a drop in a bucket

Landing in the midst of the fortieth chapter of Isaiah is like arriving half-way into a great oratorio. The prophetic speech of Isaiah is wondrous, complex, beautiful and terrible poetry. Just now we heard Handel’s famous setting of the verse that precedes today’s text: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; and he shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (Is 40:11). And that verse, itself, follows on some of Isaiah’s - if not the Bible’s - most extraordinary promises: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Is. 40:1-2). The prophet sings Israel a lullaby, calming its terror with a daring song of hope.

The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah have been anything but a word of comfort. Instead, Isaiah begins with a long litany of trouble, impending doom and judgment. The prophet has heard the voice of the LORD and the news is not good. Israel has a terminal illness. The future is not one of inevitable progress. An ending is drawing near and the ending is the handiwork of God. The response of the people is disbelief and rejection. But the promised ending will occur. The prophet has spoken the truth. The Temple and all it stands for is to be destroyed. The religious establishment, the beloved practices, the entire way of life will be wiped out. Israel’s elite - its political, religious and cultural leaders will be taken into exile in Babylon. The first act of Isaiah concludes in utterly hopeless despair.

And then there is a long intermission. How long, you ask? The gap is about one hundred and sixty years, spanning the period between seven hundred BCE and five hundred and forty BCE. Yes, it is a very long intermission. In fact, many in Israel can be forgiven for thinking that Isaiah’s oratorio has ended in judgment. That is how it often is with us when we confront a Good Friday ending. The achingly long pause of Holy Saturday can lead us to imagine that there will be no Easter Sunday redemption after all. Waiting for God in hope becomes, instead, “Waiting for Godot” in despair.

This is what makes the fortieth chapter of Isaiah so crucial. The beginning of Isaiah’s second act brings a totally unexpected new word and radical promise from God. This is the tap root of Judaism and of Christianity. Here is where the word “gospel” is first uttered in the Bible. In Hebrew it is “basar” - glad tidings - as in “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voices with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings; say to the cities of Judah: ‘Here is your God’ ... He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms” (Is. 40:9, 11). At first the the word of the LORD is trouble, ending and judgment. Now the LORD speaks good news, beginning and promise. Israel’s long Saturday after its Friday ending is soon coming to an end with an incredible Sunday homecoming. But this homecoming is still in the future. Nothing has changed on the ground, in their lives, that leads anyone to imagine that God is about to do a new thing. The statistics are bleak. Israel’s children are becoming Babylonians at an alarming rate. The political, economic and cultural forces that hinder the formation of a people who worship, serve and obey the LORD are huge. Isaiah’s promise of comfort, of good news, of the LORD feeding the flock like a shepherd seems more pipe dream than reality.

We know something of what it is to live within a long intermission, a long pause, a long Holy Saturday. Those of us who were ordained into the ministry of The United Church of Canada in 1980 and have spent the past thirty-two years in ministry know something of what it is to live through three decades and more of decline and decrease that seems resistant to every prescription and cure. Sitting this week with a colleague who has just returned to Canada and to The United Church I heard her wonder aloud about the pervasive sense of inevitable loss that she finds among colleagues in the church. She wondered if she was mistaken in feeling that many in the church have really given up hope in God. And, when confronted by the forces that resist the formation of Christian identity and community in contemporary North America, there’s not much to hope for if you no longer hope in a real God with real power to make new. But it is not just church leaders who struggle for a living hope. A pastor who pays attention can hardly miss it in the every day lives of parishioners. So often one hears the ache of a soul longing to trust that Holy Saturday is not the final word. So often the soul that sits across the table reveals that the silence of God, the absence where there should be presence, is heart-breaking and painful and lonely. So often it becomes harder and harder to trust that the silence will surely be broken - and broken soon. I think that this is the reason that some ministers and lay people alike within our denomination have begun to speak of a post-theist Christianity. Post-theist. Yes, that’s right. It means “Christianity after God”. Some call it progressive because, they say, it finally names the honest truth about a God who is not personal, not engaged with history, not active, not powerful. They say that it is time to grow up and to live honestly in a real world where God does not speak, does not act, does not engage.

This is precisely the sentiment that Isaiah confronts when he speaks a word of comfort and promise and newness into Israel’s despair. You can hear a contemporary cry echoed in exiled Israel’s response to the prophet’s beautiful sermon. It is here, in the twentieth seventh verse, as the LORD asks the people: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, I Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” Our way is hidden from God. Our cause is ignored by God. Our grief goes unrelieved. Our hurt goes unhealed. Our trouble goes unnoticed. Our prayers for a holy whisper, a living word, a sense of the reality of God’s presence go unanswered. In spite of the preacher’s promises there is no sign, no word. Only silence.

