For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah

Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 42:1-9

This passage in Isaiah conjures for me an iconic image from Disney’s The Lion King. Even if you’ve never seen it, you probably know this image. It’s a cliff, jutting out high up over the savannah, that the lions visit to look out over their entire kingdom. The movie features a young lion, Simba, from his birth to young adulthood, as he grows into his role as king of the jungle.  At the Simba’s birth, the animals come from miles around to gather at the foot of the cliff, waiting to greet the new baby king. As they come, they are singing about “The Circle of Life.”

It’s an image of baptism, really–this lion cub is anointed, on the forehead, as a symbol of his importance, his mission, his place in the world. He is going to be king.

By our baptism, we are marked as Christians–and we are anointed by the community of Christ, given a place and a purpose and a mission in this life. We are children of God, loved by God. Our purpose is to serve God and help God’s work in the world. We are not kings, but we are just as important–our lives and what we do with them matters in God’s kingdom.

Later in the movie, Simba’s father takes him back to that same cliff to teach him about being King of the Jungle. He lays out for Simba the power and beauty and extent of their kingdom at sunrise, describing it as everything the light touches. He tells him of the honor and responsibility of being king, to serve and oversee and take on the burden of all the creatures in their realm. He also tells him that the reign of a king is like the rising and setting of the sun–it comes and it goes, one day rolls into another.

This is the scene I imagine happening in Isaiah.

In this scripture, I imagine God taking us by the hand, leading us to a bluff looking out across our community. God reminds us of our baptism–our place, our purpose, our mission. God points out to us that we have been given this land and all the creatures in it. We are blessed by the abundance, and we are responsible for making God known in this place. “I have made you a light to the nations,” God says to us. I need you, God says, to shine out in this place, to make my love known here, to build justice and mercy and healing. You are my servant in this place. I need you to be light in the darkness, friend to the lonely, food to the hungry, hope to those who despair, love to those who have none.

I also imagine our reaction to that. “Who, me? Us? We’re just a little church on a little corner. We’re just ordinary people, no special faith, no miraculous healing. Just working folk trying to do the right thing for our families and our communities. We’re not good enough, faithful enough, capable enough, wealthy enough to do this thing you ask of us.”

God responds with a reassurance, and a challenge.

The reassurance: “See, the former things have come to pass.”

In other words, God says, look at all the promises I made to you that have already come true.

Do you think you are the first one to stand on this precipice? Your mothers and your fathers, your grandmothers and grandfathers—they have stood where you are now. I held them by the hand as they looked out over this gift and responsibility. They started this church. They built this building. They gave of themselves, their lives and their wealth, to make my light shine in this community. Like you, they believed they couldn’t do it. They thought they were not enough to accomplish what I asked of them. But I stood here, holding their hands, and promised them that together we could do it. And look out over this community—together we did. You are here today because my promises to them were true. I have kept my promises to them, and I will keep my promises to you.

And then comes the challenge: “New things I now declare. Before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”

I have a new work to do in this generation, says God. I still need you to be light in the darkness, hope in the face of despair. Let me tell you what new things I want to do—because I am going to need your help to do them. Just as the former things have come to pass, I will make this thing come to pass as well. But I need your help. Just as my promises came true through the service and sacrifice of previous generations, I want to make my promises come true in you, too.

The Circle of Life that we God-followers participate in is a circle of promise after promise. God’s promise is fulfilled in generation after generation. We stand on the former things that have come to pass, the promises that God has fulfilled through previous generations. God takes us by the hand and asks us to help make new promises come true in our generation, for the future. We stand on the precipice, our hand in God’s hand, a light to our community, trusting in the promises of God.

The question is, will you let God’s promise come true in you?

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Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 35:1-10

I am struck in my initial reading by the audience for this passage from Isaiah. The prophet is declaring joy and courage and gladness, but for whom? For the wilderness, the dry lands, the weak hands, the feeble knees, the fearful hearts. Those are the places and peoples that probably need joy the most, but they also seem the least likely to find it, at least in their current condition. Usually, we believe that joy is something that comes after—after we have powerful hands and strong knees and courageous hearts, after we have overcome our fears. Then we have joy.

But Isaiah here, at least at the beginning, seems to point to something else. He declares: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (Isaiah 35:1) I think Isaiah might be describing the possibility of joy before all those things happen, while we are still weak, feeble and fearful. If that’s what he’s talking about, then I’m definitely listening—because weak, feeble and fearful feels a lot more like my life most of the time than strong, powerful and courageous does.

