Into the Wilderness
Our prophecy from Isaiah this morning is a prophecy of hope and encouragement. It was written at the time when the Persian king Cyrus has allowed the Jews in exile in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. For nearly 50 years the elite of Judea were held captive in Babylon and its suburbs. Babylon had 50 years before overthrown the Judean monarchy and over a period of years exiled the Jewish elite, as well as destroyed the Temple. This left Judea as an impoverished province of Babylon.
Babylon subsequently was overthrown by the Persians (modern day Iranians). Cyrus lifted the captivity edict and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. This prophecy of Isaiah is intended to encourage them to leave metropolitan Babylon and go home to re-build Jerusalem.
But why the need for encouragement? They are being freed. Who needs encouragement to accept freedom?
The exiles were under royal protection. As a result the deportees enjoyed special prerogatives. In fact, their personal condition was likely to have been better than it had been in Judea: Babylon was more prosperous than Judea. The exiles were permitted to have a farm, to marry and raise their families, purchase property and make money. Further they were allowed to practice their religion in Babylon to the extent that they were able. The Jews may have been captives, but as far as their economic and physical situation they were in a good place.
But still many of the exiles yearned to be back in Judea. In Babylon they were being absorbed into the culture. In Judea they could be themselves and be in their own homes and land … a land given to them by God. Psalm 137 expresses their sadness: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion…”
Yet many of the exiles found living in Babylon was comfortable and profitable and were just as happy to stay. These exiles assimilated in the Babylonian society. The pious Jews among them were not pleased …
They had homes and estates. No doubt some intermarried with the Babylonian people. And I suspect some of them mixed their religious beliefs with the pagan beliefs of Babylon.
But those who made the effort to not succumb to the seductive life of a Babylonian, no matter how well off they were, would find themselves in a very uncomfortable position and very frustrating life of trying to stay faithful to their beliefs. And those with families no doubt had doubly hard time because they were see at least some of their children succumb to the Babylonian life style and maybe even religion. So we could see that even being prosperous was not good enough. They needed to go home to Jerusalem where they could practice their way of life. And Cyrus gave them that opportunity and Isaiah gave them the encouragement.
Ironically, our own situation has similarities to the Babylonian exile. Though we Christians did not have a homeland, conquered by another culture, taken hostage and exiled to a strange land, we do live in a culture that has strayed from the ethics and behavior that Jesus taught.
Jesus expected us to live in community to support and be supported, to respect others and to not judge a person, but only a person’s acts. We are expected to be attentive to God’s call and God’s expectations. We are called to have faith in God alone and not place our faith in things or earthly institutions. We are required to embrace the least among us and the stranger among us. We are required to live peacefully and justly and to promote peace and justice throughout. All of these are the marks of the Kingdom of God into which God invites us.
Our society has always been secular and appropriately so. But that does not preclude our society adopting the ethics and morals that sustain a good life for everyone and not just a privileged elite. And over the past few decades we have strayed more and more from these ethics and morals.
We are called to stand over and against this estrangement from Jesus’ teachings. But it is not easy. Our culture is very compelling and very seductive. It is a very powerful influence on anyone born here or who immigrated to here. In many ways we are captives of our self-centered, materialistic culture. It seems almost impossible not to participate in it.
We have become a very self-centered society. There was a time when residents were involved in their communities, not just in the church but in many charitable and service organizations. Much has changed since those years. In most families now both parents work and so there is simply no time to be involved. But unfortunately this distances us from our communities and our neighbors. We become isolated.
We have come to rely on the Internet and other communication systems to interact with other people … but we are not physically present with them. And so we separate further and further from each other.
But our culture is affluent. We have far more opportunities than the ancient Jewish exiles had in Babylon. We live longer. We have more. We know more. We are well fed. We have heat and air conditioning. We have schools. We don’t really need the support of our neighbors for our basic needs. And there are some folks who even extent to think that we don’t need our governing institutions. They feel intruded by the government whether state or federal and would just like to shrink it away. After all we are independent and should be allowed to go our separate way.
Indeed, I’ve noticed that in my children’s generation there is this self-centeredness that sees society orbiting just around them. There is significantly less interest, desire or commitment to any organized community be it church or temple or service organization.
This is not to say we are a mean people. Indeed, in a disaster we have seen the best come out of people. We see the angels and God’s work in their response. But everyday life has become isolated and disconnected from the commons.
And all of this is gradually leading to a disintegration of our secular society. We are broken. We don’t recognize the community next door to us where many people are poor and hungry. We stay away from communities of people we do not understand. We build fences around our homes and create our own little kingdoms.
We are indeed captives of our secular society and even exiles from the Kingdom of God. Even though we may have all the food and bread, shelter and income that we need, we are still starving … starving for the deep, embracing faith that lifts us up above the selfishness and the material and fills us with the grace, love, and hope of God.
But Isaiah is calling out to us too. Isaiah cries out: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Whether you are rich or poor in material goods and whether you are self-centered or humble, you can enter the Kingdom of God. God invites one and all no matter our religion, our wealth or lack of it, our gender, our orientation or our ethnic – God wants all of us to partake of the grace and hope of the Kingdom.
So Isaiah asks: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” We are so indulged in our society our spiritual energy is consumed by the demands of our secular society. But God calls us to use that spiritual energy to live in the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not a physical place, but a state of the spirit. We begin to step into the Kingdom when we adjust our priorities from accumulating material and being self-centered to tuning our minds and hearts to the world around us and looking at it through the lens of Jesus’ teachings. And thereby our lives and our spirits will no longer be dampened by the secular expectations. Rather they will be enriched with God’s universal love and grace.
And Isaiah continues: “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near, let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Do not ignore God’s call to you or delay your embracing it. We all have sinned in small ways and probably in large ways somewhere in our lives. Our secular society has no room for repentance and forgiveness. We sue before we ask. We criticize before we understand. We attack before we do justice. Our responses have been formed not by Jesus, but by the constant shrill of the media and self-proclaimed so-called experts. But God is all merciful. We step into the Kingdom with hat in hand, seeking forgiveness and offering forgiveness unconditionally. And this makes the Kingdom even stronger.
And though it may sound foolish to forgive unconditionally, Isaiah reminds us that God’s “thoughts are not [our] thoughts, nor are [our] ways [God’s] ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than [our] ways and [God’s] thoughts [higher] than [our] thoughts.”
And we do all of this within the context of our secular society. We are not called to abandon it, but to be a light in the darkness of materialism and self-centeredness. We are to live our common and ordinary lives in the temple of Jesus’ teachings. And therefore through us God can speak. If we read Isaiah a little further, he quotes God: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that [that] goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty; but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed to the thing for which I sent it.”
We need to have the courage and faith to listen to Isaiah and follow God and Jesus into the Kingdom right here in this very land and society. We need not abandon our current lives. Indeed, our ordinary, everyday living, if we practice what Jesus taught us, can give God voice so that the Word of God can water, and grow, and fertilize our age to blossom into a Garden of grace and hope and inclusiveness.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …