Isaiah 58:1-12 – The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – for Sunday, February 5, 2017
“They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account; the foundations of generations past you will restore. You will be called Mender of Broken Walls, Restorer of Livable Streets.” (Isaiah 58:12)
Was Isaiah 58:12 labeling God as the Mender of Broken Walls and the Redeemer of Livable Streets? After all, it’s capitalized in many translations . . . include the Common English Bible I use for lectionary readings.
Or was the Mender and Redeemer reference to those who truly, faithfully followed God’s will?
Mostly likely, the “label” stands for God’s faithful followers. This part of Isaiah—or more broadly speaking, the Old Testament’s prophetic tradition—involves the “return” of the Israelites to God’s covenant. In the case of passages from a book like Jeremiah, a return may be literal, as some of the concerns relate to physically trekking back home from exile in Babylon. Return is also metaphoric. How easy it was, and how often it happened (then or now), to turn away from God.
The 58th chapter in Isaiah is a strident call to return to honoring God.
Why? Because this was happening:
Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want
And oppress all of your workers.
You quarrel and brawl and then you fast
You hit each other violently with your fists. (Is. 58:3)
But let there be a “return” to God by:
If you open your heart to the hungry,
And provide abundantly for those who are afflicted,
Your light will shine in the darkness,
And your gloom will be like the noon. (Is. 58:10)
God loathes hypocritical and hollow celebrations; but desires holy, mutually helpful relationships.
Using modern terms, it’s called social justice.
For my sensibilities, I’d rather be a Mender of Bridges than Walls. But (I think) I understand the importance of repairing walls and streets in Isaiah’s prophetic stance. It was a longing to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. It was a longing to have a city based on God’s humble glory that would be seen as a shining example to all who lived in, visited, heard, and dreamed about Jerusalem. The city would be a rebuilt example of compassion. The streets would be filled with those who loved and served each other. The walls would not keep people out, but represent security and welcoming for the resident and the stranger, for the widow and the newlywed, for the orphan and the family, for the rich and the poor.
There would not be quarreling and brawling, but a light shining in the darkness!
Of course, since I’m a modern fella in the 21st century, and writing this when Donald Trump has become the 45th President of the United States, walls trouble me.
I can’t read Isaiah 58 with its joyous call to justice to serve and be a Mender of Broken Walls without thinking about those campaign rallies where Mr. Trump bellowed for a wall to be built between the United States and Mexico and the gathered crowd would chant . . .
Build the wall!!!
My heart breaks.
Walls are terrible.
And yet are they?
I am glad for the “wall” between my neighbors. I admit to liking a little privacy (and keeping my silly dog safe) in my backyard. I am also glad that we know our neighbors and share meals with them.
I am glad for the walls in churches I have served, for they offered a place of rest (and learning and working and serving) for many.
I am glad for the walls protecting fragile environments. As mighty as the sequoia tree is, our national parks put “walls” around the famous trees, so that people don’t trample the delicate root system.
Still, my modern heart, rooted in the social justice of Isaiah and the call from Jesus to love the neighbor, worries and wonders about Mr. Trump’s cry to build walls and a crowd’s boisterous support of those walls. If walls are built because of fear, they will erode. If walls are built to separate a “good” us from a “bad” them, they will be breached. If walls are built to keep those who are “different” out, they will fail.
I don’t doubt Isaiah was referring to literal walls, seeking to rebuild the city and the temple. And yet I also don’t doubt the literal walls were not as important as the metaphoric and figurative walls. The Mender of the Walls would prioritize “sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into your house, and covering the naked . . .”
When a wall serves the here and now needs of the widow, orphan, poor, and stranger, they are seamlessly linked to a bridge that connects to God’s welcoming heart.