The theme at our church this year is “from distraction to discernment.” During the Easter season we’re spending time in Isaiah 40-66 contemplating “discerning our service to the world as the people of God.” Initially I intended to stick to methodically going through the Bible from Genesis to Malachi and Matthew to Revelation in order. Since this is where I’m spending my time right now, it makes more sense to write about what I’m already thinking about and takes less energy.
I posted the lyrics to a song I wrote that sums up what I see as the broad sweep of Isaiah’s vision (or Second and Third Isaiah if you like… or Poet and Preacher as John Goldingay labels them). Generally speaking scholars place Isaiah 40-66 during the exile in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 587 BCE. Third Isaiah may be after Cyrus, the Persian King, defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return from exile. Isaiah 45 calls Cyrus “God’s Anointed” and other passages speak of one “coming from the east.”
Regardless of the exact context, overall chapters 40-66 are written in a context of exile and return. The best modern analog would be refugees. Picture Haitians whose houses and livelihoods are destroyed. They have fled their homes. Iraqi refugees may make a more apt illustration. Many of them have fled their country living in Syria and Jordan to escape the horrors of war and occupation. The Israelites were forced to leave their land. With the center of their religious life and identity, Jerusalem, destroyed, their allegiance to YHWH, God, and their faith was up in the air.
In this context, Isaiah closes his eyes and imagines another world. Isaiah could not have said what he did by looking at the circumstances around him. The claim that YHWH is “above the circle of the earth” and “the nations are like a drop from a bucket” seems laughable taken in the situation of exile. Babylon defeated Israel which meant that YHWH was revealed as a lesser god, or perhaps no god at all. Yet Isaiah makes outrageous claims about all the nations streaming to Mount Zion and Jerusalem (the city that lay in ruins).
We might look at our world and all the death, destruction, injustice, pain and suffering and declare that God is dead. Or, instead, we can close our eyes with Isaiah and dream. The brokenness of this world is only overcome by imagination and dreaming. Not to bring the New Testament into this, but his is the gift of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In him the “kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). When we enter into that story, worlds of possibility open up.
The Spirit enables us to move beyond the limitations of our own brokenness and imagine what is possible in God’s future. Jesus embodies this dream paradoxically in both life and death. This is the background of Isaiah’s vision and why I think the details of his words continue to speak powerfully to our broken world that is being redeemed.
Take one issue, the food system. Studying the problems, brokenness, injustice and oppression of that system is overwhelming for me. How can I possibly hope to change a system drenched in power, money, corruption and greed? The same way that Isaiah did. I close my eyes, kick back in my hammock, smell the fresh air, budding trees and fresh vegetables, taste strawberries out of the garden and dream of another world.
Another world is possible! Another world is coming! Another world is here!