Perhaps like many of you, I have spent much time in the past few weeks watching the extraordinary impeachment hearings, testing the actions of President Donald Trump with regard to his and our relationships with Ukraine. I am of course old enough to remember vividly the Watergate hearings of 45 years ago into the possible impeachment of another Republican president, Richard Nixon. I “wallowed in Watergate,” as the saying went at the time, when I should have been writing my doctoral dissertation on the book of Job. It was, I suppose, richly ironic that Nixon often presented himself as a Job- like figure, much put upon and abused by cruel enemies. The difference, of course, is that unlike Job, Nixon was all too guilty of what he was accused of, and finally resigned his office before he was impeached in the House of Representatives and found guilty in the Senate, both of which surely would have happened.
The hearings of 2019 are radically different. House Democrats are fully convinced that Trump is guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as the Constitution states it, while not a single Republican, as far as now can be seen, agrees. And since the Senate has a Republican majority, it appears unlikely that an impeached Trump will be found guilty and removed from office. In many earlier blogs, I have made my political views known all too well, and I agree that Trump should be impeached and removed from office. The fact that it is not going to happen fills me with a certain dread for the future of the USA, and may make Trump’s reelection more likely, an occurrence that is horrifying to me in more ways than I can name.
I desperately need the hope of Advent this year! I desperately need this fabulous text from Isaiah now to offer to me hope in the midst of my exile from what I have long believed is the promise of US equality, opportunity, and freedom. Over the past three years of a Trump presidency, I have witnessed the demise of equality, as Donald Trump has made it clear that people of color, who do not toe the Trumpian line of “America first,” are clearly second-class people. And I have seen opportunity vanish for “Dreamers,” for so many immigrants, and for poor people in our land whose hopes have been swallowed up in tax cuts for the rich, the loosening of environmental restrictions that have helped the marginal live fuller and healthier lives, the overall lack of concern for those who can offer little in the way of support for a wealthy president and his wealthier friends. And I have watched while freedom has been taken away from those hungry to find a place in America, forcing them to separate from their families and to wait outside the US for immigration hearings that seem never to come. The political direction of my country in countless ways has verged decisively from my conception of what my country has struggled to be in the past and should always be about. Trump may well be found innocent of the charges of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but his daily actions and words as our president make me regularly ashamed to call myself an American citizen.
“’Comfort, comfort, my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, cry to it that it has served its term, that it has received from YHWH’s hand twice over for its sins’” (Is.40:1)! (The traditional naming of cities, ships, churches, and other places and things as female, I find demeaning and unnecessary. The pronoun may as well be read as neuter.) It is crucial to remember just whom it is Isaiah is addressing with these glorious words. Judah has been in Babylonian exile for two full generations, and has little hope of escape from the greatest city and empire on the planet in the 6th century BCE. Yet, while Isaiah speaks his words, something little short of miraculous has happened. Not only has mighty Babylon been captured and swallowed by the vast power of Persia and its King Cyrus, now called Great. All of that has occurred with minimal bloodshed and with amazing speed. The armies of Persia have entered Babylon, the final king of Babylon, Nabonidus, has been deposed, and the empire that has controlled huge portions of the Near East for centuries, has in effect disappeared. Isaiah is so overwhelmed with joy at this new reality that he names Cyrus, a patently pagan king, as YHWH’s “messiah,” God’s “anointed one,” who does YHWH’s bidding, even though Cyrus speaks no Hebrew and knows nothing of YHWH at all (Is.45:1-7).
Thus, Isaiah’s word of “comfort” is offered to a people who have been shattered and beaten down, but who now see a glimmer of hope with this astonishing change of regime from Babylonian to Persian. And the change is for them a profound one, since Cyrus does not run his empire as the Babylonians have done. No more will peoples be exiled to foreign cities far from their homes. Cyrus gives to the former captives the right to return to their homes, and will even pay them to do so in the bargain! You can readily see how the word “messiah” passes his lips when he refers to the pagan Cyrus.
And Isaiah does not stop with his promise of comfort for his fellow Judeans, but adds that with their return to Jerusalem, the entire cosmos will respond with radical change: mountains and hills will flatten out while valleys will lift to the sky. Roads will appear that will usher Judah comfortably back to its city and land. All obstacles to that return will disappear as the broken land will smooth out and the rougher spots in the road will be paved over (Is.40:3-4). All nature will join in making Judah’s return easy and pleasant, and all memories of exile and captivity will fade away.
However, Isaiah does not stop his flow of hopeful words with a portrait of a simple and easy trip home. He warns the Judeans that though they will return, they should not imagine that they are any different as human beings. They are demanded to “Cry out” that “all people are grass,” their constancy no better than the flowers of the field. All know too well that “the grass withers and the flower fades,” but they must know and repeat “the word of our God will stand forever” (Is.40:8).
And that is what I need this Advent. I must know and embrace and repeat “the word of our God will stand forever,” in the face of the denial of that word, the distortion of that word, the abuse of that word. No matter how many so-called Christians imagine that Donald Trump is somehow “God’s chosen one,” a modern day Cyrus come to save us all, Donald Trump’s words and actions are as far from the word of God as can be imagined. His lying and bullying and denial of basic equality, opportunity, and freedom for all people belie his connection to the words and actions of our God.
I need Isaiah’s comfort this season for me who finds himself in exile from what I have long learned and hoped about the land in which I live. I would welcome a regime change, effected by some new Cyrus who would offer me unexpected hope. But if I cannot have that, I will readily accept Isaiah’s divine comfort, based on the conviction that that comfort is rooted in the fact that God’s word will stand forever, and that no regime, no president ultimately will.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)