Exile can dim the memory.  It is difficult to remember our identity when exile happens.  There is pressure to assimilate into the foreign culture, both from persecution as well as simple peer pressure to fit in.  Further, exile seems to place us on the losing end of things.  When exile happens, those other gods and false idols start to seem appealing.[1]  The doubts begin to creep in.  “Maybe they are stronger than our God?  Maybe we were wrong?  If God loved us more, wouldn’t our God have prevented this from happening?”  It is hard for the Israelites, and us, to remember who we are in when we are in exile.

The Israelites suffered this failure of memory regularly during their exile.  And who can blame them?  Plucked up their home, disconnected from their land, their people, and many of the practices that made them who they were, it is no wonder that they struggled to remember.  Think of the words of the Psalmist: “How can we sing the songs of the LORD in a strange land? (Psalm 137.4).”  In our Isaiah passage today, we hear the Israelites say, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God.”  It is hard to remember who we are in exile.

“Have you not known?” Isaiah interjects.  “Have you not heard?” Isaiah cries.  “Has it not been told you from the beginning?” Isaiah shouts.  “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”  Isaiah exclaims.   Through Isaiah, God challenges them to remember.  Their God, isn’t just any god.  Their God isn’t just the kind of god who can be judged and evaluated based simply on whether things happen to be going well for them right now.  Their God is the God

who, sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

All of the rulers of the earth can be made as nothing because of the greatness of their God.  God is above these things.  God is in control.  Isaiah reminds the Israelites of the temporary nature of these rulers over and against God’s eternity:

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Isaiah brings back to their memory who their God is:

To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.

Their memory has failed.  Their resolve has begun to buckle.  But Isaiah will not let them forget.  These false gods, these new rulers who seem to have won the victory are incomparable to the God of Israel.  Who created even those who seem to be winning?  The God of their ancestors.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Remember who you are Isaiah says.  And the way to remember that is to remember who God is.

After he repeats the complaint of the Israelites, Isaiah keeps pushing.  God is the Creator, and there is no end to God.  They might lose faith, they might feel powerless, even the young may fall exhausted, but God is everlasting.  God’s understanding is unsearchable.  When we lose sight of this, when our memory fails, we lose resolve.  But the strength of the Israelites, and our own strength is renewed by waiting for the Lord.  God outlasts exile.  But God doesn’t outlast exile and suffering from some distant place.  God outlasts all because God is everlasting, but God extends the invitation to us to join him in God’s everlasting-ness (yes that’s a new word I invented).  When we are caught up in the stream of God’s everlasting-ness, we are mounted up with eagles’ wings.  We can run and not be weary.  We can walk and not faint.  The Israelites have lost their vision.  The Israelites have experienced amnesia about their God.  Because of this, they also begin to forget who they are.

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.  Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.  He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

 “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? … He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless…Have you not known?  Have you not heard? … Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is caught up into God’s everlasting-ness.  The same God about whom Isaiah cried out to the Israelites.  The God who is over all things.  The God who gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.  The God who renews strength has renewed her strength.  God’s Word has assumed flesh and begun to walk among God’s people.  In doing this, Jesus Christ initiated the most decisive way for us to be caught up into God’s everlasting-ness.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?…The fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  Her experience of Christ, the renewal of strength she experiences immediately moves her to service.

“That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door.”  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”  “And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”  Even the demons know who Jesus is because the God who “sits above the circle of the earth,” is the God who is even Lord over them. We hear the words of Isaiah echo: “Lift up your eyes on high and see:  who created these?”   Jesus is bringing to fruition the cries of Isaiah.  He does this, as we saw last week, first by assuming flesh and initiating our healing.  Then he begins to move from place to place raising up signs of this healing by performing healings on those who are afflicted, sick, and possessed.  And in the midst of this, the disciples and we, are being trained to do the same to bring healing to others.

The kind of healing we talked about last week finds us caught up in God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Through Jesus Christ we are invited into God’s life.  God’s life is everlasting.  Our healing finds us caught up in God’s everlasting-ness.  It is not a far off everlasting-ness, left to a distant heaven.  It is an everlasting-ness that begins now, as we are shaped, formed, nourished, and sent out into the world to reveal glimpses of God’s everlasting-ness to the world.  Eternal life begins now, and it is not something to be hoarded our boasted about.  It is something to be offered.  The very shape of eternal life, the everlasting-ness that God offers us, is that it grows when it is offered and shared.

