Long, long ago, for the people of Israel, in the days when Moses was ancient history but the birth of the messiah was still just a distant dream, Jerusalem, the city of God, had been conquered by an unstoppable foreign empire. The Temple, where at its heart dwelled the presence of God, it had been utterly destroyed. Its treasures were carted away as war trophies. The people of Jerusalem, who worshiped the One God of heaven and earth, had become a conquered people living in exile. They were made to survive in servitude to the empire that had conquered them as an oppressed and humiliated underclass. Generation after generation, they languished, and though they lived in the empire, that is not on what they lived. What they lived on was the scriptures, the hope recorded in the ancient prophets.
The Lord says: I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first. In the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, there shall once more be heard the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank-offerings to the house of the Lord: ‘proclaiming God’s steadfast love endures forever!’. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made.
The days are surely coming … The days are surely coming … The days are surely coming … The days were coming, but it took until the days of the prophet Isaiah when Isaiah was no prophet yet but just an ordinary man of faith clinging to his ancestors hope that God’s promises are unbreakable.
The day did come. One great empire fell to another great empire as all great empires always must. The people of Israel were free! It was to be the homecoming of which Isaiah’s great-grandparents had dreamed. Finally, there were no empires oppressing them anymore; they could thrive knowing that their work would not be devoured by others. The people of Israel returned to rebuild the city of Jerusalem to live in the city of God as the people of God, and Isaiah, who was no prophet yet, returned with them.
The problem was that city that the exiles rebuilt was nothing like the gleaming Jerusalem of the prophecies. The prophets had said that the whole world’s wealth would flood to them. The marketplaces of Egypt would pale in comparison to Jerusalem, but Isaiah could see that the city’s little bazaars had few if any goods to sell. Many people could afford to buy nothing at all. The land was supposed to flow with milk and honey, but just getting by was hard for everyone. Many people were simply destitute. There was not enough to go around, so people held on to everything they could. Employers paid laborers as little as they could and worked them like pack animals. After all, every penny counted, and if a worker did not want the job, there were ten others desperate for work. Years came and went. Things were not getting better; it was everyone for themselves. This was not how things were supposed to be!
And so Isaiah, along with the rest of Jerusalem threw themselves headlong into prayer and devotion. There was a kind of frenzied, desperate piety. People would refuse to eat, coming to the temple fainting with hunger. They would burn to ash upon the altar the feasts from which they would not take one bite. Dizzy from hunger, they would bow down over and over like tall marsh grasses in a gale wind. Day and night, sacrificial smoke rose from the city, while ram’s horn trumpets blasted out to God: why are you not fulfilling your promises? And Isaiah, who was not yet a prophet, was among them.
What makes one person a prophet and another not? It is a mystery, but for one reason or another, in a city filled with people fasting and praying and calling out for God to answer them, Isaiah alone of the Israelites was able to listen to God. Isaiah alone heard what God was saying to the people.
Perhaps, he had departed from the Temple exhausted one night, hoarse voiced and back sore from prayer, walking home through the city’s darkening streets, past the threadbare marketplace with its now shuttered moonlit stalls where people picked for scraps, people who had gone hungry that day not from deep piety but from abysmal poverty, past the servants laboring late into the night for masters who worked them to the bone every day for thin wages, past the aged beggars wearing rags who were too old for work discarded as of no use anymore, past the poor districts where no one could be bothered to repair the ruined walls or restore broken streets, through the city where a few had much and some had a little, and many had nothing at all. All so familiar, it was just the same as when they had lived in exile. It was just the same as when the empire oppressed them when the produce of the work of many sat in the hands of a few, but that empire was gone. The people were free, and what the people had built they built of their own choosing.
And the word of God came to Isaiah, and it took Isaiah’s heart and mind and soul and strength and poured it out in a flood of ink on scroll. It was a flood that washed over night’s long darkness and left morning in its wake with the city streets sliding beneath Isaiah’s feet back to the temple, back to where the people of God were calling out fervently for God to respond to their pleas, and the word of God was for the people of God:
Raise your voice like a trumpet, do not hold back! The people call out: ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to lose the bonds of injustice? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house, and
when you see the naked, to cover them? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn. Then your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; then you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
The people had been living for so long in the heart of empire that they had forgotten that there was any other way to live. They had lived as an oppressed underclass for so long, that they had somehow forgotten that among the people of God there should not be any underclass at all. The people had brought the empire back with them and just changed who was playing what roles. They had been shaped by the values of empire, and among all the people in Jerusalem praying fervently to God to restore the glory of the city, Isaiah was able to hear that it was not Jerusalem that needed to be restored but rather what was needed was for the people to be restored. They had lived on scripture in the empire; they needed to live on scripture in Jerusalem too. That is what Jerusalem is. It is not just a physical location; it is an entire structure of life. In the book of Revelation, eternal life is envisioned as a new Jerusalem where all are cared for and none left wanting and the tears are wiped from every eye. In the biblical imagination, Jerusalem is meant to be the reign of God.
The logic of the reign of God is not to be the same as the logic of the empire where some may prosper only because many must go without. The power of the reign of God is not the same as the power of empire where many must be powerless for anyone to be powerful, many must be voiceless for anyone to have voice. In the reign of God, everyone must have power for the whole to be mighty. Everyone must have voice for what is spoken by the community to have truth. Everyone must have enough if any are to prosper. It is a totally different way of viewing how the world works. This is not a question of hope, of hoping that someday the world might work in this better way: hope is what the Israelites had when they were calling out to God for Jerusalem to be truly restored. Faith is what Isaiah calls for when the prophet leads the people to change their ways. Part of faith is living like we know that the ways of God are wiser and better than other ways of structuring common life, that the Reign of God need not be a dream, and it need not be tomorrow. The reign of God is now, right now, or it is not at all.
From the prophet Isaiah, learn this lesson. When we fast, when we pray, when we seek to know God’s ways, and draw close to God, and remind the throne of heaven about the promises God has made, we call out to God, not so that God might keep God’s promises, but that we ourselves might live up to the promise God has planted in us.