Comforted And Called
The English words most strongly associated with this powerful message from Deutero-Isaiah are comfort and call. It is comfort like that expressed earlier in the most familiar part of this prophet's work, "Comfort, comfort, my people." All things are in God's hands. The outcome is sure. You are free to go about your task in the world.
The prophet's words are addressed to all people, but they are about God's special people. They speak, however, not so much of Israel's special favor and blessing as of God's assurance that she will endure and carry out her special calling--to be a light to the nations of the world. Thus the passage is also about the covenant God names Yahweh who makes and keeps agreements even when the circumstances of life do not seem to show that.
The lectionary passage clearly speaks of God's relationship to Israel, to a people, not to particular persons. But without ignoring the original intention of the text, Christians throughout the centuries--believing themselves to be God's new covenant people, the church-have claimed God's comfort, covenant and calling for themselves. In that way the passage is pastoral as well as prophetic. It offers comfort to those who claim that comfort through their faith. It reminds them that God's actions are not occasional and accidental, but intentional and continual. They are expressions of a covenant made long ago and continuing into the future. Those actions include a purpose or calling for those who believe God has claimed them and a framework of meaning where life, at least some of the time, can make sense.
If indeed one can understand some of the implications of this passage by focusing upon the alliterative words, comfort, covenant, and call, it may be useful to relate them to two other C words which say something about how Christians live their lives: claim and choice. Christians believe that God has claimed them, that they are known and loved. To be effective, to make a difference in a person's life, however, God's claim of God's people must be claimed by the believer. It must be actively celebrated in worship and in mission to the world. Covenant and call exist whether or not there is a response to them, but to make a difference in a person's life they must be claimed. In churches that baptize infants and children, confirmation or "joining the church" can be understood as a claim of the baptismal covenant made earlier. The Christian life involves our claiming God's claim of us.
The good and bad news is that we have a choice about that. Like an inheritance, the covenant- -symbolically the baptismal Christian name--does not have to be claimed. A covenant is entered into by choice, and we may intentionally or passively and inactively choose not to. The fourth verse of the lectionary passage expresses this choice for Israel, "I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity." (49:4) And like Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," the claim not made can indeed make all the difference.
If the road taken is the claiming of God's covenant as something that really is "for me", it is not a matter of living happily ever after. Speaking about the importance of choice and claim, as I have done here, suggests a revivalistic simplicity that does not really exist. Something closer to the way life really is may be seen in the second verse of the passage. I do not know what Deutero Isaiah's intent for the verse was, and I have not found the commentaries particularly convincing. My own imagination about what implications may be derived from the verse may be useful. "He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away." (49:2)
In the poetic parallel of that verse, one can hear the very human dialectic, the moving back and forth between calling and comfort--of going out to act upon God's call and then seeking and receiving comfort and rest from the action. I believe that one can look at God's action and our response much as we look at a mother comforting a child in her arms and then sending her out to express her recovered strength outside the mother's arms.
Several psychological theorists have viewed human life and the developmental process in this way. In the fifties, Ernest Schactel, one of the associates of Harry Stack Sullivan, spoke of the developmental process as "the emergence from embeddedness." Thirty years later, in the eighties, Robert Kegan, a student of Kohlberg, developed a stage theory in which the individual emerges from embeddedness (comfort at his or her particular developmental level) to take a new risk and achieve a new competence in the world. This achievement, however, soon becomes a new embeddedness from which the individual must emerge. One can think of the psychological and, perhaps the religious, process of life as involving this kind of dialectic. Human being is both a polished arrow and an arrow hidden in a quiver. In God's covenant, we are both comforted and called. We have a choice to claim or not to claim that covenant as the direction for our lives.