When Jesus goes to the desert place to recover and pray, the disciples “hunt” him down.  They tell him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Everyone is searching for you.   Think about the depth of those words.  Everyone is searching for you.  I don’t want to read too much into these words, but the Wesleyan in me wants to her Prevenient Grace here.  I want to hear that God’s grace that comes before we have any idea is always wooing us into relationship or back into relationship with God.  I want to hear that when people begin to encounter the everlasting-ness of God in Jesus Christ, they want to come closer.  They want to respond to the grace.

As people encounter Jesus, they begin to crowd around him.  Though Jesus has moved away by himself to pray, when he hears “everyone is searching for you” he says, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’”  He doesn’t stay to revel in his new celebrity, he is spurred on to proclaim his message in a new place, to allow more people to encounter face-to-face God’s everlasting-ness, God’s life, and God’s love into which we are all invited.

Jesus moves about Galilee.  Emmanuel, God with us, goes about, and as he does those who encounter him encounter God’s everlasting-ness.  He moves about, giving power to the weakened and strength to the powerless.  He lives out what Isaiah was trying to so hard to bring to the memory of the Israelites, what they seemed to have forgotten in exile.  Here’s the thing.  In many ways, we could argue that we are experiencing our own exile.  If there was ever such a thing as America being a Christian nation, it’s not true any more.  And there are a couple of ways we can respond to this.  We can lament for days gone by.  We can try to grab hold of power politically.  Or we can recognize that exile may not be the worst thing.  While it can be scary, it is not the worst thing in the world for our faith to cost us something.

When there is little cost to our discipleship, there is little real commitment required.  The times when martyrdom was a reality were more convincing to the world of who Christ was than times when the governments have implicitly or explicitly claimed the Church as its own.  When the lines are blurred, whatever the state does may appear to be the same as the Church, which is a dangerous reality.  The power of the state will almost always coerce the Church.  The Church has always flourished in the times when it takes actual commitment to follow Christ.  It is that commitment, that often goes against the grain, which demonstrates to the world that we are shaped differently than the world around us.

Yet, as we saw from the Isaiah passage, exile can dim the memory.  How are we to remember?  We might find a new prophet among us saying the words regularly, “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Have you forgotten who Jesus is and the things he did?  Have you forgotten that it is who graciously invites you into God’s everlasting-ness?  Have you forgotten hat you are trained to do this same, to proclaim the message with your life?”  How are we to remember?  This week, during our Holy Communion study the issue of memory arose in our conversation.  One of the most important facets of Holy Communion is memory.  Yet, often we short-change what it means to remember in the Lord’s Supper.

When we think of memory, we tend to think only of looking back to a different time.  We can turn Holy Communion into a memorial service for something that happened 2,000 ago.  We may look upon it with gratitude.  We may bring it into our mind.  But it mainly affects us by Christ’s example, by looking back on this particular act.  When we only look back on it as an action in the past, we don’t remember that this table also involves God’s action NOW in the church community!

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

The word that we translate remember is the Greek word anamnesis.  To remember in the way this word suggests means more than just looking back.  The conception of remembering inherent in this Greek word is that the past event is brought into the present.  To remember at this table means not just that we look back.  Rather, it means that the Lord’s Supper is made present among us.  Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is present at the table when we share the bread and the cup together at the table.  God’s grace that forgives our sins is in this sacrament because Christ who forgives our sins is present.  God’s grace that makes us one in the one body of Christ is present in this sacrament because his body and blood are present through the power of the Holy Spirit.

What all this means is that when we come to this table, we not only remember what happened in the past, but we, ourselves, are re-membered.  As a friend of mine, Andrew Thompson pointed out in a United Methodist Reporter article, to re-member something is “to put something back together that has been taken apart.  We “literally…‘re-member’ that thing, so that the various “members” that made up the “whole” are put back into a unity.”[2]  This is Holy Communion.

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

Coming together at the Lord’s table is the ultimate antidote for our amnesia.  When we come together to receive Holy Communion we are reminded of who we are because we are literally “re-membered” by Jesus.  Jesus puts us back together.  When we begin to forget who we are, we meet Christ, God’s everlasting-ness, face to face at the table.  We experience God’s everlasting-ness with taste and touch.  This reminder is more than just a pointing to an act 2,000 years ago.  It is an invitation into God’s everlasting-ness.  It is an invitation into God’s life.  It is an invitation to have our identity re-shaped as we share Christ’s body and blood.

