For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 18 – Isaiah 25:1-9
This week’s OT reading gives us a tale of two cities. They are two very different cities, and Isaiah contrasts them in order to give an important message about God.
The first city is unnamed (v.2). So what do we know about it? It was a stronghold of foreigners, and it has been completely and permanently destroyed. The lack of a name for the city only adds to the sense that it has not only been destroyed, but almost forgotten. It is hardly worth mentioning.
Is there anything else we can know about this heap of ruins? Archaelologists have suggested that it was near Jerusalem, at a place called Ramat Rahel, where ruins have been found from this period, the late 7th century BC. For over 100 years Judah had been a vassal state to Assyria, and in line with their strategy for world domination the Assyrians built cities which served as outposts for their empire. Judah had paid dearly for her survival, but suddenly they were free. A new empire, that of Babylon, had taken over the world stage, and Assyria crumbled, along with its cities. It is this removal of the nation’s oppressors which is being celebrated in this hymn of praise.
We know that Assyria as a nation was cruel, enjoyed torture, and operated a scorched earth policy over most of its conquests, although obviously Judah was prosperous enough to be worth taxing rather than destroying. So when Isaiah moves on to his second city, the contrast could not be greater. This city is not named either, but there is no need to name it. It is the city on this mountain (v.6, 7, 11), right here where we are in Jerusalem. But beyond Jerusalem is the eternal city for which it stands, God’s apocalyptic kingdom, the heavenly Zion.
Zion is portrayed as a great banquet (personally one of my favourite images of heaven!) and the language used describes a Michelin 5 star rated feast: the words for aged wines contrast it with the everyday plonk, and the best of meats is literally marrowfat, which might not sound that appealing but was actually a great delicacy in that culture. But the real point here is not so much quality but quantity. This all-you-can-eat buffet is for all peoples, and particularly those who come from places of shame, disgrace and mourning. All are welcome to find healing and joy. Assyria demands and destroys: Zion welcomes and nourishes.
The Israelites were very well aware of the hand of God working through the rulers of this world and directing their paths for his purposes, so they clearly saw the rise of Babylon as a saving act of God. The ruined city became a monument to God’s power and a promise for the future, when all enemies, all that brings shame and defeat, would be destroyed by him. But there is even better news yet. There is something else on the menu at this feast: death.
The image of death being swallowed up is one which has passed into Christian imagery and liturgy. It seems to be used here deliberately, in the context of eating and drinking. At the moment our graves swallow us up, but God promises a time when death will be consumed by victory.
Whatever victories we have seen in your Christian life, whatever answered prayers or times of great closeness to God, Isaiah encourages us to see them as picture of the future. ‘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’ (v.9). And don’t forget this first part of that verse ‘In that day they will say …’ If you are still in a place of defeat, shame and disgrace, hold on to the experience of Judah, and let this tale of two cities lead you faithfully and joyfully towards the third.