After such a long pause in which we have not been able to make a connection with God, it is very hard to believe Isaiah when he says that God will soon act and that life will come to those who place their trust in the power and energy of God. This is the problem that the prophet - and that God - face in the fortieth chapter of Isaiah. The people have been asking, singing, praying the same prayer for a long time: “Are you there? Are you there? Are you there?”. Now, after the long intermission, the prophet has heard God’s reply: “I am here, I am here, I am here. I will comfort, I will forgive, I will gather, I will lead.” But it is not convincing. The voice of the LORD has been silent for too long. The voice speaks a promise for the future, not a change for right now. The people do not hear, cannot trust, still find God to be hidden. They are post-Temple post-theists.

This is what brings on the great soliloquy in which Isaiah’s voice gives way to the voice of the LORD. It is awesome poetry that intends to overcome the amnesia that has cut Israel off from its source of life - namely its living relationship with God: “Who has measured the waters in the hollows of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span ... and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has directed the spirit of the LORD, or as his counselor has instructed him? ... Even the nations are like a drop in a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales ... Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth ... who stretches out the heavens like a curtain ... who brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they whither ... To whom will you compare me, or who is my equal?” (Is. 40:12,13,15,21-25). This is an extraordinary claim. Babylon is at once a magnificent and terrible empire to which puny Israel does not compare. Now Isaiah claims that little Israel’s God - YHWH - is greater than all of Babylon’s gods, more powerful than the gods of Greece and of Rome, more powerful than tyrants and potentates, more powerful even than the superpowers and market forces. For YHWH - the LORD - is the maker of heaven and earth. Compared to the LORD “the nations are but a drop in a bucket”. How did it take all this time for me to realize that it was Isaiah who coined the phrase “a drop in a bucket”? Why did I not remember that the phrase was coined to convince and remind and cajole the people into trusting God is here, is real, and that the nations with all of their apparent political and economic and military might are but “a drop in a bucket”? I suppose that the reason I did not remember it is because, in our time, it is a very hard thing to place one’s trust in such an audacious claim. The world we inhabit is more likely to teach us that placing our trust in God is a drop in a bucket - tiny, insignificant, worth little in the “real world”.

In the text of Isaiah forty the cry of Israel - “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God” - appears here, after God’s great burst of rhetoric: “To whom will you compare me? Have you not known: Have you not heard? Has it not been told you? Have you not understood?” . After all of God’s best preaching the people still cannot hear, cannot believe, cannot trust. They still wonder of God: “Are you there? Are you there? Are you there?”. So there is one more poem. In fact, the poetry will continue on for many more chapters, so hard is it for Israel to believe in this good news. This poetry is an announcement that God will not faint or grow weary but will empower the faint of heart and strengthen the powerless. It is a prediction that the trouble ahead will be more than even young people can handle, that the prime of youth will not even be enough to overcome the fatigue. And it is a promise, a promise that “those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:31). The LORD - YHWH - the Maker of Heaven and Earth who is met in the prophets and revealed in Jesus Christ - is the source of renewal and energy for the way ahead. Notice that it is a journey that moves from soaring like eagles to running like sprinters and finally to walking like toddlers. There is no promise of perpetual youth here. Mortality is real and inevitable. But there is the promise of a God who will breathe life, energy and strength no matter the age or ability or capacity. This promise is for all who learn to wait on the LORD. The translations all struggle for the right word here. One says “wait”, another says “trust”, another “hope”, another “look upon”. The root of the Hebrew word is “cord” - as in a rope. It means something like “Those who hang on to the cord, who cling to God will receive lift, endurance, energy in the face of whatever is to come".

This is the life giving promise offered here, at the Table of the Lord. In Jesus Christ, God proclaims that "I am here, here in my broken body, here in my life blood spilled out". To come to the Table is to respond to God’s promise with the yes of faith: "Yes, You are here - you are here giving life in the broken place, you are here speaking life in the silent place, you are here healing life in the place of ache and loss". This is the sacrament of communion, the location of communing with God. Here we discover the strength and courage and energy to hang onto God - to wait upon the LORD - living our days in trust, in faith, in hope.

* following the sermon the congregation joined in singing:

In the quiet curve of evening, in the sinking of the days, 
in the silky void of darkness, you are there.
In the lapses of my breathing, in the space between my ways,
in the crater carved by sadness, you are there.

    (Refrain)  You are there, you are there, you are there.

In the rests between the phrases, in the cracks between the stars,
in the gaps between the meaning, you are there.
In the melting down of endings, in the cooling of the sun,
in the solstice of the winter, you are there.

In the mystery of my hungers, in the silence of my rooms,
in the cloud of my unknowing, you are there.
In the empty cave of grieving, in the desert of my dreams,
in the tunnel of my sorrow, you are there.

        - Julie Howard

(the image of the drop in a bucket was found here)

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