Isaiah 65:21-24 NRSV They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD—
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
You recall how Isaiah began — with accusations and indictments and ominous foreshadowing of terrors soon to pass. Isaiah 6:8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.‘ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”
And that is exactly what happened. For more than fifty chapters we hear of the terrible consequences poured out upon the people of God for their failure to keep covenant with God and one another. The poetry of Isaiah preserves for us, in excruciating detail, the consequences of self-serving living. They wanted to be self-sufficient. They wanted to have no obligation to care for the weak among them. God gave them what they wanted — a life of anxious striving and desperate exploitation with each person committed to survival at any cost. It was hard and brutal and deadly and as soon as they began their exile they knew the terrible mistake of their selfish desires. . . but it was too late.
God did not leave them forever in the exile of their own making, however. After long-suffering and not a little despair, a new poem pours forth. A new oracle steeped in hope. They shall build and plant for their own benefit. They shall live long in the land and prosper. No children born into calamity and, perhaps best of all, God is once again listening to them. They are given a new chance to return to Palestine, to return to God, and to return to a life of covenantal neighborliness.
So the question for those of us in the United States on December 10, 2012 is the same question that lies at the heart of the opening chapters of Isaiah’s poetry: “Do we prefer autonomy to creatureliness? Do we believe that our wealth is self-made and that we have no obligation to care for others? Do we imagine that we can establish private arrangements with God for our redemption apart from God’s intent to redeem all those people we don’t like?” Let us hope that we can choose wisely — that we will choose life over exile, neighborliness over self-serving autonomy, and God over all the easy idols.
God of every returning — you are the one whose heart swells with compassion while we are yet far away and who races out to meet us and restore us as your children. May your amazing grace teach us how to love our siblings and to keep you ever before our eyes. “In returning and in rest is our salvation” [Isaiah 30:15]. In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit we ask it. Amen.