Reflections on Isaiah 61:
by John G Gibbs, PhD
Oppression Overcome, Landscape Secured
The wilderness of suffering extends
across the landscape as far as the eye can see. You see it in
every newspaper, and usually on TV and online. Personal pain,
social dislocation, ecological stress becoming in places and
in time catastrophe - all these bear down oppressively and ubiquitously.
"Collapse" proclaims one book title, and "the
heat is on" declares another. "The Age of Anxiety,"
"The Assault on Reason," "American Theocracy,"
"Children of Crisis," "Divided by God,"
"What's the Matter with Kansas?" such book
titles march across our history as far as the eye can see.
It takes prophetic imagination
to see anything different. That is what the Season of Advent
is all about. Last Sunday it was the advent of compassion -
not naïve, but open-eyed and open-hearted compassion for
all creatures. This Sunday the watchword is "righteousness"
not the opposite of compassion, but the ordering of it
in real life. When we move from compassion to righteousness,
we move from identification with the oppressed to expectation
that God's will prevails over oppression.
When the Third Isaiah confronted
his wilderness with "righteousness" he set forth the
advent of: (1) a new vision of God, (2) a new view of reality,
and (3) a new way of life. All three shifts in perspective move
toward oppression overcome and landscape secured. All three
changes in viewpoint enable us to envision Creation as the Creator
intended it to be, filled with Shalom, "the peaceable kingdom."
Let us attend first to our vision
of God the one and only fully Righteous One. In our culture,
the word "righteous" has sounded forbidding, dark,
judgment-filled, and hopeless. For some folks that is how God
appears: dark and forbidding. For the three Isaiahs, however,
righteousness is like the plumb-line with which the builder
constructs a reliable sturdy building, with exact right-angles
where they belong. God is the dependable One, the One we can
count on, the One who is more creative at problem-solving than
anyone or any institution we know.
God is the One whose Spirit moves
beyond creating the universe, for each of us can still experience
what Isaiah wrote: "the Spirit of the Lord God is upon
me, because the Lord has anointed me." (We have been baptized.)
God's righteousness renews creatures and the environing creation,
for it expresses God's persistence in supporting the long-term
investment that the Creator made in this world and in all of
This new vision of God sees the
planter who cares for great oak-trees of righteousness that
stand tall among anxious people. This vision sees the herald
of good news, the physician of healing, the liberator of the
oppressed, the source of every dawn - that is who God is. God
is "Peace as your overseer and Righteousnesss as your taskmaster"
(Is. 10:17). God the Liberator, Planter, Herald, Healer, Maker
of creation and community alike, the Cosmic Ruler who works
for health and wholeness within the human community no less
than within the whole creation of which humanity is one part
- that is the vision that arrives with this prophet. It gives
hints of what is to come in the Lord's birth, life, death, and
The new vision of God introduces
a new view of reality. It embraces a new self, a new society,
and a new ecosphere. The new vision of God's faithfulness to
all creatures, us included, saves us from both self-importance
and self-rejection, enables us to undertake social reconstruction
for the common good, and challenges us to maintain the original
"goodness" that obtained on the first day of creation.
Really to see God anew is never
to see the neighbor the same way again. Nor does this vision
of God leave any of us alone with a sterile private "salvation,"
for we are never whole in self-imposed solitary confinement.
The new vision of God impacts our "social construction
Stand with me atop Stone Mountain and look over the city of
Atlanta and all the communities and farmlands and woodlands
that surround it. One late afternoon I was there, and could
look westward toward the city and the editorial office within
which I worked - not far, by the way, from a Krispy Kreme Doughnut
store down the hill. On the top of Stone Mountain I knew that
the editorial notes I had written and the small-print footnotes
that I had read in multiple manuscripts were still there waiting
for my return. But from that distance, at that height, they
were all relativized and put in perspective.
That ancient Hebrew word tsedeq
signals saving righteousness, salvation or health and wholeness
as we might see it from the mountain top of God's creative purpose.
We need that sense of distance and transcendence to overcome
our self-absorption that concentrates on inner issues. The world
and its needs are so much bigger than us, and thankfully it
all is overseen by the God of all righteous grace who remains
dependable in midst of our chaos. The consciousness-raising
vision of God's gracious righteousness reminds us of what we
must do and be - if health and wholeness will be restored on
the roads, in the marketplaces, and between the families and
towns, cities, and peoples who live on the outstretched surface
of the earth.
It is never enough to be saved,
for so long as a neighbor suffers or a neighborhood declines,
we are obligated to share God's faithfulness toward those who
are in need. "For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery
and wrongdoing" (Is. 61:8). This view of God "unleashes
a new social imagination" and brings "freedom for
change and newness," as Walter Brueggemann maintains in
his book, Hope Within History (John Knox Press, 1987).
This prophetic vision of God helps build a "counter-community"
that does not accept the dominant ideology of individualism
and dog-eat-dog competition. When the 99% feel so alienated
from the economically top 1% we need a new social construction
of reality that traces out God's saving distinctions between
justice and robbery.
Third, building on this new vision
of God and reality, this prophet expects a new way of life.
We hope with him for the advent of actions toward wholeness
and health among all creatures. We long for the coming of "righteousness
as the power to give life." "Getting to heaven"
is not the point of our life. Doing deeds of justice is. Walking
humbly with God is. Faithful love is. Constructive compassion
trumps personal and corporate bottom lines.
The new way of life begins here
and there to image the God of faithful love and care whom we
have seen. As the Apostle Paul put it, we find resources to
"be at peace among" ourselves. With our focus firmly
fixed on God's fidelity, we find that our need for dependability
"out there" and health within is fed. Sustained by
God's faithfulness, we begin to "see that none of you repays
evil for evil, but always" we are enabled to "seek
to do good to one another and to all."
Thanks to prophetic insight that has steeled the nerve of God's
People across centuries, we know hope that does not disappoint.
In these visions and voices of consolation and right-hearted
wellness we see flowers bloom and grass grow to lasting results:
the God of Peace begins to make us whole again.
That is when our "spirit
and body and soul" are "kept sound and blameless."
We anticipate the coming of Light before it emerges on the eastern
horizon. That is Advent for us. When prophetic creativity corrects
our vision of God and reality, then we begin to work out a new
way of life (cf. Phil. 2:12) that sees new possibilities in
and for one another.
The great Shalom, the enduring
Peace of God, permeates our persons, our societies, our ecosphere
entire. The effects of Advent are then apparent: oppression
overcome, landscape secured.