Our passage today, Isaiah Chapter 43 verses 16 through 21, is dated approximately mid-sixth century BCE (539) and let us first look at the historical context of that time: the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in 586 and many Jewish people had been sent into exile to Babylonia. Prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah spoke of the LORD’s presence in these hostile times. Issues such as Hebrew identity, which was tightly linked with the geographical location of the now destroyed Temple, and punishment for not protecting widows, orphans and foreigners, were forefront in their minds. In our passage, the Hebrew people are nearing the end of exile, and Isaiah is promising restoration to their homeland in the near future. In this section of Isaiah, chapters 40-55, usually called Deutero- or Second Isaiah because it is addressing social realities much different than the first 39 chapters, we see a theological movement from God as the best among all the Gods to God is the only God. At the heels of many years of destruction and despair, God, and people’s understanding of God is revealing a “new thing.”
Like the ancient Hebrews, our current “historical context” has us asking questions of profound importance. Are we in exile? Not necessarily in a geographical sense, but I would argue we are in exile from the land in the way that is reflected in our current environmental crisis. Coming out of the industrial revolution (which is currently occurring now in other parts of the world) and with the advent of newer and newer technologies, we do feel disconnected from the earth. Our identity as Christians too is transforming in light of the globalization and plurality reflected in our current situation. We are asking – how do we be ecumenical, value and affirm the beliefs of others while also holding to our tenets of faith? Like the Hebrew people, we are beginning to reimagine what it means to be a faithful Christian in these unsettling times.
And so, like our faithful ancestors, we can look to the prophets to help us live out the fullness of our faith. What exactly is the promise in Isaiah Chapter 43 verses 16 through 21? The first two verses call to mind Moses parting the waters and then crushing the Egyptian army: allusions to the Exodus from Egypt, the first time God brought the Hebrews out of exile. So this first part is a call to remembrance of a deep and meaningful tradition for these people, to help situate what is about to happen within that tradition. Then God says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God goes on to promise “rivers in the desert.”
Today in light of the historical reality of humans that has often been one of unnecessary suffering, destruction and intolerance, God is asking us to see the
Rivers of the Holy Spirit that have carried humanity thus far – rivers that have carried the message of God’s everlasting love and compassion for all creation, especially those on the margins. God is asking us to see these rivers, to trust these rivers, to DIVE INTO these rivers which will ultimately take us, we have absolute hope, to what we have traditionally described as the “Kingdom of God.”
Here I offer a new metaphor, one that is both immanent and transcendent. A new metaphor that all have access to that doesn’t rely on a historic governmental system built on oppression, power and hierarchy like the traditional metaphor of kingdom.
So I say again: God is asking us to see these rivers, to trust these rivers, to DIVE INTO these rivers which will ultimately take us, we have absolute hope, to not a “Kingdom of God” but an Ocean of God.
An Ocean of God.
So how can we “dive into” these rivers of the Holy Spirit? One way is living in community, even in this global, pluralistic world. Not just with those who are like-minded, but with those whose views may differ vastly from us. That is a challenge of our times, and we, like the ancient Isrealites in exile from their identity, are being asked to reimagine our theology. Can we trust that a river of the Holy Spirit flows through people of different denominations and maybe even different religions? In such an age of suspicion, terrorism and intolerance, can we trust that a river of the Holy Spirit flows through our Muslim brothers’ and sisters’ faith traditions? What about those of indigenous religions full of Earth wisdom? Can we trust that these other rivers can combine with ours into an Ocean of God? These are the questions being asked of our faith in this global, pluralistic, and technical world: an unprecedented situation in the course of human history.
I remember one time last year I was visiting an Islamic mosque in Redmond, Washington. This mosque houses the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) which is an Islamic organization dedicated to serving Muslims in the Puget Sound region. I had met a woman who worshipped here, Sr. Sanaa through a closing the social distance project in the class, Ministry in a Multicultural Environment. Several students and I toured the mosque and attended what could be considered the Muslim equivalent of a Sunday worship service in the Christian tradition. It was a very awesome experience, but not as awesome as the next time I went. Sr. Sanaa invited me back several weeks later when the mosque was hosting an information night about Islam. When I arrived Sr. Sanaa put me with three other woman, roughly my own age who were also in college. As a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was actually really nervous about making friends and being honest about this. But the women, with the utmost love and respect, welcomed me into their circle. After the information video, they invited me to worship with them in the mosque’s sanctuary. It was truly a transforming experience. We all stood side by side, shoulders touching, and praised God within the norms of the Muslim tradition. The whole thing involves your entire body as you move from standing to prostrate to standing again throughout the worship ritual. Being in contact on both sides of your body with others gives the whole thing such a grounded, tactile effect that I urge anyone, if you can go outside your comfort zone, to experience this.
The most awesome part however happened afterwards. Once the service was over, the women and I sat in a circle and just talked right there in the sanctuary. Just talked about our lives, our hopes and dreams, and I have never felt so truly connected with other people after a worship service like I did at that moment. God was truly there amongst us, helping us navigate through such a difficult task as closing the distance across the spiritual desert that lies between people of vastly different faith traditions. I’ll never forget knowing with every ounce of being as I sat there with my new Muslim friends what one of the woman so nonchalantly said, with a shrug of her shoulder: It’s the same God.
It’s the same God.
Like our faithful ancestors, we are beginning to reimagine what it means to be a child of God in these unsettling times, expanding our knowledge of who God is and what God does. In our passage, God is asking us to perceive this, to perceive these rivers in the desert. Today, perceiving the rivers of the Holy Spirit in what looks like a spiritual desert will allow us to “dive in” and let God’s holy, healing Spirit take us, and all creation, to the Ocean of God.