This morning’s lectionary texts (Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147) present a tension that I’d like to explore with you. On the one hand, we have Isaiah, an exilic text, whispering a promise to those who have lost much and wonder if God is ever going to act on their behalf again. On the other hand, we have a psalm of thanksgiving, praising God for deliverance. How do these two texts go together? How do we move from one to the other?
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, in his work on the Psalms, identifies three major experiences in Israel’s spirituality: orientation, disorientation, and new orientation.
The great hymns of creation and kingship celebrate that the world is as it should be. Israel experiences security and comfort, predictability and control.
“Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God. His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King… We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple. Your name, O God, like your praise, reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with victory. Let Mount Zion be glad, let the towns of Judah rejoice because of your judgments” (Ps. 48:1-2, 9-11).
These are words of orientation. When we know which side is up, what to expect, and where our daily bread is coming from, we stand in this experience.
Lament is another story altogether. The raw and confused cries of Israel speak from a deeply disoriented experience. The world is not as it should be. All that oriented Israel is failing or has already fallen apart.
“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Ps. 13:1-2).
These are words of disorientation. When we feel turned upside-down and inside-out, spun around and shaken up, and when we feel life is fading into darkness, we stand in this experience.
And then there are the wonderful thanksgiving psalms like the one we have heard this morning. The congregation is called upon to “Praise the LORD!” because he has done a great work in their midst. These psalms are different from psalms of orientation because the memory of distress is fresh, and the experience of deliverance has opened up new life and hope that seemed to be closed before.
This is a tender experience, one which speaks more honestly than the experience of orientation. According to Brueggemann, the danger of orientation is that it can protect the status quo that benefits some and oppresses others. When the king is lifted up and legitimated by God, what happens when that king is forcing your sons into military service, taxing your grain so heavily that you do not have enough to eat, or taking your wife and covering it up by having you killed? Orientation, for Brueggemann, is suspect because it holds on to its security by repressing the voices that might have cause for lament. It relies on control to keep the system going.
Thanksgiving psalms represent a new orientation, an orientation on the other side of lament. They are expressed by those who know God as one who hears the cries of Israel and acts for justice. They are also expressed by those who have been judged by God, who have been found guilty and have been delivered from their sin. These psalms open up life in dynamic ways. God is doing a new thing, and Israel is invited to participate in it.
I am one who is naturally drawn to psalms of lament. Partly because of my personality and partly because of my experience. In my 31 years I have had many seasons of disorientation. I am walking in one right now. I find a significant tension in the form of lament psalms that I believe mirrors the juxtaposition of our two texts today.
Laments typically include two major elements: plea and praise. The plea includes:
- the initial address to God – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).
- complaint – “Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind. They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak” (Ps. 12:1-2).
- a petition – “Do not drag me away with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in their hearts” (Ps. 28:3).
- motivations (reasons God should act) – “Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me” (Ps. 69:16).
- and imprecation – “Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers; seek out their wickedness until you find none. The LORD is king forever and ever; the nations shall perish from his land” (Ps. 10: 15-16).
These are the elements I would expect from a lament. They voice the experience of the pray-er. But then, most lament psalms move toward praise that includes:
- an assurance of being heard – “But know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him” (Ps. 4:3).
- a promise to pay vows – “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you… From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him” (Ps. 22:22, 25).
- and doxology – “Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them. For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah; and his servants shall live there and possess it; the children of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall live in it” (Ps. 69:34-36).
How does the psalmist praise God as if deliverance was already reality? How does the psalmist transcend disorientation in such a way that the movement toward new orientation is already taking place right in the expression of lament? I don’t think this is a case of just telling God what he wants to hear. I think this is honest speech, as honest as the first part of the psalm.
Let us turn to our Isaiah passage.
A few verses before the passage we read, we hear a familiar voice: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God'” (Isa. 40:3). The cry continues: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?'” (Isa. 40:6a). From this point we get the cry Isaiah makes to the exiles. Our passage is part of that cry. And it begins with a question: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” (40:21a).
This is a call to remembrance. “Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” (40:21b). I imagine the people hanging on to each word that comes from the prophet’s mouth. What are we supposed to know? What have we forgotten as we’ve “sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept” (Ps. 137:1)? At this point God reveals himself through a series of “it is he who…” statements. “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth.” “It is he who stretches out the heavens like a curtain.” “It is he who brings princes to naught.”
The first thing that hit me when I was reading this text was that God was reminding the people of who he was based on how he has been-there for them in the past. Immediately I was transported to Exodus 3 where God gives Moses his name. God shows up and tells Moses: “I have seen, yes, seen the affliction of my people that is in Egypt, their cry have I heard in the face of their slave-drivers; indeed, I have known their sufferings! So I have come down to rescue it from the hand of Egypt, to bring it up from that land to a land, goodly and spacious, to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:7-8, Everett Fox’s translation). God then tells Moses how he is going to rescue the people: through Moses. He reassures Moses: “Indeed, I will be-there with you” (Ex. 3:12). Moses wants more reassurance; he wants God’s name. What name might I call you by? How can I reach you when I need you? Who are you and who will you be to me? And God gives him his name. It is an odd name. Everett Fox translates this verse to read: “God said to Moshe: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh / I will be-there howsoever I will be-there. And he said: Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: Ehyeh / I will be-there sends me to you. And God said further to Moshe: Thus you shall say to the Children of Israel: YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Yaakov, sends me to you” (Ex. 3:13-15).
