For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 3 – Isaiah 66:10-14
Since retiring two years ago I have recently started taking funerals again, something I loved about parish ministry but which, due to a Diocesan job and then the pandemic I haven’t really done for about 8 years. As you might imagine I was nervous at first, but very quickly I got back into the saddle as though it was only yesterday. I was reminded of a previous funeral where, as is my custom, I used a prayer to reflect on the fact that no relationship is ever perfect, and that we might just have some regrets in our relationship to the deceased, some things we would have liked the time to have said, or maybe some things we wish we hadn’t said or done. Despite the fact that the person whose funeral I was taking was an absolutely lovely old saint, I was thanked warmly after the service for my honesty in acknowledging that things hadn’t always been perfect, and my avoidance of the sentimental hagiography so often present at funerals.
Today’s reading is almost the final paragraph of the corporate work we call the book of Isaiah, and thematically it is like closing the bracket which was opened at 40:1 with God’s words to comfort his people. In 66:13 God himself has become the comforter, in a climax to three themes which appear in this short passage. They are positive themes, a call to joy and celebration, the image of Jerusalem as a nurturing mother, and finally the comfort of God. But each of them carries echoes of something less positive. Just like my funeral ministrations, the prophet wants to acknowledge the pain and hurt which so often exist alongside joy. He doesn’t go overboard and negate the joy and comfort, as I hope I don’t at funerals, but the mere echo of a mention gives the listeners the opportunity and the permission to be real rather than sentimental, or, as in another common funeral habit, not to try to suppress sadness altogether (‘We don’t want anyone to wear black …’, ‘I am not there, I did not die.’)
So the call to rejoice is made, in v.10, to those who mourn. We have watched the chequered history of God’s holy city, and we know that it is going to continue into the NT, where it is known as the city which slaughters prophets, until the Temple’s final destruction in 70 AD. We rejoice not by forgetting the more negative aspects, but in spite of them.
Similarly the picture of Jerusalem as the nurturing mother in v.11 echoes with other passages where the city is seen as an adulterous whore. In Lamentations the city weeps because her children have been taken away from her. So her current status as a nurturing mother has to be seen against the backdrop of less favourable times.
And finally the image of God as comforter in v.13-14 has a rather jarring conclusion with the reminder that those who are God’s enemies will see not his comfort but his wrath. In fact, when you think about it there are very few unremittingly positive passages in the whole of the Bible: there is always the lurking reminder, sometimes hiding in the shadows, but sometimes centre stage, that God is not a God of universal unconditional love, but that we have a choice, and he responds to us in the light of how we respond to him.
I wonder if this passage, then, is a reminder to God’s people never to sink into sentimentality, but to retain a realistically balanced and biblical understanding of who he is, and of how we relate to him. There is something in the human mind which wants to avoid pain and make everything nice, rewriting history if necessary. Have you noticed that anyone who tragically loses their life in some catastrophe or other was always lively, loving, bright and intelligent, caring etc? It seems that no-one who dies was ever nasty, or even just ordinary as we are. But when, as in my funeral ministry, I simply allow people to acknowledge the obvious, that real life, and real people, are both good and bad, sometimes at the same time, they are grateful for it. This allows them both to grieve appropriately and rejoice realistically. Perhaps whoever wrote this passage had the same aim in mind.