Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9
“I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason… The things announced in the past–look–they’ve already happened, but I’m declaring new things. Before they even appear, I tell you about them.” – Isaiah 42: 1-9
All this year, my wife and I have been working on our house and yard, quietly “nesting” on the assumption that we’d like to live there for the next decade or so. Besides converting our drafty sunroom into a home office, most of our attention has been in the yard – replacing an old deck with a beautiful professionally-constructed one, and having a master landscaper go over our yard to undo years of “black thumb” work on our part. By the end of summer, our yard was looking spectacular and our house had truly become a home.
Looking at the yard this past week, I had to chuckle a bit. Our newly-restored flower beds were all dead and droopy. Most all of our shrubs had turned brown and bleached. And our trees were bare and bleak-looking – all except our pear tree. That tree, which was so beautiful this fall when its green leaves were punctuated with hundreds of bright yellow pears, now looked like a tree you might find in a Steven King horror movie – full of menacing black leaves that have defiantly resisted winter’s winds and refused to come down.
Yet I couldn’t grieve the sorry state of our yard very much. After all, this is winter. Dead and dreadful plants are simply the order of the day at this time of year. Spring will come around soon enough and all will once again be well. In fact, all will be glorious!
I wondered, however, as I strolled around my yard in its deadness, how different my feelings would have been if I had no concept of the future. What if all I had to go by was my memory of how beautiful the yard had been this summer compared to how it is now? Without a sense of the future, I might consider the state it’s in now as a “new normal,” concluding that all our hard work (and money) spent on the yard was for nothing!” Of course, one never knows. The future hasn’t yet occurred. It could be that my expectation of the future is flawed in some way I can’t know until it arrives. In any case, what I imagine about the future is what allows me to look at a dead, dreary, dreadful yard and think it’s perfectly okay.
In the 6th C BCE in Israel – the time period from which our passage for the day comes – Israel was looking out at its surroundings and wondering about its future. Its people were in exile in Babylon, having experienced the destruction of all of its major (and much of its minor) cities, including its capital, Jerusalem. Even the great Temple had been ransacked and torn down by the Babylonians in their fury – something most Jews believed was completely impossible given that Yahweh was thought to be invisibly enthroned in the Holy of Holies, making the Temple and Jerusalem itself impregnable.
In their sorry state, it felt like a permanent winter had set in. Psalm 137 – one of the saddest, and most terrifying psalms of all – was written from exile:
1 Alongside Babylon’s streams,
there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
2 We hung our lyres up
in the trees there
3 because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
4 But how could we possibly sing
the Lord’s song on foreign soil?
5 Jerusalem! If I forget you,
let my strong hand wither!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I don’t remember you,
if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.
Then the Psalmist turns to those who had created their sorry state of affairs – lines which are rarely included in sermons!
7 Lord, remember what the Edomites did
on Jerusalem’s dark day:
“Rip it down, rip it down!
All the way to its foundations!” they yelled.
8 Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,
a blessing on the one who pays you back
the very deed you did to us!
9 A blessing on the one who seizes your children
and smashes them against the rock!
Apparently, the Psalmist had seen his or her own children murdered in this way, and his rage is too great for him to bear, even in a psalm to his God. Can you blame a person who has had this experience?
Now imagine a whole country in grief, with no expectation that life will ever get better again – in fact with quite the opposite expectation: that apart from Jerusalem and its Temple, now in ruins, life would only be on a perpetual slide downhill. Permanent winter, growing colder and more chilling by the day.
Some of the Bible’s saddest, most heart-rending literature comes from the Babylonian Exile. The Books of Job and Lamentations, for instance. Yet surprisingly, so does some of the Bible’s most beautiful, hopeful and joyous literature – including chapters 40-55 in the Book of Isaiah, which were written by an unnamed prophet who arose and spoke so brilliantly in Isaiah’s spirit that they simply attached his writings to the Book of Isaiah.
