The other day, I arrived early to a coffee shop where I was meeting some people. I took out a book to read while I waited, Voltaire’s masterful satire, Candide. Voltaire, as you might remember, was a famous writer and philosopher from pre-Revolutionary France.
I have a nodding acquaintance with many of the people in this coffee shop. One of them saw my book. He knew Voltaire advocated for civil liberties, poked at religious dogmatism, and opposed authoritarian government. And he knew I’m a pastor. So, he asked, “Doing opposition research?”
Actually, I was reading Candide because it’s funny. But it reminded me what I love about the United Church of Christ. We’re more likely to draw on an author like Voltaire - who like us supported liberties, spurned dogmas, and fought authoritarians - than we are to remember his theological foes. We find gifts (and wisdom) wherever we can, including irreverent philosophers like Voltaire; in this we’re like Jesus, who received gifts from kings from far outside his normal world.
The visit of the kings to Jesus seemed to confirm a set of Biblical prophecies. Our morning Psalm promised Israel a king so amazing that even foreigners would come to praise him. “In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more. May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”
We often read Isaiah as promising the same amazing arrival of tribute and foreign praise. We hear the prophet promise so many camels arriving ladened with gifts that the dust alone would stir up tremendous clouds. A dust-storm of gift-giving.
But recently I read the Isaiah passage more closely, using the translation from the Jewish Publications Society, the gold-standard in Hebrew-English translations. This drew my attention to the ways the Psalm we read and Isaiah imagine the promise of God’s future in powerfully different ways.
The Psalm celebrated a king, the anointed of God. A poet probably first wrote it for the inaugural of a king on the throne of David; it extols a king for his virtues: strength, wisdom, and care of the poor. This kind of poem can be found throughout the Bible; and indeed in every culture celebrating the accession of a new ruler. (Our own American inaugurations regularly feature poetry and prayer lauding great leadership.)
Reading Isaiah alongside of the Psalm and the story of the kings coming to praise Jesus kept me from seeing the ways in which Isaiah spoke differently. Isaiah transfers all the ‘praise and power’ normally associated with a king to the people themselves. The Psalm spoke of a great king; crowns a new ruler. But Isaiah spoke of a great people; he inaugurated the people. Isaiah saw the people themselves as the ones worthy of praise.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an insightful progressive author, drew out the implications of Isaiah’s inauguration of the people. She said, “For the prophet, God’s glory is completed in the glorification of God’s people. Their radiance is essential to any bright future of God’s own imagining. If they hope to sit on the sidelines while someone else shines instead of them, then they have missed their central role in God’s vision.”
While the Psalm cheered from the sidelines as someone else did the work, Isaiah throws us the ball and sends us down the field: let your light shine!
In particular, I hear Isaiah speaking three keys words of encouragement as he calls us to action: arise, look, shine. With each of these words, Isaiah cheered on our lives.
Arise: this arresting word which opened our reading becomes even more meaningful if we remember the context. Isaiah composed this passage after the people of Israel returned from their enslavement by Babylon. Despair surrounded them, the daunting task of rebuilding overwhelmed them, while only the ruins of the temple and their fields provided shelter.
Isaiah didn’t deny the reality of the task before them. But he made clear: the time for despair is over. It’s a new day. We need this word in our own lives. When we face situations that make us despair, when we face problems that seem insurmountable, when we seem stuck in our lives...Isaiah says “rise.”
Maya Angelou, wrote in a similar way, back in the 1970’s, when it had long become clear that all the hopefulness of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement had hit the hard wall of white supremacy and white indifference. Yet, in “Still I Rise,” she spoke words like Isaiah:
You may write me down in history
And once raised, Isaiah told people to look:
“Raise your eyes and look about:
They have all gathered and come to you.
Your sons shall be brought from afar,
Your daughters like babes on shoulders.”
