For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; Isa. 55:12
When Cardinal Bergoglio (bear go leo), a South American Jesuit priest, was elected Pope last year, Christians around the world were shocked that something so unexpected had happened. The writer of Second Isaiah expresses this same kind of amazement at an unexpected, but promising, turn of events. For more than two generations, since Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians, the elite of Judah had been living in exile. While there they had maintained their identity as Jews telling stories to their children and grandchildren of the glory that had been Jerusalem. When Babylon itself fell the Persians the Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. To the prophets mind it was, unquestionably, God who had worked all this out. It was to the grandchildren of the exiled generation for whom this poem was composed.
The trouble was that by the time of Cyrus the exiled Jewish community was fully integrated into Babylonian society. They had jobs, owned homes, and even lent money to others. They were free to worship Yahweh in their synagogues and suffered no coercion to recognize Babylonian gods. Furthermore, the cities of Mesopotamia were the financial, commercial, and cultural centers of that part of the ancient world. Few Jews living in Babylon had little interest in living in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was now only a small settlement where the city had once stood, so the elite would have had to build houses, city walls — in fact, build a whole new infrastructure to support the standard of life to which they had become accustomed. There were no prestigious jobs for skilled laborers. It was not an attractive prospect for a generation who had no personal experience of the old city. Isaiah 40-55 is call to the grandchildren of the exiled generation to re-populate the land promised by God to their ancestors and lost by the failures of their grandparents.
The poems of this major section of Isaiah promise that God will cause even the desert to bloom if they return. Listen to these words of promise God speaks to them through the Prophet. The language is full of metaphors. It speaks of mountains singing and trees clapping. Listen: “You shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Christian Psychologist Paul Tournier was once asked how he helps his patients get rid of their fears “Oh, I don’t,” he answered, “that which does not frighten does not have meaning. All the best things in life have an element of fear in them.” Following God’s leading can be a pretty fearful adventure. Noah built himself an ark when skies were clear and neighbors mocked. As he close the door he had to trust the boat would float and trusting that eventually God would provide a way through the waters to dry land… Abraham and Sarah were called to step out by faith. God basically said, “I’ll provide a way, but you’ve got to do the walking.” God provided a way for Moses and the children of Israel. The seas parted, but they had to do the walking. David surely took a risk when he stepped up to Goliath, and later God provided a way to the throne of Israel, but David had to do the walking. Yes, he stumbled here and there but he kept walking.
One way to understand the days that followed David is that Israel stopped risking for God. God’s people chose the comfortable path. That path lead to destruction. Their lack of faith, their unwillingness to risk for God, that God would provide a way; this lead them to Babylon, into exile, into captivity. But as our text today points out, even there God provided a way. The children of Israel were set free and called to step out, to risk returning and rebuilding. But, as always, they were the ones who had to do the walking. Few wanted to go. They were satisfied with how things were. Life was comfortable. “Why should we risk leaving behind a life we know, confining, yes, but comfortable. Why should we risk leaving all this to move on into a future that is at best uncertain.” There were those who took the risk, and stepped out in faith, just like Noah, like Abraham and Sarah, like Moses with all God’s children, like David. Listen again to these words of promise God made to them “You shall go out in joy, & be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, & all the trees of the field shall clap their hands…”
Going out, stepping out in faith, this is what brings joy and peace in life. We are led to believe that joy and peace are what we have when finally we have arrived at a place where everything is comfortable.
