The year was 587 BC. Our spiritual ancestors, the Israelites, were deported to Babylon, where they felt like refugees in a foreign land. Their place of worship, the temple, had been destroyed. They sat by the rivers of Babylon. . .and wept. (Psalm 137:1). They were dispirited and tempted to think Yahweh had deserted them.
“The move from establishment to exilic displacement is the story line that concerns the book of Isaiah,” says Walter Brueggemann in his book, Isaiah 40-60 (1998). But it was also a time when this poet of the exile (a second Isaiah) provides the most extreme claim and singularity of Yahweh as creator to lift them out of their despair and reminds them, in powerful language, that Yahweh’s work as creator is not a one-time deal.
“It is continuing work that entails Yahweh’s endless, energetic attentiveness to creation. Yahweh is not worn out, not exhausted. Yahweh, the creator God, is directly attentive to the faint and powerless, to those who have no energy on their own. In context, of course, it is precisely the exiles who are resourceless, faint and powerless. It is precisely for them that Yahweh is decisive.”
To those who heard the oratorio Messiah performed over the holidays, the story comes alive, once again, through the powerful text and music of Handel in the recitative: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God.” Though I have heard this many times, the chills still go up and down my spine when I hear the soloist, plus 200-plus voices and the many sounds of instruments make that enduring proclamation.
“It is an act of remarkable courage to utter such a doxological claim that always includes a polemic against alternative claims,” says Brueggemann. “It is also an act of boldness, then or now or any time, to engage reimagining and reconstructing life in terms of Yahweh, the creator who brings to nought both the wonders of creation and pretenders of politics. It is easy for people of faith to conclude that the creator God is an irrelevance in a contemporary system that seems set in stone.
“In exile, Israel tended to be more self-occupied and self-absorbed with its own destiny. In this condition, however, Yahweh changes the subject and summons grieving Israel out beyond its own self-preoccupation to other work.”
Yes, we know the story well. And biblical scholars like Brueggemann have searched the depths for what this poetry meant for our ancient ancestors and for us today.
Is the story really that old? Does it resonate today? What is our Babylon? Are we weeping as if in exile? Does it feel, facing all the changes affecting us in the church in 2016 and in our changing culture, that we are again in exile in a foreign land?
A sometimes wearisome controversy over sexuality seems to hold us captive. There is grief over our young people leaving the established church. A significant shortage of financial support is forcing Mennonite Church Canada to lay off staff and face a denominational restructuring. We are just now owning up to our complicity in the dark period of Canadian history during the residential schools era.
Internationally, we may fear a growing menace called ISIS that seems bent on building a caliphate that considers everyone who isn’t an Islamic “believer” an infidel. This apocalyptic vision has both a theocratic and political dynamic. Fear-mongers, especially in the U.S., consider this as the beginning of World War 3, with some presidential candidates whipping up a frenzy for votes that will again look to military might to conquer this enemy.
Is this the new exile? Brueggemann sees the poetry of the second Isaiah as setting forth the gospel claim Behold, your God! (Isa. 40:9), employing “a heightened rhetoric in order to exhibit Yahweh in the most compelling ways possible to that Babylonian definition of reality that is seen as fraudulent and unreliable.”
Can we, with the poet, sing again the new song (Isa. 42:10) to celebrate anew, in this year, the established governance of Yahweh, a rule that displaces all the Babylonian gods of our time—exploiters of human habitation and the environment? Can we cling to the words of the prophet as we face all of the foreboding changes in our faith community and in our world in 2016?