1 Listen to me, you who look for righteousness, you who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry where you were dug. 2 Look to Abraham your ancestor, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. They were alone when I called them, but I blessed them and made them many. 3 The LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her ruins. He will make her desert like Eden and her wilderness like the LORD’s garden. Happiness and joy will be found in her– thanks and the sound of singing. 4 Pay attention to me, my people; listen to me, my nation, for teaching will go out from me, my justice, as a light to the nations. 5 I will quickly bring my victory. My salvation is on its way, and my arm will judge the peoples. The coastlands hope for me; they wait for my judgment. 6 Look up to the heavens, and gaze at the earth beneath. The heavens will disappear like smoke, the earth will wear out like clothing, and its inhabitants will die like gnats. But my salvation will endure forever, and my righteousness will be unbroken. (CEB)
For children, this is probably the most often spoken to yet least heard word in the English language. When I cooked supper the other day, I called my family three times. Only one of them came to the table. So, the two of us sat together, prayed, and started eating. The rest of the family slowly wandered into the dining room, not because I had called them for supper, but randomly. And they were surprised that some of us were already eating. Two of them even asked, “Why didn’t you call me?” To which I replied, “I did. Three times. But you didn’t listen.” And they protested their innocence saying, “But I didn’t hear you!” To which I replied, “Because you weren’t listening.”
Sometimes we don’t listen because other things—whether they’re good things or bad things, positive things or negative things, peaceful things, or stressful things—have our attention. I get how it happens because I’m just as susceptible to not listening as anyone. If I’m engrossed in a book, for example, good luck getting my attention. You might have to slap it out of my hand to get me to look up. That’s my oldest child, too. One of those times that I called my family to the table for supper, I stood right in front of her and yelled. She had no idea I was there. Admittedly, the book she was reading is an awesome young adult fantasy full of assassins, war, betrayal, love, loss, and friendship.
But still, I called for supper. Despite the other things that might hold our attention over and against everything else, eating is important, too. You can’t live without food. You can’t grow without it.
In this text, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah and calls people to listen. The difficulty is that the audience to whom the prophet speaks are living in the midst of other things that hold their attention. These are the Jewish exiles living in Babylon. They’ve experience hardship. In fact, they’ve been so traumatized by their military defeat, mistreatment by enemies, and forced exile to a foreign land that they’re likely deaf to everything but their own woundedness and pain.
All we have to do to get a glimpse of their context is to read Lamentations 5, “Our property has been turned over to strangers; our houses belong to foreigners. We have become orphans, having no father; our mothers are like widows. We drink our own water– but for a price; we gather our own wood– but pay for it.” “We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the desert heat. Our skin is as hot as an oven because of the burning heat of famine. Women have been raped in Zion, young women in Judah’s cities. Officials have been hung up by their hands; elders have been shown no respect” (Lamentations 5:2-4, 9-12 CEB). Sometimes our own reality is so painful and broken that it’s the only thing we can see.
In the midst of exile, some of these Jewish transplants were trying to live lives that were righteous. This remnant sought God even as they stood among the rubble of their lives wondering how they could possibly rebuild, replace, replant, or restore what they had lost. There were those who sought God even when it seemed that all of God’s promises to Israel had fallen apart. They still hoped in God. There were likely some skeptics, too, who had given up on God’s promises of blessing.
Isaiah tells the people, especially those who still hope, who still pursue righteousness, who still seek the Lord, to examine their past. “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry where you were dug. Look to Abraham your ancestor, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. They were alone when I called them, but I blessed them and made them many” (Isaiah 51:1-2 CEB). If you would recall, Sarah and Abraham were barren. Twice in the New Testament, Abraham is described as so old that he was, “as good as dead,” (Romans 4:19; Hebrews 11:12). It was God who made life spring from barrenness in the past, which promises the possibility that life can spring from the barrenness of exile.
Abraham also believed in God’s promises to him and God counted his belief as righteousness (James 2:23). The Hebrew word used here for righteousness has a collective sense of correct order. In the church, we sometimes like to theologize words like righteousness so much that we render the meaning incomprehensible. Righteousness is one of those “church” words that hardly anyone uses outside of church, which it why it doesn’t resonate well with most people. Yet, the word simply points to those who are doing what is correct, right, and honest. In spite of the fact that these people have been carried off, unwillingly, into exile, they are trying to do what is right, to find signs of life amid the barren.
