

So, here’s the question. Is this a utopian dream (or a terrible nightmare, depending on which side you’re on)? Or is it something that really is achievable?

And the answer is: it’s both. Or it can be. It would be only a utopian vision of justice for the poor and the masses, except for the first line: “God’s spirit is on me.” None of it is possible unless the one who is reading it hears it as her own words and calling. That’s how Jesus would one day read it in a Nazarene synagogue (Luke 4:18-21). He read it with the understanding that it applied directly to himself. But until someone – you perhaps – read it with the understanding that this was not meant to be Isaiah’s calling or Jesus’ calling, but your calling, it remains merely fantasy.

Is it real? Will the revolution live? Will the oppressed be emancipated? Will there be just and gracious people where you live?

Yes, but only if you make it so. It depends – and we’re depending – entirely on you.