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Isaiah 51:1-6

Remembering Whose We Are

This passage is situated in what is commonly understood as the second of three parts in Isaiah when the Israelite people are in Babylonian exile. The promises in these chapters are made to people who have been in exile for a long while. Verses 1-6 contain two imperatives, and we can pick up on how important it is for the people of God to hear them because of how they each begin with, “Listen to me.” In the first three verses, the Israelites are invited to remember God’s promises for comfort, and in the second, they are reminded of God’s rule and intention for all creation.

When I was in my Clinical Pastoral Education residency, I had a peer who posed the same reflection to me again and again when I presented my group with a situation in which I felt stuck or unable to process on my own. As I sat describing my own lack of direction, she would listen and then say, “I wonder if you’ve ever experienced something like this before.” Every single time she did this, it cleared the fog in my brain and I was able to imagine a way forward because I remembered a time I had experienced something similar and made my way through it.

The author of Isaiah is offering a similar reflection to the people of Israel who are pursuing righteousness in the midst of exile. They’re being called to “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” The God who kept his promises to them and brought forth a nation from a barren woman will surely keep promises made to them, also. Though in exile, the people of God can rest in the assurance of God’s promises for deliverance and comfort. God’s past actions of faithfulness show us we can count on God’s present and future faithfulness, too.

An important part of their ability to do this, however, requires their acceptance of the fact that they are, indeed, in exile. To deny this truth would keep them from remembering that their home is not in Babylon, but in the Kingdom of God. Holding onto their identity as members of Babylon, they would miss out on the new thing God desires to do in, among, and through them. So often we seek to maintain membership in earthly kingdoms, seeking to transform them into our likeness, when God is calling us to remember our primary identity as daughters and sons of God. While this identity certainly shapes our approach to how we conduct ourselves in the world, it does not change to whom or where we belong, nor does it change the truth that we have been, and maybe in some ways are now, an exiled people. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas often says “The first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.” He believes that “’The world’ cannot know it is the world unless there exists a people who are not the world.”[1] And perhaps the reverse is also true: we cannot know ourselves fully as children of God if we do not intentionally distinguish ourselves from the other identities and memberships that vie for our attention and work. Walter Brueggemann states “Honestly facing exile as our real situation generates energy for imaginative and faithful living.”[2] In what kinds of creative work can we, as the church, engage when we are bravely honest about who and whose we are?

In verses 4-6, God reiterates this promise of deliverance, blessing, and renewal is for all creation. God’s extends his promises to all, not just Israel, so that all may know him and experience eternal salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though we are a people who’ve experienced exile, we are promised a homecoming to a land that has been renewed through the power of God who makes deserts like the garden of the Lord (v. 3), whose justice is a light to the peoples (v. 4), and whose salvation will be forever, whose deliverance will never be ended (v. 6). Though the things of the earth will pass away, God’s righteousness will last forever. That’s a promise in which joy and gladness can be found, even in exile.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, “How to Write a Theological Sentence,” ABC Religion and Ethics, September 26, 2013, accessed July 10, 2017, http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/09/26/3856546.htm.

[2] Walter Brueggemann in Reading and Preaching the Book of Isaiah, ed Christopher R. Seitz (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002), 74.

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