Amy Oden for WorkingPreacher.org
Commentary for Preachers on Isaiah 58: 1, 6-8
Preaching this Isaiah text could take several tacks. Be sure to check out all the great commentaries on this passage in the Working Preacher archives. My focus here is on one theme, God’s welcome, ingathering “the outcasts of Israel.”
Doubling down on identity First, remind your listeners of the context: Israel and its temple have been destroyed and the people taken into exile in Babylon. Now, many generations later, some faithful have returned to Jerusalem to rebuild. Are they still God’s people? Have decades with the Babylonians re-shaped their identity, values and worldview? They wonder, “who are we now? “ As they try to re-establish themselves, their very identity is at stake. If, indeed, God allowed them to be conquered because they did not obey the covenant, then now is the time to double-down on following the rules and proving they are truly God’s chosen people. So much so, that some voices insist that marriages to foreign wives must be dissolved, and those women sent away (Ezra 10:1-44, Nehemiah 13:23-31). Many argue that true identity could be found only in separating themselves from all things foreign.
It’s easy to see how a vulnerable people who had been attacked and conquered would be suspicious about welcoming outsiders. Such welcome could be seen as a betrayal of their own struggle, their sense of community identity and integrity.
Not warm and fuzzy This back story is important to establish for your listeners. Because when God shares the plan to bring foreigners to the holy mountain (verse 7), this is not a warm and fuzzy, let’s-all-get-along moment. When God “gathers the outcasts of Israel,” this is not a cozy gathering in harmonious fellowship.
To be clear, there has been no cry from the Hebrew people to God, “Please, please let us gather in foreigners!” In fact, quite the opposite. They are circling the wagons to survive and maintain identity. No, this is completely God’s own idea and a major changing of the rules. Isaiah’s message challenged the people to their core.
Welcome disrupts Today, we often expect welcoming the stranger to feel good, to be rewarding and connect us to one another. We have sentimentalized notions of warmth and ease with one another. We put out banners that say, “All Are Welcome!” with cozy visions of new members who fold in seamlessly into who we already are. We are surprised and disheartened when welcoming the stranger is disruptive, awkward or difficult.
Most scriptural teaching on welcome teaches us this: strangers often bring God’s own message, coming in to disrupt and transform. Strangers bring strange practices, strange worldviews and strange expectations. We are often surprised that strangers are strange!
What is God up to? Yet this is precisely what God is up to. Isaiah brings the divine message that God’s dream for the world is much bigger than national identity, a vision bigger than our imaginations in a couple of ways.
First, God’s dream announces the deliverance of many, not just “our group.” God delivers the Israelites out of Babylon, but adds a twist. God says that “my holy mountain,” God’s dwelling place, will welcome “those who keep my Sabbath and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant” (verse 6), “these I will bring to my holy mountain” (verse 7). That means that community is no longer defined by doctrinal test or membership. Bloodline, pedigree, correct theology, institutional credentials, none of these are guaranteed doorways to deliverance. God makes clear that faithfulness, even of foreigners (!), will determine who is brought into “the house of prayer for all people” (verse 7). Deliverance is offered to those who walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk.
We can hear the grumbling: “What? Why bother being faithful if God can just pull rank and bring in non-members who have not been one of us all along?” Isaiah offers a widening of the circle that can rankle.
Second, God’s deliverance is not about conquering the enemy (verse 1). It doesn’t look like a delivered people might want or expect. Deliverance described here is not revenge on enemies or fame and fortune or assurances that nothing bad will ever happen again. Instead, this deliverance is revealed in terms of intimacy with God, in terms of prayer. Notice the verbs: God’s deliverance “will bring” and “will gather” these faithful ones “in my house” says the Lord (verse 7). Moreover, deliverance involves joy! “I will make them joyful” (verse 7). Deliverance looks like dwelling together in God’s own house with joy.
Invitation for belonging Play with these powerful images of belonging: house, home, dwelling, ingathering, abiding. Isaiah 56 proclaims a compelling vision of our life with God as one of intimate belonging, both to God and to community. What does belonging look like in your community? What experiences of dwelling-with-God can your listeners imagine? How have you been delivered into a sure relationship with the Lord God, one of closeness and joy? And how might you extend that welcome beyond your circle?
How might your community be “a house of prayer for all peoples”? If we think of prayer not as a set of words we say, but as our lives intentionally lived in God’s presence, imagine what that might be like. An expansive notion of prayer helps us lay down our anxiety about “prayer performance” and inhabit a more organic, natural way of being ourselves with God. It’s not our building, but our common life itself that becomes “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Imagine that!