All through this week I have been pondering how to speak about these lessons, given our present context. I don’t speak about my political leanings very much both because it would be “preaching to the choir” here, and because I think people ought to think for themselves and make their own decisions. But in the last few days, I confess that I have quietly signed many petitions, petitions to support justice at Standing Rock, save animals in danger of extinction, keep alive medicare and insurance for the over 11 million people who have it under Obama Care, and defend the integrity of the EPA against climate-change deniers. Recent news has also made me aware and concerned about forest fires that have destroyed wildlife, property and human beings. A few days ago, I also was shocked by a new billboard on US 24 that promoted buying and using assault rifles as an “effective form of group therapy.” And only yesterday, I received an email from a doctor who said that the toxicity levels of our tap water are now so high that they are a threat to human life and that we must filter everything that flows through our faucets in order to survive.
Given all that, how do we hear these lessons today? Isaiah’s prophecy is glorious! It is healed world, a fruitful environment, a world we long to see….Is the prophecy a pipe-dream, an illusion, a fantasy, that we want to be true, but really don’t think will happen? No, it is not. I think it is important to remember the context for this prophecy. It was proclaimed in the midst of great pain. The people who heard him were in exile. They had already traveled through the wilderness … at a forced march into the captivity of Babylon, a foreign power. They were captives of war. They had already suffered. Some had been wounded or maimed. They had been removed from everything they knew and loved and their homes had been destroyed- much like the many refugees that have fled Syria today. These Jews had no protection, much like the Muslims who live here or the illegal immigrants who fill our sweatshops, pick our fruit for less money, and clean the homes of the wealthy- the Muslims and immigrants who now fear expulsion or fear a registration that might be used against them at any time for any reason…. In our day, I think it is extremely important for us to remember the context of Isaiah’s prophecy. When we look around now, what we see might seem closer to a different prophecy, the prophecy that speaks of “wars and rumors of war,” “Blood, and fire and pillars of smoke,” nation against nation” great famine, injustice, and pestilence?
You see, to believe in more than we see is an act of faith by definition.. and that is the invitation that Isaiah is giving us today. The pain that the Israelites had endured was real, just as real as all that we are going through and will go through in the future….And none of it was or is caused by God. All of this suffering resulted from what people did to people. It is the result of fear, hate, greed, and a lust for power that are still with us today.
Most likely, many people who heard Isaiah’s prophecy did indeed think it was a delusion, just as some people hear it today that way. Fortunately for us, a few believed and passed down the prophet’s message. But still, Isaiah’s vision has not been fully realized. In fact, we seem to be going further away from it. Sometimes it’s a struggle to maintain our faith, as James reminds us, when he exhorted us to be patient until the Lord comes. He was not suggesting that we take “the tranquilizing pill of gradualism, “ as Martin Luther King said, denouncing those who equated delayed justice with patience. Rather, he is saying, endure, put your trust in the Lord. Do all that you can do to usher in the Kingdom of God, to repent, to obey and act according to God’s word, commit yourselves to God’s work like the prophets did, but then wait, knowing that the Lord is near.
John the Baptist was trying to live out his faith, but he, too, was human, and now was in a situation that he hadn’t quite expected. He wasn’t sure that he was on the right path: “Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another?” John was not a weak man. He had done the right thing; he had proclaimed the coming of the messiah. In one gospel account, he even acknowledges that Jesus is that messiah: “I am not worthy to unlatch the thong of your sandal,” he says. But now, in his prison cell, he doesn’t seem so sure: “Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another?”… Doubt, I think, it is a part of our journey in faith; in itself, is not a bad thing. It can help us grow and become people of greater substance, greater mercy. It can stir us to act when we need to be stirred up. It can also raise questions about what is appropriate and effective, what action is directed by God’s word and what is not. In short, it can help us become better informed and guide us as we discern what is and is not appropriate for us. The prophets like Isaiah and John tried, as best as they were humanly capable, to speak only in accordance with God’s command. And so, John asks Jesus: “Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another?” He wanted assurance that he that he had heard aright, that he was following the true God. And Jesus answers John’s query by reciting another prophecy: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” That statement sounds like Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the dawn of God’s Kingdom, but it is changed; a beatitude is added: “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” This is a significant change. At that moment, Jesus is telling John that he is not only the messiah who will bring justice; he is also God who heals, who rules the universe, who commands the sea, makes the dead to rise, and causes rain to fall on scorched earth, who causes the desert to burst forth into blossom, and creates a highway in the desert, different from the one experienced by the exiles, one that even healed lepers will travel as the redeemed. Jesus’ words were intended as assurance, good news to John that his faith and commitment were not in vain, that he, indeed, was the forerunner for the Christ, who comes to “strengthen the weak hands, make firm the feeble knees, and say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear!” Isaiah’s prophecy, likewise, was intended as an assurance to a down-trodden people, a people who had lost hope. Many of whom had been faithful, had followed the law, and had suffered for it. Isaiah was trying to open their eyes to a greater reality, to reveal a reality that was already in progress, though, it perhaps, was not obvious. God, not humankind, was birthing that reality. God is still working his purpose out. The judge is, indeed, at the door, …the judge who comes to heal us, to open our blind eyes, and unstop our deaf ears, the one who comes to renew the earth and create a highway to our God, a highway on which “no traveler, not even fools – like us- shall go astray, because God is our helper and from him all sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Belief is an act of faith in the unseen and an act of hope always rooted in the promises of God. The gospel tells us that Jesus came to show us the Father, impart truth and to act for the healing and reconciliation of the world to God. If we can believe that, we can, indeed, rejoice, as that little pink candle reminds us. We are to rejoice… because in the midst of our darkest hour, God, the light of the world, is even now piercing the darkness, even now, bringing about a new creation from which we can draw strength, both to act and to endure. Hence, we pray that God would “Stir up his power and with great might come among us, that his bountiful grace and mercy might speedily help and deliver us,” and that we might heed the prophets, repent, and turn to the Lord.
So, rejoice and sing! Be strong and fear not. Our God is here and is still coming, and we shall behold his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, and as we receive him and believe in his name, we are given power to be his children. May we live, act, wait, and dwell in that truth and grace. Amen.