Normally we focus on Isaiah’s mention of the kings laden with treasure. But Isaiah also mentioned the sons and daughters coming too. And we must know what those words meant to Isaiah’s community. The exile destroys the community; enslaved Jews were sent here and there in the Babylonian empire, fathers and mothers separated from their sons and daughters. Now, to the parents, Isaiah said, “look, the son you thought dead is alive; the daughter was lost and is found!” (Luke 15: 24).
Isaiah’s call to look doesn’t mean every hope of his people was already filled. But he wanted them to look toward the horizon, to lean into the future, to imagine what could happen.
But we might wonder: is this faithful expectation or just unrealistic delusion? The line between willful naivete and profound hope can seem very thin. Indeed, when I started reading Voltaire’s Candide it was because of his caricature of the willfully naive philosopher.
Voltaire’s story told of a philosopher named Pangloss who is always super positive. Pangloss lived by the motto, “This is the best of all possible worlds.” No matter what happened, no matter how bad, Pangloss told himself, “This is the best of all possible worlds.”
This motto - this willful naivete - led Pangloss to ridiculous philosophical rationalizations. At one point, he contracts syphilis. But even that disease can’t stop his positivism. For he reasons, “If Christopher Columbus’s sailors hadn’t brought syphilis to Europe, then they probably would not have brought chocolate either, and we couldn’t have the best possible world without chocolate.”
Sometimes it feels as if religious people engage in positivism like Pangloss: whatever happens must be God’s will.
But this is not what Isaiah actually said. He doesn’t call the brokenness in people’s lives “the best of all possible worlds.” Instead of taking what is and calling it good, Isaiah points to the future and asks us to imagine what could be. And that’s one of the differences between a willful naivete and profound hope. Real hope isn’t deluded by the present but strains to see the future that could yet be.
Such a future only comes when we shine. As Isaiah said, “As you behold, you will glow; your heart will throb and thrill.”
Isaiah did not just celebrate God’s light; he called for us to reflect that light in the world. Our hope for the future becomes our work to do in the world. Through how we live our lives, we reflect the future God brings.
Often our reading of this passage ends with verse 6 but this morning we read a bit further. That’s because I want us to get the full context of Isaiah’s hope and therefore the work Isaiah called us to do.
Normally we end the reading with the camels coming from Midan with gold and gifts of frankincense from Sheba. This makes it sound like a vision of tribute coming to Israel. But the words of Isaiah made these gifts part of something larger. The nations came to Israel in order to worship God: “They shall be welcome offerings on My altar, and I will add glory to My glorious House.” Isaiah hoped for more than just money and perfume; he wanted the nations united together in worship, reconciled with each other, one beloved community. He imagined a future marked by reconciliation between all the nations.
In the fall, after the Presidential election, I shared a vision of Rabbi Tiferet and I going out beyond Milwaukee County to have conversations with people across Wisconsin. I made a joke of it - the black Rabbi and the gay pastor in Red America. But it tapped into a real sense of call to get out beyond my normal conversations, out beyond the circles of people who agree with me, and to listen and learn from people whose life experience makes them look at the world differently than I do.
I kind of liked it as a vision (and a joke). But afterwards, someone in the congregation talked to me about it. Work takes him around the state; he knew thoughtful people in small towns around Wisconsin. Basically, he called my bluff.
I used Thanksgiving-Christmas, the blur of the holidays, as an excuse. (I’ve done the same with dieting.) But like Isaiah (or a conscience), my friend came back to me the day after Christmas. No excuses time. No more pleasant visions; time to work. He had names. “I think you should speak with these people.” He even sent phone numbers, emails, addresses. There’s no getting out of this. So, I’m making a commitment to have these conversations by the end of February, to start in my own way, some work of reconciliation.
What about you? We celebrate a God of amazing love who seeks to free the oppressed and reconcile strangers and create beloved community. What can you do in your life to reflect that vision? To shine with God’s light of love?
Our country prepares this month to inaugurate a new President. But this Sunday, following Isaiah, I want to think about a ‘people’s inaugural.’ In this new beginning, I want to arise from despair, to look for the future God brings, and shine with God’s love.
Alleluia and Amen.