This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian Church of Boonville, NY. The text is Isaiah 35:1-10.
We’re going to be talking about poetry today, so I’d like to begin with a short poem:
A young, psychic midget named Marge
went to jail on a most heinous charge.
But, despite lock and key,
the next day, she broke free,
and the headlines read: “Small Medium at Large”.
This poem is an example of a limerick: a short poem with a particular structure of rhyme and rhythm and a zinger or punchline that typically comes at the end. This is a common feature in English poetry.
Hebrew poetry, on the other hand, is quite different. Hebrew poems don’t much rely on rhyme or rhythm. They depend instead on the way certain ideas or images go together.
Also, a Hebrew poem is kind of like an Oreo cookie: all the good stuff is in the middle. There is often one central idea that gets flanked on either side by repeated secondary ideas. Biblical scholars call this form a “chiasm” and it looks something like this: idea A, followed by idea B, followed by the central idea C. Then the pattern reverses itself: idea B gets repeated, then, at the end, idea A gets repeated. It has a kind of symmetrical structure: A-B-C-B-A.
Why are we talking so much about Hebrew poetry? Because our Old Testament reading, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, takes the form of a poem. Hebrew prophets, like Isaiah, often delivered their message through poetry. I like to imagine them as folksingers like Woodie Guthrie or Bob Dylan, hitchhiking across the country singing “The Times Are A-Changin’”. Verses 1-7 fit this pattern (this “chiastic” structure) perfectly. Let’s take a look:
We’ll start with the central idea in the middle. We’re twisting open the Oreo and licking the cream out, if you will. The central idea in this poem comes in the second half of the fourth verse: “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” In Hebrew, it literally says, “Behold! Your God!” If this were a circus magician’s act, this would be the point when the curtain flies open and the band goes, “TA-DA!!!” This is the moment when God’s presence is revealed (made known) to the people. “Here is your God.”
Now that God’s presence has been revealed (“Ta-da!”), the next thing we learn is what God intends to do now that God is here. Isaiah uses the words “vengeance” and “terrible recompense” to describe God’s intentions. These words probably make most mainline Christians squirm in their pews just a little. Language about God’s “vengeance” is usually found on the lips of zealots and fanatics who use the name of God and the text of the Bible to justify their own apocalyptic agendas. It might help to learn that these words have a much broader and deeper meaning in the Hebrew language. When Isaiah talks about God’s “vengeance” and “terrible recompense”, he is referring to God’s intention to fix all that is wrong with the world and finally set things right, once and for all. You and I are not alone when we feel sad or angry that all is not well in the world. God sees it too. God feels our pain. And most of all, God intends to do something about it.
What, exactly, does God intend to do? Isaiah tells us at the end of verse 4: God intends to “save” us. “Salvation” is another word that has a much broader and deeper meaning than it is usually given in our culture. In order to understand what Isaiah means by “salvation”, we’ll have to take a look at the other two sections of his poem.
In the verses immediately surrounding Isaiah’s central idea, the prophet develops the idea of “salvation” as he understands it. The images he uses are primarily images of healing: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’” (v.3-4a) Later on he describes how “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (v.5-6a) Salvation, for Isaiah, is something very practical. Nothing in this passage indicates that he might be talking about “pie in the sky when you die”. No, salvation, as it appears in this text, has to do with the transformation of people’s lives in this world.
Isaiah continues to expand the concept of salvation in the next section of his poem. God’s saving activity is not just limited to the lives of human beings in this world. It includes the world itself. All creation is invited to celebrate the blessing of God’s love: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” (v.1-2) Later on the prophet describes how “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.” (v.6b-7) Writing about the salvation of the natural world, Isaiah speaks in threes. First, he describes the “before” image (i.e. the initial desolation of the land): “wilderness”, “dry land”, and “desert”. Then he describes the “after” image (i.e. what the land will be like when God is finished): “Lebanon”, “Carmel”, and “Sharon”. These three places were some of the most fertile lands around in the Ancient Near East. To put it in terms of North American geography: Isaiah is effectively saying that the arid badlands of North Dakota will be as lush and fertile as the Everglades in southern Florida.
All of this is relevant because Jews in Isaiah’s time felt like they were living on a planet that was spinning wildly out of control. They were threatened with invasion from without and corruption from within. People grew more fearful and cynical with each passing day. Isaiah was often critical of the society in which he lived. His poetry could be quite harsh at times. During his lifetime, his ministry met with only limited success. Empires continued to rise and fall around him. The moral fiber of the Jewish people continued its downward spiral into corruption and cynicism until they too were eventually conquered and dragged into exile by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC. But, in spite of these facts, Isaiah refused to give in to anxiety or despair. He held on tight to this vision of an all-inclusive salvation. When God was finished, even the most barren corners of the earth would join in the celebration of life.
Isaiah placed no faith in the powers-that-be for the establishment of God’s paradise on earth. God is the one who began the work of salvation on the earth and God is the one who can see it through to the end. And there is nothing that power-hungry nations, corrupt leaders, cynical people, or even the powers of death and chaos themselves can do to thwart God’s presence and purposes in this world.
Isaiah’s message, while directed toward Jews in the 8th century BC, is still relevant for us today. We too live on a planet that feels like it’s spinning out of control. The forces of death and chaos threaten to overwhelm us in the midst of our daily lives. In a deceitful effort to alleviate our fear, the culture around us capitalizes on our cynicism, tempting us to place our trust in political parties, nuclear arsenals, or the almighty dollar.
The crises of this world seem so great that we cannot hope to fix them all. We cannot even solve the little problems that creep up in our own community, our families, or our individual lives. What good is our little effort in the face of so much chaos?
By itself, our best effort is useless and meaningless. Try as we might, we cannot “save” ourselves through political programs, business transactions, or religious institutions. We are utterly dependent on the sovereign grace of God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God is working the miracle that we cannot.
We can put our hearts and minds at ease by embracing Isaiah’s vision of humanity and all creation transformed and renewed through the saving presence and power of God. This vision can give us hope to carry on when it seems that all other hope is gone. As Isaiah himself said, faith in this vision can “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees”. With this hope in mind, we can say to our fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear!”
Our little efforts to better our lives, our families, our community, and this world are part of God’s bigger project of salvation. The entire process does not depend on us; it depends on God. God has graciously invited us to play a small part in that salvation. None of our kind words or good deeds are ever lost in the sight of God. Each one has eternal value as part of God’s project for setting things right in this world.
When you feel tempted to despair in your struggle with sin, death, and chaos in this life, I invite you to do as Isaiah did: Turn your spiritual gaze inward and upward. Meditate on the presence of God within you and around you. Say to yourself, “Here is your God!” Witness the creative and transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in God’s creation. Remember that God started this good work in you and will see it through to the end. Rest in this truth and you shall, in the words of Isaiah, “obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”