Isaiah 62 – Conscious and Joyful Work

10 Pass through, pass through the gates!

    Prepare the way for the people.
Build up, build up the highway!
    Remove the stones.
Raise a banner for the nations. (Read the rest of the chapter here!)

There is work to be done, and we are called to do it

I love this chapter.  I found it by Googling “Bible Passages for Christmas Eve.”  It’s so joyous, so regal: Perfect for the birth of the person we call our Lord and Savior.  I also like how grounded it is, despite all it’s jubilation: There is work to be done to prepare for this party, and this chapter recognizes that fact.

I’d like to compare and contrast this chapter to another passage we haven’t yet read in this blog, but one you are probably familiar with if you’re a regular church-goer or Bible reader:  the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13.  In it, there are five wise bridesmaids, who keep the oil for their lamps full while waiting for the bridegroom – who was very late – to arrive.  The five foolish bridesmaids did not plan ahead. When they did not have enough oil for their lamps they had to go buy more, missing the entrance of the groom, and were unable to gain admittance to the party afterwards.  The message: making sure you are prepared at all times for (the return of) God.

In Isaiah 62, just as in Matthew 25, we are anticipating the start of a large celebration. But this is not just passive waiting, in both passages we are called to do the work of preparation. And there is much to be done.  In the Matthew 25 parable, that work is summed up in the keeping of the oil, but here, Isaiah is a little more elaborate: we must keep watch, as the bridesmaids did; but also pray – pray until God has no rest; we must prepare the way for the people, build up the highway, and raise a banner.  There is also reference to harvesting grain and gathering grapes. Now, I’m not a literalist: I don’t think there is a highway waiting to be built that will literally bring God down to us.  So, if it’s all a metaphor, what does it mean we need to do?

Spiritual Callings can be fulfilled in many ways

I think it means we need to be engaged in conscious and joyful work.  We need to find our callings, and follow them.  This is not career advice, necessarily, though good on you if you’re bringing home a paycheck in an area about which you’re passionate.  But it can be through other ways, too.  Take this blog, for instance: It’s something I was moved to do after witnessing too many self-professed Christians making excuses for Trump’s deplorable behavior towards women, espousing hateful Islamophobic rhetoric, and disowning children – literally abandoning them on the street – for coming out as gay.  That is not what Christianity is, and I felt I needed to add my voice to those counteracting the worst examples of so-called Christian morality.  Am I a full-time writer? I wish…maybe one day.  Am I a theologically trained clergyman? Definitely not, and unless I win the lottery and can go to seminary school just for kicks, that’s never going to happen.  But it is still a calling, it is still something I am committed to do.

Other people achieve this type of work by volunteering, some are activists, and others are just caring individuals who feel called to kindness and stewardship of those immediately surrounding them.  So like I said, this conscious and joyful work may not be your main hustle, but I think it is something we all need to find time for in our lives.  Finding a cause that is larger than ourselves creates new relationships with others, enriches us spiritually and socially, and reinforces the best parts of society through stewardship.  This is the type of work that will metaphorically build the highway for the return of Jesus.  So follow the advice of this chapter: keep watch through close observation: see what needs are out there, and what makes you passionate. Pray to God for guidance in these passions (it took me two years, a lot of self-doubt, and a lot of prayer to actually get around to starting this blog after my initial idea), then go forth, do the work, and raise that banner: proclaim it to the world.  This is not to be boastful, but to let others know where you stand, and to rally them to your cause. In doing so, we have already become “a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of our God,” one of the Holy People, the Redeemed, and the Sought After, fully ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the promise of the second coming of our Savior, and the reward that is with him.

Isaiah 25 – An All Saints Day Primer

Lord, you are my God;
    I will exalt you and praise your name,
for in perfect faithfulness
    you have done wonderful things,
    things planned long ago.
You have made the city a heap of rubble,
    the fortified town a ruin,
the foreigners’ stronghold a city no more;
    it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will honor you;
    cities of ruthless nations will revere you.
You have been a refuge for the poor,
    a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the storm
    and a shade from the heat.
For the breath of the ruthless
    is like a storm driving against a wall
    and like the heat of the desert.
You silence the uproar of foreigners;
    as heat is reduced by the shadow of a cloud,
    so the song of the ruthless is stilled.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.

In that day they will say,

“Surely this is our God;
    we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
    let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

10 The hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain;
    but Moab will be trampled in their land
    as straw is trampled down in the manure.
11 They will stretch out their hands in it,
    as swimmers stretch out their hands to swim.
God will bring down their pride
    despite the cleverness[a] of their hands.
12 He will bring down your high fortified walls
    and lay them low;
he will bring them down to the ground,
    to the very dust.

