[Note: this is the first in what I hope will be a series of weekly reflections on Scripture readings from the Revised Common Lectionary.]
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:1-9)
The author of the third and final portion of the Book of Isaiah, known among Biblical scholars as Trito- or Third Isaiah, was doing his prophetic thing during the period immediately following Darius the Great’s decree, in 538 BCE, that the Jews would be allowed to return to the land of Judah after decades of exile in Babylon. This was what the people had been waiting for decades – the God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, was bringing them back home! The long night of Exile was over!
Problem was, it turned out that returning to Judah didn’t magically solve all of the Judeans’ problems. There were tensions between those who had gone into exile and Babylon and those who had remained behind in Judah. The disparities of wealth and power that earlier prophets like First Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos had railed against were still very much in evidence. This was not the homecoming the exiles had looked for.
And so Third Isaiah took up the prophetic mantle of his forebears and decried, in no uncertain terms, the injustices he saw: “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” … “our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” … “you have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” Rough words, these, the kind that prophets are often primed to deliver but that his or her society is not often primed to hear.
Third Isaiah isn’t simply kvetching, however. This is no mere outpouring of impotent rage, however righteous. For, as a seminary classmate recently opined, the difference between a prophet and a whiner is that the prophet always holds up an alternative vision. And Third Isaiah had an alternative vision all right:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. (Isaiah 58:6-9)
He wasn’t calling out his fellow Judeans because he thought they were wicked beyond repair. He was calling them out because he knew they could be so much more. He saw their potential for goodness and justice, saw as in a dream their light breaking forth like the dawn – even in the midst of injustice and iniquity. Third Isaiah raged against what was because he saw what might be. His words may have been a rebuke, but they were also a challenge: a challenge to his listeners to become something greater.
I don’t claim to share Third Isaiah’s prophetic gift. But I think I know how he felt this past Monday night, when a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri announced that police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager. When I heard the news, I went home and I wept. I wept for Brown’s family and the loss they had suffered. I wept for all the young Black men who have been gunned down because our society views them as criminals. I wept for all the people of color in this country who are ground down and made to feel that they are lesser than – by people who look like me.
This is it? This is how we humans, we humans who went to the moon, who gave the world Beethoven and Miles Davis and the Beatles, who cured polio, who brought down the Berlin Wall, who produced Martin King and Gandhi and Jesus – this is how we treat our fellow human beings? This is all we are capable of being with one another? I refuse to believe it. We can do better. I know it. I have seen it.
Today is the first day of Advent in the Christian tradition, a season of deep reflection, of watching and waiting as we move toward Christmas and the breaking forth of the Light that darkness can neither comprehend nor overcome. This Advent, like Third Isaiah, I’m waiting for us to wake up to who we are, and to who we might be with one another. I’m waiting for us to wake up to the potential for goodness that I know exists in the heart of humanity. In the midst of darkness–both figurative and literal, as we wind our yearly way to the Solstice and the turning of the year–I’m waiting for our Light to break forth like the dawn.