I have a hard word today.
There is reason to despair. Reason to adopt nihilism, or extreme cynicism. Reason to scorn.
Reason to believe it’s all meaningless, that there is no purpose to it all.
More than that, there’s evidence, hard evidence, scientific evidence that the world is in peril; that God’s beautiful creation is in profound jeopardy; that humans are ruining it: destroying ecosystems, endangering and diminishing species and habitat.
That’s not all. There’s evidence, proof, that millions of people are suffering, suffering unimaginable misery. Millions of our kindred (innocent men, women and children) suffer daily for lack of food, lack of shelter, lack of basic healthcare, and are lacking the most basic sense of security, while others of us are fat and happy, possessed of more than we can possibly use or consume.
I’m not done. It gets worse. Among the leaders of the nations of the world are tyrants, despots, dictators, autocrats, and strong men – some cruel, even beyond our imagining.
Here’s a hard, unpleasant truth: the world is lop-sided. For a great many people justice is no more than a mirage, shimmering, distant, and unattainable. The world is so lop-sided, so cock-eyed and out of proportion, justice so wanting, so absent for so many, it is as if the haves and the have-nots inhabit different realms, different planets altogether.
That’s how it is in the 8th century before the Common Era when the prophet Isaiah is writing and speaking. Isaiah sees a ruler, a king, who is selfish, craven, imperious, full of his own power; self-impressed with the trappings of his office: a king who loves himself more than his people, and who loves his throne more than the good of the land. A king addicted to, drunk on, and reckless with power.
Speaking for God, Isaiah weeps and wails at the injustice of it all. He aims his most precise and cutting criticism at the guy at the top, at the king, at the one who, above all others, has the resources and the power to un-skew, to smooth out, the lop-sided society of ancient Israel
the one who, if he were a man of God and a man of mercy, would have mercy on the poor, but who is utterly lacking in mercy, lacking in kindness.
In addition to critiquing the king for his craven, imperious, favor-the-rich policies, Isaiah looks right past the king, past him or through him and proclaims a different future. Despite what is right before his eyes, Isaiah sees a future, brighter, finer, fairer than the present. To be clear, Isaiah doesn’t see human leaders making it better, or getting better themselves. He doesn’t kings and presidents, prime ministers and chieftains, sultans and supreme leaders evolving, getting better, kinder, or more just. He doesn’t see it that way. Frankly, Isaiah takes a dim view of human leaders.
But that doesn’t leave Isaiah hopeless. Far from it. Isaiah looks to God for hope.
What Isaiah does see is God coming down out of heaven to intervene, to right wrongs, to straighten out that which is askew. Isaiah prophesies that it will take nothing less than a God-ordained leader, a leader around whose shoulders is a wrapped a mantle of righteousness, upon whose head rests a crown of justice, whose scepter is kindness, who “with righteousness judges the poor and decides with equity for the meek of the earth.”
Isaiah proclaims that this leader will emerge as a king of peace, whose reign will be one of peace and righteousness. What’s more, the entire creation partakes of and participates in this peaceful, righteous and just reign: wolf and lamb, calf and lion, adder and infant, mountain and ocean.
And embedded in this oracle, this prophesy of what shall be, is this marvelous image …
is God, in first person, proclaiming: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain…” How? Why? God concludes “…for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Ah!
You might read this oracle, this prophecy from the mouth of the prophet Isaiah and say:
Balderdash! Twaddle! Idiocy! You might proclaim Isaiah a fantasist, a deluded romantic. Such a realm as Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom is the stuff of fairytale and no more.
You might. You could. No one could fault you for it. You could proclaim yourself a cynic
or nihilist or even, let’s be honest, even just a realist and declare that Isaiah is a lunatic and that there is nothing to be done about this old wreck of a world, or about all the tyrants who strut and hurt and destroy. You could.
Or, you could say to yourself: I’m with Isaiah! I’m with the God of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, the God of Jesus and the Marys! I’m on the side of hope! I will lean hard and deep into a future where the score is being kept, where the sufferings of this world are noted, where the God of heaven weeps at human pain and means to make it right, means to make up for it.
You see, what Isaiah offers is a critique of the tyrant. It’s not just any critique. It’s God’s critique of the tyrant. Isaiah lets down a divine plumb-line by which to measure potentates and kings, presidents and prime leaders – a plumb-line that measures them, measures their leadership not by their accrual of power, but by their commitment to justice.
Isaiah’s vision, proclaimed in our sacred texts (Isaiah, this large and lovely prophet,
whose image is framed in stained glass in churches and synagogues the world over) is the measuring rod by which world rulers are to be measured.
Hear this you ruler, you tyrant, you president and prime minister, and be warned. If you don’t decide with equity for the meek of the earth, you’re on the wrong side of God and God is keeping track.
Hear this, ruler, tyrant, president and prime minister, and be warned. Are you judging the poor of the earth with righteousness? For if not, prepare yourself. Oh, brace yourself. There will be an accounting.
One of the reasons Christianity was so popular with enslaved persons in the early centuries of this country, and one of the reasons it is so popular today, and has been across the centuries with the poor around the earth is that it promises a reckoning to the enslaved person, the person who suffers injustice, the oppressed, the parent whose baby is hungry and starving. Christianity promises them a reckoning. Maybe not today. Maybe not even tomorrow. Maybe not here, on earth. But one day, in heaven at least, there will be a reckoning. The score is being kept. Your sufferings are wept over, seen and regretted more than you know. Your suffering is known. Your oppressors, too, are being judged.
If you are that parent who has not the wherewithal to feed or cloth or shelter your child, this God, Isaiah’s God, and our God – this God, who is keeping score, whose eye in the sparrow, and the polar bear, and the refugee, and the prisoner – this God is the difference between despair and hope, between desolate misery and some measure of consolation.
This is the gift of Isaiah, of Judaism and Christianity. God knows there is reason to despair.
No one can blame you for being a cynic, or a skeptic, or a nihilist, or even a realist. But as for me, I choose Isaiah. Every time. I choose the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Miriam, of Jesus and the Mary’s.
Call me what you will, but as for me, I’m with God. I choose hope.