Seven hundred years before the time of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah began preaching in Jerusalem.
Called in a time of tremendous division and external threat, with widespread distrust of the people’s disagreeing leaders, and great disparities between haves and have-nots, Isaiah’s career as a prophet began as an attempt to warn his country about the direction it was heading.
About 150 years later, however, the armies of Babylon would surround and ultimately destroy the city, taking many captives to Babylon—a foreign city that was, ironically, not far from where the Hebrew people’s ancient patriarch, Abraham, had originally come. It seemed like so much of what God had done since then was now being undone. It was a difficult time, and difficult to remain faithful to God.
Yet in this moment, God spoke once again, offering words of comfort and soon, direction for the journey out of slavery and back to Jerusalem, which they were to rebuild. This part of the story is also remembered in the Book of Isaiah, and is known technically as “Second Isaiah.” Much of the church’s later imagery and understanding of the Messiah comes from this part of the Book of Isaiah.
Finally, after God’s people returned to Jerusalem, they found that rebuilding their lives and their beloved city was far more challenging than they had ever imagined. They were impatient. There were new threats on the horizon. They disagreed about how to care for neediest, and about under what terms strangers could be among them. Some said that those were worthy enough questions to consider, but that now was not the time—that the situation remained far too grave for that kind of sensitivity just then. The final section of the Book of Isaiah (known as “Third Isaiah”) describes this period, and challenges God’s people to look to the future, when God’s final triumph of light over darkness, and justice over injustice would be complete. Let us look for that day, Isaiah suggested, but in the meantime, there was still a great deal of important work to do.
It all sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?
Yet I find myself drawn to different stages in the story at different moments of my own life.
There are times when Isaiah’s initial warnings call me to live differently and to make time for projects designed to make the world a better, fairer, place. At other times, I feel some of dislocation Isaiah describes, and it isn’t clear where God is or what God expects. And of course, there are those blessed moments when I feel a sense of homecoming and restoration, when an especially difficult part of life’s journey feels behind me at last, and I am at last sailing on smoother waters.
Reflecting on Isaiah, the theologian Jo Bailey Wells notes that the possibility of God’s transformation —of us, our general situation, and the world — remains active in all circumstances, “throughout times of prosperity, adversity and rehabilitation.”
That’s been my own experience, too. In any given moment, exactly where God is may not be clear. Yet soon enough, God’s presence emerges, and not as some sort of sudden arrival, but in my own gradual recognition of where God has been all along.
This Sunday, we will begin a three week consideration of the Book of Isaiah after church. I hope you will join us.
See you in church,