By Jeremy Garber
What we think matters – sometimes even more than we think. Recently I’ve been reading an intriguing book about my favorite philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, that mentions Renaissance theologians like Nicholas of Cusa and Pico della Mirandola. In a nutshell, these philosophers say that every being in creation is a unique revelation of God, a special creation in its own right that contains the spark of God. It is our being made in God’s image that allows us to be creators just as God created us. Mirandola even imagined God saying to humans, “Thou like a judge appointed for being honorable, art the molder and maker of thyself; thou mayest sculpt thyself into whatever shape thou dost prefer.” As we create symbols, art, and poetry, we have the ability to make the world what we want it to be – and we can choose whether that symbolizing makes the world better or worse. As Mirandola, Voltaire, and Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben reminds us, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It is the back-and-forth dance of human symbolizing that throws us into fires of our own making, and gives us the ability to imagine a way out of the fire again.
The writer of Isaiah 40 used his ability to think symbols into reality during a turbulent time of political and economic change. This part of Isaiah was written during the period of Babylonian exile, when the people of Judah were forcibly removed to the Babylonian court, and “Babylon” became the symbol for an oppressive empire that used its military and economic power to do whatever it wanted to. In the middle of what seemed to be a crushing punishment, the prophet proclaims that God is more powerful than swords and shekels. The prophetic voice calls for the memory of God’s gift of liberation to an enslaved people, and the creativity to refashion the patterns of their lives to mirror that gift for others. The prophet of Isaiah 40 even calls for the scattered people of Israel to bring the message of God to all people on earth, one of the first spokespeople for an early kind of religious universalism.
This pattern of creative remembrance and renewal moves through the Isaiah text. God calls the prophet to give comfort to a hurting and exiled people. The people do not have to pay for their sins any more. The prophet calls the people to make a way to get to God, whose mind-blowing creative power turns everything upside down. Better yet, making room for the new creative way of God will reveal God’s glory to all humanity. Our attempts at controlling others and ensuring our own safety through military and economic might are, like the grass, fragile and ephemeral.
In contrast, God’s way is eternal and life giving. The task of the prophet – of a poet of God’s imagination – is to help the community of God’s people declare God’s goodness to the nations. God’s way is more powerful than human ways – and God’s way is the shepherd’s comforting way of tender nurturing and bringing the mothers and the children home.
Christopher R. Seitz, in his commentary on this passage in The New Interpreter’s Bible, says, “When God decides to do a new thing in a dramatic way, there is resistance at the very highest level. Its force can be felt throughout all creation, and we can feel it at times as a force within the marrow of our bones; we know that it is larger than us, that it demands our cooperation.” A prophet’s life is not an easy one, as Isaiah reminds us; the prophet is given God’s power of poetics to bring the message to the people. But this message is almost always resisted, as Seitz says, at the highest level. Just as Isaiah confessed his inadequacy to God, we may feel like our poems and our pictures, our sermons and our demonstrations, are falling into a void of empty ears, or worse, punishment by the powers that be. But the ultimate message of prophecy is that even if we feel like we have failed, speaking a new way of being into the world will ripple into the universe and cause positive change for others. We are the molders and makers of a new world, called to create in the image of God.
Too often, in the history of the church and in the 21st century, the church chooses the way of the sword and the shekel instead of the way of the shepherd and the sheep. Today, like the prophet of Isaiah, God calls the church to give comfort to a hurting and exiled people – especially those people who have been hurt and exiled by the church itself. These people, scorned and ridiculed by Empire, do not have to pay for their sins any more. The task of the modern prophet is to call the church to make a way to get to God. In Babylon and in America, God’s power turns everything upside down. If the church chooses God’s way of peace and universal love, the church making a way for God will reveal God’s glory to all humanity. Our individualistic politics of greed and fear are fragile and ephemeral. In contrast, God’s way of peace, justice, mercy and love is eternal and life giving. It is our duty and our joy to declare in memory and song God’s goodness to the nations. God’s way is more powerful than human ways. And we, co-creators with God of an alternate reality, will in God’s way of tender nurturing bring all people home.
Jeremy Garber is an adjunct instructor in theology and the team leader of the academic advising center at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO. He and his daughter, Fiona, are regular members of First Mennonite Church of Denver.