The daily bible readings of the Episcopal Church are helpful i this season because the direct us away from the all-too-familiar Christmas story, to other passages which can refresh us. As always I choose a headline from world news to provide a point of reference for biblical truth.
Daily Headline: Allah has no compassion for historic shrines of Timbuctoo, say Mali extremists.
God’s Blessing on Israel
44But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!
2 Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you:
Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.
4 They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams.
5 This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s’, another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, ‘The Lord’s’, and adopt the name of Israel.
6 Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.
7 Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me.
Who has announced from of old the things to come?* Let them tell us* what is yet to be.
8 Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses!
Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.
The greatest dramatists are able to create a voice for great characters, Aeschylus for Clytemnestra, Shakespeare for Lear, Brecht for Mother Courage; but the greatest prophets create a voice for God. In this respect the prophetic tradition of Israel contains some of the boldest imaginative achievements of humanity. The “second Isaiah” the author of chapters 40-55 of the biblical book, creates an immediately recognisable voice for God which combines sublimity, compassion and scorn. These qualities all derive from a profound understanding of God as creator. The prophet has to ask himself the strange question, “What does the creatorof the universe feel for his creation?” The sublimity is the grandeur of creative labour; the compassion is the love of the parent for his/her children; the scorn is impatience at the arrogance and folly of some creatures.
Water in dry land is one of the key images used by Isaiah’s God. Of course it comes from the experience of inhabitants of the “near east”, that the desert is never far away. Water which quenches thirst and allows crops to grow is literally a giver of life. Here the creator God promises that his/her life-giving spirit will allow his people to live such fruitful lives that their seeds, non-Jewish people who are influenced by them, will also call themselves by God’s name. This is an astonishing promise. Of course the seed of Israel was traditionally understood is new generations of Israelis. Here, their spiritual seed is specifically gentile. That’s because God speaks as creator-not a tribal God but a universal parent.
This God has a special tenderness for Israel as the people who have known him and received placed their trust in him as creator. They have known that in the very worst historical circumstance, that of defeat and exile, they have not been abandoned by God, as if God were stuck in the territory of Israel. The God who revealed himself to the people in Babylon was obviously a universal God, who could be trusted completely. The creator God encompasses all time as well all space, giving his people insight into the course of history. Truly He/She is the one fixed point in the flux of space and time, the only rock.
It is an amazing achievement, this voice of God. If you think how ridiculous it might have been, to give voice to the universal God, how easily it could have sounded either human all too human, or superhuman in the faintly ridiculous manner of some movie heroes. The key to it is the prophet’s knowledge that a universal God will have concern for all his children, not just for one race, and that responsibility for all life will include compassion for all life. At the same time the Creator God has made himself dependent on his “witnesses”, on those who have understood his revelation. For them God has a special affection.To accustom oneself to this voice is one of the greatest spiritual exercises. You can try it for yourself. Imagine you are an Israeli in exile in the great city Babylon and listen to what Isaiah has to tell you in the voice of God. Read chapters 40-55 just skipping what you don’t understand and pressing on to get more and more of the voice that promises you will be “willows by a flowing stream” and tells you “I have called you by name, you are mine.” Here are words which can comfort and transform.