Sunday, January 20, 2013

More Than Pretty Poetry

Isaiah 62:1-11
Ordinary 3
January 20, 2013
William G. Carter

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. 2The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. 3You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. 5For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

6Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have posted sentinels; all day and all night they shall never be silent. You who remind the Lord, take no rest, 7and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth. 8The Lord has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm: I will not again give your grain to be food for your enemies, and foreigners shall not drink the wine for which you have labored; 9but those who garner it shall eat it and praise the Lord, and those who gather it shall drink it in my holy courts.

10Go through, go through the gates, prepare the way for the people; build up, build up the highway, clear it of stones, lift up an ensign over the peoples. 11The Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to daughter Zion, “See, your salvation comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”
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             A number of our people in our church began to read the whole Bible last year. It was a great initiative. Whether all of us finished it or not, it got us off the sidelines and into the pages. Every week, somebody stopped by my study to report on some aspect of their readings. Everybody discovered something new.

            “I can’t believe how big the Book actually is,” somebody exclaimed. “I got tired of the Old Testament genealogies,” another admitted. People remarked on the abundance of violence, or the similarity between people of that time and people of our own. One person said, “Sometimes I felt like the Bible could use a good editor,” while somebody else said, “I think the Bible has been edited too much.” One of my favorite responses went like this: “I was expecting to find more advice.” Another reader said, “There are an awful lot of poems.”

            Isaiah 62 is one of those poems. Like a lot of the Bible’s prophets, Isaiah spoke in poems. They were not the kind of poems that rhyme, although if you knew Hebrew, you might hear some rhymes. But rather, they are the kind of poems that speak in supercharged language that re-describes the world. Bible Poems don’t offer a lot of advice.

            If you are looking for advice, go over to the book of Proverbs, chapter 19: “A stupid child is ruin to a father, and a wife’s quarreling is a continual dripping of rain.” (19:13). You wouldn’t hear that in a poem. Or Proverbs, chapter 10: “The wise of heart will heed commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin” (10:8). That’s good advice.

            But what about the poem for today, from Isaiah 62? It does not suggest or explain. It never tells us what to do or how to do it. This is love poetry: “You shall be a crown of beauty . . . a royal diadem. You shall be called My Delight Is in Her.” It sounds like we are listening in to a poet murmuring sweet words to his Beloved.

And then we give it another look and discover this is how God speaks to his people! “As two lovers marry, as two people in love rejoice over one another, so shall your God marry you – and rejoice over you.”

            Nobody told me about this passage when I was young. Most of my instruction in scripture began with the do’s and the don’ts. “Here is how to live your life. Here are the rules for getting through life successfully.” It’s comforting to have a list of rules. Everything is clear. Behavior is spelled out. Blessing is given to those who are obedient. And I know there are some marriages that are designed that way. It doesn’t matter that they are not a lot of fun, because the commandments are very clear.

            But did you hear God speak to Isaiah’s people? There is affection -- and enjoyment. God is not a tyrant who browbeats or insists on his own way. God comes as a loving spouse to the people. “I come to take delight in you,” God says, “and we shall be a happily married couple.”

            Now, that is a remarkable picture in the best of times. What makes it simply is the time in which God says it. It’s almost six hundred years before Jesus. The exiles are wandering back from forty years of Babylon. They return to see the rubble of Jerusalem, their temple demolished, their economy busted. All the evidence that they were the Chosen People of God has been dashed down, with not one stone upon another.

            God says, “I’m going to change your name. Your name has been ‘Forsaken,’ but now I will call you ‘Delight.’ Once you called yourselves ‘Desolate,” but now I name you ‘Married,’ because you belong to me, and I take delight in you.”

            This is the language of matrimony. God announced, “Honey, we’re getting hitched!” And to whom is that word addressed? To worn-out old Israel, sagging skin, bruised and black-eyed, a couple of teeth missing – she is the one that God comes to and says, “I want you completely for myself.”

            Have you ever seen such love? I think of the story that surgeon Richard Selzer tells. He stood by the hospital bed of a young woman recovering from facial surgery. It had been a tricky operation. There had been a tumor on her cheek. Her mouth was twisted with palsy. The face was almost clownish, he said. To remove the tumor, Dr. Selzer had to cut a tiny twig of the facial nerve, the same nerve that manages the muscles of her mouth. Her mouth would have an awkward twist for the rest of her life. He stopped down to see her.

            A young man was in the room with her, standing on the opposite side of the bed. Together they seemed to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from the surgeon. They kept looking at one another.

            Suddenly the woman said to the doctor, “Will my mouth always be like this?” He explained, “Yes, it will. It’s because the nerve was cut.” She nodded, and was silent.

            The young man smiled. “I like it,” he said. “It’s kind of cute.” The doctor stood in quiet understanding, admiring the husband’s blessing. Ignoring the surgeon, the young husband bend down to kiss his wife’s crooked mouth. Selzer said he was standing so close he could see how the husband twisted his own lips to accommodate hers. He would show her that their kiss still worked.[1]

            God leans down and gives a twisted kiss to Israel. “You are mine,” says the Lord. “I take delight in you.”

            Mark this down: in the Bible, God doesn’t usually talk that way. But here, God “takes delight” in his human family. God sets aside all aesthetic standards to come to us, to claim us, to pronounce a new identity for us. God does not judge us as ugly or damaged or unnecessary. Oh, no – God sees the beauty first placed upon us on the days of our birth. There is nothing that we can do to remove that holy love. Nothing at all. Quite to the contrary, God wants to woo his beloved, and declare, “You give me joy.”

            It reminds me of the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Who could ever tire of that story? At the center of the village is a beautiful young woman named Belle. She loves to read, and shrugs off the pursuits of the brutish men of the village. When her father gets lost, she tracks him down at a strange enchanted castle, and offers to take his place so he can go free. The master of the castle is an enormous beast, once a handsome prince, but turned by a magical spell because of his arrogance and anger.

Belle begins to fall for him and the Beast cannot believe it. “Who, me?” he bellows. His character flaws led to his ugly appearance. His appearance causes him to be rejected and despised. But bit by bit, Belle stays at it. She sees the kind heart beneath all the fur. She understands his pain and doesn’t back off when he expresses it. She says he is beautiful. She persists until he starts to believe it himself.

We cheer at the story, regardless of when we first heard it, because we know it is a parable of God’s love for us. Love we didn’t ask for – but it comes anyway. Love we do not deserve – but it is given freely. Love when we are defeated and dejected, when all seems lost – and it is there, regardless of whether we believe it, or feel it, or see it. The love is there. The love is here.

And for some dark reason, we shrug it off. We think we are not worthy. Or we think that God had somebody else in mind. “Sorry, you have the wrong person. No, it’s not me.” Or we start joining that long line of religious people through the centuries who said that we become acceptable to God if we jump over a series of hurdles, and talk a certain way, or do certain things.

It’s all nonsense. The human predicament is noise and nonsense. Uncertain that God really might love us, we make a lot of noise. We turn our backs, and then say with all assurance, “See? Told you it wasn’t true.”

But then God comes to say, “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), pp. 45, 46.

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