Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 17, 2016
Isaiah 62:1-5 Commentary
These first verses of Isaiah 62 are like a geyser erupting in hopefulness and wild abundance. This is like a prophetic fireworks display with a never-ending grand finale as color and light fills the skies, eliciting a long string of “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs” from those seeing the spectacle. This is one of those passages so chock-full of promise and imagery of joy that it is almost impossible to overstate it, almost impossible to stray into the realm of exaggeration in talking about it.
Because here Yahweh promises that his people—desolate, barren, bewildered, and long held in foreign captivity—will soon be transformed at every level. The people themselves will be turned into a crown of splendor, into shining diamonds so brilliant, they will refract the divine light of glory in a million directions at once. Israel will become the bull’s-eye, the dead center target, of all the divine delight God can muster. God is going to pour his love and ardor into these people the way a mother pours every ounce of her love into a child.
But it’s not just the people: the very land itself will be blessed. Curiously, we’re told the land will enter into a kind of marriage relationship (an odd image but striking!). Like the people, so the land will respond to the loving, delighted touch of its creator God. The land will flourish, will produce abundantly everything that a land can produce. Images of over-stuffed cornucopia spring to mind as you read these words.
It is very simply a shining set of images: the people shine, the land shines, the whole earth shines. And the reason is because the light of God is getting reflected off it all. God is going to beam down an extravagantly warm and wonderful light on his people and on the whole creation and that light is not only going to cause wonderful growth the way sunshine makes crops grow but it is going to get radiated back, too, in a reflection of the divine glory.
In the Year C Common Lectionary, this passage is paired with the Wedding at Cana story in John 2. It’s not difficult to see why. As I wrote in the sermon commentary for John 2, that story is also a story of hyper-extravagant abundance. The “glory” of Jesus that John says was revealed for the first time in Cana of Galilee stemmed not just from the neat trick of turning water into wine but from the fact that Jesus produced that day such a colossal amount of wine (and of the best wine most anyone had ever tasted at that). Granted, Jesus’ repairing the social faux pas at that little wedding was a micro-version of the kind of grander-scale abundance of which Isaiah 62 speaks, but both passages are clearly working the same side of the street, and it is a street called “Flourishing.”
God wants his creation—and his people in that creation—to flourish. And when the delight of God rests upon a person, that flourishing happens, too. God delights in his people and in his creation and all of that, in turn, becomes a further source for delight when God takes such obvious joy over watching his people enjoying themselves.
It is, in short, a portrait of shalom. And let’s none of us pretend to be so ascetic, so other-worldly as a result of our Christian faith as to make us immune to the magnetic pull of such a picture.
But let’s also be careful: after all, Isaiah 62 is one of those passages that can be too-easily seized on by the “health and wealth” promoters of what is being called today “The Prosperity Gospel.” Be in good with God, Joel Osteen and many others promise, and you can have your best life now, you can have it all, and it is the will of God that you do so. Be that shining crown of splendor (with real diamonds purchased at Zale’s), be a diadem of splendor (as the sun glints off the high-buff finish on your Mercedes), let the divine delight transform your dwelling place from a two-bedroom apartment to a 10,000 square-foot mansion with beveled paneling and marble floors. Isn’t that all a snapshot of Isaiah 62? Isn’t this what we should expect? I recently heard of pastor who drove a new Porsche into the sanctuary as a way to say to the people that surely God wants us to have the best so why not a Porsche for the pastor? I recently heard a story about several televangelists who own their own private jets and who insist it’s necessary for ministry.
Clearly there is a vision in Scripture for the flourishing of God’s people, and clearly that kind of a vision is what informs even most people’s views of what will be “The New Creation” of our God and of his Christ one day. But for now we cannot revel in that vision—or pursue it with abandon to feather our own nests—without paying very close attention to the gospel and even to the balance of the prophets in the Old Testament. Because short of God’s ushering in his new order, we still live in a selfish and fallen world. We are called by our Savior to sacrifice ourselves, to give ourselves up. We are called by the prophets to pay special attention to the marginalized and the poor and are assured that great woes are issued to those who build their own wealth on the backs of precisely those poor and marginalized people.
Yes, as John 2 shows and as Isaiah 62 predicts, where God and where his Christ go, there will be abundance, there will be healing, there will be a flourishing of life. But this cannot be sought selfishly or without regard to the wider witness of Scripture, much less than the larger example of the Savior who was crucified for our sakes. We all desire, deep down if not pretty close to the surface of our hearts, the kind of shining splendor and hyper abundance of good things that we see in John 2 and Isaiah 62. But for now we cannot hope for those things ourselves without being mindful of others in this world who even now live much, much farther away from such a shining reality than many of us do.
“Blessed are those who weep now, for they will be comforted,” Jesus once said. Reflecting on that, Lewis Smedes once said that for now and until the kingdom fully comes, only the heart that hurts has a right to also feel joy. Only the one who can weep over—and then do something about—those with less has a right to be glad for what God has given already. If we take a passage like Isaiah 62 that so drips with fatness and apply it to only our own little selves, then we take what is a truly lyric passage that dreams of a world reborn by grace and turn it into a nightmare after all.
In her memoir Take This Bread, Sara Miles is bowled over one day when her thoroughly secular life gets transformed into a life devoted to Jesus through the simple act of her eating the bread of communion in a San Francisco Episcopal church into which she just happened to wander one Sunday morning. Miles was uncertain what compelled her to go to the Table in the first place, and she surely was convinced that a simple piece of bread would not do anything for her, and yet no sooner did the bread enter her mouth and Jesus filled her mind and heart. It really was, as it turned out, just what the ministers claimed: the bread of life. Of life. And it fed her in a way nothing ever had. But for Miles it wasn’t just the experience of receiving an abundant new spiritual life into her own heart on account of eating the flesh of Jesus in communion. She knew she had to spread it around and so turned her whole life in the direction of feeding other people by establishing a series of food pantries in the San Francisco area. And although Miles is able to distinguish between the one Table of the Lord from all the other food pantry tables on which they place cannellini beans, cracked wheat bread loaves, and bunches of bananas, in the end she sees those tables as connected too. God feeds us. We feed each other. And somehow, in the dance of life between Creator and Creation, it just maybe all ends up being about the same thing: Life in all its abundance!
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