Isaiah 40. 1-11
Isaiah snapped awake as a jar smashed to the ground in the marketplace below his window. Even as long as he had been in Babylon, he often woke up expecting to be back in his bed in Jerusalem, and the still-uncomfortable surroundings seized him with terror. But with the recognition that this was home now, he slumped back into bed. But now he heard every cock crowing, every shuffle of carts bringing goods into the marketplace, every voice calling out as the first light began to seep into the corners of the city.
The voice that rang out loudest was the voice of the herald. She brought news from the battlefront. The number of cities taken. The number of battles won. The number of prisoners brought back to Babylon. Most everyone in the marketplace had heard these reports so many times, they had started to ignore them even when the herald’s clear voice pierced the morning air.
But Isaiah listened every time, because he knew all too well that every city, every battle, every report, was filled with realities much like his own. It had not been that long since Jerusalem had fallen, and he and his family had been taken to Babylon in order to be “assimilated.” Even the sound of that word in his own mind made him shudder. A clean way to say “kidnapped.” “Brainwashed.” “Wiped clean of every cultural custom, religious belief, familiar place, and vestige of home.” The Babylonians had removed the leadership from the besieged city, hoping to teach them new ways, a new culture, a new faith. The unfamiliar voices and language and culture beneath his window reminded Isaiah once more that he was an exile in a strange land.
Sisters and brothers, co-called to Christlikeness, I wonder today how we are exiles in a strange land? Augustine claimed that as Christians, our true citizenship must be in a foreign city, that we are actually citizens of the City of God first and foremost. And that such citizenship allows us to look with a critical eye upon the land where we live and name what is not right about it. So today, I invite us to look around at the land in which we live and ask “how are we exiles in a strange land?”
I believe that as Christians, we are exiles in a land of consumption. Fresh off a weekend in which Black Friday has become Black Thanksgiving week, and is on the way to becoming Black November, stretching further and further into territory that was once deemed untouchable, perhaps it is wise to ask how we are exiles in a land of consumption. How are we swayed by the false gods of the land in which we inhabit, that command from on high that newer is better, that our value is tied up in what we possess, that it is right and just in the name of the god of commercialism to abuse the land, abuse the credit card, and abuse the people who sell us our trinkets?
• Sometimes it takes a voice like Mary, who sang that the baby growing inside of her would bring about a tumultuous change to the structures of oppression and injustice.
• Sometimes it takes a voice like John the Baptist to remind us that when we own more than we can possibly use, while someone next to us goes without, then we are part of the problem.
• Sometimes it takes a voice like Jesus, who grew up listening to Mary’s songs and John’s ranting, to remind us that we cannot serve God and Mammon, and that there is only one God worth worshipping.
We are exiles in a land of consumption, where the sounds of credit cards swiping are our hymntunes and the sights of “Doorbuster Sales” signs are our icons. Where the firstfruits of our offering are given is to assuage the guilt of “did I get them enough this year?” This land is not our home.
As well, I believe that we are exiles in a land of dehumanization. I believe that this phenomenon – of judging a person by their age or gender or race or appearance instead of seeing them for who God created them to be – is rampant in our culture.
The examples of Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland make this uncomfortably apparent. Now, those much wiser and closer to the heart of the issues of these police cases have spoken and spoken eloquently about the causes of the cultural and racial distrust that exists. And for me as a white male to say I understand everything happening here would be the height of folly. But my read on the situation is that one of the core issues has to do with the tendency that we all have to dehumanize the “other.”
Race is one of many ways that dehumanize the other, and as these high-profile cases have shown, and when one race holds most of the power, even when they are the less populous, the resulting apartheid-like conditions and felt-hopelessness are likely to be violent. It says something about a culture where those in power are allowed – even encouraged – to dehumanize citizens based on their race, their socioeconomic status, or even their past actions. We try to teach our children that there is a difference between being a bad person and a person who has done bad things. But when our adults do not understand the difference, the result is that human beings are reduced to being “perps,” or “thugs,” or enemies who deserve any level of unchecked retribution. Or even on the flipside, human beings on the police force become “pigs,” or “Gestapo” or an enemy that deserves any violent reaction. When a citizenry is filled with dehumanizing fear of its police force, and the police force is filled with dehumanizing fear of its citizenry, no good will come of it. And when one of those groups is armed with political power and literally armed for war, a violent outcome is inevitable.
And for us to say that things are different here in safe, little Lawrence is to miss the point. For each of us has the capability to dehumanize or characterize or stereotype the “other.” But as exiles in a land of dehumanization, we as Christians have the opportunity to look at the land around us with a critical eye and ask thoughtful and critical questions about our own community and our own participation in dehumanization.
• How do we contribute to our current political climate of polarization?
