Sunday, June 25, 2023

Phil Kniss: The soft side of the prophet

Good news for those who have suffered
Isaiah, the Fifth Gospel
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-4

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Isaiah, and nearly every other biblical prophet,
are known and admired for their sharp oratory,
not for their gentleness.
They have a way with words, especially hard words.
Words that cut through the nonsense.
Words that give a clear unvarnished picture of reality.

Prophets are people that
you might like up front in a pulpit,
but not at your beside in a hospital;
you might want to take them with you into the courtroom,
but not with you on a camping trip;
you might enjoy them as your professor,
but not as your therapist.

But even prophets have a soft side.
Today, we see Isaiah’s.
In fact, chapter 40 reveals a side of Isaiah that, I confess,
I had not fully seen before preparing this sermon.
Sure, I’ve always read and appreciated
certain verses in Isaiah 40
where Isaiah paints a picture of God’s soft side.

I’ve always treasured the picture of God gathering up the lambs
and carrying them in God’s bosom
and gently leading the mother sheep.

And toward the end of the chapter, where God
gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.
And where those who wait for the Lord renew their strength;
mount up with wings like eagles;
run and not wear out,
walk and not faint.

Beautiful, comforting words, at the end of a chapter that begins with,
“Comfort, O comfort my people . . . speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”

So there are gentle bookends at the beginning and end,
but in between, looks like we still get a chapter-full
of the finger-pointing hard-truth-telling Isaiah:
The valleys will be filled up, and every mountain be made low.
All flesh is grass.
When God’s breath blows, it withers everything in its way.
The Lord God comes with might,
his recompense before him.
The nations are like a drop from a bucket.
God brings princes and rulers to nothingness.
God blows on them and they are carried off like dust in the wind.

But this past week I saw something new in these hard words,
that I hadn’t fully reckoned with, in 40 years of preaching.
I saw pure, unadulterated comfort in those words.
And overwhelming gentleness. Reassurance. Rest for the weary.
In every verse, including those on God’s hot breath of judgment.

When we lean into Isaiah’s song as a “Fifth Gospel,”
we will begin hearing other notes in the music.
Sweet sounds we hadn’t heard before.

It all has to do with who is listening.
Who is Isaiah aiming these words at?
And are we paying attention to Isaiah’s audience?

Now . . . let me get just a little technical here.
Chapter 40 comes in the part of Isaiah commonly known as
“Second Isaiah.”
Based on the content, tone, and historical references,
most scholars agree Isaiah has different parts,
written at different times.

Chapters 1-39 were written primarily by the historical prophet Isaiah,
whose career spanned the kingship of
Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah,
before the exile to Babylon.

Today’s chapter begins the second part of Isaiah,
and scholars are of the opinion that it was written much later,
like 200 years later,
by the spiritual “descendents” of Isaiah,
or disciples of disciples of Isaiah,
part of the Isaiah school, so to speak.

It was written late in the exile to Babylon, or after their return.
That makes all the difference in how we read these words.
These are deeply healing and comforting words
to returning exiles who have “served their time.”

This is not “more of the same” oracles of judgment against Israel,
like we find in First Isaiah,
or in his contemporaries like Amos and Hosea.
A prophet will speak one way,
when talking to a people enjoying their ease,
living their lives ensconced in comfort and luxury and wealth,
the kind that can accumulate
by oppressing the poor, the alien, the widow, the orphan.
And Isaiah did speak those harsh words of judgment
(albeit, along with the long-term promise of a hope to come,
as we noted a couple of weeks ago).

That judgment, in fact, came to pass.
God’s people were overrun by foreign empires,
and they were dragged off to Babylon against their will.
Their home communities, and their temple and sacred spaces
were left in ruins.

Then 200 years went by—200 years—
without essentially any change in their situation.
The life they left behind in Judah was nearly forgotten.
Their identity as God’s people nearly erased.
And they themselves learned what it was like to live as aliens
in a land not their own,
and be treated as second-class citizens by people
whose culture they didn’t understand.
Many lived as slaves.
Their lives had little value.
They suffered. Deeply. Endlessly. Collectively.

