Thursday, December 4, 2008

Isaiah

Isaiah is the book most read during Advent. It is a scripture Jesus loved and often quoted. Perhaps more fully than any of the prophets, Isaiah imagines the Kingdom of God; what it would look like, how we would live in it, what to look for.

As anyone who has studied the Bible knows, Isaiah is one prophet in three persons. The first Isaiah wrote before the Babylonian Exile, the second Isaiah wrote during it, the third Isaiah brings us home. One story, three voices.

The story is this. There was once a people who put their faith in God and God brought them to a broad and pleasant land. As they settled, however, they also grew unsettled, and they became not just a people of God, but a kingdom on earth. Did not Scripture say that God gave humanity dominion over the earth, to subdue it and have mastery? And so they became a power. Not the greatest of powers, but certainly not the worst, with kings and concubines and warriors with swords strapped to their thighs. Power made them expansive. They worshipped the local Baals and Astoreths until, one day, a superior power trumped theirs and they were carried off their broad and pleasant land with its divinity of place, and held captive in a vast city of wonders, a kind of nowhere where they could not sing their songs. Over time, they learned that God is not attached to place; God is not limited to Baal or Forest Deity, and perhaps it was there, when they were homeless and living in an unreal city, that the people made time, as well as place, sacred. At last, when enough time had passed, the people were allowed to go home. The temporal powers (and remember that temporal means “time”) were now assured that the broad and pleasant land would be best secured if the people took possession of it again, for they had proven themselves a bright and tenacious people with a loyalty that amazed them. And so they went home. Their land had not been cared for in their absence. Their cities were in shambles, their temple in ruins. All that they had was their story, a memory from which to rebuild their kingdom of God.

It is this story that we take up in Advent: the covenant, the exile, the return. And like scavengers, sifting through piles of straw for fragments, we search for a child, a hope, the beginning in our end.

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