Racing Hearts

 

Eight weeks from election day and having survived two National Conventions I’m already sick of the squabbling.  Out of a sense of obligation I regretfully look at my facebook page and struggle with the desire to ‘unfriend’ a few folks. I feel as I am asked to trust “mortals in whom there is no help.” I need to hear these words from the Psalmist: “Put not your trust in rulers, … when they breathe their last … their thoughts perish.” 

Listen to what God directs Isaiah to do and to proclaim!

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

And then the narrator tells us what will result.

5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

That is Isaiah 35:3-7.

Who needs to hear these words of strength and courage?  Verse 4 says Isaiah’s proclamation is for “those who are of a fearful heart”. It’s not a bad translation, especially in light of the instruction “do not fear” later in the same verse. But Anathea Portier-Young says that a more earthy translation of that line is: “ones whose hearts are racing.”  Is this line appropriate for any of us?  Do you fall into the category of “those of a fearful heart” or the “ones whose hearts are racing”?  This is pretty vivid bodily imagery.  Is it just a poetic device, a metaphor or have we passed over the physical reality embodied in this phrase?  That physical reality beats in your own chest and at times pumps furiously beneath your ribs in times of aggravation and anxiety. Imagine, what God tells Isaiah to proclaim is intended for you, for all of humanity.  

At times we discover that our hearts are racing. Our muscles are stimulated.  Our metabolism accelerates.  Our field of vision narrows. It is our hard wired response to stress.  Without our having to think about it, our body energizes to fight or flee or even stand paralyzed in the face of danger. We humans may have developed this reaction while we were still living in caves, wary of the lurking saber toothed tiger, today we live in a world that constantly bombards us with all types of stressors.

We are a people of racing hearts. We fight with those who get close.  We fight with ourselves.  Some of us never stop running. Others are so terrified with life that that can’t speak. God’s solution comes wrapped in strange packaging.  It is a word that as a Quaker bothers me to no end.  It is the word “vengeance”. As much as I’d like too, I can’t avoid it.  And, I’m not likely to understand what is going on in this passage if I don’t pay attention to this word which plays such a prominent role in God’s promise to drive out fear.  The promise is that vengeance will come. I struggle to link this promise with Gospel good-news.  

Hendrik Peels has shown that the Hebrew word translated by New Revised Standard Version in this verse as “vengeance” refers to retribution by a legitimate authority. In Isaiah 35:4 and similar texts, it has the further emphasis of “retribution that brings liberation to the oppressed, … freedom from a situation of need and the restoration of justice.”1 So its meaning is closer to what we would call “restorative justice” than to what we think of as “vengeance.”  And it is modified even further by a phrase translated here as “terrible recompense.” But  simple words like ‘dealing’ or “response” or even ‘benefit’ can be attributed to the meaning of this phrase.  We might translate the phrase here as “God’s response” or “God’s dealing.”  Say to the people, “God is here. Restorative justice is on its way. Hope now in God’s dealing. Expect God’s response.”  That, I can live with.

And this promise of God’s response, the command to proclaim that God is here right now and is working to make things right, focuses our attention on the need, in this place at this very moment, for restoration, repair, healing and transformation. It focuses our attention once again on the beating, racing hearts of real people. It demands that we see what they are running from, what they are fighting, what has immobilized them and stolen their voices. And it demands that we see and name their hope.

 

Part of the good news is that, as Henry Langknecht wrote: “God’s redemptive action applies not only to humans but even extends to the hydration of the desiccated earth.” But he was commenting on the 146th Psalm.
1Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

2I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

3Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

4When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.

5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,

6who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;

7who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free;

8the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.

9The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!

 

While our reading from Isaiah addresses a fearful people with a prophetic promise that God will bring justice, salvation and healing, the Psalmist goes a few steps beyond and magnifies the extent of God’s restoration.  He declares that the lame will not merely walk but dance, the mute not merely speak but sing. 

Psalm 146 responds to Isaiah’s lesson by giving us the lyrics of the song that they — and the whole restored creation — might sing!

Verse 1 is an exuberant cry “Praise the LORD, O my soul!” Verse 2 then broadens the scope declaring to all who hear that God has acted in such a way that the resounding praise will last the psalmist’s whole life. The third verse begins to explain and describe why God is worthy of this endless praise. It is because of the trustworthiness of God’s sovereignty in both its duration (forever) and its effects (justice, healing).  We are reminded of the fixed limitation of all human endeavor: mortality. There is no negative commentary on human rule or activity, no lament about lack of human wisdom, morality, or will. The issue is simply that human beings die; their thoughts perish. And the good news, found in the 10th verse is  that God “reigns forever … throughout all generations.”

The fifth verse initiates an extended beatitude “Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help …” Verses 6-9 recounts a mini-salvation history and a list of God’s activities, all but the last of which are positive. God creates, keeps promises, gives justice, feeds the hungry, sets captives free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up the lowly, loves the righteous, and cares for strangers, orphans, and widows. But “… frustrates the way of the wicked.”

We are eight weeks from election day and have survived two National Conventions.  I’m already sick of the squabbling.  Out of a sense of obligation I look at the postings on my facebook page and struggle with the desire to ‘unfriend’ a few folks. I feel as I am asked to trust “mortals in whom there is no help.” I need to hear these words from the Psalmist: “Put not your trust in rulers, … when they breathe their last … their thoughts perish.” 

The Psalmist lived as a citizen of some regime that provided some good. And if we credit King David with this Psalm, he knew what he was talking about to tell us not to put our trust in rulers.   And living in a sophisticated world we enjoy many benefits of human governance — despite our cynicism.

 

So for those of us of a fearful heart, whose hearts are racing inside our chests, who are fearful of the future, we have a promise that “God is here. Restorative justice is on its way. We can hope now in God’s dealing. Expect God’s response.  And the Psalmist fleshes that out by saying to us:

3Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

4When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.

5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord….

 

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