< January 17, 2010 >

Commentary on Isaiah 62:1-5

 

I. Will. Not. Keep. Silent.

It will not be possible to make me shut up. I will talk and not stop talking, proclaim and not stop proclaiming, preach and not stop preaching. I will shake the skies with my voice. I will not pause. I will not rest, for the sake of the precious city God loved and left, and I will keep this up until every nation and king can see that Jerusalem has been declared innocent and lifted up to a place of glory and honor.

Who is speaking in this passage? There are two ways to read Isaiah 62:1-5, and there are solid arguments and first-rate scholars on both sides of the fence.

Some hold that the prophet speaks in the voice of God, vowing God's unceasing speaking and acting on behalf of God's beloved city. The vow to speak and not rest until the moment when vindication shines like the light of a new day, recalls imagery of creation and heralds the dawn of new creation for God's people. In this reading, the passage expresses God's determination in words that elicit hope, joy, and the certainty of salvation.

Others hold that the prophet does not speak in God's voice but instead vows to act as intercessor for Jerusalem. Like the sentinels in Isaiah 62:6-7, the prophet promises to stand on the city walls and break the silence day and night in order to make God remember. The prophet vows to keep talking and preaching and proclaiming until God does what God has promised to do: restore Jerusalem, and make this holy mountain a crown of glory and song of praise to God.
Both interpretations can yield powerful sermons.

Yet as I examine the passage in light of the other lectionary readings for the second Sunday after Epiphany, I incline toward the latter. Psalm 36 is a petition. The psalmist begins with a lament concerning the ways of the wicked who plot and deceive (Psalm 36:1-4). Out of this dark meditation shines forth the praise of God -- under God's wings the innocent find refuge from evil, and God is the source of their light (Psalm 36:7, 9). The climax of the psalm occurs in the petition of verse 10: "Continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright." The psalmist knows that God is the one source of life and abundance, feasting and delightful drink (36:8-9). In the Gospel reading, Mary knows it too (John 2:3-5). She instructs her son to provide the wine for the wedding feast at Cana, knowing, despite his objection, that he will listen to her voice and perform the sign that will reveal his glory (John 2:11).

In light of these readings, I see an incredible opportunity to preach from Isaiah 62:1-5 a sermon of intercession. God made extravagant promises to God's exiled people. Earlier in the book of Isaiah, God promised to build up the barren and forsaken city of Jerusalem with foundations of sapphires, ruby towers, gates and walls of precious jewels (54:12). God promised to bring the exiled people home, and promised them the richest of feasts (56:2). Indeed they did come home. Around the year 539 Cyrus, king of Persia, proclaimed an end to the exile, allowing Judeans to return home to their native land, returning to them the sacred vessels and other objects from the plundered temple in Jerusalem, and even encouraging them to rebuild the temple with funds from the royal treasury of Persia.

However, the reality people returned to was far from glorious. The land seemed to them like a desert. It was true that the land was not empty: people had remained in Judah during the years of exile, and others had moved into the area, making a life for themselves in Jerusalem and in the surrounding countryside. But none were able to undo the damage done by Nebuchadnezzar and his army some sixty and fifty years before. And when the exiles returned, it was all they could do to secure homesteads for themselves and try to grow crops to feed their families. Times were difficult, and people were hungry (the book of Haggai gives an excellent picture of the challenges they faced). When prophets finally convinced them to rebuild the temple, it was clear that its glory could not match the glory of former days. Where were the glittering jewels? Where was the abundant feast? The land still felt like a desert. The city seemed forsaken, bereft of God's sustaining presence. What could be the reason? Was Jerusalem still shadowed by God's just punishment?

The prophet knows this is not true. The prophet knows that God has declared Jerusalem innocent. God said to Zion, yes, I left you, but now I return to you (54:7), and my love will never leave you (54:10). So now the prophet vows to hold God to God's promises. The prophet will pick up right where God seems to have left off and make sure that God gets no rest until Jerusalem is built up, filled with her children, surrounded by fruitful fields, and shining with the continuous light of God's presence.

The prophet promises newness, transformation, and new names signaling joyful union for Jerusalem and all the land around her. The prophet can only make these promises because God has made them. So now I think about preaching. I think about what it would mean to stand before God and gathered people and remind all who are present -- including God -- of God's promises. I think about what it would mean to name out loud and unambiguously the concrete ways our congregations have experienced their own places and communities as Forsaken and Desolate. The preacher has an opportunity to meet the people where they feel God's absence most keenly, where they most worry that God might not come through. And the preacher has an opportunity to call on God -- out loud and without stopping -- to do everything God has promised.