For those who want a change from the Gospel
Epiphany 2 – Isaiah 62:1-5
Welcome back to revjohnleachblog, and a happy New Year to you all, after a couple of weeks off. I haven’t been wasting my time though: I’ve finally submitted my PhD thesis for examination! But it’s good to be back with you.
If we were to write a plot and a dramatis personae or cast list for today’s little drama, we would find 5 ‘characters’ and a straightforward plot. But beneath the simplicity lies quite a complex passage with a pretty radical application. Let’s begin with the cast list. The first is ‘I’, the speaker who just will not shut up. Who is he or she? Probably the prophet, presumably speaking in the name of and at the command of our second character, The Lord. He is speaking no doubt to the people of Israel, but he is speaking about what will happen to the Land, our fourth ‘character’, with quite a leading role here. Finally, he is speaking about how ‘the nations’ will react. So these five characters or groups are the players on the stage, but what is the story?
The prophet seems to be expressing what the Lord is going to do, partly for the people but mostly for the land, and what the reaction of the nations around is going to be. God is going to make Israel’s righteousness and salvation (‘vindication’ is not the best translation of the Hebrew word used here) shine out like a flaming torch in the darkness. When the hostile nations see this righteousness, blazing out so that it can’t be missed in its attractive beauty, they are presumably going to seek the Lord, as they do in several other passages in Isaiah. The picture of a diadem in the Lord’s hand is a great one. You’d expect it to be on his head, but he seems to have taken it off and is showing it around to the nations as one would a beautiful gift or an Olympic gold medal or something. He is just so proud of his people, and he wants everyone to see them in their beauty. But it isn’t just humans who will see this epiphany: the Land itself will be healed. Deuteronomy has much material about physical theological geography. The relationship between land and people is a close one, and the land can be wounded by human sin, particularly the breaking of covenants or promises, false worship and bloodshed. So it has been, but the promise is of restoration is that what was once deserted will become delightful, and what was once desolate will become married and fruitful. Instead of the land harming the people and offending God, it will become a delight to both, as are a newly married couple to each other.
Sounds great, doesn’t it, but this happy ending isn’t a foregone conclusion. The fact that the prophet needs to keep on crying out until the nation’s righteousness blazes forth suggests that at the moment that isn’t happening. Rather than living in the kind of attractive holiness that will see others flocking to them to find where they got this wisdom from, they are in the situation where the prophet has to keep shouting to them, presumably until they stop acting evilly, thus polluting and harming the land, which in turn becomes hostile to them. While they continue to live lives which are harmful and toxic, the prophet has no option but to keep on with his carrot and stick oracles, promising a future which is so much better, but also warning what will happen if not. Theologically speaking the land can be saved when humans mend their ways.
Clearly there are vast implications here for our global ecological crisis. I often tell my students, somewhat controversially, that the biblical way to save the planet is to stop sinning on it, not the sins of throwing plastic into the sea (although that would certainly help) but rather by stopping the bloodshed, lying and false worship which is the real cause of the planet’s writhing in agony at the behaviour of its inhabitants. Maybe we need some prophets to start crying out with that message, rather than merely attempting, through fallen human plans, to tackle the symptoms whilst having completely lost any theology of sin, blame, punishment or repentance.