• How do we participate in a cultural context where faceless technology means that we can say whatever we want without looking someone in the eye?
• Do we work to overcome the rampant disability of our society to disagree with someone and stay in relationship with them?
• Why is it that here in Lawrence, just about every precinct west of Iowa Street voted for a new police station, and every precinct east of Iowa voted against it?
• Why is it that at least 50% of our county jail’s inhabitants are suffering with some type of mental illness?
• What is happening when even the children and teenagers among us are painting racial slurs on the football field?
As Christians, we may not have all the answers, but we must ask these and more questions. And we cannot think that we are immune or apart from the effects of dehumanization. Because every one of us, even in safe, little Lawrence, have the ability to treat fellow humans as, well, less than human. And our cry in the midst of such dehumanization must be clear: “this land is not my home.”
But here’s where the old spiritual gets it wrong. Our job is not to say “this land is not my home…I’m just a traveling through.” Our job is not to just hold out until Jesus comes back. Our job is not to shake our heads and hide ourselves and our children from the realities of the world. Our calling is reverse assimilation. An assimilation of love and grace and peace and justice. It is to do our part to bring the values of Christ into a land that is not our home.
Because even though we live in a culture of consumption and a land of dehumanization, there is good news. For even though Isaiah lived in a land and a time that was not his home, he proclaimed the good news. And the voice of those like Isaiah rang out throughout the years of exile, providing a minority report to those who would spend their days wringing their hands and assigning blame and shame. And these chapters from Isaiah proclaim again and again that God is at work, that God is bringing about peace and justice, that we need not live in fear or shame because God’s Kingdom of hope and justice is coming.
And so it was no wonder that John the Baptist used this passage as he proclaimed on the banks of the Jordan, “this land is not our home, but there is one coming who will redeem that land!” And as we prepare our hearts for the joy of Christmas this Advent season, the words of John and Jesus and Isaiah remind us that there is comfort to be had. That the glory of the Lord will be revealed.
M. Craig Barnes reminds us that that is our primary vocation as Christians:
When Christians take on the vocation of being witnesses, it has a dramatic effect on how they conduct their lives. They stop trying to achieve a life, and choose instead to receive one. As long as their goal was achievement, their constant companion was complaint because they could never achieve enough. But the day they decided to start witnessing the many ways God is still creating their lives, their companion became gratitude.
So Isaiah inspires us to get up on a high mountain, to be bearers of good tidings, to make a vocation of bearing witness to the glory of the Lord. Like Mary, the first evangelist, who sang of the ways that the child inside of her would overcome the powers of the world. Like the shepherds who went streaming into the fields. Like John the Baptist on the Jordan. God is at work and God is assimilating the world to Kingdom Values. It’s time to get on board.
As Isaiah walked by the faces of the Israelites sharing his exile in Babylon that day, he paid attention. What he saw appalled him. So many of them had given up and were beginning to look and sound like the Babylonians that surrounded them. You could hardly tell that they had ever been Israelites. And so many of the others had just given up…their faces were hopeless and their eyes empty. Isaiah’s heart went out to his people. He hurt for them. Ached to know what he could tell them. His yearning and pain gnawed at him throughout the day.
And that evening, as the afternoon sun became evening twilight, he remembered that it was the Sabbath. When he was back at home, he would be lighting candles and preparing his family and his house to observe their time of rest and remembering. But not tonight. Not here. Not where his faith had been outlawed. As the light of the day faded in his room, he heard again the herald’s voice, crying out above the dying sounds of the marketplace. It named again the numbers, the deaths, the destruction. And immediately, Isaiah was moved to tell a different story. To explain that this land is not their home, but that doesn’t meant that they have to give up!
As the faces of his people flashed through his mind, he threw open the windows above the marketplace and cried out in outlawed Hebrew above the market din and the herald’s cry:
“Comfort, O comfort my people. Our term has been served and our penalty has been paid!”
Immediately, the other Israelites that recognized their home tongue turned and stared. It was the first time many of them had heard her native tongue in months, even years, and they felt a mixture of horror and joy to hear it again.
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain be made low….the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” “The word of our God will stand forever!
The Babylonians in the market smiled derisively. It was more crazy talk from another Jew who didn’t know when he had been beaten. But the Israelites began to stop to listen. Some even had tears in their eyes as Isaiah heralded the good news of their people’s salvation. Some even began to see themselves apart from their culture, remembering the stories of God’s salvation from their birth. As Isaiah preached, he proclaimed that even in the midst of the world broken around them, God was at work and had already achieved victory over the captors. Their job was to watch and wait and work toward that day. As he preached, the people began to weep together, tears of both pain and grief, and joy and anticipation. Soon, the soldiers broke down the door and drug Isaiah away. But it wasn’t before his final words rang out in the marketplace:
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them gently home.”