Open with prayer. Invite a participant to offer the prayer.
This week we’re going to turn to another one of the prophetic books about the experience of Exile: the Book of Isaiah, specifically from what scholars call 2 Isaiah – chapters 40-55. Biblical scholars have come to believe that the first 39 chapters of Isaiah may have been written by one person and chapter 40-55 by a different person, because the tone is so different from one section to the next.
2 Isaiah is about hope in the midst of Exile. It’s a beautifully-written text, very poetic and moving. It’s the section of the Book of Isaiah that most of us know best because it includes the Old Testament scriptures that we usually read at Christmas time: comfort, comfort ye my people and the prophecy that the lion shall lie down with the lamb and a little child shall lead them.
We don’t know a whole lot about the writer of this scripture. 2 Isaiah seems to have been written late in the Exile, perhaps between 550 and 540 BCE, just as the Babylonian Empire was about to collapse, by an anonymous prophet who was one of the Exiles. He gives us no information that would help us identify him, just his identity as “the servant of the Lord.” As the noted Biblical scholar Bruce Birch writes, “He is completely hidden behind his proclamation of God’s word.” His purpose is to announce the forthcoming end of the Exile.
Isaiah comforted the people of Israel, encouraged them, and invited them to come home to Jerusalem and the Promised Land. He spoke about the reliability of God, and reminded them that God always does what God promises to do. Despite the suffering and grief that the Jews experienced during the Babylonian Exile, God was always present with them, and never abandoned them. This God is a deity of all times and all places, and God’s saving activities can take place in the most surprising ways. Although God’s purposes are not always evident to us, they are rooted in God’s faithfulness and holiness, and will direct history in unexpected ways.
Isaiah offers several sources of hope for the Exiles, but I’d like to focus on two of them today. The first is hope through memory and the second is hope through newness – maybe we should talk about hope from the past and hope in the future.
Isaiah renews the hope of Israel through their memories of their past history with God. In their own stories are resources for hopefulness in their present circumstances. They have a
covenant with God that was never broken. Their past belonged to God, and their future will also belong to God. Their hope comes from the memory of God’s mighty acts of salvation. The past can still offer gifts for the present and the future. As Walter Brueggemann writes, the memories of Israel “do not speak of an old event that only illuminates the present, but of an old event which continues to be present amid current experience. These memories intrude out of the past into the present and so change the present. . . . Only memory allows possibility.” God is about to act among the people of Israel once again. It will be something new – God will act in a new way, but the new actions of God will be cast in memories of God’s previous actions. We cannot understand these new ways of God unless we remember God’s past relationship with us and we trust in God’s future.
Let’s move now to hope through newness, hope in the future. Isaiah preaches about a joy and confidence that will help Israel to put their grief and suffering aside and step into the future with hope. The Exile changed Israel. By the time Isaiah invites them home, they are not the same people they were before. They have a new understanding of suffering and a new understanding of the meaning of their covenant with God. God is renewing the covenant through a new covenant that will be written in their hearts. The covenant between God and Israel is a commitment to justice, righteousness, and peace. That has not and will not change. What will change is the way it happens, the way of doing it. The people of Israel quickly recognize God’s new way of doing things when they realize that God is using Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, the conqueror of Babylonia, as their deliverer, the one who will release them from captivity and send them home to rebuild their society, their temple, and their life with God. Their world can and will be organized differently this time, but their new life in the Promised Land will not retract or nullify anything in their past. All things including a new life and a hopeful future are possible through God.
Let’s turn to our scripture readings for today. The first reading, Isaiah 51:1-2, is about hope through memory, hope from the past. The second reading, Isaiah 40:28-31, is about hope through newness, hope in the future.
Isaiah 51:1-2 (NRSV):
1Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. 2Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.
Isaiah 40:28-31 (NRSV):
28Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 29He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. 30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
I read those passages from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Do any of you have a translation of the Bible with substantially different language? If so, could you read that for us? Do the differences in language matter to our understanding of those passages?
Close with prayer that includes the concerns and hopes that participants expressed.