At the center of ancient Israel’s history stood the prophets. Time and again they called out God’s people in Judah and Israel to turn away from the ways of the world and turn back to God, to remember who they were and, most important of all, whose they were. All because God had planned a future for them, which in turn would lead the rest of humankind–and indeed, creation–to peace, glory, and eternal fulfillment.
Everything must have appeared hopeless to the captives in Babylon. As the psalmist noted, they cried by Babylon’s waters because they could find neither words nor music to sing “the Lord’s song” there. Into that situation came the anonymous prophet often referred to as Second Isaiah to speak words of comfort and challenge they desperately needed. So far in time and space from their ancestral home, they were surrounded by the opulent glory of Babylon:
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. –Isaiah 40:1-11 NRSV
We could use another “Second Isaiah” today. Maybe several.
Economically, politically, and socially our world in North America has an outward glitz but an inward rot that leads many people to believe there is no hope, no chance for true and lasting peace. Divisions between the rich and poor (and a shrinking in-between middle class); politically powerful and impotent; segregation along racial, political, and economic lines; gender identities and roles that all too often are the basis for discrimination, bigotry, and abuse–these have become the hallmarks of our “Babylonian society.” Where do or can God’s people fit in? Has God actually given up?
Yes, we could certainly use another Second Isaiah.
On this second Sunday of Advent, as we continue our preparations not only for the appearance of a baby in a manger but a savior for the world, we reaffirm our hope that Christ’s reign of peace will in fact be realized on earth as it is in heaven. God is preparing a way–as incredible as a straight highway in the middle of a desert. It just appears to us more like the scenic route: lots of hairpin twists and turns, interesting and dangerous encounters, and unexpected events just around the next corner.
All that appears so glorious in modern-day “Babylon” is, like all flesh, as grass and flowers that fade away. Only God and God’s kingdom can be counted on, can be truly eternal. In our time, we’ve constructed a society that becomes harsher and more inequitable with each passing year. Tribalism replaces a moral code. Selfishness and greed are raised up as worthwhile goals rather than sinful behavior. When will the “glory of the Lord” be revealed?
And so we wait for peace on earth. For justice to roll down like the waters. For righteousness to spread throughout the land. There are Second Isaiahs out there, but first we must tune our ears to hear them.
My new book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use.