“That You May Drink Deeply With Delight”
Isaiah 66:10-14 and Psalm 66:1-9
Sunday, July 3, 2022
Today we have two readings that so beautifully, so eloquently praise God. They speak of God’s power to create joy, to provide sustenance, to bring freedom, and abundance to all in need.
Psalm 66 seems quite straightforward in it’s meaning. God is powerful and good, the source of all creation, and it is glorious to acknowledge God, embrace God, and sing praises to God. The King James translation of this Psalm gives us that wonderful expression: “Make a joyful noise unto God”.
The reading from Isaiah seems at first glance to be similar in tone…there is much mention of God providing joy and comfort, prosperity and safe passage. It begins: “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her” but as it continues, it is actually quite fraught with tension. The second verse repeats the sentiment of the first but with a stark narrative turn. “rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her”.
Isaiah is asking us to be glad for Jerusalem while we are mourning her. There is something truly complex going on here. One can try to take this passage as it is, as attempt to glorify God and to glorify a great city and a great nation…but not everything from the passage fits that simple message. If you are looking for pure joy like you might find in Psalm 66, you come up a little empty.
This is one of those cases where an exquisitely written passage…even a lengthy, extensive passage of the Bible…needs its broader context to be understood fully.
So Isaiah is writing at a time just after the Babylonian exile. Many Jews were forced out of Jerusalem for a period of about 70 years. That was, as one can imagine, an incredibly trying time for multiple generations of people…loss of one’s home, forced migration, culture shock, xenophobia, finding work, finding basic needs. One theologian commented that this part of Isaiah is about a people who are “deeply exhausted”. And as they are now allowed to return to Jerusalem they are faced with a city in upheaval. They return not to the beloved home they once knew but one that has changed dramatically. A city that was now far more corrupt and violent than when they had left it.
We might think of soldiers, or prisoners, or lost travelers returning to a home they don’t quite recognize…or even one that has crumbled while they were gone.
This passage from Isaiah is about both a homecoming and a crushing awakening…experienced at the same time. This is the “mourning” Isaiah speaks of. This is the need for comfort.
And Isaiah indeed offers great comfort and great hope to us…but not without first understanding the pain of Israel…the pain of a nation…the pain of each individual soul.
In verses that preceding this reading…Isaiah asks:
“Before going into labor, she gave birth;
before her pains came, she delivered a male child.
8 Who ever heard of such a thing?
Who has ever seen such things?
Is a country born in one day?
Is a nation brought forth all at once?”
Weather it is an act of nature or an act of humankind, every act of great creation involves great effort…even struggle.
It is soon after this sentiment that Isaiah proceeds to say:
“Rejoice with Yerushalayim!
Be glad with her, all you who love her!
Rejoice, rejoice with her,
all of you who mourned for her;
11 so that you nurse and are satisfied
by her comforting breast,
drinking deeply and delighting
in the overflow of her glory.”
Great change involves great joy and great mourning…and with it comes great comfort and great blessings.
After worrying that I had picked a misleadingly difficult passage for service today…for a church service honoring July 4th , and the birth of our nation… what might be a simple day of patriotism …I realized that this is the perfect reading for today. God often works this way.
July 4th isn’t simply about the greatness of America but the tumultuous birth of America. It’s not only about the country’s beginning but about the end of the war that allowed that beginning to happen. The greatness of any life is anchored in the struggle of its birth.
These pains aren’t necessarily good or bad in this context…they just are. It’s work necessary for anything – a plant, an animal, a business, a work of art, a journey, a concept, and yes, a nation, to live. If we are willing to endure that pain and do that work, we can hold onto the hope and anticipation that it will succeed and that God will bless it with abundance.
Some will say that our country right now is in a great upheaval. I don’t think that’s a politically charged statement, but an objective observation. There is a lot of change happening…many debates being had…a lot of issues being raised of deep personal importance, not only to our national identity but our individual identity.
The pandemic, the environment, elections, congressional hearings, historic supreme court decisions, civil rights, violent crime…any one of these issues would rile up the soul no matter what side of a debate you are on.
But what I take away from this passage from Isaiah is that great change within one’s world, one’s country, or one’s self can be the beginning of new prosperity. Birthing a nation…re-birthing a nation…or re-birthing one’s self…takes a great tolerance for conflicting feelings. And with them we proceed to do the work.
The great democratic experiment of The United States of America asks us:
Can we hold onto our beliefs and still make room for others? Can we understand those who are rejoicing while we are mourning? Can we understand those who are mourning while we are rejoicing? Can we acknowledge the mixed emotions we see around us to better understand ourselves? Can we acknowledge the mixed emotions within ourselves to better understand those of our neighbors?
What does it take to form a more perfect union…and to ensure freedom and justice for all?
Isaiah tells us that if we set our hearts upon joy and comfort, God will respond with abundance.
And the Psalmist agrees:
“Bless our God, you peoples; *
make the voice of his praise to be heard;
Who holds our souls in life, *
and will not allow our feet to slip.”