by Jason Micheli
Isaiah 40 (click to see Scripture text)
In his new book The Everlasting People, Matthew Milliner, a professor of art history at Wheaton College, argues it’s a facile understanding of history that blames Christianity for the suffering and subjugation of indigenous people in America. The actual history is more complicated than textbooks and westerns. In fact, Milliner notes, citing numerous indigenous scholars in the process, many— in some cases most— of the tribes displaced by American settlers and soldiers (Lenape, Mohicans, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Seneca, Shawnee, and the Cherokee) were Christians. Indigenous Christianity is as old as Protestant Christianity, having begun centuries before the founding of the United States as a result of Jesuit, Moravian, and Anglican missionary efforts. Because a great many displaced Indians were Christians, after the passage of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act in 1830 frequently heard along the miles and months of the Trail of Tears was the sound of hymn-singing. The painter George Winter who witnessed and depicted scenes from the Trail of Tears observed how many of the weeping exiles wore crosses on top of or woven into their traditional clothing and thus more nearly resembled the God in whom their captors allegedly professed belief. Not only did these indigenous Christians sing hymns and pray psalms of lament as they were violently expelled from their homes, some of them, Milliner writes in the The Everlasting People, such as the Wyandot headman, Half King, spoke.
Some of them spoke a word from the Lord.
Or rather, the word of the Lord spoke through them.
“The Lord our God is powerful and mighty,” one indigenous Christian preached at a division of armed troops forcing his family to trod the Trail of Tears, “He sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; he brings rulers to nothing and makes nations as emptiness. He stands ahead of you in judgment, ready to dash you and swallow you up.”
If you can imagine the chutzpah of this lone, indigenous preacher turning around on the Trail of Tears, digging his heels in eastward, and boldly— perhaps foolishly— flinging the Word of God into the teeth of empire and army as the alleged inevitability of manifest destiny sought to roll over him and his people— if you can grasp the chutzpah of this solitary preacher, then you’re in a position to hear this anonymous prophet to whom biblical scholars refer as “Deutero-Isaiah” or “Second Isaiah.”
As has long been recognized, the Book of Isaiah is not a single book but a collection of three different books compiled by three distinct prophets whose prophetic callings span centuries of the history of the People of Israel. After the Psalms, Second Isaiah, the central section comprising chapters forty to fifty-five, is the book of the Old Testament most often quoted by the New. Indeed so central to understanding were they to understanding the person and work of Jesus Christ that the ancient Church Fathers referred to these chapters of Isaiah as the Fifth Gospel. My friend and mentor Fleming Rutledge refers to Second Isaiah as the “operating system” of the New Testament and as “the matrix” through which the apostolic gospel should be interpreted.
Between the conclusion of First Isaiah and the beginning of Second Isaiah there is a long pause of one hundred and sixty years during which time Israel’s history moves from the precipice of God’s impending judgment to the brute fact of the judgment of God. Isaiah 39– the end of First Isaiah— concludes with the prophet staring into the abyss of Israel’s life and faith. For the People’s unfaithfulness— Jerusalem will be taken away, its people will be carried away to Babylon, and there “they will be made eunuchs in the palace of its king,” the prophet preaches.
And then, it happens.
The words of the prophet comes to pass.
Or rather, the Word of the Lord works what it says.
Josiah, the good king of Judah, is taken by death. The City of David is devastated. The Temple is razed to the ground. God’s People are scattered, expelled by an invading empire. It’s between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah, between chapters 39 and 40, that Israel sings laments such as Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”
“I will be your God and you will be my People,” the Lord had promised Moses near the banks of the Nile, but by rivers that belonged to a different pharaoh that promise appeared to be every bit broken. Over a century and a half pass between the end of First Isaiah and the beginning of Second Isaiah, which means God’s People do not suffer simply exile. God’s People suffer God’s silence. After the Word of the Lord comes to First Isaiah, God’s Word comes not at all, for almost two hundred years.
Until, through no earning or deserving on the part of God’s People, the Word of God comes again, to this anonymous, no account prophet who speaks words of comfort and incomparability. Realize how ridiculous the prophet Isaiah must appear to anyone who has not the eyes of faith. He’s an exile in a pagan empire. The “battering rams of Nebuchadnezzar” had destroyed his nation and reduced its expelled population to a subjugated remnant. Whoever is this prophet we call Second Isaiah, he belonged to a tiny, beleaguered community of hostages living in a decadent city dominated by statues of the goddess Tiamat and temples to the god Marduk. As Fleming Rutledge says, “The humiliated Israelites were a people of no consequence in the presence of the world-dominating presence of the Babylonian Empire.” You’d have to be a fool not to conclude that the God of Israel had lost his might— or, worse, forsaken his promises to his People— and here comes this solitary prophet from a ghetto of disgraced and defeated captives and he has the chutzpah to turn towards the armies and edifices of an empire, to dig in his heels, and to hurl in their faces the Word of the God of Israel.
