“What kind of a god lets things like this happen?” Or “Why do bad things happen to good people?“ Better yet, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” All good questions, especially when we are trying to be faithful, trying to do the right thing. But, what about when we KNOW why “all this” is happening?
Long before I heard of ‘karma’ I knew intuitively that if I’d done something wrong, it was better to suffer some penalty than somehow avoid it. “Judgment” versus “Mercy” brings to mind the overstated simplicity (a part of my early days as a child in church) that there is a “God of the Old Testament”; i.e. “the God of judgment” and a “God of the New Testament”; i.e. “the God of mercy”. There is no denying that here in this passage from Isaiah we appear to have both of these images present at the same time.
The historical context is that the prophet Isaiah is addressing the Judahite exiles in the final days of their 70-year Babylonian internment. The exiles would be the first to acknowledge that they were suffering a well-deserved period in the penalty box. They had violated the first and greatest commandment to love God with all their heart, mind, and strength. In fact, theirs was not just a sin of omission, but of commission—they were worshipping gods that were part of some other religion!
Yet, to their credit, they had made good use of their time isolated from home, homeland, and temple. During the exile, the Jews established three religious practices that would shape the future character of Judaism and also contribute to their continued faithfulness. During the exile, the weekly Sabbath observance was established and refined. (At the beginning of the exile, Sabbath observance would entail merely work stoppage; but the end of the exile, violating Sabbath proscriptions against work and walking, and prescriptions for prayers would be elevated to a capital crime punishable by death) Regular times for services of public fasting and penance were established, during which the story of God and the people from Noah through the kings was recited. And infant circumcision of male children became the norm, making sure that even if a child grew up and turned away from the commandments he would remain marked in his body as a member of the covenant community. In short, the people had learned that remaining faithful is a matter of establishing patterns of behavior that reinforce our commitment to God and our understanding of who we are as beloved children of God.
In like manner, we also know when we have sinned, either through omission or commission, and that our sin-driven actions will surely produce the same painfully toxic produce as they always do. Our sins “exile” us from those places and people who we love. Many times we use our exile as the opportunity to make different choices about how we live to ensure that we will be more inclined to love God and live in right relationship with God and with each other.
Even so, for the exiles and sometimes for us, Isaiah’s words of comfort–comfort that the punishment is over—fall on deaf ears. Everything the exiles once thought was permanent—their homes, their capitol city, their Temple–has proved to be very impermanent. As it turns out, only the word of God endures. And for a people who once imagined that God “resided” immovable within the temple walls, they now are learning that God resides immovable only within the temple of our hearts, imbedded there through a cardiac circumcision, marking a covenant that endures on God’s part despite faithlessness on our part. All of this sounds very meet and right, except for the words of comfort.
“What shall I cry out?” asks the unidentified person in conversation with the unidentified narrator who moves this story along. Cry out: “All flesh is grass.”
It is very easy for us to miss the pastoral comfort of this cry sitting as we do in congregations of power and privilege, among people who live under the illusion that they control their circumstances. But, this is good news indeed for those who suffer under the oppression of political power or substance addiction, or the consequences of our own sins. For these people, the cry that “all flesh is grass” is the announcement of freedom, the end of a prison sentence, secured by the omnipotence of God’s mighty power over kingdoms, powers, principalities, and even death. It is the only hope of people who suffer under a system of oppression that presumes their guilt before ever hearing the evidence.
And how exactly does that mighty power work in our world? It seems to work quite counter to a war-driven culture. It works as an answer to fear, whether the fear causes me to launch a drone missile attack or set fire to an entire town. God’s strength in Second Isaiah appears in the barely thinkable power of gentleness, in the image of a weathered shepherd lugging heavy, wounded, and frightened sheep in his arms back to safety pressed against his own breast.
But even more unthinkable than this strange manifestation of strength is the strange track that recovery will take. The people will return home, but to do so they must travel through the same wilderness they traveled to their punishing exile.
When Stuart or I are talking to someone who is exiled from those they love because of broken relationships of trust, we frequently hear some version of the following: “Isn’t there some other way I can do this?” “Can’t you assign me some special penance, something hard that can substitute for this ridiculously hard thing of going back to the person I hurt?”
Why? Because truly, a harder thing is to avoid going to those we have betrayed and remain exiled in our suffering. Why be deaf to the good news?
God’s displeasure does not last forever, but God’s mercy does. We need not fear the wilderness return. People meet GOD in the wilderness. Abraham met God in the wilderness and was promised descendants as vast as the starry night sky. Moses met God in the wilderness through the crackling fire of the burning bush and was commissioned to undertake the great adventure of rescuing an entire nation held captive. Even Satan met God in the wilderness when he tried to trap Jesus with temptations of fame, power, and food.
We can trust that God has gone ahead of us there, making a wide place. In fact, we soon realize that God was always there, even on our way to exile. Whatever narrative takes shape for us during this Advent journey home through the same way we left, may Isaiah’s words be our mantra: “The grass withers and dies, but the word of our God stands forever.” Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
Advent 2 Year B 2014