Sermon Ideas For Isaiah 62:1-5 Part 1
How is it possible to translate theologically for today a text full of metaphors of monarchy and monogamy? In the United States the Revolutionary War was supposed to end the former, and the sexual revolution seriously restructured expectations about the latter. yet in this text it is impossible to separate salvation from political and economic and erotic well-being.
Further, the text is addressed to a condition of disappointed hopes upon return from the Exile in Babylon. While the historical fact of this Exile of an entire nation is an integral element of Judaism and Christianity, the experience may or may not be familiar to any particular group of Christians. The danger of interpreting the text by means of ignoring the societal and political situation through which the religious situation was expressed is thus heightened. But the text is not about individual, private salvation.
Further, the symbiotic relationship between sexual morality and Christian teaching in the United States (some would say the reduction of Christianity to teaching about heterosexual monogamy) threatens to pull interpretation in the direction of sexual moralizing rather than the joyful doxology of Isaiah 62:4-5. However, theology too often idealizes the monogamous relationship, extrapolating from Yahweh and Israel to real husband and wife. But parish ioners will be more likely to extrapolate from their own experience to the Bible. For many in the congregation, the marital image is one of battering and other forms of violence.
Yet further, the combining of monarchical and priestly metaphors in the third verse makes sense in a theocratic system but is possibly very dangerous in a situation of separation of church and state constitutionally operative in the United States. Which political enterprise would be sanctioned by sacred appeals these days? But that yahweh operates through the political and economic events of Israel is a central claim of the faith.
Finally, the liturgical season in which this text appears threatens to hide a central element of the text. It is yahweh's freeing of the people from the Exile which inaugurates the New Israel, the New Covenant. Zion is to be called by a new name (Is 62:2), that is, given a new identity. The tendency in Christian theology until recently (or even still) to see the birth of Jesus as the beginning of the Ne Covenant is an unfortunate reading of the prophetic literature. Even more unfortunate is the identification of certain political or national entities as the new Israel, whether in 1620 in the New World or 1990 in the Middle EAst. But the eschatological corrective against such identification should not be so used as to eliminate any real political, social, and economic consequences of Yahweh's election of Israel.
With these difficulties in interpreting the text in mind and heart, several positive theological emphases can also be noted. First, the emphasis on the redeeming of the whole people is a constant in Third Isaiah. The salvation of the individual person is a function of the salvation of the whole people, not vice versa. This opens up the reading of 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 and John 2:1-11 to more corporate, social interpretation than is often given.
Second, the mixing of metaphors by Third Isaiah (62:4-5) points to a happy but only recently regained insight in the European based countries: the people and the land are inextricably connected. The meaning of this for 1992 is noteasy. The European invasion of this continent, the beginning of which is traditionally celebrated as Columbus's trip in 1492, was sanctioned by all manner of Christian theologies. But the building of the "New Jerusalem" in "New England" led to a murderous destruction of the connection between the native nations and their lands which is still not redeemed today. This text in Epiphany can be an occasion for Christian repentance and acknowledgement of a very selective reading of Scripture to justify sending peoples into Exile for five hundred years in this continent, including Exile on reservations today.
Additionally, the bond between the people and the land is of ecological significance. To construe third Isaiah as simply a triumph of yahwist religion over nature religions is a serious mistake. The degradation of nature perpetrated in the West cannot be justified on Scriptural grounds.
Third, the Isaiah passage is a marvelous occasion to present a more positive theological interpretation of erotic desire. This is related to the ecological issue, since historically in Christian theology women and nature were often seen as peculiarly linked and subordinate to men, and sexuality was identified as the particular characteristic of women, while rational control was attributed to men. This left much of the Church in the pews without any signal in preaching or worship that erotic desire is a good gift of God. But in this passage the eschatological promise of God's justice is expressed in the metaphor of coital joy. John 2:1-11 is as much about this as about alcoholic consumption and miracles.
Fourth, the text can occasion a healthy inquiry into the mystery of God's election of Israel in relation to the Gentiles. Given the likelihood of the dissolution of marriage in divorce in the United States, special attention should be paid to making clear that this marriage of Yahweh and Israel is not subject to dissolution. The metaphor, heard in a contemporary context, could appear to sanction the theological mistake that God has replaced Israel with the Church as the Bride.
Finally, accepting the promise of God's steadfast love is evidenced in doing justice ("saving love") toward the neighbor and indeed all people, especially the outcast. George A. F. Knight's translation of 62:1b is helpful in highlighting this: "until (the fact of) God's redemption of her (his tsedeq) goes forth as brightness and her saving love for others (feminine yeshu'ah) burns like a lamp."1
Elizabeth Bettenhausen Boston, Massachusetts
1. George A. F. Knight, The New Israel (Eerdman's, 1985), p. 62.