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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Preaching exilic hope

In Frank's Old Testament class, we were asked to put together a sermon or Bible study based out of the exilic prophets and themes we've been studying. This sermon, based on Isaiah 52:7-10, was my contribution.
There’s something about this passage from Isaiah that I’ve always loved. I can’t even read it without smiling. I suppose that part of the reason is obvious: there is such joy here! Such a ringing thrill in the promises of peace, and salvation, and the return of a comforting, redeeming God. You can almost hear the music in the prophet’s voice as he delivers the proclamation to Zion: “Your God reigns!”

But the part that catches my attention is the very first verse of this reading. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger...” Doesn’t that sound funny? Wonderfully earthy, and joyfully odd. Here comes a messenger with a word that an exiled people long to hear-- a word of delight, about the love and favor of God towards banished exiles-- and the first thing we’re supposed to notice is his feet?? Where does that come from?

And hey-- if you think that sounds odd, imagine how much more startling must that phrasing have been to those who first heard it. In ancient times, remember, there was very much a hierarchy of the body. The importance, and indeed the respectability of one’s anatomy worked strictly from the top down. Heads were anointed by priests, as a sign of God’s favor and a recognition of authority. This was a mark of honor given to royalty, and to those specially set apart. Feet, on the other hand, were washed by slaves-- and the lowest slaves on the household totem pole, at that. Further, the word for “feet” was also used as a euphemism for genitalia-- for parts of the body that were simply not discussed in polite society. In other words, they were never seen as anything remotely appropriate to include in public discourse.

Yet here’s Isaiah, beginning this announcement by deliberately drawing our attention to the messenger’s feet-- no doubt tired and worn, with dirty toes and calloused heels. The prophet steps out of the bounds of propriety, intentionally points to them, and calls them beautiful! Why do you suppose that is?

Then I discovered that this passage was one of those chosen to be read at Christmas by the good folks who put our lectionary together. And I believe there’s an insight we can take from that. Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus-- the moment when God begins the work of salvation, the Lord coming among the people to offer holiness, and redemption. And yet, what an odd, unexpected, improper way to accomplish it!

Think about this: Almighty God-- creator of the universe and everything that’s in it; the very essence of power, and glory, and love beyond our ability to describe-- this God began the redemption of humanity with the birth of a slippery, squalling baby in a shabby stable, outside an overcrowded hotel filled with oppressed, conquered people (no doubt many of them unwashed, in that era) waiting to be tallied like the sheep some of them tended.

And yet, this this is the earthy reality that causes angels to sing, and shepherds to worship, and wise men to offer gifts both costly and rare. Just as in Isaiah’s proclamation to the exiles, the message is so glorious that even the basest part of humanity is made beautiful in the moment.

Remember that message? That proclamation of salvation, and redemption, and comfort? Oh, there’s something to pay attention to. “Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy.” Isaiah says; and then calls the listener to join them: “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem.”

Do you hear that? The messenger’s good news is more than an announcement of the reign of God; it is also a call to action. “You have heard the message,” the prophet tells us; and now it’s our turn, beginning here and now-- to proclaim glorious news right in the middle of whatever earthy, improbable, inappropriate mess we may be in. That is the work set before us; the task to which we are summoned by God, and God’s messengers.

Howard Thurman's writing about “The Work of Christmas” says well how to do this:
When the song of the angel is still,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their sheep,
The work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among people,
to make music in the heart.

It is in this way, my brothers and sisters, that improper humanity is made beautiful, and holy; “and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”


Anonymous Revmom/cheesehead said...

Amen. Thanks be to God.

May 19, 2005 3:10 PM  

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