May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
How good this is – to be here for Shabbat service, to know that Rabbi David will be with at Trinity for our worship on Sunday morning. Together our congregations are doing a new thing, and my prayer is that over time our people will say, “But it’s tradition! We always study and pray together in the weeks before Passover, before Easter.”
Now I am aware that your primary Scripture for this season is Leviticus. It was last year, too, and I avoided it then. Well, I still haven’t read it all the way through. Maybe next year. Though I’ve been intrigued, I must say, ever since Rabbi David told me that the book of Leviticus functions as a liturgical handbook. As you know, Episcopalians are very fussy indeed about our liturgy, and we’re the sort who like to quibble about how one forms a procession and where one puts the psalm and how many times, precisely, the people are to chant their responses. Leviticus just might be right up my alley. And you all might enjoy reading the rubrics in our Book of Common Prayer or browsing through lengthy commentaries on exactly how to do the complicated liturgies of Holy Week.
See, we’re not so different after all.
In fact, both the Jewish and the Episcopal lectionary – the schedule of which Scriptures are to be read each week – note the use for this week of chapter 43 from the Book of Isaiah. (An aside for Havurahians: in Anglican worship, at the main Sunday services, we read four Biblical texts: one from the Elder Testament; a Psalm; a section from one of Paul’s letters or one of the later writings in the Younger Testament; and lastly a portion from one of the Gospels. This year we’re reading from Luke. The preacher can choose to talk about all the scriptures or focus on one in particular.)
Your Jewish lectionary provides for much longer Scripture passages – whole chapters. We tend more to the “snippet” school – which of course gets us into all kinds of trouble if the preacher doesn’t take the time to put the writings in context.
The passage from Isaiah appointed for both of us contains moving and evocative metaphorical speech from the most poetic of all the Jewish prophets. Were you aware that our Jesus quoted more from the prophet Isaiah than any other part of the Hebrew Scriptures? For Christians, a key to understanding Jesus is to understand Isaiah. Very early on in Jesus’ public ministry, he returned to his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee, went to his synagogue, as was his custom, and was handed a scroll to read the lesson for the day, from Isaiah. Jeshua “unrolled the scroll” – I’m quoting here from Luke – “and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” That’s how Luke tells the story of Jesus reading Isaiah, and how the words of the prophet shaped Rabbi Jeshua’s sense of his ministry: liberation, enlightenment, healing, homecoming.
When Jesus preached, he mostly said: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” The kingdom of God is at hand, near, here, breaking into your midst, now. Can’t you see it? Can’t you feel it? Do you recognize God’s hand at work in the world about you?
And is not that Isaiah’s message as well? that all of creation is the Lord’s, and that all will be well if one keeps one’s heart open and faithful in trusting that the Lord will continue to be the Lord. Isaiah’s poetic genius puts into words visions of what that kind of trust and hope look like: visions of peaceable kingdoms, of water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, Jerusalem rebuilt and at peace, visions of God’s people brought home from all their various exiles. The kingdom of God is at hand.
Isaiah was the prophet whose vision was closest to Rabbi Jesus’ heart.
In the 43 rd and 44 th chapters of the Book of Isaiah, there are several conversations going on between the Lord and his people in exile. Like any intimate conversation, the topic and the tone switch in a twinkling of an eye, and there are many references to code words and images that, when you’re a family, you don’t have to have explained because you know exactly what is meant. For instance, listen to this passage: ‘Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished like a wick” – well everyone with ears to hear knows that is a reference to Israel’s core story, the Exodus, the night of escape from slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea waters and into the dizzying and disorienting freedom of the wilderness. Forty more long years until the promised land, wilderness years in which water miraculously was provided out of a rock, and bread came down from heaven.
But then Yahweh’s words in Isaiah take a surprising turn. Right after that reference to the old core story comes this statement: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” The new thing Yahweh is about to do is to bring his chosen people home, using, of all people, the non-Jew King Cyrus as the agent of their liberation.
Over and over again, the Lord reminds us that creation continues, new things ever spring forth, the divine-human relationship takes surprising turns but always within the covenant of divine faithfulness. That we can count on. And through the prophet Isaiah’s words, we repeatedly hear that the Holy One is Israel’s mother who gave them life, formed them in the womb: “But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen.”
Through Isaiah the Lord reminds his people of their everlasting relationship, as intimate as mother and child, as reassuring as a loving, forgiving and protecting father. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mind. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
Listen to those words! And again in these same chapters: “Do not fear, for I am with you.” “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my sake, and I will not remember your sins. “I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.” I am bringing you home.
Do not be afraid. Your sins are forgiven. I am about to do a new thing. The kingdom of God is near.
Maybe next year, Rabbi David, we could do a study on the teachings of Second Isaiah and of Jesus of Nazareth? For the parallels continue. Neither Isaiah nor Jesus ignored the dark side of human nature, the evils of the human heart, the lethargy and apathy of weary people acclimating themselves to a foreign culture, giving in to temptations to forget to Whom it was that one belonged. Even in these two chapters from Isaiah, no punches are pulled about the backsliding, lukewarm worship and insidious idolatry. Our handmade idols look different today than they did in the prophet’s time, but they are still the works of our own hands – the diplomas we hang on our walls to reassure us of our worthiness, the cars in our driveways to announce our place in the material pecking order, the gates around our property, the money in our retirements funds – not bad things in and of themselves, but idolatrous when we put our rust in them instead of putting ourselves into God’s hands.
Isaiah – and Jesus, too – are ever reminding us Who is in charge, and it isn’t us. We live in troubled times. Even in this sweet valley, isolated as we mostly are from danger and oppression, we are aware that we pay a price for our isolation. It takes some doing to keep our hearts open to the suffering of the world, for most days it seems so very far away. Yet it behooves us all, I believe, to remember, first, that we are exiles, too, and far from home. Even in our own privileged country, the economic gap between rich and poor continues to grow an our social systems are cracking under the load of unrealistic expectations and of greed. Terror and retaliation done in the name of religion puts the whole world on edge. Jerusalem is not at peace. The uncertain future seems dark upon the horizon and we lie awake at night and wonder: What kind of world will our children and grandchildren inherit? We wonder: Where is God in all of this?
The Judaic faith and the Christian looks at human nature straight on, neither denying our dignity as made and beloved by God nor denying the truth of our wayward hearts and destructive behaviors. But the message of the poet, the prophet Isaiah is that God has not forgotten us; the stories of our faith – those precious, life-structuring stories of liberation and homecoming and healing are not musty old texts locked inside our Torah scrolls or New Testaments. No, the Creator is ever doing a new thing. In this time. In our history. This world of ours is a thin place where heaven is ever touching earth, breaking through, coming near.
Our job, Isaiah reminds us, is to hold hope: hope for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren, for each other, for the future of our planet. The prophet’s comforting words are also a challenge: to not give in to helplessness, hopelessness, cynicism, self-indulgent isolation, a paralyzing passivity, nor to despair.
As God’s people – made, chosen, beloved – we are to witness to the One we know, we are do whatever it takes not to let ourselves go numb (and that’s hard to do in this day and age). We are to stay awake and keep alert and watch: watch with acute desire for signs of God’s presence so that we might catch a glimpse of what new thing God is doing, yes is doing right now, right here, in our very midst. Do you see it? Can you perceive it? Do you trust that God’s future is coming at us, right over the horizon?