Thursday Scripture - Isaiah 54:1
Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
burst into song and shout,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate woman will be more
than the children of her that is married, says the Lord
Isaiah's message that we heard Sunday was one in which sin and injustice were revealed, warnings and consequences issued. And while that is a part of the prophets task, it is not all that the prophet does. The prophet also imagines impossible possibilities and invites those who listen to dream new dreams and engage in realizing them. Isaiah does this too and today's verse is part of a much longer passage, later in Isaiah, for Imagining. I chose this example of the many in which Isaiah moves from revealing to imagining because we have heard the stories of barren women quite a bit this fall. From Sarah to Leah to Hannah, the pain and despair of women who could not have children has been a palpable presence the story of God and Israel. Sarah, Leah, and Hannah reveal to us a God who is intimately invested in the lives of the meek and mourning. God hears their cries and responds with powerful promise because God is love. But these stories also reveal God to be invested in the mission of creating and redeeming a creation that is lost and wandering. Sarah, Leah, and Hannah are drawn into that mission. The children that they impossibly birth become key components to God's plan. So a reference to the barren one in Isaiah reveals to Israel both the compassionate God and the insistent God. God cares about Israel but God also calls Israel to be a part of God's plan for creation.
Isaiah pens this poem sings this song of the desolate woman at a time when Israel feels most hopeless. Israel now exists divided. Some of God's people still abide in their homeland, but Isaiah writes to those who were taken into captivity in Babylon. The people have witnessed the destruction of their city, temple, and kingdom, the loss of freedom and self-determination, the loss of power of their kings, and the death of friends and family. Faith and spirit two are destroyed. God has abandoned them, revoked the covenant of everlasting love promised to David. All that they have believed, all that had made sense of the world, is lost. It is to this experience that Isaiah writes today's words. He is urging them to imagine, after such complete and total loss, a new birth. It may help us to remember that Israel wrote down the creation stories of Genesis at this particular time in history. And it is helpful for us to imagine that Israel responds to Isaiah's urging for them to imagine new birth, by writing a story of the birth of all things. From chaos and darkness came the beauty of the universe, the earth, all creation.
The hope and the challenge of this passage are that this new creation is rooted in the promised action of God. God will do this. God will make Israel a source of life once again. There is hope because Israel feels not only hopeless but powerless to act in any way that can restore to them their righteousness or their freedom. This is the promise that a power from beyond them will act on their behalf. And when we are exhausted, defeated and overwhelmed it is important for us to experience the empowering presence of the Spirit and its great promise that what God calls us too, God equips us to carry out. But there is also a challenge in this passage. The challenge for us is to live into what we imagine even though it seems impossible. By this, I don't mean that we believe the impossibility of resurrection. This isn't conceptual. It is real. Remember with me that moment when the wealthy young man comes and asks Jesus about eternal life (concept) and Jesus responds by challenging him to sell his possessions and give to the poor. The challenge is to believe that these real life risky choices to forgive, to share generously, to turn the other cheek, to welcome the stranger and pray for enemies, are not just pointless actions that leave us vulnerable, but instead the building blocks of the kingdom. It is very easy to rush past these direct teachings of Jesus to something more practical. But Isaiah urges us to dream that when we take these teachings seriously enough to live them, new life lies ahead.
Today's scripture shapes us by freeing us from the certainty that the past controls the future. It frees us from the assumption that the ways things are is the way things they will always be. And it frees us from the dangerous idea that we are in complete control of the future, that change will only come from our action because we too often act out of fear or anger. We are free from our desolation by the God who is always creating from emptiness and chaos. We are encouraged to believe the impossible. It also shapes us by challenging us to live today as if that promised future has arrived. By unleashing the promise of God we are free to dream that our risky decisions to welcome, forgive, share and love are the ways that we participate with God in a new birth, in the creation of the kingdom. Isaiah is urging Israel to dream of a renewed future. What is the future that God is calling us to dream of and then live into?