2020 in America feels like an experiential crash course in the book of Isaiah.
For one thing, it's very long ... so I won't try to cover all the details.
For another thing, it's divided into three distinct periods.
First Isaiah addresses a divided Israel in the midst of political intrigue, concerns about what foreign nations are doing, and a wide gap in wealth distribution that Isaiah makes
pointedly clear does not match God's vision of justice.
Second Isaiah follows many years later, long after the dire warnings came true and the people remain locked down in exile.
Third Isaiah prophesies to the next generation, those who have returned home to reclaim normal, which ain't what it used to be.
The temple is in ruins, the economy is a mess, the authorities are corrupt, many loved ones stayed behind in Babylon, and the new normal doesn't come close to matching the nostaligia or the hype or the hope.
Impeachment, quarantine, disillusionment is a pretty accurate outline of Isaiah.
Dysfunction, exile, exasperation is a pretty accurate outline of 2020.
Perhaps this is why the Holy Spirit now sends us to Isaiah 56, the beginning of part three, the
first tentative steps out of exile into a new normal that looks familiar but feels totally different.
Part two ravaged so much of what we took for granted; many of our favorite temples are closed, or at best only offering patio seating.
Things didn't get magically better or stay frozen in time while we were in exile; rebuilding will
be slow and unsteady and often discouraging.
There is plenty of blaming and finger pointing to go around – see Isaiah 58 – but that's not where the Holy Spirit begins.
Third Isaiah opens instead with something very old and something brand new.
God has not wavered at all, and God has changed completely.
Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right.
Keep the covenant, the promise of our relationship: treat others well.
Justice, Cornel West has observed, is what love looks like in public.
For God's people, it has less to do with law and order and punishment than it does with a
social web of properly equitable relationships for everyone, because everyone is a child
of Abraham, a member of the family, a person chosen by God whether you would have
chosen them or not.
Honoring God and sabbath and parents and spouse and neighbor remain top priority; no amount of exile or pandemic or other upheaval changes that.
First things are still first: treat others right.
Behave as if your neighbor's wellbeing is just as important as your own, because it is.
Through anything and everything, God has not wavered.
The Israelites, recognizing the serious primacy of this covenant with God, continued to follow Father Abraham centuries later by scarring their bodies with it in the same way.
They equated the sacred covenant with the source of life, so the boys were circumcised.
It is hard to connect a body more primally, and more intimately, than that.
But what if circumcision is impossible because the life-launching organ isn't there?
What if some foreign queen made you cut it off out of loyalty to her?
Yes, that happened; men in that situation were called eunuchs.
And the law of God, protecting the symbol of the sacred covenant like a prohibition on
burning the flag, had a very clear rule:
No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:1)
No eunuchs allowed.
The integrity of the covenant must not be compromised because God doesn't waver.
We must understand this to absorb the next words from Third Isaiah, a bombshell which the
lectionary has, ironically enough, cut out:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his
people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree."
For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that
please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a
monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting
name that shall not be cut off.
God has not wavered on the covenant.
And God has changed completely who is included in it.
Just beneath the surface of Third Isaiah bubbles a heated debate we know only too well.
Ezra, Nehemiah, and other leaders intent on Making Israel Great Again warn the nation
about the dangers of intermarriage and losing their identity and heritage to foreigners.
The authors of Ruth and Jonah counter with stories of foreigners who keep God's covenant better than God's own people do.
Do immigrants threaten America or make it stronger – should we crack down or open up, build more walls or extend more welcomes?
To what do we hold fast, and of what do we let go?
Does our God stand firm, or does our God change the rules?
Perhaps the most horrifying and hopeful verse in Scripture in Exodus 32:14 – and the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Moses talked God into mercy, just like the Canaanite woman talked Jesus into it too.
Both appealed in different ways to the heart of the holy covenant.
Instead of a rebellious waste, God saw beloved children.
Instead of a dog, Jesus saw a woman.
One could argue that she performed the exorcism, freeing Jesus from a spirit of Jewish superiority and exclusivity that held him back, confining the scope of his calling.
She called him Son of David, which is basically naming him the Messiah before Peter does, the same Peter whose faith Jesus has just described as little; now Jesus calls her faith great.
This foreign woman showed a deeper trust in God than the Jewish man.
This sworn enemy was clearly closer to God's heart than Jesus's sworn friend.
She saw that the power to save her daughter was mere crumbs from God's table; she saw that there is more than enough grace to go around for everyone.
Jesus fed thousands of people with five loaves, two fish and twelve baskets of leftovers; the
mode of God's economy is multiplication, not subtraction—abundance, not scarcity.
A eunuch in God's house and a Canaanite woman in Jesus' way do not threaten God's children with less, they add more.
Their faith doesn't compromise the covenant, it strengthens it.
So God changes the rules to widen and deepen and reinforce the original commitment.
What matters, God has said all along, is how we see and treat others.
Maintain justice and do what is right.
Love the Lord your God; love your neighbor as yourself.
No matter how much we, and life, and viewpoints and even God's mind change, for better or worse, in plenty and in pandemic, in sickness and in health, on every side of every border, issues and battles come and go, but faith, hope and love endure, and the greatest of these is love.