Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1: 6-8; 19-28
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Calling the book of Isaiah, a “book” is a bit of a misnomer. It is a misnomer because the book of Isaiah likely was not written by one author, but several. It also appears that the different authors who contributed material to Isaiah were also not writing at the same period.
I recognize that this is a really “dry” introduction to a sermon, but I offer it because I believe that to really understand what Isaiah is saying, context matters. So, what follows is a brief history of the book of Isaiah, and I hope you listen, because this history is the history of a remote and disconnected people – it is our history.
Isaiah a composite work, the product of several different prophets who lived at different points in the history of Israel. More specifically, Isaiah is informally divided into three sections – each section is a body of work written by a prophet, during a particular time. The first section of Isaiah (chapters 1 – 39) are referred to as First Isaiah, and are attributed in general to an eighth century prophet, whose name the book bears, Isaiah. This is the eighth century before the birth of Jesus, so approximately eight hundred years prior to when John the Baptist arrives on the scene as we hear in today’s Gospel.
The second section of Isaiah, often called (let people answer) comprises chapters 40-55, and is attributed to an unknown prophet who lived in Babylon, which is in modern day Iraq, writing around the time of the sixth century before Christ? Why was this prophet writing in Babylon? Probably because this prophet, the author of second Isaiah, was among those in Judah who were captured when the army of Babylon invaded Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. When the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian army under King Nebuchadnezzar around 587 before the common era, or before the birth of Christ, many inhabitants of Jerusalem and of the surrounding region called Judea, were forced into exile. They were forcibly marched to Babylon, which is where the author of second Isaiah writes.
Which brings us to the third and final section of Isaiah, commonly called (let people answer) third Isaiah. This section comprises chapters 56-66, and this section of work is attributed to an unknown prophet writing to a community of people who had returned from exile, and were living back in the destroyed city of Jerusalem and the razed grounds of Judea. This section was probably written sometime around the year 539 before the common era or birth of Christ.
Today we hear from the author of third Isaiah, who is addressing the struggles that this group of people who have returned to a conquered land and are tasked with rebuilding are now facing. When these same people were in Babylon, they assumed that their liberation and exodus from Babylon, and their subsequent return to their homeland of Judea would be grand and glorious, in the tradition of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt.
But it wasn’t. When the people returned to Judea, they faced multiple challenges, including economic oppression, and unimaginable stress. They had to rebuild, but the process of rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and rebuilding their sacred temple was fraught with challenge and setback after setback. The people became disillusioned, cynical, frustrated, and tired. To cope with the new pressures and stress, the people returning from exile abandoned their faith in God, and they, once again, adopted the beliefs and practices associated with local gods and religions. They didn’t have Xanax or cocaine, or martinis, so their stress relief came through foreign religion.
This is who today’s reading from Isaiah is addressed: a tired, stressed, agnostic, cynical culture of ancient Israel. To this group dwelling in a soupy mire of resignation and indifference, the prophet courageously proclaims to them that “they shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall raise the ruined cities.” To the forsaken, the prophet says God will give them “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
I need these words. I need to know that in midst of our culture, in the midst of my life which at times feels tired, stressed, agnostic, cynical, resigned, and indifferent, that there is hope. And there is. The reason I know there is hope is not because I know it cognitively, but because I know it in my heart. I know it and I feel it in my praying, I know it and I feel it in my reading of the Bible, I know it and feel it in my living.
Context matters because the story of Israel’s exile and return from Babylon is our story. All of us have, for a season, felt exiled from God, and all of us, having returned from that exile, have encountered disappointment and resentment. The people in the Bible certainly did. You can read all about it in the book of Jeremiah or Lamentations, but what makes the expression of Israel’s lament and pain and suffering so poetic and so meaningful, is that there are clear demarcations, clear boundaries put in place to limit it.
Yes, the prophet will question God’s justice, the prophet will raise a fist in anger to God for the suffering and pain endured by the Hebrew people, but that is always tempered with praise, with the realization, that God is sovereign, and that God is compassionate.
We need to remember that, and perhaps that is why the prophet of third Isaiah says to us today that God is in the midst of our pain, redeeming it and transforming it, so that while we shout to the heavens, we also offer our praise – for God is faithful through all things, and in all times. AMEN.