Geoffrey Durham is known to Quakers internationally for his work with his effort to make Quakerism accessible to a new generation of Britain’s population called Quaker Quest. He is better known there as ‘the Great Soprendo’, a comedic magician and actor. In a recent presentation to Britain Yearly Meeting he related how he happened to come to the Religious Society of Friends. He said: I was going through quite a difficult patch in my mid-40s, and rediscovered a religious dimension which hadn’t been there since I left school or even before – so I needed a place to be. I went back to the Anglican church of my childhood, but decided it wasn’t quite it. I tried Buddhist meditation classes, but decided – quite reluctantly – that that wasn’t quite it either. Then I found myself staring at this Quaker poster in a traffic jam every day for three weeks: “Peace is a process to be engaged in, not a state to be reached”. The only attribution on the sign was the one word “Quaker”. He made to effort to learn of Quakerism
This passage from Isaiah tells us that joy and peace are a part of risking for God. Joy comes in going out. Peace is given in being led forth by God. God provides a way of joy and peace, not a way to joy and peace. Living in relation to Christ does not mean that we will lead safe, comfortable lives, but that we will risk, that we will step out in faith. “He who would save his own life will lose it, but whoever would lose his life for my sake shall save it.” That’s what Jesus said. A life of faith is a life of creative risk. Now, the world is full of uncreative, destructive risks. The church of Jesus Christ is supposed to model another way, not a way of comfortable sitting and waiting for joy and peace to happen someday, but a way of stepping out in faith, creatively, constructively risking for God today. Going out in joy. Being lead forth in peace.
John’s birth narrative, so much different from that of the other Gospels, his account of the Word being made flesh confronts us with the idea that something bigger is going on here. As we consider the consequences of Jesus’ birth we need to ask how to best understand Isaiah’s promise that we ‘shall be led forth with peace’? What sort of world is it into which the Word comes ? What sort of world is it into which Jesus is born? John tells us: it is a world that does not know its maker and a world in which conflict in rampant. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” In these words we hear that we live in a world where peace seems a pipe dream; to be something beyond us. We are not at peace with the one who made us and we are not at peace with one another.
Today hundreds of thousands of displaced people languish on the borders of Syria. Pipe bombs, assault weapons and armed drones have become parts of people’s lives. Our lack of peace is palpable. The inability of people to love one another results in such tragic scenes around the globe including here at home. We cover our trees in tinsel and our houses with lights, but we also block the seekers at our borders. Our festivities may bring us happiness but peace for all who God love, not so much. It is easy to distance ourselves from global affairs and the difficulties of many closer to home at Christmas until we remember those fateful words “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
Civil war, broken relationships, tensions, mourning, and illness all hang as specters lurking beneath the surface of our celebrations. How can we be led forth with peace? Not just a personal sense of peace but a peace which embraces all people everywhere, a peace which speaks of bigger more wholesome hope.
The birth narratives say “he came”! Instead of remaining aloof from the problems of the world and its opposition to God and our opposition to one another “he came”. God entered into the midst of our lack of peace and God shares in the experience of life. In his coming Jesus became a refugee, an outcast, a political and religious troublemaker. He associated with prostitutes and tax collectors. He searched and served among the least and the lost. And he knew what it meant to enter into the space where peace seemed a forlorn hope: he endured suffering and degradation and the cross. If there is any sense of peace that we can find today it is not in a Santa Clause God who simple gives us random gifts but a God who shares the fullness of life and when it is done says that the lack peace, the absence of hope is not all there is.
If we are to be led forth with peace, if we have anything to say to the world, it is that God does not shun the disputes of our lives but shares in the suffering and recreates them in and through Jesus, the Word made flesh. Whether you have a sense of peace in your own life and relationships on this day the hope of “the Word made flesh” is a hope which transcends our current lives and says there is more. Joy and peace do not come when finally we arrive. Joy and peace are gifts given along the way of creative risking for God – what we call faith. We are saved by God through Jesus Christ, not that we will lead safe, comfortable lives, but that we will risk, that we will step out in faith. Rooted in who were are in relationship to God, we can risk, creatively.
That’s what the early church did. They risked their lives and many lost. That’s what early Quakers did, they risked the loss of their property, imprisonment, severe beatings and even their lives. They experienced much greater hardship than we can imagine. But they had that Joy and Peace in the going out with the good news, their being led forth even to the coliseums of Rome or the commons of Boston. We would not be here today had not they risked by faith and became the very hands of God here on earth. The promise remains for those who risk: “We shall go out in Joy and be led forth in peace, the mountains and the hills before us shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. “That’s the promise of creative, constructive risking for God, the promise of faith now.