NOTE: Due to Easter's early date this year the lections provided for the day are the readings for the Eighth Sunday After the Epiphany, which is why the Genesis readings are broken up by a passage from Isaiah.
Have you ever looked around and wondered why the world is still the way that it is?
Where are the fulfillments of the promises that God has made? Where is the transformation, the peace, the justice envisioned by the prophets? Where is the kingdom that Jesus came announcing, saying that it had drawn near?
I remember being in Don Saliers' Systematic Theology class discussing ecclesiology and eschatology, and it was the first time I ever had heard the joke: Jesus promised the kingdom, but what we got was the church. Now, I love the church but the reality is that it is far from the kingdom that Jesus announced, it is far from the vision that the prophets proclaimed.
Not that we haven't tried, but usually only to our own detriment. The truth is that many times in history, the church has tried to be the kingdom itself and every time it has fallen inadequately short. We try to collapse the kingdom into our structures, our practices, our ways of being and doing, our liturgies and leadership, our buildings and monuments and when we do so, then we have in the words of N.T. Wright, "we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism" (Wright, Surprised by Hope, 112).
So we stop and we look at the world and at the church, and we wonder, "Is this all that there is? Is this all that there will be?" And the truth is that our questions are not that much different than the same ones that the Babylonian exiles were asking in the wake of Second Isaiah's prediction of restoration.
In verses 8-13 of our lection for this Sunday, God speaks through the prophet to the Servant of Second Isaiah. Once again, the identity of the servant is debated, but as I pointed out in my post on Palm/Passion Sunday, the particular identity of who the prophet understood the servant to be is, while important, to really miss the interpretive and theological point and that the description of the Servant applies to and are words for anyone who is a servant of God.
And so these words are for the Servant, they are for Israel, and they are also (in my mind at least) words for the church. And the prophet is so sure of these promises found verses 8-13, that God has answered and delivered the people, that God is in covenant with them, that the land will be established, that the prisoners will be released, that those in darkness can enter back into the light…the prophet is so sure, that all the prophet’s speech is in the perfect aspect. In Hebrew, the perfect form of the verb is one that indicates a completed action; though the action is to take place in the future, the prophet is so certain that it will happen the prophet speaks as if has already taken place and is finished.
Yet the exiles, like many before and many after them, stop and look around and they don't share the same confidence that the prophet does. The community of faith, the people of God, often have moments when we stop and take inventory of the world. And when we do that, we often will echo the sentiments of daughter Zion: "The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me" (v. 14). Despite the promises of reassurance in verse 8-13, the community is uncertain; Zion still has its doubts.
As Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson point out about this verse:
Reasons for lament are not hard to find. No change had yet taken place in the military and political arrangements of the world. [The LORD's] people were still dispersed at considerable distance from home. In the prevailing theology of the ancient world, these facts made a strong case for the claim that [the LORD] had forgotten the people” (Clark and Williamson, Preaching the Old Testament, 26).Does it not sound a little bit like the world of Jesus, when he and the early church announced the in-breaking kingdom of God? Does it not sound a little bit like our own world today?
God's response to the lament is interesting. God does not downplay the concerns of Zion; God acknowledges the truth of the people's situation (cf. 49:19-21). Yet God's first movement is to reassure, to comfort, to show compassion and offer hope.
And God’s compassion and hope takes on the form of the maternal, a relatively common image for God in Second Isaiah: "Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you" (v. 15). God's love for Israel is compared to "a mother's devotion to her offspring…As profound as the love of a human mother is for her child, Yahweh [sic] the divine mother transcends even this in Yahweh's [sic] love for the city" (Susan Ackerman, "Isaiah" in Women’s Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition, 176).
Even when we stop and wonder where the promises are, God continues to extend compassion and hope. Even when we struggle with the state of the world and what is happening in our time, the words of Isaiah continue to remind us of God’s unfailing compassion and love for us. The promises of covenant, of release, of light, of a new exodus-like deliverance from an old existence into a new one filled with promise and blessing and relationship remain before us even when we struggle to see it.
And maybe most importantly, those promises are enacted in us. "Thus says the LORD: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages" (v. 8). In other words, we are to be the servant, the one who is the covenant to the people, who established the land, who apportions out the promises of God.
We are the servants, the agents of the transformation God has promised. So even while we struggle to understand why the transformation is not here yet, we are called to work alongside God to make it happen, bit by bit, moment by moment. We may never achieve it through our own human efforts, but maybe we can make a change in this world through the grace and love of God, the One who has not forgotten or forsaken us but has inscribed us on the palm of God’s hand.