God for an Exile

December 15, 2019

Cate Thorn

Advent 3     Isaiah 35:1-10     Matthew 11:2-11

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Today is the third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday, so named for the Latin words of the Mass sung: Gaudete, Rejoice. Each Sunday in Advent we’ve decided to pay attention to the voice of the prophet Isaiah. Thus far this voice has been expressed in poetic form. Each week unveiled a vision of transformation and hope: thronging multitudes of people, creation itself renewed to flourish. The last two weeks we’ve celebrated coming transformations of weapons, economies, social orders and animals. Today we celebrate the coming transformations of land, of human brokenness, of locations, emotions and destinies. We take readings from their place in Isaiah and utilise them for our intention and purpose in our season of Advent. Words from Isaiah today are spoken in Matthew’s gospel, rejoicing words of hope, of restoration and flourishing fulfilment.

 

A closer consideration of Isaiah requires we pay attention to the place of today’s reading within the corpus and context of Isaiah. As is the habit of our lectionary we separate out pieces of scripture to serve our purpose. So it’s helpful today to consider that Isaiah 35 heard from today is of a piece with Isaiah 34. They are as two sides of a coin. Unlike today’s words of hope and promise, the words and imagery of Isaiah 34 portray a God of vengeance, dealing punishment and ultimate destruction on the unfaithful people of Edom who collaborated with Babylon in the devastation of Judah that led to the exile. In stark contrast Isaiah 35 portrays a God of restoration and deliverance, rewarding those who are faithful. The holy highway imagery of Isaiah 35 is almost the direct inverse of the road to destruction of Isaiah 34.

 

The riot of imagery running through today’s verses of Isaiah has a basic concern for restoration of wholeness. The wilderness and the dry land, through which the exiles will return also participates in this restoration. It is as if this holy way to Zion is a reversal of the exodus journey, rather than a journey of wilderness and suffering, it’s one of flourishing and abundance.

 

In it we hear of the reversal of blindness, deafness, lameness and muteness. Before we presume from this that being blind, deaf, lame or mute makes someone less than whole. The Oxford Bible Commentary reminds us that in the Isaiah context of Babylonian exile “the blind and the deaf, [lame and mute] are the community themselves ... that this section plays an important part in proclaiming restoration of that community to full humanity.” [1]

 

The intent and imagery of the poem is to bring hope to those in exile, connecting old hopes with the need for new ones. And yet, as I explored I was interested to read, “Isaiah 35 understands that though certain of the old promises came true, their fulfilments were somehow unfinished. In specific, the promise of the wilderness highway for exiles had already come and gone. Captives from Babylon had returned to Zion long ago, but disappointments met them. Judah was a prolonged devastation; new oppressions overtook it. Now, in the far extended bleakness, this poet chooses … to retrieve the vision of a highway in the desert. The promise will be fulfilled once more, but its meaning will be deeper and broader and more finally true.” [2]

 

We too retrieve from Isaiah this beautiful poetic vision. We can understand the imagery and vision within its context and time. But we still use this text today. We use it to point to and inform our Advent narrative. Not just of the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us but of Christ coming again, with vision, imagery, hope of divine restoration. How can such vision speak into and make sense in our time? How we hear this text depends on who we are, where we’re located, what we want and/or need the text to speak to us. We choose how we listen and we choose what we hear.

 

A year or three ago I had the good fortune to holiday on Martha’s Vineyard. One evening, my sister and I attended an annual event where a number of African American choirs, along with remarkable soloists converged on the island for a concert. This makes it sound more posh than it was, it was more like a jam session, impromptu combinations of musicians and instruments and voices. It took place in a plain, painted timber circular church, no choir robes – too hot for that!! Hymns, spirituals and quite incredible impromptu solos were threaded through with narrative. Some personal testimony, some stories behind the spirituals or hymns written or chosen, passed to them through parents and grandparents for generations. There were stories of times gone by and yet for many of them a continuing narrative of oppression, prejudice and injustice.