Given the disparity between the downer literature produced during the Exile and the more uplifting stuff, one might wonder which set was more connected to Reality. Actually, both were connected to some portion of it. Early in the Exile, the whole nation was in deep exploration of the Void; of Emptiness and Absence. Not uplifting – but real! But later on, certain voices changed their tune and new ones emerged. Before addressing the question of what changed – and what the change may mean for us today – we need to consider the nature of Reality itself for a moment.
Have you heard the expression, “We see things not as they are, but as we are”?
I’m reminded of a story about two children who were placed in separate rooms by their parents for a few hours before their parents returned to let them out. One child was led into a room with a giant pile of toys in the middle. It was like Santa had lost his load while flying over their house and they’d all fallen in a pile in this room. The other child was led into a room that was completely empty – except for an equally large pile of horse manure in the middle.
After two hours, the parents opened the door of the first room with all the toys. Sitting glumly on the floor was their child, who hadn’t touched a single toy in their absence.
“What are you doing?” asked his parents, dumbfounded.
“What do you think I’m doing?” the boy sighed. “I know that if I play with one of these toys, I’m just going to break one. Then you’ll get mad and I’ll be in trouble. I don’t want to be in trouble so I’m not playing with them.”
When the parents opened the door of the next room, and entirely different scene awaited them. This boy was knee deep in horse manure, having the time of his life scooping it up with his bare hands and tossing it in every direction.
“What are you doing?” exclaimed his parents.
“What do you think I’m doing?” cried the boy in excitement. “With all this horse manure, there must be a horsey around here somewhere!”
What this story illustrates, admittedly a bit tongue-in-cheek, is that our perception of Reality tends to be far more fluid than we generally think it is. And how we interpret Reality has an inescapable way of shaping it. This doesn’t mean that the boy digging through the horse manure will eventually find his pony. But which boy do you think has a better chance of finding happiness in life – real happiness, not just the pretend kind?
Instinctively, we know that those who consistently look for reasons to be happy eventually find happiness – partly because their interpretation of Reality eventually begins to shape Reality itself. Which boy would you rather hire for a wonderful job your company has open, for instance – the one who expects that disaster awaits behind every corner, or one who expects success? Some say that “faith is believing despite the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”
Bottom line: Reality is more of a conversation we have with life than a fixed point around which we are compelled to order our lives. What we call our “present reality” is little more than a thread that connects the stories we tell ourselves (real or imagined) about the past, and those we imagine about the future. The connection-point between these two sets of stories is what we experience as our “present reality.”
For the boys in our story, doubtless the first one experienced something in his past that led him to believe he knew what the future would hold. So he “doubled down” on his misery. The second boy “doubled down” on his pleasure. Yet for both boys, the future was ultimately a mystery.
As you look ahead to 2015, what are your expectations about the future? Before moving on, you will likely engage more fully with what follows if you take a moment to consider what in 2015 you are dreading. What are you not looking forward to this coming year – either in your personal life, in the life of our church, our community, or our country?
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Now that we are holding what we are not looking forward to in our hearts, let’s consider for a moment one of the most powerful gifts God gives us that holds the greatest potential to “change the evidence” on us and yield a different result.
The gift God gives us is Absence.
The Babylonian Exile in Israel’s experience was, at least at first, a profound experience of God’s Absence. Every story they had told themselves about how life worked, and how God and faith worked, was utterly overthrown by the events that transpired in 586 and the destruction of Jerusalem. In the midst of exile, some openly wondered if God had forgotten about them, or left them behind, or if God existed at all.
Have you ever experienced the overturning of your basic assumptions about life? Have you experienced God as Absence more than Presence?
Often we experience God’s Absence as a feeling of profound loneliness and emptiness. Something inside feels dull and lethargic. A powerful Void opens in the center of our being that makes us feel vacant – vacant to others and ourselves. The prayers we make seem to evaporate into thin air with no response. The rituals we go through – religious and otherwise – seem to lose their meaning and purpose. We feel tired. Not just tired, but exhausted. We experience life as “simply too much” and we feel the increasing need to withdraw from it.
Do you ever feel this way? Could you be feeling this way right now, perhaps even a little as you hold whatever you’re not looking forward to inside you?
If so, then good! Good because what the experience of God’s Absence does is cut the thread of conversation that has been going on between the stories you tell yourself about the past, and those you tell yourself about the future. Something about those stories has produced a sense of God’s Absence. And since, in Reality, God is no less Present than God ever has been, your experience of Absence signals that something about your present story needs to change.
The experience of God’s Absence and the Emptiness we feel provides us a freedom to reorder our lives – all those ideas, concepts and understandings we had been so certain of – because we are no longer bound by them. How can we be bound if Emptiness has caused us to question all our assumptions? A new Reality is trying to break in. A better Reality, if we let it.
Of course, the Spirit is never going to strong-arm us. We have freewill. If you want to keep your life just the way it is, you need do nothing. The future you experience will be very much colored by the future you expect. Frankly, it’s amazing how long “winter” can last when you have come to believe that winter is the “new normal.”
Yet if Emptiness, Absence, and “winter” is not your cup of tea, then the your best way forward is not found in doing nothing. As they say in Latin, “Facite!” (pronounced “fahkit”). No, you did not hear me if you think I said something inappropriate! Facite means, “DO IT!” Do something about it.
Question your assumptions, your stories. Notice what you’ve overlooked. Envision other possibilities, other interpretations of what you perceive as Real. Don’t delay. If you’re feeling Empty, then now is the time the Spirit is inviting you to act. Just facite!
Facite is precisely what people of Israel were doing during the time of their Exile in Babylon. The stories they’d been telling themselves about how life works, and how their relationship with God works, were in profound need of retelling. Emptiness and Absence were what allowed them a newfound freedom to question everything … and find the new story that the Spirit was trying to reveal.
A new story is what they found – found by an unnamed prophet who arose at the mid-point of the Babylonian Exile. This prophet so accurately picked up on the true spirit of Isaiah’s message that had been so long overlooked that his writings were simply added to the Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55.
This new interpretation of the old story created a context for the new Reality that God was trying to bring into the world through Israel. In the midst of great darkness came a great light – light that would cast its rays clear up until the time of Jesus, when Jesus himself would reinterpret the old story for a new day, and a most surprising way … but this side of the story will have to wait for Christmas Eve.
For now, perhaps you in your own experience of Emptiness and Absence may experience a faint reflection of what Israel experienced in its own, if you will listen to our passage for today once again. I’ve modified it only slightly in order to include YOU in God’s story. Hear again the words of this Second Isaiah:
Here you are, my servant, the one I uphold;
my chosen, who brings me delight.
I’ve put my spirit upon you;
through you I will bring justice to the nations.
2 You won’t cry out or shout aloud
or make your voice heard in public.
3 And I won’t break a bruised reed;
I won’t extinguish a faint wick,
but I will surely bring justice.
4 You won’t be extinguished or broken
until you have established justice in the land.
The coastlands await your teaching.
5 God the Lord says—
the one who created the heavens,
the one who stretched them out,
the one who spread out the earth and its offspring,
the one who gave breath to its people
and life to those who walk on it—
6 I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason.
I will grasp your hand and guard you,
and give you as a covenant to the people,
as a light to the nations,
7 to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison,
and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.
8 I am the Lord;
that is my name;
I don’t hand out my glory to others
or my praise to idols.
9 The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened,
but I’m declaring new things.
Before they even appear,
I tell you about them.
Could what you may perceive as “endless winter” turn out to be more verdant than you imagine? Could Israel’s story be part of your own? To answer such questions, we must first ask ourselves, “What’s God’s story? Then you may ask, where may I be found within it?