February 22, 2023
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
19 February 2023
“It is the task of prophetic imagination and ministry to bring people to engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God,” writes Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann. The poet in Third Isaiah promises “everlasting joy” accomplished through a vision of the future that is filled with justice, righteousness, peace, comfort, liberty, and abundance. Here is a vision, as one commentary said, of the world as it should be.
Yet, we open up our phones in the morning and get the latest death toll from the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, hear about the latest American mass shooting, are alarmed at the toxic chemicals from the train derailment in Ohio, worry about what happens next in the war in Ukraine, and puzzle over balloons being shot down by fighter jets.
Brueggemann declares that ministry must “bring people to engage the promise of newness.” But he then immediately warns that “despairing people do not anticipate or receive newness.” The challenge, despite the state of the world, is to maintain hope in this vision of the future, promised by God, the one in which justice leads to everlasting joy.
Back in the Spring of 2020, when we were all still mostly stuck at home, living through a season of our lives we had never imagined (and still can’t quite grasp), I read the book The Ordinary Virtues by the academic and former Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff.
In a chapter on the Fukushima disaster, he tells us that the unimaginable has consistently been occurring in the 21st century, from 9/11 to destructive natural disasters to financial collapses (this book was written and published before the Covid-19 pandemic). All these experiences of the unimaginable, he writes, are eroding our trust in the institutions which keep failing us and are eroding our ability to plan for and hope for our futures. Ignatieff writes, "Instead of embracing the future, imagining radiant tomorrows, we now think of the future in the language of harm reduction, target hardening, and risk management."
A far cry from the vision of the poet Isaiah.
So, how do we engage the promise of newness and aim for everlasting joy and avoid such a dismal view of the future that might lead us to despair?
That seems to be a key challenge for people of faith and hope and courage here in the third decade of this century.
Well, I think the ancient Isaiah poet gives us some clues, so we turn to this text for the details.
The poet declares that God wants to comfort all who mourn, to provide for them, to garland them with flowers and anoint them with the oil of gladness. To revive their spirits and build up their ruins. To repair the ruined cities and cultivate the people like a beautiful and strong garden.
William P. Brown in his commentary on this poem writes that “the expressed aim is to comfort” and that “it is the comfort of new creation.” God is doing some new, out of the remains of the past. He writes that the “garden of God’s glory” will be the birthplace and nursery of a new people.
The Isaiah poet has declared that this will happen in the “year of the Lord’s favor,” which most scholars believe to be a reference to the ancient Jewish year of Jubilee, written about in the Book of Leviticus. This was the year in which all debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and people who had lost their land to debt had it restored to them or their families. The Jubilee was a socioeconomic reconfiguration. A radical idea.
In the Gospel of Luke, the first sermon that Jesus preaches, back home in the synagogue in Nazareth, is based on this text of Isaiah 61. Jesus proclaims that his movement is a new Jubliee, a fulfillment of this vision in Isaiah.
And every week when we pray in the Lord’s prayer—“forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—we too are calling upon the Jubilee and the radical economic reordering it calls for.
So, this is part of the answer to how we get to everlasting joy—embodying a vision of economic transformation that centers justice and flourishing for everyone.
And when we look back here at the poem in Isaiah we begin to notice the key elements of God’s vision:
- Good news to the oppressed
- Healing the brokenhearted
- Liberty for captives
- Release of prisoners
- Comfort for the mourners
Walter Brueggemann writes, “All of these actions are powerful ministries to the weak, the powerless, and the marginalized to restore them to full function in a community of well-being and joy.” Aha! That’s God’s vision. A community of well-being and joy that allows everyone to function, even flourish. And the way to get there is a new social order that centers justice and newness for everyone.
Brueggemann concludes his comments on this passage from Isaiah by declaring, “Thus in the end, the gospel powered by the spirit is a restoration of a viable economic community in a reorganized city, the redemption of public life.”
So, that’s it. That’s how we get to “everlasting joy” according to the Isaiah poet—we redeem public life by a transformation of the social order.
So, that probably sounds daunting. And it is, of course. Fortunately, we have God on our side working with us and empowering. We also have all the time in the world, as we over the centuries do our best to improve and grow, like with the expansion over the last two centuries of human rights as a new moral paradigm.
And our task is to focus on this community, our community, being the best embodiment of God’s design as we can be, so that we stand as a sign and witness to the wider world of what good human community can be—one that is loving, inclusive, just, and peaceful.
One reason I really liked Michael Ignatieff’s book that I read back in the spring of 2020 was that it was focused on “ordinary virtue.” Written in the context of a world where unimaginable things keep happening that threaten our sense of hope, Ignatieff didn’t despair, he was actually quite encouraged by what he witnessed around the world.
A key idea of the book is that over the last fifty years we have improved morally as a species, with the advances in human rights, humanitarian responses to suffering, and environmentalism. He sets out to various global hotspots to explore the current global moral order--Queens, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Bosnia, Myanmar, Fukushima, and South Africa. In these places he dialogues with all sorts of folks from poor women living in shanties to prominent public officials. He is a sympathetic and compassionate listener who draws keen philosophical insights from what he observes.
And what he discovers is that there are a few key aspects of ordinary virtue that humans seem to share. He writes,
The virtues we display are enduringly common because daily life throws up the same challenges: how much, if at all, to trust those who rule over us; how much, if at all, to tolerate those who are different; how much to forgive, if we can, those who have wronged us; and how to rebuild life when fate and misfortune sweep away what we have tried to accomplish.
He finds these same questions and struggles in the daily lives of people all over the globe. We are all struggling to do these things and do them well and with goodness.
Another thing Ignatieff argues for is the essential role that community plays in our ability to live out the ordinary virtues. Ordinary virtue becomes almost impossible in a broken, violent, corrupt society. We need a functioning community and civil society in order to practice these virtues. He writes, “The test of public institutions is whether they make it possible for us to behave decently toward each other.”
Which sounds like a rather basic standard to achieve, write? And maybe the first step to justice and fairness, to embodying the vision of the Isaiah poet?
Now, Ignatieff is himself not a religious man. But I believe his ethical understanding of our current global situation helps us to grasp this ancient prophetic vision and what we can do about.
So, to return to my earlier question—how do we engage God’s promise of newness and aim for everlasting joy, while avoiding the dismal view of our common future that might lead us to despair?
Isaiah tells us we do that by redeeming public life through a transformation of the social order. A tall order. But our mission as God’s people, nonetheless.
That mission begins, I’m suggesting today, by living daily with the ordinary virtues, such as trust, forgiveness, tolerance, and resilience. To show kindness and generosity and compassion.
This is the path to everlasting joy—our own, our children’s, and all humanity’s.
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