 

I listened to scriptures of hope, just like those of Isaiah today, of exiles seeking freedom from oppression, the hope of dwelling in a land not as outcasts demeaned and diminished, denied fullness of flourishing. I listened with dawning awareness. I was hearing words I knew yet I was hearing the meaning of them in a way contrary to the way I was accustomed. Usually I hear such promises of restoration, transformation as words of hope of how things will be different. When moments of restoration, transformation break through this makes known God with us. When we’re part of this we participate in incarnating God presence.

 

But as I listened to the voices in song and prayer and testimony what I came to hear was that the hope was not so much in the restoration of things occasionally or sometime later. The hope was present now. In all the overwhelming challenges of life God, Jesus, was always and abidingly with them. The promise is that they were never alone or abandoned but accompanied, in company of a God who loved them fiercely and dearly. Hope was a now thing and it brought tears of joy.

 

This wasn’t a triumphalist narrative. It wasn’t a narrative that assumed God was on their side and would be known when everything was restored according to their vision or program of things. It was a narrative that spoke of knowing, experiencing that in whatever life would bring God was with them. It made all the difference, it transformed the world.

 

It made me wonder if such way of hearing, knowing, receiving and living in a God-present world was the experience of those in exile. As with those who knew exile in Babylon, the poetry of Isaiah reminded and restored to them the hope and promise that God present was with them within all of life, despite the appearance of things.

 

That my ear’s attuned so differently made me pause. Have I learned to hear differently because I have power and privilege? Could it be that I hear from the vantage point of one who oppresses? That unknowingly I am an oppressor in the systems that perpetuate oppression? I’d like to soften that. But maybe the hardness of it’s necessary for me to dwell with.

 

I’d like for the world to be restored, for creation to flourish. But how much of my creation-destroying comfort am I willing to forfeit? I love the idea of the hungry being fed, the oppressed being set free, for there to be a fair and just distribution of resources so we each have sufficient for our need. I love the idea because I desire to follow this Jesus way, trust myself to divine transforming, to the embrace of God who beloves me. But am I willing for the freedom granted me by my inherited position of power, my more than needed share of resources to be encroached upon to ensure the freedom and release of others. Am I willing to risk endangering my version of the way the world is, to have it upended by the ‘real’ of someone else’s way of seeing?

 

In Advent we hear these words from Isaiah, they echo in Matthew. In Advent when we tell of God born among us. When we say we know the promised Immanuel has come. So why are we singing Come, O come Immanuel? Is it because, just as with the post-exilic community of Isaiah “Immanuel’s visitation among us is an unsatisfied fulfilment. Real captives and refugees suffer in the present; the earth is a burning desert; bodies are broken; cities are joyless; and human hearts everywhere are sighing.”

 

Our world isn’t like this by chance but by choice. The choice we make to participate in systems of privilege that require and perpetuate contexts of exile, not just of our human neighbours but of our very creation. When people with the privilege of choosing recognise the way things are, recognise this is outcome of choices made and want different outcomes, what is their resource for choosing otherwise?

 

Poetic visions of hope of long ago, like those from Isaiah, are part of a narrative through time. They’ve withstood the test of time. They bear wisdom within a context yet are not confined there. They provide broader scope, perspective more tested and considered than possible within the time bound limits of our lives. Could the wisdom they bear be resource for choosing otherwise, could they be mirror of accountability and challenge?

 

Our Advent challenge is to reimagine this old story from Isaiah in and for our time and place. We might learn to hear such old story differently, if we listen to it told through the experience of those in exile. Through them be reminded, reconnected, recommitted to Isaiah’s vision: despite the appearance of things, despite our inconsistency we are part of a story that say God is here, a now reality AND whether that God is made known depends on what we do.

 

 

[1] Barton, John, and John Muddiman. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 462

 

[2] Bartlett, David Lyon, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, 53

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