It’s the image of the crocus that speaks to me of joy “before and during,” rather than only the joy that comes “after. “ I don’t know much about flowers, but I do know what a crocus is, and when it blooms. The crocus is a tiny stump of a flower, just a few inches off the ground, and it comes in all kinds of colors—purple, yellow, lavendar, white. This ferocious little flower is most renown because it blooms when nothing else does. Before the snow has even melted away, before the trees show the smallest bud or the grass hints at green, you can find crocuses poking their heads out and displaying their colors for the world. And after the fall has taken its toll, when leaves have fallen and trees are bare and grass is withered, the crocus appears again, defiantly spring-like with its colorful petals and green stems amidst the grays and browns on the landscape.

The second half of the passage speaks of more traditional rejoicing. Of course we rejoice when the blind can see and the deaf can hear and the lame can walk. Of course we rejoice when the drought is ended and the green growth returns. When we have security from lions and beasts, when we are on the right path and nothing can deter us, when we get to go home again—of course the sorrow and sighing flee away when that happens. The second half of this passage from Isaiah reassures us that that day of rejoicing will come, that God’s promises are true and God will make those things happen, and we will rejoice when they do someday.

While that is an important reminder, what’s far more compelling to me is that crocus, which seems to tell us that we don’t need to wait for all that stuff to happen to find joy. A joy that, like a crocus, blooms when it is illogical, impossible, inconceivable—that’s the joy I need. A joy that doesn’t wait for me to get myself together, to clear away the icy relationships or nurture the fallen prayer practices back into life or fix the withered courage in my heart. A joy that comes before we are healed and fixed and organized and prepared and reconciled and righteous and whole and holy. That kind of joy could only come from God.

I have to think that our God of Christmas incarnation is a God of that crocus-like joy. After all, God did not wait for the world to get its act together before sending Christ. Mary and Joseph didn’t have their lives arranged just right to welcome a baby. They didn’t even have a proper place to stay in Bethlehem. The shepherds were terrified of the good news, and certainly did not prepare themselves for the holy. Yet God came anyway, the tiny babe was born, and everyone rejoiced. A crocus in the snow, a spring of water in the desert, joy in spite of fear and doubt. Feeble knees and weak hands and fearful hearts, there is joy for you as well.  Flowers bloom even in the desert. Joy is possible even amid doubt and fear and struggle. God comes to us just as we are, right now.

Thank God, because I don’t think I’d find joy any other way.

This is a new (what I hope will be weekly) feature on the blog–an initial reaction and some opening thoughts on this week’s lectionary passages, in preparation for preaching on Sunday. For more info, see About My Blog.

Highlighted Passages: Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122

Opening Thoughts on Advent

We treat Lent as the great season of abstinence, self-examination and spiritual discipline in preparation to cleanse ourselves for Easter, asking God’s grace and forgiveness for our sins. Advent, on the other hand, has become a season for carols and decorations and pageants, as though we are preparing for a party rather than the disruptive presence of God. I think Advent should be more like Lent. I don’t mean dour and deprived, but I do mean a time of heightened intentionality and spiritual attunement. In Lent, we examine our souls and our behaviors and ask God to make us righteous again. In Advent, I think we are challenged to examine our cynicism and closed-mindedness and ask God to make us visionary again. The scriptures of the lectionary during the Advent season present some of the most compelling visions of peace, hope, love and joy in the whole Bible. Advent urges us to dream bigger, open ourselves to more possibilities, and to raise our expectations for what we can do and what God can do. My sermon series this year will focus on digging deeper into those traditional Advent themes of peace, hope, joy and love, and challenging us to pray for them in a more meaningful and considered fashion, with faith that God will answer our cries.

Advent I: Praying for Peace

People use the phrase “peace on earth” with abandon this time of year. It comes directly from Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, where the angels announce that he comes to bring “peace on earth, good will to all.” From the beginning, then, Christmas has been tied to the promise of peace on earth.

But I think our thoughts and even our prayers on the subject are puny at best. In fact, they seem to be more like letters to Santa than petitions to God.

“Dear Santa-God, I’ve been very good this year. Please bring me a new bike, a new car, an X-box 360, those cool jeans I saw at Abercrombie, and an i-tunes gift card. That is all. Oh yeah, and peace on earth.”

It’s as though we use our prayers for peace on earth at Christmas to assuage our guilty conscience. The frenzy of consumerism and desire for worldly things seizes us particularly tight in the days between Black Friday and New Years Day sales. We recognize the selfishness and self-centeredness of all this spending on things that we may want but probably don’t need, and we feel guilty about it. We pray for peace on earth and try to give a bit extra to those in need this season, so we can feel better about all the money we spend on ourselves.

