Truly, O people in Zion, inhabitants of Jerusalem, you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you. Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Then you will defile your silver-covered idols and your gold-plated images. You will scatter them like filthy rags; you will say to them, “Away with you!”
He will give rain for the seed with which you sow the ground, and grain, the produce of the ground, which will be rich and plenteous. On that day your cattle will graze in broad pastures; and the oxen and donkeys that till the ground will eat silage, which has been winnowed with shovel and fork. On every lofty mountain and every high hill there will be brooks running with water—on a day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall. Moreover the light of the moon will be like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold, like the light of seven days, on the day when the Lord binds up the injuries of his people, and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow.
Theoretically, there is some control over the topics I preach when I get up in front of you all. Yet, as has often proven the case, circumstance and coincidences of calendars can shape a message planned a year a go into something radiant and unique compared to what I had initially planned. To have a Sunday fall on the nineteenth of June before this year might not have meant much. Now though, it means that we celebrate our Holy Gathering on a national holiday – on Juneteenth. Now, what does that mean for us? It means that we have a direct lesson from history and from life to help us understand what scripture has revealed to us.
On this day, in 1865, enslaved people in Texas were given a message. Their time as slaves had come to an end following President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the “Emancipation Proclamation,” freeing all slaves in Secessionist territories. There was, of course, celebration on that June 19th long ago, but also a bittersweet realization. While the enslaved of Texas were freed on that first Juneteenth in 1865, the document that freed them was signed on January 1st… 1963. Two and a half years from the time that they had been given their leave of their slavery, to the time they were first given freedom.
The people forcing them to work knew about this proclamation that had been given, but of course they were not going to let their victims hear about it. Afterall, they no longer acknowledged Washington as the seat of government, nor did they see any advantage in freeing people they benefited from oppressing. Romantic images of plantation life, so common in Southern Narratives of the war, melt away in the cold reality of Justice delayed, which we know is tantamount to Justice denied.
This history has a still darker layer. The reality of the proclamation that allowed the enslaved within Texas to be freed was conditional. Slaves were freed only in secessionist territory. In other words, a slave holder in Jefferson County, a part of our state that was heavily Confederate, would be compelled to free their slaves, while a slaver in Wheeling, a Union area, would be free to keep them. It would be three years from the Emancipation Proclamation that chattel slavery was finally abolished in the United States. As joyous as one act was, it was motivated by war, and it would take a horrible stretch of three more years for our morals to catch up to our guile. Three years from convenience moving to justice.
So, what does this have to do with us, with God lifting up the poor and the broken of Judah like our scripture puts forward. More than that, why, Mr. Langenstein, staunch advocate for keeping civil and religious observances separate, are you preaching from the starting point of Juneteenth, when Father’s day is a much more popular choice anyway? Let the Spirit testify that my love of controversy is separate from my prophetic call, though the two do sometimes align. I bring the civil into the sacred today so that we may hear Isaiah’s call to repent and avert the necessity of the promises we see in our text today.
Avoiding a promise from God! What in the world?! God gives promises to be kept. God keeps God’s word, so why would it be possible, even good, to avoid a promise from God? Well, walk with me and we’ll see. Isaiah spoke this promise to the people anticipating them to fall, it is a promise to be restored after complete destruction. God promised an end to exile and to trouble, but the fall God was bringing to the people was a fall they had engineered for themselves.
When we read the prophets, we hear about the rise of Assyria and Babylon, two empires that scripture describes as implements of God’s wrath. We usually suffice to say that God’s people fell into idolatry and were punished because of it. The worship of other God’s definitely is part of the prophetic critique, but the prophets are also clear that the rise of idolatry in the people is a symptom rather than the cause of their fall.
The book of Isaiah is split into three parts, the first is the stretch of chapters from the first to the thirty-ninth. This section focuses on the life of Judah before and during the Babylonian invasion. In the chapters leading up to the one our scripture comes from, Isaiah has given a long list of prophecies against the nations around Judah. He describes how Israel had fallen nearly two hundred years earlier. He looks at the many evils committed by all these groups, and then he looks to his own people, to Judah, and declares that they have managed to do worse than any of the others. Worse than the sins of all these people, are the sins of those who knew better and did it anyway.
And what was the chief offense of the people? They saw the poor as disposable, thy looked at orphans as a way to make a dime, and widows as obstacles to their money making schemes. Isaiah switches between poetry, sarcasm, and direct attack throughout his prophecies. Specifically the first six chapters of the book digs into the offenses of Judah. To name a few of them, Isaiah accuses the people of: sacrificing without faith, bribery, accepting bribes, abandoning those in need, murder, inhospitality, choosing evil over good, miscarrying justice, owning excess land, and choosing political power – and alliances – over God. Now, that list is probably incomplete and some of those are categories, not exact offenses, but the point stands – idolatry is a minor part of what God’s people got, or should I say, get, up to.