It is the ultimate encounter with the one who brings healing to us by sharing our flesh because through the power of the Holy Spirit we receive the flesh that heals us.  When we encounter this reality, like Simon’s mother we begin to serve.  When we encounter this reality, like the disciples we begin to move with Jesus, proclaiming his message.  We remember because Christ re-members us to serve and proclaim his message in the world in which, whether they know it or not, “Everyone is searching for him.”


[1] Richard A. Puckett, “Exegetical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 315.

[2] Andrew Thompson, “Rethinking the Church Involves Remembering,” http://www.umportal.org/article.asp?id=7183, cited Oct. 1, 2010.

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God has assembled the divine council with words to speak to God’s people.[1]  “Comfort, comfort my people” God says.  We don’t normally think about God having a divine council, but in Isaiah’s time their conception of God was often formed by their images of a king, and kings hold court.  This happens in various places throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  In fact, it happens much earlier in Isaiah.  Back in Isaiah 6, we remember Isaiah’s call story.  In Isaiah we encounter a vision of what this environment looked like to Isaiah:

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivotson the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and it is Isaiah who responds to the question.  Isaiah thus received his first commission from God:

Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
1Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’

Isaiah is to speak judgment on Israel for their idolatry, for not caring for the orphan and the widow, for the many ways they have turned away from God.  Isaiah asks, “How long, O Lord?”  The Lord responds:

Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.

God is speaking here of the exile that Israel will soon experience.  The prophets understood even the Assyrians as actors in God’s interaction with them, in this case as instruments of judgment.

In Isaiah 40, Isaiah seems to be receiving another glimpse of the meeting of the council.  Yet, here God says to those assembled, “Comfort, comfort my people.”  It is clear that God is not just speaking to Isaiah because the imperative for “comfort” here is plural in Hebrew.  Something is happening here.  Something has changed.  Suddenly, the call is to:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Isaiah, it appears is receiving a “reapplication” of his call. His first commission is finished because Babylon did indeed destroy Jerusalem in 587.[2]  Isaiah is to speak a new word.  A word of consolation.  A word of hope.  It’s over.  Something new is happening.

Then, we hear a voice, presumably one of the members of God’s divine council.  This voice delivers Isaiah’s charge:

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

Something new is happening.  The people have been in exile.  They have been far from home.  Yet, now a highway is opening up.  The very earth is being reshaped, valleys lifted up, hills made low, ground leveling out, and rough places smoothed out in order to prepare the way of the Lord, which will lead them back to their land![3]  What a word!

Another voice speaks, and tells Isaiah to “cry out!”  Isaiah knows the commission, now he needs to know what to say, so he asks, “What shall I cry?”  Well, perhaps that is what he asks…When I was looking into this scripture for this week, I ran into a fascinating suggestion.  What if the translation in most of the versions we use end the quotation marks too early?[4]  There are no quotation marks in Hebrew, so the ending of the sentence is really at the discretion of the translators.  If you have a bible in front of you, I encourage you to keep them open and look with me at verse 6.  What if, instead of Isaiah just asking what to say, he is actually objecting to this new commission?  This would not be unusual.  After all, he does this in his original commission, noting his guilt as one who has unclean lips and is a from a people of unclean lips.  What if Isaiah is saying,

What shall I cry?
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.

Isaiah has been speaking judgment for a long time.  He has seen that judgment carried out by the Assyrians.  He has seen exile, brokenness and hopelessness.  It isn’t a stretch to think that perhaps the idea of speaking about the dawning of a new day of salvation might feel far-fetched to Isaiah.  He has seen that that people truly are like grass that withers and flowers that fades.  The breath of the Lord has blown on the people in an unfavorable way.  Essentially, Isaiah asks, “Seriously?  You want me to say this now after all the devastation I have seen?”

