Sermon on Isaiah 66

Sermon on Isaiah 66: 10-14

By the Rev. Anna Doherty

13041435_1159982794033037_1825211134944730220_oThe author of one of the most well known commentaries on today’s passage from Isaiah is not, in fact, a biblical scholar.

The most recognized commentary on Isaiah 66 is by Adam Smith, the author of the one of the foundational texts of classical economics, The Wealth of the Nations.

Smith, who was a philosopher, and the son of a preacher, wrote The Wealth of the Nations in 1776.

Smith used today’s passage from Isaiah as a way of shaping and framing his ideas.

The title of Smith’s book itself, in fact, comes from verse twelve of today’s passage from Isaiah.

Now I am not an economist, but Smith wrote The Wealth of the Nations at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution…

…and it is one of the first texts to begin to reflect on the realities of a more modern economy.

Smith talks about things like the division of labor, productivity and free markets.

The Wealth of the Nations is famous for coining the phrase “the invisible hand” of the market…

… an image taken directly from verse 14 of today’s passage from Isaiah, as “the hand of God is with his servants.”

Even though Smith uses the phrase “the invisible hand” just once in The Wealth of the Nations…

we hear it referred to all the time in our conversations about the wider economy, about trade agreements, capitalism, etc.

The “invisible hand” refers to the idea that there are unintentional wider social benefits to individual actions.

For example, “the invisible hand’ of the market means that if we invest in individual local businesses,

even if we do so out of our own self-interest, it can build up our entire local economy.

In today’s passage from Isaiah it is the hand of God that blesses all of God’s servants,

which is presumably what Smith meant when he referred to markets that promote the betterment of all.

Today’s sermon is not a lesson in economics, but I do think that Smith referred to today’s passage from Isaiah specifically because…

the prophet Isaiah has something important to say about how prosperity and wealth is meant to be used.

Specifically, according to the prophet Isaiah, prosperity is for the building up of the entire community, not just for the enrichment of individuals.

The prophet Isaiah was writing to a community of Jewish people in exile.

Jerusalem, the holy city of Zion, had been utterly destroyed by the Syrians and then again by the Babylonians.

And the Babylonians literally took the wealthy, and the cultural, religious, and intellectual elites of Jerusalem back to Babylon with them….

…as prisoners of war.

The best and brightest, as well as the wealthiest, of Jerusalem lived in exile in Babylon for over a hundred years.

By the time today’s passage from Isaiah was written, the exiles had only just been allowed to return to Jerusalem.

For a hundred plus years they had been longing to return to their home, the holy city of Zion, the place where their God lived, in the temple at Jerusalem.

But when the exiles finally arrive, they find the city in absolute ruins.

Jerusalem is still wrecked and rubble, worse even than when they left a century earlier.

The temple itself is in ruins, such that people wonder whether or not God still dwells there.

The beautiful Jerusalem of their hearts and memories is not the city the exiles find when they return.

And to be fair, the exiles, the wealthy elites of the city have been gone for hundreds of years.

And while they’ve been gone, they have absorbed some of the culture and practices of the Babylonian court.

The exiles themselves are changed by their time in exile, with different habits and a Babylonian-tinged worldview, unlike when they left.

But the people who stayed behind in Jerusalem, the poor, the disenfranchised…

They have been struggling to hold things together while their religious, economic, cultural, even governmental leaders have all been away, for a hundred years.

And so, not surprisingly, there is a lot of resentment from those who remained in Jerusalem, towards these exiles who have now returned and want to run things differently.

You can get a sense of this conflict between those who stayed in Jerusalem and those who have recently returned,

in Isaiah’s words today, about those who love Jerusalem, those who stayed, and those who mourn for her, those in exile:

“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her…”

This is a broken community.

And the conflict between the exiles and those who remained is tinged with class warfare,

as well as religious and cultural difference, even though they are, in essence, the same people.

As Adam Smith puts it, in The Wealth of the Nations, “…[a]ll for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems,

in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”

To make matters even worse, as soon as the exiles return, the city and the surrounding region is struck by famine.

Now there are more people in Jerusalem and not not enough food to feed them.

People are starving in the streets.

This is not the joyous homecoming that people imagined.

It is into this broken community, and this painful context, that the prophet Isaiah speaks in today’s reading.

And what is striking about Isaiah’s words, is that even though he speaks to a community that suffers from scarcity…

scarcity of food, of pride, even of loving relationship…

his words and imagery are one of abundance.

An abundance of food, of love, and of tenderness towards one another.

In ancient Hebrew texts cities are always feminine; they are depicted as either mothers or daughters.

In today’s reading, Isaiah compares Jerusalem with a mother feeding, carrying, and playing with her beloved child.

It is a beautiful and tender image of how the prophet envisions the people of Jerusalem beloved by God, and how the people of Jerusalem should treat one another.

To the wealthy who have returned to the city they love, the wealth of the nations is for the building up of the entire community, not just themselves.

To the poor who have struggled, God will bless them with prosperity, through the grace and generosity of God in their fellow community members.

The people of Jerusalem will care for one another as God care for them, like a mother delights in and cares for her child.

“As a mother comforts her child,” God says through the prophet, “so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”

This is the kind of mutual sharing, relationship and building up of community that Adam Smith imagined in his text.

That’s why he used Isaiah’s words, to help make this vision of the holy city a reality in our modern economy.

We celebrate today here at Christ Church the collective generosity and wealth of this community, in our new organ.

Our own gifts are all a gift from God.

And we give this organ as a gift not just to ourselves, but also to God and to one another, for the building up of our community of faith and our worship life together.

Some of us may love organ music, others of us may prefer other styles of music too.

But in the end, that ultimately doesn’t matter.

We have given of our own wealth for the building up of the community of God.

God has blessed us with an abundance of love, for God and for one another.

And that, the prophet says, is something to celebrate.

More than simply an occasion to give thanks, this kind of celebration is also an act of worship.

To be able to say thank you to God and to one another, for what God has done for us, through the mutual love and care we have for each other another.

After all, as the prophet Isaiah says today, that is who God is.

Like a loving, generous, playful mother who delights in her child.

What better an act of worship than to be loving and generous, and to delight in each other’s company as people of God?

And to make beautiful music together in praise of our God, who has blessed us beyond our own imaginations.