Perhaps that is a little too cynical. I think most of us go for something more like this:

“Dear Santa-God, who makes wishes come true and everybody happy, I don’t want anything for myself. All I really want for Christmas this year is peace on earth.”

There’s nothing blatantly wrong with this kind of prayer, but it just seems so weak to me. The only image I can conjure for “peace on earth” is a Coca-cola commercial with lots of little kids of different hues holding hands and singing. That’s nice and all, but not exactly powerful. It’s certainly not going to bring a stop to the decade-old United States wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s not going to stay the violent hand lashing out in anger at an innocent child. It’s not going to free the woman held captive to an abusive husband. It’s not going to make a suicide bomber stand down and stop making bombs.

And we all know it. Which is what bothers me. We all know that these prayers for peace are pathetic and weak. But we don’t really know what to do about it—so we just keep praying with the angels, for “peace on earth, good will to all.”

God is better than that. Our prayers should be worthy of God’s true power, God’s true longing for peace and the depth of brokenness in our human condition.

Peace, true peace, is not about wishes come true and smiling children and a contented, happy people. True peace is risky, uneasy, fragile, vulnerable, and challenging to all our contentedness. It requires courage and probably will make people unhappy. After all, war usually makes some people happy at the expense of making others miserable—I figure peace is probably going to make those victors lose some ground and leave them feeling displaced and discontented.

Isaiah and the Psalmist in this week’s readings—they really knew how to pray for peace on earth. In the Psalmist, I hear pleading, almost begging: “For the sake of my relatives and friends, I say: ‘peace be with you.’” That sounds like the kind of prayer that might be uttered by the spouse or parent of one of our soldiers currently deployed in a combat zone. Or even by the family of one of our enemies—terrorists have families too.

Isaiah takes it even further. He puts flesh on his prayer. He asks God to serve as judge between the nations, rather than allowing the victors of the war to set the rules and make the judgments. This is where the unhappiness comes in, as those victors see their privileges disappearing. He paints a picture of what peace looks like, in which human beings take their weapons of war and melt them down into tools for growing things. Swords into plows, spears into pruning hooks.

Behind both of these prayers, the thing that makes them so powerful is the absolute confidence that God can make that peace possible. It is the absolute conviction of the person praying that peace—no matter how fractious and uncomfortable—is what God wants, and what God’s followers want.

Can we pray with such conviction for peace on earth? What does a hearty prayer for peace really look like? Dare we pray for our armies and those of the terrorists to lay down their weapons? With the passion of the Psalmist and the specificity of vision of Isaiah, can we move beyond a generic “peace on earth” and start praying for a concrete vision of peace, with sacrifice? Are we willing to give up some comfort and even some happiness in exchange for peace? Will we let God’s peace reign in the world, knowing it may disrupt our way of life? Will we let God in, so peace is possible?

This is my favorite passage in all of American literature—and probably world literature, excluding scripture:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing, until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams locked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. They then act and do things accordingly.

These are the opening lines of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

If you’ve never read this book, please do. It’s my favorite novel of all time, and one of the few books I read over and over again. I was reminded of it again last night after enjoying the American Masters episode about Zora Neale Hurston on PBS.

What I love about this passage is the proclamation that “the dream is the truth.” What a holy pronouncement! My images of the dream come mostly from scripture:

  • “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2)
  • “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58)
  • “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away” (Luke 1, Mary’s Magnificat)
  • “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream” (Amos 5)
  • “Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21)

But I also think of images from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning if its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal.”

Whatever image we set out as the dream, that is the truth, says Zora. Now act and do accordingly. It reminds me of the old saying among radicals, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If the dream is justice, live justice. If the dream is equality, live with all as equal brothers and sisters. If the dream is peace, live peace. If the dream is an end to poverty, live your life against poverty. Because that is the Truth.

In Christianity, we use the term “Word,” capital “W”, to refer to God, with the understanding that God’s word, God’s speech, is so powerful that it is Word, an entity unto itself with a force that can call worlds into being and bring flesh to life and animate the world. I think we could contemplate Word as synonymous with Truth, as Zora Neale Hurston uses it. The dream is the Truth–the promise of God is the Word of God. It is a force that can and will make things happen. The dream is not some fuzzy notion, hardly visible at the edge of sleep. Nor is it a hastily-scribbled IOU for the future. The dream is the truth—hard and fast, secure and tangible, as real as mud.

We who know this act and do things accordingly.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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