Recently, I came across an advertisement on Twitter for a conference at Duke Divinity School aimed at pastors and church leaders. Headlining the convocation were the NPR host Krista Tippett and the NY Times journalist David Brooks. The theme given to the event promised to explore how we can become active participants in the dream of God. You need not click very long on Christian Twitter to find this sort of language about God’s dream. And such rhetoric abounds in mainline denominations like the United Methodist Church. Nevertheless, it’s hardly possible to exaggerate the degree to which such language is profoundly alien to the scriptures. Joseph, son of Jacob, may have had a dream. Joseph, husband of Mary, may have had a dream. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have had a dream. But the Holy One of Israel does not dream. The God of the Bible does. The God of the Bible acts. The God of the Bible speaks. In a letter to her friend, Alfred Corn, the author Flannery O’Connor wrote:
“One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into…therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so and that religion is our own sweet invention.”
I think her assessment is more on target today than it was sixty years ago when she wrote it. What Flannery O’ Connor diagnoses is exactly what produces a locution such as the dream of God. The Holy One of Israel does not invite us to participate in his dream. The Holy One of Israel elects and conscripts (very often unwilling) participants into his doing. In a culture that is increasingly unfamiliar with the traditional claims of Christianity— in some cases perhaps, even antagonistic towards them— it’s crucial for the future of the Christian Church, including this church, that we not lose hold of the witness of scripture, particularly the testimony of the prophet Isaiah. The God of the Bible is not an impartial, infinite vending machine, a hands-off cosmic butler, or a vague, generic deity. The God of the Bible does not sit by, silent and idle, passively waiting for us to discover him at the center of a labyrinth or seek him at the end of our spiritual endeavors or accept him in answer to an altar call. The God of the Bible is the powerful, partisan deliverer of the poor and the oppressed, at work in the world— ahead of us, apart from us, often in spite of us, killing and making alive with his Word, calling into existence things that do not exist (things such as the prophet Isaiah) and, as the Book of Hebrews puts it, “upholding the universe by his word of power.”
“To whom then will you liken God, [says the Lord]
or what likeness compare with him…? It is he who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”
One Sunday in my former parish, a worshipper came up to me after the middle service. She looked angry and utterly discombobulated. The United States was then only a few years into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and recently the newspapers had broken stories about CIA black sites and the practice of state-sponsored torture. This parishioner’s husband sat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and was a stalwart defender of the administration’s policy of enhanced interrogation.
“Reverend Jason,” she said in a flustered voice, “Can I just tell you?”
Here we go, I thought, what did I do this time.
“I was sitting in my pew, same as any Sunday, and you know what? Some rude, impertinent woman, whom we’ve never spoken to in our lives, came up to us after the service and said to my husband, ‘I was listening to the scripture and the sermon today, and the Lord spoke to me.’ She said the Lord spoke to her, can you believe the ego on her?! She said, ‘The Lord spoke to me and the Lord told me to tell you to confess and repent and change your ways.’ Can you believe the chutzpah of that woman? Can you even imagine how embarrassing that was— I mean of all the places for that to happen to us, at our church?!”
Bless your heart, I thought. But I nodded my headed and agreed, ““I’m sure it was incredibly embarrassing.”
“Well, what are you going to do about it?!” she insisted.
“Do about it? I’m not going to do anything about it.”
“What do you mean you’re not going to do anything about it? This is our church!”
“No,” I said, “This is God’s church, and, as much as we might prefer it otherwise, God’s made it pretty clear in scripture that we’ve got a God who doesn’t stay silent for long. In fact, he just about refuses to shut up.”
I imagine those churchgoing soldiers along the Trail of Tears would have recognized the look on her face as she stormed off into the lobby.
In his memoir, Count It All Joy, the lay theologian William Stringfellow writes about how he had been asked in the 1960’s to serve on a commission of the Episcopal Church charged with articulating the Church’s ministry in modern society. The committee included a few laity along with professional theologians, parish pastors, and denominational leaders. Stringfellow writes:
“Toward the end of the first meeting, some of those present proposed that it might be an edifying discipline for the group, in its future sessions, to undertake some concentrated study of the Bible. It was suggested that constant recourse to the Bible is as characteristic and significant a practice in the Christian life as the regular celebration of the Eucharist, which was a daily observance of this commission. Perhaps, it was suggested, Bible study would enlighten the deliberations of the commission…
The proposal was rejected on the grounds, as one bishop put it, that “most of us have been to seminary already and know what the Bible says; the problem now is to apply the Bible to today’s world.” The bishop’s view was seconded enthusiasm by the dean of a seminary as well as by the clergy from national headquarters who had, they explained, a program to design and administer.
The point in mentioning the incident is that the notion implied in their decision not to waste time studying the Bible is that scripture is a static body of knowledge which, once learned, is thereafter used ceremonially, sentimentally, nostalgically.”
