Epiphany 2C 2010
Isaiah would have understood. Israel had seen the worst: the nation overrun and conquered, its leaders and most of its people sent into exile, and Jerusalem and its temple destroyed. At the time of the writing of chapter 62, the people have come back to face the remains of their old home and the task of rebuilding. It's not easy. And they ask, Is it always going to be like this? Where is God? Is there hope?
In chapter 64, Isaiah describes the situation they face on their return: "Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins. After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent and punish us so severely?"
You'll notice that this is placed after chapter 62 – but that's just the way Isaiah does it. Like us, there is throughout the book an alternation between grief and hope, between despair and joy. But Isaiah is, in fact, very clear: God will have the final word. As biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann points out, Israel's prayer ends with a mighty YET – "the yet that is at the bottom of the theological tradition of Isaiah, the yet that makes hope possible when logic and circumstance dictate a harsh ending."* This has happened, yet we will trust.
Sometimes in the Episcopal Church, we read Isaiah so very out of context that we forget that all the joyful promise passages are not the "happy, happy, joy, joy" of a contented people basking in comfortable circumstances. We read these passages at Advent; we read them alone. And so we can miss the power of the promises behind them. For in fact, Isaiah is no optimist wearing rose-colored glasses. There is no optimism here. What there is is hope. Hope in God. All this has happened AND YET God promises that the destruction of Jerusalem, the Exile, and the oh-so-slow pace of the rebuilding of the city are not the end of the story.
This morning's reading asserts that God will not rest until things have changed. "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch." God's concern here is not just for individuals, but for the whole community. Likewise the promises: "You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married." The land that other nations looked at in astonishment, thinking, this is a forsaken, desolate, hopeless place, will see something completely new happening, something that warrants a new name. My Delight Is in Her. God's delight, God's crown of beauty. And calling Israel "Married" is a way of speaking not only of relationship, but of new life, new fruitfulness.
These words of Isaiah speak to us powerfully this morning about new possibilities for places others deem hopeless, places that have been destroyed – places like Haiti. Isaiah would have understood. Isaiah would have wept over the destruction in Haiti as he undoubtedly did over the state of his own land. And then he would offer a vision of hope. For the God who promised new life in a barren land 2500 years ago is the same God who promises to be with us now. This is a God who is all about transformation. God transforms each of us individually – slowly, over time – too slowly for our own impatience sometimes, or at least for mine! But God also transforms communities. God transforms nations. And God promises to do this when it is least expected – when it is impossible according to our own limited human means and vision – for this is precisely when we need it. God's power shows up in the face of our weakness, now as then. Just when we think the party's over and the wine has run out, Jesus takes water and transforms it not only into wine, but into really good wine.
We don't know how this happens. We can't see it right away. We can't understand it. But we can trust. When Mary tells Jesus about the problem with the wine running out, and Jesus seems as though he is going to be a bit slow to respond, if at all, she simply turns to the servants and says, Do whatever he tells you. And they do, even though what he says must not make much sense to him. And look what happens!
As we face the destruction of someplace we love, we can participate in God's transformative work by doing whatever he tells us. We’ll have to listen. We'll have to pray – and then respond in faith, even if we can't see the outcome and it doesn't make sense immediately. Because just as Jesus changed water into wine, just as Isaiah relays God's intention to delight in and rejoice over Israel by bringing it into new life, we can count on God's active, transforming work in Haiti. Today, as we give thanks for what God has done in the past and what God is doing right now, let us keep in mind one thing: with God, the party is not over till the word has been spoken, and God has the last word. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and the Word is still here. Amen.
*Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, 1998, p. 234