Over 2500 years ago, Isaiah, to a people captive in a foreign land, proclaimed they would be freed to go home. However, their land remained scarred with the destruction wrought years earlier by armies of their conquerors. So, Isaiah prophesied:
I (the Lord God) am about to create new heavens and a new earth…Be glad and rejoice forever…No more shall (there be)…weeping…or the cry of distress. No more shall there be…an infant that lives but a few days or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity…Before they call, I will answer…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together.
By contrast, stories in our current news cycle declare:
Daily, deadly revivals of ancient enmities in the Middle East and elsewhere…
Civil wars in the Central African Republic and South Sudan…
Incessant drumbeats of provocation between North and South Korea, between North Korea and, it seems, everyone else, between China and freedom activists in Hong Kong, between Russia and the Ukraine…
Renewed American racial tensions in Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, and, given increasing, expanding protests, from sea to shining sea.
Between the lines of these stories, also in contrast to Isaiah, infants and children in many lands cry and die amid violence in many forms, others, having lived beyond their youth, nevertheless die far short of a lifetime, prayers ascend to seemingly unhearing heavens, and wolves of all kinds devour sheep of all sorts.
What happened? Whether I apply Isaiah’s prophecy to the Holy Land or generally to the world, I think God’s had plenty of time to bring it to light. This morning, during my usually quiet reflection, I, in a bit (frankly, a fit) of anguished arrogance, shouted: “We should sue God for breach of promise!”
Catching myself, lest I disturb the entire household, I considered that maybe Isaiah intends, portends something other than waiting on God to do something. To paraphrase a line from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer: “From primal elements (we were) brought forth, blessed with memory, reason, and skill (and) made the rulers of creation.” We humans, in relationship with creation, are co-creators with the Creator, sharing responsibility for the world. Sue God? Perhaps more honestly (not to mention more contritely) we should sue ourselves, then declare moral bankruptcy and throw ourselves on the mercy of the Court of Cosmic Claims (or Crimes)!
Saying this, boundary issues arise. We are responsible. But for what, when, where, and how much? Qualitatively, we can debate endlessly the noble principles to which we ascribe. Love? Justice? Something else? Quantitatively, we can debate equally endlessly about innumerable, measurable, painfully prevailing human conditions: domestic violence, gun violence, hate crimes against women, lesbian and gay persons, and people of color, HIV/AIDS, hunger and homelessness, war. I want to help, but I (whether one individual, one community, or one nation) am limited in energy and resources. I want to maintain the integrity of my authentic self and not be stretched beyond recognition in my attempts to respond to the world’s need.
Here, John, a biblical paradigm of one who knew who he was and constantly rehearsed, thus reclaimed his identity, helps me. To the question, “‘Who are you?’ he did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah’” Apparently it is as honest and heartfelt an expression of identity for one to say who one is not as it is to say who one is.
Then John described himself in terms of his mission and reminded the people of their calling: “I am a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight God’s way.’” If Isaiah’s prophecy was not fulfilled, perhaps it was because the people had not done all they could do to bring it to light.
It serves well, I think, for us to be mindful of our identity as expressed in our personal missions and responsibilities. It isn’t about whether we always fulfill them. We never always fulfill anything. Ultimately, that’s God’s job. Our job as individuals, communities, and nations is to be alert to human need, knowledgeable of our resources, conscious of our commitment and our choices about where and when to respond, and then to act.
Sue God? Sue ourselves? No. Better to remember not to try to be God (always a temptation for me, especially when I think I know best!) and to wrestle constantly with living into that much more fulfilling role, verily reality of being ourselves.