The sounds of the Hebrew poetry in verse 1 even suggest something of this. The words for rock and hewn in Hebrew are צוּר (tsur) and חֻצַּבְתֶּ֔ם (chutsavtem). They have harsh-sounding consonants that might suggest something hard and barren. They sound quite different from the words for excavation, dug, and cistern, מַקֶּ֥בֶת בּ֖וֹר נֻקַּרְתֶּֽם (maqevet bor nuqartem), which have gentler, murmuring consonants with m, n, and r that might suggest something drenched or life-giving.
Look to Abraham and Sarah. The people are told to look to their past so they might be enabled to reimagine the future. A nation of many sprang from one barren couple. They had nothing, but God gave them everything. In the same way, God promises to comfort Zion. All the barren wastes and ruins of the land will become lush and verdant like the garden of Eden. From the people’s current state of despair and, perhaps, even a kind of death, will come happiness, joy, thanks, and the sound of singing.
But, honestly, when we’re experiencing difficult times in life, whether it’s the death of a loved one, a difficult move, serious illness, loss of a job, financial difficulty, or any other trauma, it’s easy to lose sight of the possibility for our strength being renewed and our life flourishing again. Experiences like these often lead to depression and self-doubt. In those times we often ask ourselves if God even cares that we’re going through the tough stuff life can throw at us. I know this from my own experiences. We’ve lost family members recently, we moved two years ago, we’ve had loved-ones go through serious illnesses, and we had a child with a persistent illness that was only recently resolved. And when we were in the middle of those things, it was easy to throw up our hands and ask, “What’s next? What more can the world throw at us?”
It’s easy to lose a clear sense of perspective and not even realize that clarity is missing. In times of deep distress, our priority, whether we realize it or not, becomes our own physical, emotional, or familial survival—even if we’re the caregiver for someone else. Every other matter tends to get drowned out by that one thing, which can leave us angry at everything, bitter toward God, and frustrated with others. It can get to the point that those sounds of our anguish are the only things we can hear, the trouble in front of us is all that we can see. There are people in our congregation and in our broader community who are experiencing times like this.
And that’s where these Jewish exiles were in their life when God called them to listen. It’s a place we can recognize because we’ve either been there ourselves, or we’ve walked that dark road with someone we love as they experienced it. God called them to listen, and God calls us to do the same. When all we can see is darkness and ruin, God calls to us and encourages us to listen. It’s not the end. The Lord will offer comfort. Life can flourish again.
But it will require us to listen. We can seek righteousness as much as we want, but how will we know what righteousness is unless we listen to the one who defines it? Finding righteousness means aligning ourselves with God. It means we allow God to chip away the hardness of our hearts so that we can love with hearts of tender flesh. It takes intentionality on our part, and an openness to the movement of God’s grace. We’re told to listen because God is teaching. God is speaking about matters of justice, but we must pay attention and listen. We’re all seeking righteousness or we wouldn’t be in church worshipping God today. But doing what’s right requires us to pay attention.
What does it mean to do what is right? How do we accomplish it for ourselves and for others? Life is meant to be lived for God and for others. How might we—each of us—minister to the people in the world around us, whether they’re a part of our congregation or not? Our church provides many opportunities for service. We have ministries for kids, youth, college students, homebound, hospitalized, we’ve partnered with an afterschool program called Thrive, we provide meals for families who’ve experienced sickness or surgery, Bridges of Hope, and Susanna Wesley Nursery School. There are lots of possibilities, and if none of them fit you, we can do something new and different.
Isaiah reminds us that nothing in this life in permanent. The prophet tells us that the heavens will disappear like smoke and the earth will wear out like clothing. The inhabitants of Earth are all going to die like gnats. Planet Earth’s time is limited by the lifespan of the Sun. Our star’s lifespan is limited by its fuel. The universe is expanding at an incredibly high speed. Some physicists theorize that the universe will keep expanding until it has, essentially, stretched itself into non-existence, with each particle moving so far apart from others that they stop interacting with other particles and lie still. We’re only here for a limited amount of time.
Isaiah doesn’t tell us about the end of creation to frighten us. What he does is set up a comparison between the finite and the infinite. Creation itself will come undone and pass away, but God’s salvation will last forever, and God’s righteousness will never be broken. God’s salvation will endure forever because God is infinite in every respect. God is righteous because God always does what is right. God will do what is right for us. We can trust that the Lord will set things right—even as we stand among whatever ruins might lie around us—because God’s righteousness never ends. God’s salvation will endure forever. And in all the places that were once barren, lifeless, and broken, God will make these things new so that we can share in the fullness of life. God made us to have life, and salvation is the continuation of that life even as everything else falls away.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!