By John Holbert
Lectionary Reflections on Isaiah 63:7-9
It seems altogether appropriate that on this final Sunday of the year 2013 that we look back a bit on the year that is about to end. In my NRSV Bible, the title that stands over our tiny passage for the day (NOTE: these titles are decidedly not part of the received scriptural text!) states, “God’s Mercy Remembered.” And so it appears to be just that, a warm thanksgiving for all that God has done on behalf of the people of Israel. We 21st century Christians would do well to do the same, to recount and recall all the myriad ways that we might summarize the actions of our God for us during this fading year.
Unfortunately, I see two possible problems with this procedure. First, it is always hard for us progressive Christians to enumerate, or even at times recognize just what God has done for us! I imagine the very hardest thing that a progressive Christian addresses with fellow progressives is the question of the activity of God. After all, those who are fond of saying that mantra, “God has no hands but our hands,” are likely to find it onerous if not downright impossible to say what that no handed God may or may not be about. We usually speak of “the lure of God,” urging us to the work in light of the rule of God in the world, or “the call/commission of God,” leading us to the ministry that God has in mind for us. Surely, there is nothing inherently wrong with either of those statements, but they do sound rather vague, especially when they are put up against what the Isaiah passage has to say about the work of God. But more of that below.
The second possible problem is in fact trying to say more exactly what God has done for us. This is not quite the same problem as the first one, though it sounds a good bit like it. I readily admit that that “no hands gambit,” to which I have on occasion had recourse in my own theological life, sounds now very “weaselly” to my ears. “Weaselly,” you say? That neologism means to me sneaky, underhanded, in the end not willing to come completely clean about what one does believe. I wish finally to say that if in fact “God has no hands but ours,” then the jig is up! We had best break out the booze and start dancing! When I cast a weary eye on my hands, and on your hands, and our hands together, they seem all too pitiful and hopeless. Surely, God has some hands to join with ours! Surely, God must have some hands to join with ours! Does Isaiah help us here?
I fear, not much! Oh, he has no problem telling us in some grotesque detail just what he thinks God has done for him and for Israel. Cast an eye at Is 63:1-6. There you will read a most unpleasant taunt song against Edom, a tiny community of people, south and east of Israel, who over the centuries had a very checkered history with God’s chosen ones, Israel. Isaiah announces in no uncertain terms that YHWH has chosen Israel and has stomped Edom into non-existence. “I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth” (Is 63:6). Right after that celebration of divine victory and death, Isaiah gives YHWH thanks. “I will recount the gracious deeds of YHWH, the praiseworthy acts of YHWH, because of all that YHWH has done for us” (Is 63:7). Really!! YHWH’s gracious and praiseworthy deeds are YHWH’s vicious slaughter of Edom, how God “trampled them in my wrath, their juice spattered on my garments” (Is 63:3)!
Who would not call such thanks monstrous, appalling, disgusting?! Should I ever thank YHWH for the death of my enemies? Surely not! When our Lord Jesus is perhaps best known for his astonishing demand that we love our enemies, it must be far less than praiseworthy when we thank YHWH for their gruesome deaths. I plainly do not find help, much less comfort, in these words from the prophet in this text. If I rip it from its broader context in chapter 63, I could find the lovely and abstract hope of thanksgiving for the “mercy” and “steadfast love” (the magical Hebrew word chesed, perhaps “unbreakable love”) of YHWH for me and mine. But if that action of YHWH for me is done at the expense of others, who are no less God’s people than I am, that will simply not do. I would be no better than the German soldiers in World War I who marched into battle wearing belt buckles that read “Gott mit uns,” “God with us,” with the clear implication that God was not with “them.”
I may be better served by reading on in the chapter. After we hear that “God’s love and pity redeemed them (Israel), lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (Is 63:9), the next verses offer important language for us to ponder. “But they rebelled (ah, now this begins to sound familiar!) and grieved God’s holy spirit; therefore God became their enemy—God fought against them” (Is 63:10)! Here is what makes a prophet. Just when we sit in comfort, thanking God for smashing our foes and setting us up as paragons, God’s favored ones, the prophet reminds us what can happen when we realize that we are finally no different from those we have called enemies! This God at the last plays no favorites, but demands from all creation the same things—justice, righteousness, equality for all.
But will YHWH continue with this anger against recalcitrant people? No, thank God, because YHWH always “remembers the days of old” and especially “Moses, God’s servant” (Is 63:11). (Though the NRSV reads the first part of the line “they remembered,” the Hebrew plainly states “He (God) remembered”). Because God’s memory is never short, always calling to the divine mind the great deeds performed in the past, represented most particularly by the faithful Moses, there remains hope for YHWH’s people in the present. And because we too remember Moses, how he himself attempted to “weasel” his way out of doing what God called him to do at that famous and fiery bush (Ex 3-4), we too are reminded that on our own we are likely to shrink from God’s call to us far more often than we are likely to follow it.
Now there is something to be thankful for—not God’s defeat and humiliation of our enemies, because we are somehow God’s favorite people–but rather God’s final unwillingness to give up on us, recalcitrant little weasels that we all are. Looking back at 2013, we can once again be very grateful indeed that God cares for all of us and loves us still despite all that we are and do and do not do.
So, does that solve the progressive Christian’s problem about speaking clearly about what God actually does in the world? Hardly! But it does tell us what not to be thankful for, namely our own safety, our own so-called specialness. And it does tell us something to be very thankful for—God’s unbreakable love for all of God’s creation of which we must be only a very grateful part. How has that love manifested itself in your life and in the life of the world this past year? That is worth pondering as we face another year of life, given to us so freely and wonderfully by God. What else can we say, but “thanks be to God?”
And speaking of remembering: do not forget the upcoming cruise of the Baltic, Sept 3-11, 2014 on which I will be speaking of the Book of Job. I would love to meet you there. Go to www.eo.travel for details.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.