This is, I think, how we feel when we truly lament.  When we take a real look at the world around us, at the brokenness, the injustice, and the manifold ways that we have turned our back on God and one another, it washes over us and we feel so powerless.  Even though lament is the beginning of hope, we feel hopeless when we are honest about the world in which we live.  I think extending the quotation marks for Isaiah makes more sense not just because it works better contextually, but also because it honors what seems to more likely be Isaiah’s and our own experience.  To speak tenderly, to announce something new, into such brokenness seems to feel just a bit naïve.  The grass withers, the flower fades.  Violence continues.  Hunger continues.  Oppression continues.  Death continues.  The grass withers, the flower fades. (pause)

Isaiah, receives an answer to his question.  “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”  In the midst of temporariness, in the midst of ephemerality, in the midst of upheaval and change, it is God’s word that is constant.  Isaiah is likely being reminded that even in the midst of the judgment he spoke, he also always spoke of a remnant and a coming day of salvation.[5]  The word he spoke still stand, and now is the time for the salvation he pointed towards to come to a reality.  Isaiah may not even believe it, but the time has come to speak a new word!  In reality, though we say we do, we may not believe it either.

I will confess that as much as I hem and haw about the need for us to proclaim Good News in the midst of a world of bad news, sometimes it is a difficult on which to follow through.  There is so much bad news, and there is so much to complain about, and I am really good at complaining.  It is important for me to be honest in saying that when I say that, I am preaching to myself as much as anyone else.  Yet, as Peter Bohler told John Wesley when Wesley was concerned that he did not truly have faith, “Preach faith till you have it.  And then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”[6]

This is why we need Advent.  We need Advent because we need to keep reminding ourselves not only about how deep our lament must be, but also because we need to remind ourselves how incredible the good news is that we have been given to share.  We pick up the discipline of waiting during Advent because it means taking the time to focus ourselves on the hope we are anticipating.  People want to use Christmas for a lot of things, and we are likely to get co-opted by those alternative agendas unless we regain that focus.  We are easily pulled back into the bad news of the world unless we regain our focus.

Isaiah has a hard time speaking this new word, and I think we have a hard time speaking this good news in the midst of a world so full of bad news.  In our deepest darkest places we may have some doubts about whether it’s real.  That’s okay.  Advent is a time to be honest about that, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit as we anticipate the coming of Jesus.  It is true that we are like grass that withers.  It is true that we are like flowers that fade.  Yet, the word of our God stands forever.  We know this because the Word of our God took on flesh and became like us.  That is what we are anticipating in Advent.  The new day of salvation that dawned on that Holy night.

And Mark, when he began his Gospel, when he thought about John in the wilderness, when he reflected one who Jesus was, he looked back on that Isaiah passage about this voice in the wilderness, and he said, “That’s it!  Isaiah was talking about the exile, but the new day of salvation is really decisively present in Jesus Christ!”  I think that is why Mark begins his Gospel with the verbless sentence, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[7]  God’s Word stands forever.  God’s Word that we hear proclaimed.  God’s Word that we ingest at the table.  God’s Word that we are baptized into because we are baptized into the body of the Word of God who assumed flesh.

To be honest about that and to say that out loud is scary because it seems naïve, something that is too good to be true, like some kind of fairy tales to many of the ears listening.  It is scary.  Notice in the text that as this glory is being revealed to all people, as they are asked to go the top of a mountain and to proclaim this good news, there is the injunction, “Do not fear.”  Why is good news so scary?  I think it feels scary to say good things into the midst of an environment that feels so bad.[8]  It seems like naiveté.

I think it could have been scary for John to say those things and for Mark to say them as well.  The world Jesus came into was a mess.  The Jews were occupied by Rome.  In fact, they had just lost a war of revolt against the Romans.  Everything seemed hopeless, yet that Gospel begins with “The Good News.”  John the Baptist looked like a fool to many who wanted to be “real” about the way the world worked.

Yet, God tells Isaiah to say, “Do not fear.”  And then we return to that intimate language about God as the shepherd who will feed his flock, gather the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.  It is true that as we lament, as we are honest about the world.  It feels hopeless, but we are assured that the word of our God stands forever.


[1] My interpretation of this passage is heavily dependent on Brevard Childs, The Old Testament Library Commentary on Isaiah, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 293-303.

[2] Childs, Isaiah, p. 295.

[3] Ibid., p. 299.

[4] Ibid., p. 300.

[5] Child’s example is Isaiah 28:5-6, On that day the Lord of hosts will be a garland of glory,/and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people;/and a spirit of justice to the one who sits in judgement,/and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.” Ibid.

[6] John Wesley, Journal and Diaries, ed. By Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, vol. 18 in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1988-), p. 226.

[7] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Go Ahead, Judge a Book by its Title,” The Hardest Question, http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/advent2gospel-2/, cited Dec. 4, 2011.

[8] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 31.