These are the people being addressed in Isaiah 40.
These are people who, the prophet makes clear in verse 1,
need comfort.
These are people who have served their time, and more,
for the injustices done by their ancestors.
These people are now the very ones
God was most concerned about in the first part of Isaiah.
They are the marginalized, the vulnerable,
the alien, the poor, the widows and orphans.
And God’s compassion for them is overwhelming.

That being the case, it dawned on me
how the metaphors of God’s power and judgment
that we see in this chapter,
can be read differently than we might imagine.
Different, even, than John the Baptist might have been reading them,
when he quoted Isaiah in his harsh condemnation
of the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jesus’ day.

So let’s scan down the oracles in chapter 40 to see what we find.
After the prophet opens with this announcement
that words of comfort are due, and overdue,
and that God’s people have already paid double for their sins,
here is what we find . . .

V. 3 and following (the part John the Baptist quoted)
“Make a highway in the desert for God.
Every valley will be raised up,
and every mountain and hill made low.”
I’ve always read this as a cataclysmic shaking of the earth,
when God would turn our world upside down,
reorient the landscape,
and forcibly reverse the inequities
(low raised up, high brought low, etc.).

I wonder if it wouldn’t be more accurate, in the context of comfort,
that God is telling the exiles,
“I am paving the way for you.
No longer will life be a dangerous obstacle course,
with ups and downs and twists and turns.
No, I will bring you with me on the road home,
on the smoothest and straightest of roads.
You’ve had enough of potholes and sheer cliff drop-offs.
The road home is a highway.

And verses 6-8 . . . all this stuff about flesh being like grass,
and God’s breath withering everything?

I wonder if we shouldn’t understand that
as a reference to Babylon, to their captors.
All these generations, God’s people were subjugated
by a nation more powerful than they.
They were suffering from severe collective low self-regard.
Here’s a comforting prophetic word,
that those human powers that held them down all these years,
their wealthy Babylonian owners,
were like grass before the breath of God.
Their power, which used to be intimidating,
is now withering away under God’s breath.
So Judah can come home without fear of retribution
from their former enslavers.

And in v. 10, this image of Yahweh coming in power,
his “recompense accompanying him,”
sounds pretty daunting.

I wonder, here, if recompense
does not refer to any punishment they have coming,
but the reward they have coming,
which God is bringing, in love.
And the sting of Yahweh’s power will be aimed at the oppressors,
not the oppressed.

I need not go over every verse in detail with you now.
Because once you begin reading Isaiah 40 this way,
as comfort for the suffering,
as God unmasking the powers of the oppressor,
drawing a line in the sand, and telling them, “No more,”—
then the rest of the chapter opens up in beauty before us.

The challenge for us, is to properly place ourselves in this oracle.
The returning exiles knew where they stood in this image.
In contrast, we today have a choice where to stand.
If we are on the side of the oppressed—
if we are advocates for
the poor, the alien, the widow, and the orphan,
and all those who otherwise are suffering
from the natural sorrows and losses of life,
or from being actively pushed down by society—
if we are on that side,
then there is nothing to fear from God’s power.
Because God’s power is used to comfort and heal the suffering,
and to put an end to the damage done by the oppressor.

But if we are in cahoots with the oppressor, then beware.
Our flesh is as grass.
One breath of God could undo us.

The comfort of these words depends on where we place ourselves.

The systems of injustice in our world today
do need to be confronted, resisted, unmasked for what they are.
But if want to receive Isaiah’s words as words of comfort,
then we need to move toward
those being oppressed by these systems.
We need to find ways to be in solidarity with.
Even, to share their suffering.
That is how we receive the comfort God wants to offer us.

Join with me in a prayer of confession, if you are willing.
one God of all comfort,
your heart beats with compassion for all who suffer,
for all who are pushed aside, pushed over, pushed down,
made to believe they are less than they are.
all Loving Creator,
when we diminish others, or diminish ourselves, 
we diminish you. Forgive us.
one God of all comfort,
you lead us to revere all your creation,
you lead us to embrace all your human family, 
including ourselves.
all Gentle Shepherd,
when we lose our way, or lose our love,
we lose our very selves. Lead us home.
one The God of all comfort, the God of everlasting love,
calls us to walk the road home,
the level road that God has prepared,
and on which God will accompany us to a place of shalom.

—Phil Kniss, June 25, 2023

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