 

I’m probably not ready to start posting two entries (and definitely not three!) every week – I still have several more chicken processing days on the farm to go. But I didn’t want to let All Saint’s Day pass without recognition.

For those who don’t celebrate it – and that includes a lot of Protestant traditions – All Saints Day celebrates (you guessed it!) all the Saints, known or unknown, who are in heaven.  This includes more common household names, like Saint Francis of Assisi (the patron saint of animals whose statue you may have seen in gardens), and anyone else who has brought people to Jesus.  All Souls Day is November 2, and celebrates all who are in heaven, sainted or not.  Some places also celebrate the Day of the Innocents, which recognizes children who have passed. So, depending where you are and what church you go to, some, all, or none of these themes may be touched upon in a church service sometime between this Friday and Sunday.

All Saints Day has been well overshadowed by it’s secular neighbor, Halloween, but it is still observed.  It’s an interesting holiday because it is somewhere between solemn and festive.  In New Orleans, for example, there are often family picnics in cemeteries, where the living visit their departed loved ones, sometimes cleaning up the tombstones or crypts, sometimes pouring out a libation in the deceased’s honor.  The closely related Dia de los Muertos (an ongoing mash-up of Catholic and pre-Hispanic customs and beliefs), includes parades and special food and drink, with public and private celebrations galore.

Also, I think it is important to note that (almost no) Episcopalians pray to saints, and neither do Methodists or really any Protestant traditions that I can think of.  Instead, they see the saints as examples to be looked up to when we seek inspiration in our own religious lives.  Catholics and many Eastern traditions do pray to the saints for intercession, which essentially means asking the saint to speak to God on the behalf of the one doing the praying.

So, to get to the actual Bible verses above, why is this particular passage one that is read on All Saints Day?  The specific reading is actually just vv. 6-9, which describes a Holy Feast prepared by God and the destruction of death.  This feast marks a time when suffering is no more, and God’s Kingdom returns to earth – in other words, a time when all the faithful will be saints.

Taken in the context of All Saints Day, the rest of the chapter frames the day’s reading nicely. (Unlike my reading from Isaiah 09 last Advent, which starts out all warm and fuzzy and full of Christmas spirit and took a hard left into crazy cannibalism.)  “Strong peoples will honor you,” verse three says.  Reading that, the first person I think of is another saint, Joan of Arc.  Talk about a strong person.  “You have been a refuge for the poor,” follows in verse four.  I think of all the work Mother Theresa, another female saint (beatified in 2003, if you weren’t up on your recent saints), did on behalf of the poor.  These verses illustrate that God is for everyone, for all nations. Sure, verse ten talks about Moab being trampled into the ground, no stronger than straw in manure (there’s a visual I can relate to!), but that should be seen symbolically more than anything.  Moab is one of the prophet’s favorite “bad guys,” is you will, and came to represent everything that was un-Godly.  The destruction of Moab is a metaphor for the destruction of anything that might stand in our way of a full relationship with God.  And let me be clear, I do not think Moab is a metaphor for another country.  Turkey, China, Russia or any other country we may have current tensions with is not Moab.  What stands in the way of our full relationship with God is more abstract – greed, fear, anger, hate.  That, while harder to villianize, is what we need to combat in ourselves and in the world in order to join in the procession of All Saints.

I love holidays because they invite us to pause and reflect.  We have so few opportunities to do so in our ever-busy lives.  Maybe All Saints Day isn’t a church-going day for you, or one you’ve ever really recognized except as a day for candy-hangovers.  But I hope this year, this All Saints Day, you are able to take even just a moment to pause and reflect.  Thank God, if that feels right for you, or give thanks for someone saintly in your life, living or deceased.  Taking a moment out of your day to connect to something spiritual, to give thanks for something or someone good, helps us all re-center on what is important, and we could all use a little more of that.  Happy All Saints Day.

Isaiah 09-The Spurned-Lover God

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
    when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
    you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
    the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.

 

The Lord has sent a message against Jacob;
    it will fall on Israel.
All the people will know it—
    Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria—
who say with pride
    and arrogance of heart,
10 “The bricks have fallen down,
    but we will rebuild with dressed stone;
the fig trees have been felled,
    but we will replace them with cedars.”
11 But the Lord has strengthened Rezin’s foes against them
    and has spurred their enemies on.
12 Arameans from the east and Philistines from the west
    have devoured Israel with open mouth.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised.

