22 January 2008

Salvation to the Ends of the Earth (Isa 49:1-7)

When it comes to the challenge of doing justice and loving kindness in a pluralistic society, Jewish and Christian traditions offer us a mixed blessing. The tension between a narrow, particularist vision of God’s grace, and the hopeful announcement that God’s extravagant salvation is a gift for the whole world, is an enduring theme. This theological and political dilemma is at the heart of this week’s lectionary reading, taken from the Book of Isaiah.

In this passage, the prophet Isaiah speaks to the exiled Israelite community in Babylon. “Good news!” he proclaims: God knows who you are. God claims you as his own. God sees your suffering. And God is faithful still.

But there is more: Just as God called the prophet – “he formed me in the womb to be his servant” – so, too, God calls all people to a special vocation. To establish community, to restore the land, to care for the marginalized, to set the prisoners free. These practices of neighborliness and examples of justice, will make Israel “a light to the nations.”

“I give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (v.6). This vision – God’s dream for the world – is extravagant, expansive. And new. The God of Israel dreams of a time when justice and love will reign over the whole of creation, not just a chosen people or nation. And God calls all people to participate in the work of coaxing this vision into being. Indeed, God’s salvation is for all. This vision of God’s generous, expansive – even outrageous – grace is one I cling to.

We would be remiss if we passed over the disturbingly violent imagery running through this same passage, though. “The Lord made my mouth like a sharp sword,” the prophet proclaims. “He made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away.” A few verses later, in the same chapter, God promises to “make your oppressors eat their own flesh” and drink their own blood. Powerful kings will bend down to “lick the dust of your feet” (v. 26). What do we make of these troubling threats, these bloody images that the lectionary has hidden from view (mostly)? How do we reconcile these contrasting ideas of God? These different visions of what it means to be God’s people?

Christians in every age must struggle with this question: What does it mean to participate in God’s saving action in the world? In Isaiah, extending God’s reign sometimes sounds an awful lot like extending the territorial and political power of Israel. And there’s an uncanny echo of this confusion in contemporary justifications for America’s several wars, which (we are told) are helping to bring the “gift of democracy” to the people of Iraq, or the gift of liberty to Afghani women, or the gifts of freedom to the Middle East more generally. I don’t know about you, but as we enter a presidential election season, a nation nearly 5 years at war, talk of being the “polished arrow” in God’s quiver makes me shudder just a bit.

There’s no use (and perhaps some danger) in denying that this militaristic nationalism is part of our religious texts. We need to be reminded that it is all too easy to confuse our own vanity with the cause of God. And the dangers of such confusion are profound – something the Israelites in Isaiah’s audience knew only too well.
--Letitia Campbell

Questions for reflection:

1. What do you think the author of Isaiah means when he proclaims that God’s “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth?” What sounds, images, and feelings does this phrase evoke?

2. What is your own sense of vocation, of being called to a particular kind of work? How do you understand your vocation as part of God’s action in the world? How does your daily labor relate to the way you imagined salvation (above)? If it is hard to think of your daily work and images of salvation intersecting, you might reflect on that difficulty.

3. Do you think that God calls particular communities (congregations, denominations, universities, cities, nations) to play special roles in God’s saving work in the world? If so, how should these communities distinguish between their own “vanities” or interests, and the “cause of God”? What might vocational discernment look like at the level of a community or nation-state?

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