Summit Presbyterian Church
July 3, 2016
Luke 10:1-12, 17-20; Isaiah 66:10-14
Reading Round the World
Several years ago, for an Earth Day Service, we invited everyone to bring a picture of a place they loved where they felt connected to God. We pinned the photographs on a board, and I remember pictures of purple mountains and woodlands and ocean beaches and coastlines. My favorite was a picture of Don White tending his garden, especially since I think it also came with some zucchini. I wasn’t here for Reinhart’s sermon last week, but I understand he also talked about encountering God in the beauty of the natural world. God speaks to us, thrills us, comforts us and grants us peace through God’s creation. For many of us, places of natural beauty are the place where we feel the divine presence most intensely. God comes to us through such places.
In our scripture today, Isaiah speaks of God coming to the people through a different kind of place: a city. The holy city of Jerusalem, also called Zion. Jerusalem was the site of the temple, the center of the small nation of Israel, home of the Jewish people; Jerusalem represented the people and the country. Our reading comes at the very end of the book of Isaiah. It was written about 500 years before Jesus was born. Persia had just conquered Jerusalem, which was actually good news. Sixty years earlier Jerusalem had been conquered by Babylon, and in their pacification policy Babylon had sent Jerusalem’s leaders, the educated of the city, to other parts of the Empire. Those 60 years are known as the Babylonian Exile, or the Babylonian Captivity. You may know the line from Psalm 137, where where it says By the rivers of Babylon we wept when we remembered Zion. But when the up and coming empire of Persia took Jerusalem, the Persian King Cyrus allowed the exiles to return. It was a time of rejoicing. Isaiah praised Cyrus, calling him an instrument of God. But even with this change in fortune, all was not well. The dreams of return were not matched by reality. The city was still in ruins, the temple gone. There were tensions between the returning exiles and those who remained. The people were still poor, hungry, and struggling. They were still under the yoke of an Empire, even if was a more benevolent one. So it’s in this difficult time, when the people are exhausted, that God speaks a word of hope through Isaiah.
God tells all who love Jerusalem to rejoice with her for they will be nursed and satisfied from her consoling breast. They will drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom. They will be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. Like a mother comforts her child, says God, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. Prosperity will be extended to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream. You and Jerusalem will flourish. The Jerusalem that the exiles loved and longed for. The Jerusalem for whom the people sang hymns. The Jerusalem that was then still suffering. But, indeed, things did get better, at least for a while. Israel was never again independent, except for a brief period: first the Greeks came, and then the Romans. But the temple was rebuilt. The people enjoyed a measure peace. God’s promises were not completely fulfilled — we’re still waiting — but the people were comforted and nourished.
A simple, straightforward reading of this passage - and much of Isaiah — suggests that God favors Jerusalem above other places, and the people of Israel over other peoples. After all, it says the wealth of other nations will flow to it . . . . . and also fortells destruction of Israel’s enemies. But if we read deeper in the Bible, before and after this passage, it gets more complicated. God also promises to draw people from other nations to God’s Holy Mountain; and from the beginning God said other nations would be blessed through Israel. God is also understood, in Isaiah, to have permitted if not commissioned the destruction of Jerusalem, as punishment for unfaithfulness and injustice among her people — so being from Israel didn’t give anyone a pass. We might be tempted to portray God as a patriot of Zion, but God refuses. And then in Luke, Jesus sends out the 70 apostles to gentiles as well as Jews. After he has risen, he will tell the disciples to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all the nations — and the Holy Spirit will send the apostles to the ends of the earth. It’s part of God’s plan to bring the Word, including these words from Isaiah, to all peoples and all nations. So how do we understand this scripture, knowing that it’s being read around the world?
Our tendency is to think that since God is speaking to us, too, and Jerusalem is also symbolic, we can substitute the “United States” for Jerusalem, and to think of God promising peace and prosperity and comfort to us through our country, and to our city. I think that’s fair: God does promise to all God’s people, including us, comfort and joy. But the temptation is to then think that God is speaking these words only to us, and that God favors this country like we do. But French Christians are also reading this word, and likely replacing, “France” or “Paris” for Jerusalem. Congolese Christians are reading these words and probably substituting, “Kinshasa” or the “Democratic Republic of the Congo” for Jerusalem. Venezuelan Christians are surely thinking of “Caracas” and Venezuela” when hearing these promises. And in all of these nations it’s not just Christians, it’s not just the native born, who love their country and their cities. God promises in time, the comfort of a mother’s breast, prosperity and joy for all who love their cities, and their countries, but who are looking at ruins, fearful of bombs, worshipping in secret, exhausted from hunger. In Jerusalem, Philadelphia, Baghdad, Beijing, Mumbai, Istanbul, Brussels, Dhaka, Damascus.
God comes to us where we live, where our feet are planted, and also where we roam or where we have fled. God comes to us in specific times and places, and promises the restoration of places that we love, not necessarily as they were before — the Jerusalem of King David was gone — but as places where we may know joy and receive comfort. God comes to us in the cities and countries that we’ve built, where we work and worship and live. So we can love our city, and our country. As long as we remember that others love their cities and their countries, and that God makes promises of comfort and hope to them, too. If God calls us to work and pray for the well-being of all cities and countries and peoples of this world. For we’re bound together, like it or not: through the global economy, through the threat of climate change, nuclear war, and terror; through social media; through the church, and through other world-wide faiths. Most important, we’re bound together through the love of God. We know God through the grace of Jesus Christ, but we can trust that God works in many ways to bring love and comfort and joy to all who love their countries, and their cities around the world.
This is my prayer, O God of all the nations,
a prayer of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations,
a prayer of peace for their land and for mine. Lloyd Stone, 1921 (adapted)