Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Why the lectionary excerpts only three and a half verses from Isaiah 35’s cohesive ten-verse poem is unclear.

MET-Salvador Dali-Madonna-detail 1
"MET-Salvador Dali-Madonna-detail 1." Image by Ben Northern via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

September 6, 2015

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 35:4-7a

Why the lectionary excerpts only three and a half verses from Isaiah 35’s cohesive ten-verse poem is unclear.

The chapter reads best together. These ten verses display a striking inverse relationship to the previous chapter, in which the heavens disappear, the land is ruined, streams and soil are poisoned, and only liminal animals and fruitless plants abound. Isaiah 34 paints a vivid verbal portrait of despair, displacing onto neighbor nation Edom all the divine violence felt and feared in Judah.

But Isaiah 35:1 inaugurates a completely different vision. Here what was a landscape of despair blossoms as suddenly as a spring crocus from newly thawed ground. Divine majesty is glimpsed in the wild places as water springs up in the desert. Courage shows itself in the strengthening of weak hands, knees, and hearts. Bodies mirror the healing landscape, as blind eyes open, deaf ears hear, the lame leap up, and the speechless sing.

Chapter 35 anticipates language from Isaiah’s exilic and postexilic portion in Isaiah 40-66, prescribing and describing Judah’s return from exile to rebuild broken Jerusalem. This story of the nation of Judah’s historic resurrection is central to Christian and Jewish faith. Neither Jews nor Christians would exist today had this not occurred.

Events as deeply woven into our history as Jerusalem’s restoration take on for us an air of inevitability. Yet they cannot be taken for granted. Other nations destroyed by great empires — including Aram, Moab, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel — failed to reestablish when their crises passed. We have Judah’s story only because it transcended destruction. Every time our scriptural reading brings us to Jerusalem’s phoenix-like restoration 2500 years ago is a moment to stop for gratitude and wonder.

As Isaiah 34 and 35 vividly show, reversal of fortune isn’t guaranteed. But it is possible. Judah’s success story sets a precedent for hope, showing that happy endings have occurred and can occur.

The lectionary places Isaiah 35 alongside three other passages featuring dramatic reversals that heal and sustain. Psalm 146, like Isaiah 35, imagines God executing justice for the oppressed, feeding the hungry, setting prisoners free, opening blind eyes, and lifting those bowed down. Mark 7 depicts Jesus healing a man who was mute, and allowing his own eyes to be opened by a distressed foreign woman. James 2 counsels favoring the lowly over the influential, and commends deeds over pious sentiments.

In literature, underdog accounts such as these satisfy our thirst for poetic justice. What would be the point of a folktale in which conditions for the lowly went from bad to worse without a dramatic “happily ever after”? Why read detective or adventure novels in which chaos never clears, larger perspectives never appear, and the honorable are never vindicated? We read literature not so much for whether poetic justice will prevail, but how it will do so, which twist or turn will arrive satisfyingly where our souls know it should.

We read the Bible similarly. Stories beginning with barrenness end in fruitfulness. Heroes descend before they ascend: sold into Egypt, threatened with famine, subjected to evil edicts, surrounded by Assyrian forces. They are pursued by rulers, abandoned by supporters, thrown into cisterns, shipwrecked, beaten, and even crucified, dead. But the Bible rarely leaves innocents in such straits. Like other literature, Scripture employs reversals to encourage hope.

Yet we know, painfully, that real life doesn’t offer such tightly sewn plots. Happily ever after isn’t inevitable. Reversals cannot necessarily be counted on. When we are the actors and not merely the audience, stories are more complex.

If we could reliably expect poetic justice in life, of course, all suffering would be as harmless as a gun pointed at the inevitably surviving hero in a police drama. The real possibility of our own failure and the inevitability of our death demand much from us, forcing us to grow in endurance as we hope against hope, as we strengthen spiritual muscles of generosity, patience, and virtue. Some people’s stories end well. But through no fault of their own, others may valiantly lose, or even yield to despair.

Because life differs from literature in this way, readers may be tempted to dismiss passages like Isaiah 35 as having little to do with reality. We may relegate miracles to a fantasy world in which we dare not seek to live.

But if it’s true that hope that is seen is not really hope, it’s also true that hope that is left unseen, that is not dared, is not hope either. It’s true that presuming every blind eye will open — whether literally or metaphorically — is a presumptuous mistake. But so is expecting no blind eyes to open. There’s a middle way: In faith, we can take a stance not of presumption, whether positive or negative, but rather of openness to the future, expectancy for the nearly unimaginable good that God can indeed accomplish at any moment.

What all these lectionary passages share is the human role in bad fortune’s reversal. James is quite blunt: we, the audience, are to be the reversal we wish to see. We are the ones to lift up the downtrodden, to honor the meek, to love neighbors before they have anything to offer us. We are the ones we are waiting for.

Underlying Isaiah 35’s dramatic imagery of divine action, similarly, hope proceeds not simply from God’s expected reversals, but from those the prophet seeks to inspire, from a small band of Judeans who recultivate the burned land and push back the chaos, and thus strengthen their own weak hands, feeble knees, and fearful hearts.

This is a reversal we don’t have to wait for. It’s one we can enact every day. It is people like us — it is we ourselves — who exercise muscles of faith and effort, who heal bodies as physicians or caregivers or donors to medical causes. It’s we who work toward ecological healing, toward recreation of healthy habitats in our yards, our churches, our towns. It’s we who sow order in chaos and hope in despairing hearts.

Czech dissident and first post-communist president Václav Havel said it so well: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it will turn out.” We are the ones we are waiting for. It is we who announce to our listeners, “Here is your God.”