a sermon on Isaiah 62:1-5
preached on January 17, 2016, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent…”
These days, it feels like there are lots of people who are taking this word from the Lord very seriously! As we approach the presidential primaries this spring and the national elections this fall, candidates and pundits and regular people are speaking up constantly! But even beyond this moment, people are raising their voices more than ever before. Sometimes reading on Facebook or Twitter or other social media makes me wonder if some people ever have a thought that they do not say out loud! The comments section of many online news articles is even worse, as hate and vitriol pour forth unchecked. And the constant call all around us to speak up about one thing or another by posting on Facebook, signing a petition, writing a representative or senator, or even sending smoke signals just leaves me wondering if any words I choose to offer will ever be heard above the din of the world in these days.
The biggest issue about all this noise for me, though, is that it is so often about the wrong things. Who are those who refuse to keep silent speaking for? Are they raising their voices for themselves or for others? Are the issues being lifted up for the benefit of a few or the many? Are these people speaking up on behalf of the well-off or of the poor and downtrodden? So often in these days, those who refuse to keep silent are concerned only about themselves and not others. They so often seek the well-being of a few at the expense of the many. So many who speak up in these days seem to be working for the safety of those who are quite safe already while endangering those who have no way of protecting themselves.
While so many loud voices around us today are focused on self-preservation and permitting injustice, the prophet Isaiah here declares that God will raise God’s voice on behalf of those who might not otherwise be heard, of the people of Israel and Judah who were struggling to find their voice—and a way to raise it up—following their exile to Babylon. While many of the exiles had returned to their homeland, they could not forget the trauma that they had experienced. Their story was deeply and directly marked by the experience of their exiled refugee ancestors, and they were still suffering the effects of this experience. They may have been back home, with reconstruction of the buildings and institutions of their homeland taking place all around them, but they were still filled with the signs and markers of deep brokenness, of long-term defeat, and of a feeling of abandonment by God. And God may have offered them deep promises of comfort and hope for generations, but they still bore the scars of a people violated by siege and invasion that divided them from one another and from their God who had seemingly left them alone to suffer.
In response to all these things, the prophet offers the people the words of God in poetry that, as commentator Kathleen O’Connor describes it,
takes historical circumstances and transposes them into the small story of a couple and their household. The poetry moves between language about an ancient city and the life of a bride. It attends to and gathers up the suffering of generations by using imagery of a women cast off and abandoned. In ancient Israel such a woman faced life-threatening peril, because she could not survive without family to support and protect her. (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 247)
But God’s proclamation here makes it clear that such peril is not the last word for this woman—or for the people. God will speak up to make it clear to all the world that this woman—and these people—are not only protected but beloved and celebrated. God will make it clear that these whom others may deride as devoid of beauty and wonder “shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” God will transform these who once were desolate and forsaken into a joyous, hopeful, and beloved people. Amid all their conflicts, all their fears, all their uncertainties, all their as-yet-unfulfilled promises, God’s light will break forth in their midst, making it clear that they are beautiful, beloved, and special. All the harm that they have endured, all the dishonor that has been poured upon them, all the fear that has surrounded them—all these things will be vindicated as the world is shown that this harm, this dishonor, this fear is not the last word, for the glorious transformation of new life will shine brightly as God rejoices in these new things.
In our day and age, when there are so many who will not keep silent about the wrong things, when there are plenty of people who are attacked or left without support and protection, when there are so many in our midst who struggle to find a hopeful way to interact with one another, these words still echo loudly among us. These words are not so much addressed to us for ourselves—after all, if we are truly honest with ourselves, most of us are not the kind of downtrodden people God is addressing here—but rather these words are shared with us so that we might offer God’s love and light to those who might not otherwise know it. In our world, there are plenty of people who need to know that they are chosen and singled out and gifted as God’s beloved. As Kathleen O’Connor puts it so well,
Isaiah’s passage supports divine election not to buttress the contented, to uphold the secure, the confident, or the arrogant. Isaiah’s theology of election is rhetoric of immense power because it tells the poor, the second-class nation, the excluded and cast-off women of this world, that God takes immense delight in them. (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, p. 247)
As God’s people, then, we are called to share this kind of new life and light with exactly these people—these who are dismissed by the world as “illegal” because they fled across human borders seeking hope for their families and themselves; these who are caught up in the violence of systemic racism and sexism and homophobia and religious preference because they do not look or act or believe like others; these who long for a safe place to escape violence against their bodies and spirits because they have been hurt in body, mind, and spirit by those who say that they love them; even these who find themselves mixed up in anxiety and fear over an uncertain future and so lash out against others who seem to be so different from them. We are called to remember that God’s care is first and foremost for those who are not cared for by the world—and that we join in God’s work when we reach out in mercy, grace, and love to make God’s presence real.
There is no better time to remember all these things and return to this pathway of hope and justice than on this weekend when we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. More than any other figure in our history, Dr. King embodied the fullness of these words in his life and work. He refused to keep silent and did not rest in his pursuit of the case of justice and righteousness for all of God’s people and especially for the downtrodden and excluded among us. He insisted that God’s vindication and glory would be revealed among those who had been cast down, that their lives would be “a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord.” And he made it clear that God delights in all people and will bring us all to a new day of equality, justice, and peace, fulfilling not just our national commitment to care for our people but our human responsibility to embrace the wonder of God’s love in ways beyond our immediate understanding and outside of our usual knowledge. Martin Luther King, Jr., insisted that we as a people could be more than we were and can be more than we are, carrying the potential of great wonder, hope, and restoration for ourselves and all the world, for God’s liberating glory invites us to shine God’s light into every dark and uncertain place.
So, my friends, it is time for us too to follow these prophets’ proclamation, to set aside our silence and to take up a new voice, to shine God’s vindication of the poor and outcast before all the nations to broadcast God’s salvation of the excluded and cast-off to the ends of the earth, to join the faithful saints of the ages who have shared this message of transformation and hope with our actions in solidarity with God and others so that it will be clear to us and the downtrodden and all the world that we are all God’s beloved and that we are called to celebrate all the ways that God rejoices in us and all our sisters and brothers until the whole creation is made new in the power of Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Amen.