William Stringfellow’s point (and it’s a point as urgent in the United Methodist Church of today as it was in the Episcopal Church of yesterday) is that the scriptures are not the historical archive of what the once loquacious God said. In the past. The scriptures are the means through which the Living Lord elects to speak today. To us! Faith comes by hearing, the scriptures insist. Faith comes not by doing or acting or following or imitating or even praying. Faith comes by hearing because God speaks through his word. A few years ago, when I was on medical leave for a year, I tried to worship at other churches near our home, and I can’t begin to describe how difficult it was to find a church where either the preacher or the people seemed to expect God to speak. Eventually, I gave up because…why would I not? If there is no word from the Lord for us today, why would any of us bother being here?
As Karl Barth said, the strange new world of the Bible tells of the entrance of the word of God into our world of time and space. God created all that is by speaking it into existence. At the Burning Bush, God identifies himself to Moses as the God who spoke Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God’s resurrection power overcomes Death itself through speech, “Lazarus, come out!” And out Lazarus walks. The God of the Bible does not dream. The God of the Bible speaks and his word is his doing in the world. According to the Bible, the word of God is effective. It brings into being. It creates what it commands. It accomplishes what it announces. When a preacher announces “In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven” they are. The word works what it says. As the Lord says near the end of Second Isaiah, “My word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Notice how the preacher in the Book of Hebrews puts it, “See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking.”
It’s not simply that our message hinges on the veracity of those three little words at the beginning of Genesis, “And God said…” If God doesn’t say, if God is not a speaking God, we are, as Paul writes, of all the people in the world the most to be pitied. We are to be pitied because the apostolic message is not merely that Jesus is alive. The message of the apostles is that the Lord-who-is-not-dead “is upholding the universe by the power of his word.” That includes you. That’s why this place is important. That’s why the woods or the mountains or the seaside can’t be your church. He’s upholding you by the power of his word.
The reason we know next to nothing about the prophet of Second Isaiah is that as soon as chapter forty opens the prophet recedes into the background. The main character is not the prophet but the word of the Lord. Even here in our text today, the word of God is the subject of all the verbs of creation. The word sits and stretches and spreads and brings and makes. The word of God is the protagonist in Isaiah not Isaiah. All God gives us in Second Isaiah is the speaking of God; as though, if all we have is the word of God we already have everything we need.
The first time I ever went to church was on a cold and crowded Christmas Eve. I was a teenager. And, I didn’t want to go. It got even worse, weirder, when we got to church. I sat in the balcony with a large, middle-aged man to my left. Even before the candlelight spread across the darkened sanctuary I could see the tears streaming down his ruddy cheeks. Our chairs were hooked together like the stovetop on a gas range so his weeping made my seat shake throughout the service.
“What do you think so far?” my mom asked me after the opening prayer.
I looked at my watch and pointed my elbow over at the weeping man.
“I think if you don’t get here at least twenty minutes early, you get stuck sitting next to crazy,” I whispered and she chuckled.
During the Passing the Peace, Steve held out his hand to me and apologized.
“I’m sorry for the waterworks.”
“Um, it’s okay.”
“It happens to me every Christmas Eve,” he said, “It hits me every year that this is what’s missing— what I can’t get— at my AA meetings.”
“Uh, right. Me too,” sixteen year old me said, wondering what in the world could produce a weirdo like this man baby who was not at all afraid to overshare about his addiction to a complete stranger.
Read by a woman with the gaudy, bedazzled holiday sweater, the scripture passage that night was from the Gospel of John— “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
The man on the wagon with the tears on his cheeks started to shake the seats once again with his weeping. When the woman in the sweater announced, “This is the Word of God for the People of God,” he elbowed me and whispered into my ear (an ear that was burning hot with embarrassment), “That’s what gets me every Christmas. We call God— the Word. Every year it reminds me that I need a hell of a lot more than a higher power. I can’t make it a day at a time if I don’t have a God who speaks. A higher power can’t mute the voice in my head that’s always condemning me. Only a speaking God can.”
I know not what word the Lord might have for you this day from the words of Second Isaiah, but I know that, in spite of my words, he’s brought you one.
This is the word of God for you, the People of God.
Thanks be to God.
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
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.
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.’
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘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.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
Who has directed the spirit of the Lord,
or as his counsellor has instructed him?
Whom did he consult for his enlightenment,
and who taught him the path of justice?
Who taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as dust on the scales;
see, he takes up the isles like fine dust.
Lebanon would not provide fuel enough,
nor are its animals enough for a burnt-offering.
All the nations are as nothing before him;
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.
To whom then will you liken God,
or what likeness compare with him?
An idol? —A workman casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold,
and casts for it silver chains.
As a gift one chooses mulberry wood
—wood that will not rot—
then seeks out a skilled artisan
to set up an image that will not topple.
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?
It is he 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.
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.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God’?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but 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.
*After submission, a confirmation email will be sent to the email address you provided. Please click the link to complete your subscription. You can opt out of receiving emails from us at any time.