Isaiah mixes his doomsaying with prophecies of restoration and joy. Yet there is another message underneath it all. “Can you, people of God, stop this evil now, and avert the calamity? The answer, again and again, seems to be no. The force of evil is too great, the appeal of power is too strong, we bend the knee again and again to earthly things. When genuine idols appear, we collect them as yet another potential ally. We fail to do good, we fail to repent, we set ourselves up for a fall, again and again and again.
A lot of times we catch ourselves saying, “What is wrong with the world?” or “It never used to be this way?” But when we start down this path we hear God speaking to us and sating, “Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” (Eccl. 7:10) The reality is that all of human history is messy, full of heights of goodness and mercy, but also full of wicked evil. The same evil rampant in Judah is alive today and God cries out with the same voice, promising to lift us up if we fall, but asking us to turn away before we do.
That call has been ringing out for 246 in this country. From the moment we declared independence in the name of Liberty but denied that same liberty to those we found convenient to enslave. While ministers like John Wesley rained prophecy upon us about this hypocrisy, we carried on. We denied the prophetic call of God to repent as we massacred indigenous people, pushing them further away from their ancestral homes and to this day denying their full humanity. We freed slaves when it was convenient for us, then segregated the races until the oppressed rose up with voices, and marches, and sometimes arms to say, “No more!” We continue to ignore the call in our willingness to allow any and all evil, as long as it keeps gas prices low, our cell phones cheap, and our pay checks steady.
Some may see that review of history as overly negative, and certainly I highlighted some great atrocities in that quick retelling. Yet, I could also say I left out a lot. No mention of Tuskegee or of Monsanto. Not of Agent Orange dropped on soldiers and civilians, nor of housing crises and inflation booms when companies report record profits and houses remain empty. I tire of narratives that act like my generation is especially sinful or that Gen Z is somehow more depraved. Billy Joel said, “we didn’t start the fire,” when looking to his own generation. Well, growing up in the Ash Heap, I insist I’m less responsible than he ever was.
As a country, we’ve been debating how to tell our history. Do we highlight our failures or our triumphs? Do we see our founders as flawed heroes or historical monsters? If we give into the controversies of the day, we might believe there is a binary here to take a side on. That is flatly untrue. Much of the controversy drummed up now is reactionary. People are asking us to question our national narratives, to see things from another point of view, and so conspiracies were made. Going back to McCarthy and the anti-communist movement, these criticisms were tied to communism, and a choice had to be made – accept an idealized vision of America or give in to the commies. The same people it should be said accused the Civil Rights movement of being communist.
Today, now there’s CRT which people accuse of being a communist conspiracy, and which isn’t taught outside of specific college programs. But the manufactured fight keeps us from having difficult conversations. We cannot, as Isaiah did, take a moment and think, “Maybe our national history isn’t all rainbows and butterflies.” More than that, maybe there are legitimate problems we need to fix in the here and now based on those historic problems. History is messy, whether its your family, your church, or your country, it can’t be all good or bad, but it does need to be honest.
Let me give you an example, my favorite founding father is John Adams. He had a presence of mind to him I just love to read about. On top of that, the love that he and his wife had for one another is something we should all aspire to. Adams, nonetheless, signed the Aliens and Sedition Acts. Taking rights away from immigrants and making criticism of the president all but illegal. That is the act of a Tyrant. Yet, my mixed admiration and terror remains.
My grandfathers both services in Viet Nam, my Great-grandfather in WWII, I’m proud of their service. Yet, especially for those that served in Viet Nam, I do no deny that they may have been forced to be part of the atrocities we committed there. Nor can I forget that the government rained Agent Orange on them, giving him a poison that sat in his bones and killed him with cancer. He should be here to celebrate Father’s day! But war and evil and greed took him from me.
Isaiah brings us two lessons, two visions. One is of us repenting now to avert disaster. We can see this begin to take root. When we put aside prejudice and our preconceived ideas of each other and choose to fight for each other, that is when the kingdom of Heaven breaks out on Earth. When the Spirit came down on the Pentecost and the walls between Greek and Judean lives melted in the light of God’s grace. When people sold their land to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and to house the homeless. Heaven came to Earth, and it has before and it will again, if we accept and learn from the past even as we charge into the future.
The second image Isaiah gives us is less immediate – not a restoration of Judah or any nation, but of the world as it was meant to be. In this we see what Christ will bring about in the world to come. There will be no pain or suffering, no death or worry. There will be God and people of all races, nations, and people. The sun and moon we be perfected alongside the souls within our dusty shells which are themselves made glorious. We all dream of a day when Christ returns to set things right. Yet, Christ did not leave us on Earth to stare up at Heaven and wait. Christ said to go forward to bring truth into the world, light out of darkness, life from out of death. Proclamations of liberation, that is what we are to the world. That means we must free ourselves from sins of greed, of power, of political games. We must advocate the case of the poor, the oppressed, those the world has said are not enough. Feed them, love them, free them! Do not let just be delayed one moment longer, but fight for those we have written off. Fight to