Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 20, 2019
Isaiah 62:1-5 Commentary
At first I was puzzled by the Lectionary’s choice of this Old Testament reading for this second Sunday of Epiphany, but then I saw the light, literally. In verse 1 Jerusalem is told that “her righteousness [will] shine out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch,” and, adds verse 2, “the nations will see….” Can’t get much more Epiphany-ish than that. And when I saw that this passage ends with all this marriage imagery, I made the connection with the Gospel lesson for today which tells the story of the revelation of Jesus’ glory at the wedding feast in Cana. What we have here is a wonderful encouragement for the bride of Christ in a time when we desperately need some good news.
But I’m getting ahead of myself and ignoring the original setting of this text. Israel had just gone through, if not a messy divorce, then at least a nasty separation. After committing adultery with multiple lovers (foreign gods) for generations, Israel had finally exhausted Yahweh’s famous long-suffering. In deep sorrow and long simmering anger, God had finally sent his beloved bride away into Exile, in hopes that she would realize the error of her ways and return to her Beloved. There Israel sat in Babylon, a Deserted wife, a Desolate woman (verse 4).
In these last chapters of Isaiah (40-66, and especially 60-62), God says to his exiled wife that there is hope for her future. Yahweh promises that Israel’s present situation is not the end of their story, that their desolate condition is not God’s final goal for them. Over and over again, God speaks of a reversal of their fortune, the renewal of their lives, the restoration of their broken relationship with God. In our text for today, the language of marriage is intentionally and eloquently used.
There are two problems with this text that will challenge any preacher. All of this talk about a deserted wife who is desolate without her husband will not play well in today’s church. Concern about women’s rights and the abuse of women crystalized in the #MeToo movement will cause instant resistance to a message that focuses on Israel’s welfare being dependent on the actions of her husband, even if that husband is our almighty and all gracious God. So, if you preach on this text, you’ll need to be sensitive to that dynamic.
The second problem is a textual one. To whom is this promise of renewed marriage made? It is clearly a promise of glory for a new Jerusalem which will shine like the rising sun, like a burning torch, like a sparkling crown, like a flashing royal diadem. And that glory will be a light to the nations. But which Jerusalem is the recipient of this glorious promise?
To the Exiles languishing in Babylon or to the recently returned Exiles struggling in a still devastated homeland, this was a promise that their beloved capital city would be restored by God. For subsequent generations of expectant Jews and for thousands of Christian Zionists, this is still a promise that the physical city of Jerusalem will be restored one day. That city is still the focus of God’s redemptive plan and this is a promise that continues to light the hopes of orthodox Jews and dispensationalist Christians.
If that is the ultimate reference of this passage, then most Christian pastors will have little to say about this text. But there is another possible reading of the text, a reading that interprets “Jerusalem” in the light of the sea change that occurred with the death and resurrection of Jesus. After those crucial events, Jesus sent his Jewish disciples into all the world to make disciples of all nations. And with that, the focus of God’s salvific attention shifted from the physical city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel to the new Jerusalem which is populated by nations from the whole world.
It is not surprising that the Bible ends with a vision of that new Jerusalem, not located in the Middle East, but coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (Revelation 21:2).” That bride is then identified, not as a city on earth, but as the bride of Christ, the wife of the Lamb (Revelation 21:9). This picks up on passages like Ephesians 5 where the relationship between Christ and the church is compared to that of a husband and a wife.
If this interpretation is right, then Isaiah 62 is a magnificent promise for the church of Jesus Christ, the new Jerusalem composed of people from every nation, race, tribe and language. Like ancient post-exilic Israel, the church is struggling, feeling desolate, sometimes even deserted by her God. In North America, the church is losing members and influence. The media is full of lurid accounts of our sins and failures. In many of the churches where I guest preach, there seems to be a general malaise, a feeling that our best days are behind us and a fear that we are going to dwindle to nothing if we don’t do something dramatic or drastic. So we tinker with organization, change our worship, adopt new action plans, plant new churches or partner with others—all in an effort to be a light to the nations. But our flame is flickering.
That makes this passage a wonderful piece of Good News. It does not tell us to do anything; we search in vain for an imperative. It is an announcement of God’s plans for us; we must simply believe and rejoice. Other Sundays can be devoted to things we must do to reverse our fortunes. For today, just rejoice in what God says he will do for his bride. Let’s listen more carefully.
Verse 1 is either God speaking to his bride, reminding her of God’s promises. Or it is the prophet speaking to the God about the bride, interceding endlessly until God does what God has promised to do. Scholars are evenly divided on that question, but there is no question about what God promises to do for his currently desolate people.
God will make them shine again, as they did when he first chose them and as God intended for them throughout their history. Earlier, God has put it this way. “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).” Israel had failed at that, so God sent them away into the darkness of the nations. Now here God says, I will vindicate you (the deeper meaning of the word “righteousness” in verse 1) by saving you. The nations said that your God couldn’t save you, that your God really amounted to nothing, that you were nothing but a pipsqueak nation that bragged too much and got smacked down for it. But I, your God, will vindicate you (and myself) and save you.
Then, you will shine like the first rays of dawn, like a blazing torch, and the nations will see your vindication and all the kings your glory. Well, that sounds nice, but that didn’t happen to Israel, and it hasn’t happened to the church. Actually, it did happen to the church. For hundreds of years, the nations streamed to the church when the saw the glory of Christ in the church. God’s plan worked and the new Jerusalem now assembled in heaven is composed of people from every nation.
But now, as I said before, the church is struggling in many places and in many ways. We need to hear that the bedraggled, broken, desolate bride of Christ has a glorious future. That’s what the rest of our text promises. Like all brides in traditional marriages, the bride of Christ will get a new name. No longer will they call you “deserted” or “desolate.” You will be called “my delight is in her” and your land “married.” The formerly outcast bride will shine like the Queen of Yahweh. “You will be a crown of splendor in Yahweh’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” And Yahweh will rejoice over us.
We may feel far away from God right now, but God promises to bring us back, to renew our wedding vows, to make us as glorious as he has always intended. We don’t know when that will happen, or how. What we do know is that we must keep preaching this Epiphany Gospel. If there is any imperative implied in this text, it is in that first verse. Keep preaching. “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain silent….” If we don’t say it over and over, people will not believe it. And they will not rejoice. God rejoices over us, the way a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. Let us join him on the Second Sunday of Epiphany.
On my desk right now is an indescribably elaborate invitation to a wedding. “Mr. and Mrs. Jones and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (obviously not real names) invite you to the wedding of their children at the wedding chapel on June 15.” No expense was spared in these parents’ efforts to make this wedding a glorious event. In the Gospel of Jesus Christ, foreshadowed in our text, God announces to his estranged wife that he will spare no expense in his effort to renew their relationship. It is not so much an elaborate invitation to a wedding. It is an eloquent announcement of God’s firm intention to renew our covenantal vows and start over again, and again, until the glory finally shines out into the world.
The tradition of understanding of Jerusalem in heavenly, rather than earthly, terms goes far back in the history of the church. Witness the old hymn written by Bernard of Cluny in the 12th Century.
Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest,
Beneath thy contemplation sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, O I know not what joys await us there,
What radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare.
O sweet and blessed country, the home of God’s elect!
O sweet and blessed country that eager hearts expect!
Jesus, in mercy bring us to that dear land of rest,
Who art, with God the Father and Spirit, ever blest.
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