13 But the people have not returned to him who struck them,
    nor have they sought the Lord Almighty.
14 So the Lord will cut off from Israel both head and tail,
    both palm branch and reed in a single day;
15 the elders and dignitaries are the head,
    the prophets who teach lies are the tail.
16 Those who guide this people mislead them,
    and those who are guided are led astray.
17 Therefore the Lord will take no pleasure in the young men,
    nor will he pity the fatherless and widows,
for everyone is ungodly and wicked,
    every mouth speaks folly.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised.

18 Surely wickedness burns like a fire;
    it consumes briers and thorns,
it sets the forest thickets ablaze,
    so that it rolls upward in a column of smoke.
19 By the wrath of the Lord Almighty
    the land will be scorched
and the people will be fuel for the fire;
    they will not spare one another.
20 On the right they will devour,
    but still be hungry;
on the left they will eat,
    but not be satisfied.
Each will feed on the flesh of their own offspring:
21     Manasseh will feed on Ephraim, and Ephraim on Manasseh;
    together they will turn against Judah.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised.

HOLY SHIT that took a hard left turn into crazy-town halfway through! I picked it because it was all warm and fuzzy and Christmas-y at the beginning and didn’t read past verse six.  The first half is all warm and fuzzy, and it would be super easy to do a blog post about just that.  But I’m here to find radical love and fight hypocrisy throughout the whole Bible, so I guess I better deal with this insane, cannibal-fueled second half.

My good study buddy Google showed me some commentary on this section.  It has it’s own name: The Speech of the Outstretched Hand.  And it really is about some hardcore judgement.  But the more I read about it, the more I see God as a spurned lover.  Have you and your partner ever gotten in a fight, and things have spiraled downward and you start saying things you don’t mean and that have nothing to do with the original argument, just trying to score points?  Now I believe that God is a God of love, and not vindictive, but He’s also not just going to roll over and take it.  And for me, reading this rather horrific second passage in that light helps make it more understandable.

God having hurt feelings sounds kind of trite, but if he loves us, and also is angered by us (both Godly emotions are listed in the Bible repeatedly), couldn’t he also be hurt by us?  The reason I’ve started thinking about him as a spurned lover, at least in this passage, is because of two lines.  First, 9:13: “But the people have not returned to him who struck them, nor have they sought the Lord Almighty.” Okay, not an argument for abusive relationships.  But it takes two to argue, so it’s more of an argument for recognizing our own fault and reaching out to make amends.  Second, the footnote of 9:7 compares God’s “zeal” to that of a “jealous [often a synonym for faithful, not jealous in a harmful way] lover who will not abandon his people.” All of this second half of the chapter is brought on by a God who has been hurt by our actions, specifically our pride. I for one know I would be crushed if my husband said “I don’t need you,” so I definitely feel for God right now.

Also let’s just take a quick aside about the whole “feed on the flesh of his own offspring” and “Manesseh will feed on Ephraim” business in verses 20 and 21.  That’s pretty gross. Again, it can be seen as both metaphor and literal.  Israel was at war around the time of this writing, and the atrocities of war are just that, atrocities.  Sometimes, those that survive the war are faced with equally horrific conditions, like starvation.  I don’t know if there is any documentation of starving and cannibalism after the Assyrians invaded Israel, but even if it didn’t happen in this particular war, we all know it does, heart-breakingly so, happen.  So, while this is, unfortunately, something that can literally happen, it can also be a burn-your-eyesockets-vivid metaphor for brother turning on brother.  If we do not have God in our hearts, if we have turned away from God, where is our brotherly love?  Will we not only think of ourselves and hurt our brothers (and sisters) for personal gain?  As an aside from my aside, to address those who say you don’t have to have God in your heart (aka not be “Christian” or “religious” to be a good person) so this doesn’t really apply, I agree, kind of.  I think God is greater than the tiny religious boxes we put Him in, and therefore anyone who considers the needs of others, and is acting out of kindness and concern, has God in their hearts.  Or at least God has them in His.

So what to do with this spurned lover God and gloomy talk of judgement and wicked people?  How about let’s try to avoid it.  Maybe avoidance is the wrong word, let’s try to prevent it. That’s better.  Let’s take a lesson from the prideful and arrogant people of Ephraim and Samaria in verse 9, and not be like them. Let us be humble enough to recognize our wrongs, which is hard to do, and also apologize for those wrongs, which is even harder to do.  Praying to God for forgiveness is great.  We are human and fallible and prone to mistakes on a daily basis and definitely need it.  But asking for forgiveness of others in our life, if done with intention, can also be an act of reconciliation with God.  After all, as 9:6 tells us, “For to us a child is born…And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Jesus is born, Jesus is here, Hallelujah. Through him, God has already outstretched a hand of reconciliation.  All we need to to do is ask forgiveness and reach back.