The last time the people were in exile, the last time they found themselves oppressed in a foreign land, God heard their cries and came down to rescue them. He revealed himself as the one who would be-there. He revealed himself as the one who had already been-there for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His name pushes Israel to remember all the ways God has acted on their behalf in the past. God has been faithful. And, it stands to reason, that if God has been faithful, then God will-be faithful. Moses encountered this reminder in the midst of his disorientation, and it transformed him. What if in between the plea and praise of laments, God shows up and reveals himself like he is doing in our Isaiah passage? Brueggemann writes, “We are speech creatures. We do wait to be addressed. And when we are decisively addressed by one with power and credibility, it does indeed change our world.”1 We see, hear and know who God is and this somehow transforms our hopelessness into hope. It may not be the act of deliverance for which we wait, but it is a movement toward it.
What happens when in our disorientation, we are not addressed by God? What happens when the plea seems to extend forever? Let us look more carefully at Isaiah’s words.
I notice that it isn’t God himself who is addressing the people. We are hearing Isaiah’s voice. And Isaiah is reminding them of God as Creator and God as King. He is one who is above all. He has the power to create, and he has the power to topple the powers that be that enslaved them. When we experience disorientation, it is easy to lose our vision. What we see in our experience often seems to be all there is. For Israel, I imagine that years in exile stole their vision for Zion. When they remembered Zion, they wept. They saw it destroyed when they were carried away. Life is over. God was defeated. His promise broken. Zion was not a symbol for hope or newness. That life, that dream seemed cut off. But the crying out that Isaiah does counters their experience: REMEMBER! Remember who God was, how he has been-there. It is time for him to act again. The forces that seem to hold you in death, for that is what exile feels like, will be broken. “When God blows upon them, they wither; the tempest carries them off like stubble” (Isa. 40;24). But they seem so powerful. They seem so final. “Is there anyone who can compare to God? Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?” Isaiah is renewing their vision: Look and see. “He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.” God has called together the divine assembly; he has prepared his forces for battle: he will deliver.
Isaiah then asks Israel about their laments. “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” (40:27). That statement is one that would appropriately be part of the plea section of a lament psalm. It reminds me of Job and his distress: in his deep disorientation, he must have cried out, “Why have you forgotten me? Why have you turned your face from me?” Job’s friends come and address him. They basically try to figure out how Job had sinned, to get Job to repent, so that God’s punishment would be lifted. Job insisted on his innocence, and pressed God to address him directly. And when God did reveal himself to Job, he speaks in a way remarkably similar to our passage in Isaiah. God confronts Job with a series of questions: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together? Do you see when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer? Do you give the horse its might? Do you clothe its neck with mane? Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?” (see Job 38-39). God reminds Job that he is the Creator. He stands far above our perspective. We must recognize the mystery of our disorientation instead of trying to figure it out, explain it in such a way that provides a measure of control. When God addresses us, the voice that spoke creation into existence speaks new orientation into being. God’s speech lets us know without a shadow of a doubt that God has heard, that God has come down, and that God will rescue.
Isaiah’s counter to Israel’s complaint of being hidden from God, of God not seeing, is to repeat the questions he has already asked: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” These questions serve as a refrain that encapsulates Israel’s fears and pushes the poetry of Isaiah’s speech to its conclusion: “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” Like Job, we see God revealed as the Creator. For Israel, in the midst of foreign domination, this revelation serves to highlight God’s power over the kings of the earth. God is not just one god among many, representing one king among many. God is the creator of everything. Thus, nothing falls beyond the scope of his reign.
This revelation eases the fear that God may not be in control or have the power to save us; however, it does not automatically lift us up from the pit. Now we have to wrestle with the fear that maybe our disorientation is because God does not want to save us. The lament psalms give us spiritual resources for pressing God in this direction. These prayers invite us to address our fear and anger to God as an act of faith. God can take our railing against him. It is part of the honesty we have to offer in genuine relationship with him.
After Isaiah reveals God as Creator, he pushes us further, to remind us of the character of the God who has been-there. “He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:28b-31).
Here we get to the end of our text and here we see images of hope. However much our experience of disorientation is in tension with the promise of new orientation, hope is the vehicle for enduring through that tension until one arrives at new orientation. Isaiah invites us to hope by presenting the image of an eagle, a majestic symbol of God’s speed and power to deliver. Those who wait in trust, those whose hope is in God, shall be liberated. This echoes Jesus’ words in the beatitudes: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Mt. 5:4, 6).
Even though I see the move from plea to praise in lament psalms, and the bringing together of disorientation in Isaiah and hope for new orientation in our thanksgiving psalm, I don’t understand it. I experience this movement as a tension that I cannot explain. The “How long” cries of lament psalms provide us with rich resources for prayer during those times. They give voice to our disorientation and challenge us to wait for the LORD in the hope that he is bringing new orientation. In between the one experience and the other, there must be speech. We must address our lament to God. We must also be addressed by God. Quite often this is the part that disoriented people lack. When God seems silent, it is the voice of the prophet that cries out the promise. It is crucial for us to nurture those voices within our congregations. They bring life to places where life seems thin and fading. They bring hope and so move us toward new orientation. When Isaiah spoke, Israel longed to experience the new orientation for which Psalms 147 gives thanks. Because Isaiah spoke, Israel’s imagination was revived to hope for such a time.
May we, as we either find ourselves in the midst of disorientation or witness those who are, press on toward the promise of newness and speak that promise boldly. Soon enough we will be able to join together and say, “Praise the LORD! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds… Praise the LORD!” (Ps. 147:1-3, 20). Amen.
This sermon was preached at Mennonite Community Church in Fresno, CA on February 5, 2012, the fifth Sunday after Epiphany.
1. Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984. Pg 57.
Photo taken at Dewey Point, Yosemite National Park, 2012.