It is worse than you think it is and you are freer than you think you are. The powers are raging beyond your control and they are already overcome in Christ. The division is an uncrossable spiritual chasm and it’s been crossed.
- William Stringfellow
The Church in America is fragmented and in disarray, laments Fleming Rutledge. The impasse of different factions is symptomatic of “a perilous state of affairs” (And God Spoke to Abraham). Rutledge’s emergency room prescription? Six months of intensive preaching, teaching and small group study of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55). This “unknown prophet of the exile” tells the whole glorious Story of God which alone can save the Church from itself.
It’s not hard to see why this portion of Scripture speaks to our day. The prophet writes out of exile, having lost even the filters that keep one from facing how urgent the situation really is,”Down here with the savages,in a world of freed Barabbases,/Where nuns carry guns to protect themselves from rape”(Pierce Pettis).
Then… the unexpected, unimaginable good news erupts, almost more than our jaded ears and stunted imaginations can fathom. Through exalted poetry and ecstatic vision, Isaiah gives witness to the God who has the power to call into being a new creation out of nothing; the God who, though often in hidden ways, has broken into this sickness unto death to redeem his people and is at work to bring deliverance to the entire created order.
This week’s Old Testament text brings the prophet’s message to its magnificent conclusion. First, the invitation to life beyond the confines of getting and spending: Come and buy those things money can’t buy. Then the question that exposes our hungry unrest and feverish thirst: Why do you spend… why do you labor…why do you keep guzzling saltwater? Then another invitation: Hearken…delight…incline your ear…come.
I learned much from reading this text through John Henry Jowett’s “The True Imperialism,” published in a 1901 collection of sermons entitled Apostolic Optimism. The grand pulpit eloquence of an earlier generation and Jowett’s insightful interpretations are instructive. Most striking, though is that in his discussion of verse 5 (“Behold, you shall call nations…”), he makes a remarkable contrast between “the true imperialism” and “the vulgar imperialism of today”:
[not] an empire by grab, expansion by coercion, aggrandizement by the power of the sword, but the imperial gravitation of a people exalted and inspired by the purifying and energizing presence of the Eternal God…an empire not by the aid of Maxim guns, but by the great and heartening evangels proceeding from a redeemed and glorified people.
Jowett linked these yearnings and promises with the British Empire and lauded “the inevitableness of the national ministry.” While the setting of pre-World War I days is vastly different from our present historical context, the call to discern between national optimism and apostolic optimism is constant. The degree of the Church’s perilous state is connected to the willingness to participate in God’s mission to redeem the world through love, not power.
According to Isaiah, God wondrously works through the Servant. Four beautifully haunting songs within chapters 40-55 sing of the way the Servant reveals God’s righteousness through suffering and death for the sake of others. The Church recognizes in this figure Jesus Christ, Son of God, whose ultimate sacrifice calls into existence a new world where everything has changed.
So… One day when Jesus is asked the age-old question about tragedy and sin, he turns that world upside down, or rather, right side up. What should claim our attention, he insists, is not why they are suffering, but why our lack of tragedy doesn’t necessarily mean God’s approval on the way we’re living. Are we, in these ordinary days we’ve been given, merely soaking up untold resources, while doing little more than spending money for that which is not bread and labor for what does not satisfy? As Paul Duke asks, “Are we waving leaves at the world? …Or is anybody actually getting fed by our common life?”
Lavish attention and patience… One more year… Unless you repent…
The Apostle Paul warns the casual Corinthian believers not to be blind to the fruit of their promise. He reminds them that the death and resurrection of Jesus signaled the old age and the beginning of the new, so the members of their little fellowship are the ones “on whom the end of the ages have met.” They stand at a place and time when the community participates in the suffering and victory of Christ, and have been given God’s grace for this calling through baptism, wine and bread – without money and without price. They, we, dare not cheapen these divine gifts by the false confidence that comes from playing church.
“So if you think you are standing…”
These New Testament texts are deeply troubling. How easy it is to focus on earnest, one-step-removed, religious discussions while refusing to let God love us toward our purpose of bearing fruit! How tempting it is for “church” to be an excuse to nest comfortably in the false security of formulaic salvation! “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” and “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” better be in our hearts like a stinger.
But don’t forget the intensive crash course on Second Isaiah, which must be heard in concert with the other texts. Because God’s Word “shall accomplish that for which I purpose,” we shall go out in joy and peace, amid singing mountains and clapping trees. (Even though the lectionary editors stop the Isaiah reading at verse 11, I’ll be reading the last two verses as well. They’re too crucial to omit). We have an incredibly patient and attentive Gardener, who has watered the ground around us with his outpoured life. We are given our baptism and supernatural food and drink. We don’t have to plod through Lent like a mule train of Eeyores, pretending that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus hasn’t happened yet.
Endlessly fascinated by peacocks, Flannery O’Connor wrote about that moment when the king of the birds unfurled its majestic tail:
Frequently the [peacock] combines the lifting of his tail with the raising of his voice. He appears to receive through his feet some shock from the center of the earth, which travels upward through him and is released: Ee-ooo-ii Ee-ooo-ii! To the melancholy this sound is melancholy and to the hysterical it is hysterical. To me it has always sounded like a cheer for an invisible parade.
Lord knows, there’s a lot about which to be melancholy, even hysterical. But there’s also much cheer in entering the great fellowship of God’s realm, more than enough to join the parade toward the unity of the cruciform Church and a world reconciled to God.