As you might know, often prophets in the Bible give warnings to people – they provide a long litany of all of the things that God’s people are doing wrong and then explain what will happen if they don’t change their ways.
But today’s passage from Isaiah is different. It’s not a rebuke of God’s people, rather it’s more like a pep talk. Scholar Kristin J. Wendland says this,
The context of this passage is important. The audience appears to be exiles who have recently returned to Jerusalem. The promise of newness comes to them as they look around their beloved city and see troubled relationships and power struggles with those who did not leave but continued to make their lives in Jerusalem. They see no signs of a rebuilt temple. This promise of freedom, comfort, restoration, and praise likely seemed far off -- yet it was spoken. God was at work in their midst. God was at work through them. God, the servant-prophet, and the people are wrapped together in this passage even as the work of salvation, the fulfillment of this promise, would be fulfilled in fits and starts as God worked through the prophet and the people.
Wendland’s emphasis that God is working through the people is important. This is not about the people being passively served – it’s about the people serving. They have work to do. They have God’s work to do.
As always, figuring out how we fit into what is being read (our perspective) makes a difference with regards to how the passage informs us. Scholar Corrine Carvahlo has this to say,
Is the speaker, the “I” of the poem, our avatar, or are we “they” whom the “I” addresses? At first glance, it might seem obvious. The speaker cannot be me, because I could not do the things that God commands the speaker to do. I cannot declare release from suffering or change mourning into joy. It is much easier to be “them,” part of the passive recipients of God’s blessings. My life is hard, I want to yell. I am mourning! I am imprisoned by poverty/poor health/addiction/anxiety. God must surely have finally heard my prayer and come to bring me my just reward!
The problem is, the message of the Bible is not always that easy. It rarely casts its audience as the righteous group. Throughout the prophetic texts related to the exile, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the elite deserve divine vengeance for their lack of righteousness. If this poem is directed to this returning group of former elites, perhaps they are the ones who are called to serve the mourners, the captives, the oppressed.
Carvahlo goes on to say this,
Rather than hearing these words as exaltation of a deity who serves my needs, we should hear them as divine command to go out and bring healing to our broken world.
She reminds us,
The point of the Incarnation is not to distance Jesus from us, but rather the opposite. The Incarnation asks us to see ourselves as the image and likeness of God, to whom has been given the dominion of this world (Genesis 1:26). In that capacity, the image is a charge to act justly within this world of injustice, violence, prejudice, and oppression. We are not Christ’s image when we triumph as much as when we serve.
…Isaiah 61 is not just about the ability and desire of God to heal human wounds. It is a call to be the bodies through whom divine justice becomes a reality, not just within our own small communities, but to the whole world2.
We are still in the midst of determining official election results in our country. No matter what the result is, the election has highlighted a deep divide amongst us – an ideological split that many on both sides find perplexing and disturbing. In this time of transition we have a choice, we can focus on the outcome – triumph as Carvahlo puts it or we can focus on service, our actions.
As someone came out of the closet while attending college in the deep south, I have struggled for years with ideological divides. How could I possibly stay in relationship with anyone whose faith said my sexuality was an abomination? While my more conservative friends would not have thrown me a coming out party, many of them did not push me away when I came out, despite the apparent conflict. Nor did they try to change me. There was an invitation to both/and relationship. We each had differing understandings of the world and God and we still had a friendship. It was possible. Interestingly enough, I was usually the one who pulled away from the relationship out of fear – but it was a fear of what might happen, not a fear based on anything that had actually happen.
Of course, there are times when relationships between those with differing ideologies is not possible, but I think too often we shut down relationships because of fear of the differences or maybe a sense of superiority, that person is just wrong. Or we are angry, we have a sense righteous indignation – how could they. Or we are afraid.
But here’s the divine invitation – serve. Or challenge is to figure out how to humbly walk through the world as servants, servants interacting with the world as witnesses to the ways of God. And what is clear from the passage (and from many passages in the Bible) is that our service does not include judgment. Judgment is left to God alone.
Some in our country feel like we have been in exile. Some feel like they are about to go into exile. Our call is to be servants. Follow the ways of Jesus. Live love. May God lead as us we journey. Amen.