Text: Isaiah 62:1-5
After fifty years of captivity in Babylon, refugees have come home to holy Jerusalem, their hope and their dream. They do not find is a dream come true, but a nightmare of devastated homes, a Temple in ruins, and no prospects of work. Into this dire situation, the prophet Isaiah speaks this word from God:
[Isaiah 62:1-5) For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem's sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch. 2 The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow. 3 You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD's hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4 No longer will they name you “Forsaken” or call your land “Desolate.” But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married. 5 As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
Deanna lives a simple life in the Virginia mountains. Toward the close of Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Prodigal Summer, a massive storm rips through Deanna’s mountain hideaway. Kingsolver tells the story this way: “Every instinct told her to make a run for it, but there was nowhere to go . . . The cold wind hurt her teeth and her eyes . . . The solid trees she’d believed in were bending unbelievably, breaking and losing limbs. Trunks cracked like gunshots, one after another . . . There is no safety here, they seemed to be saying . . . This forest was the one thing she’d always been sure of, and it was ripping apart like a haystack. Any of these massive trunks could crush her between one heartbeat and the next. She turned her face against the wall of the cabin unaware that she would never again be herself alone – that solitude was the faultiest of human presumptions” (Prodigal Summer, 434).
Years ago, I spent a month of my seminary life in Haiti. Since then, I have returned on a couple of occasions, to meet people who daily live on the precipice of disaster. For the survivors, I have wondered how they can move one foot forward and deal with such devastation and international exploitation. In Haiti, I have met many of the most faithful and inspiring people I have ever known, but I always board the plane feeling with Deanna – there is no safety here.
My times in Haiti have made me think about our distant kin who returned home to Jerusalem from Babylon, fifty years later. I have thought of ole Isaiah trying to get the attention of those who for too long had lived off a diet of despair. Starting with a famine that forces them to look for food in Egypt, only to move from prominent citizens to mud-slinging slaves, Moses then serves as their travel guide into the desert and then Joshua marches them into what proves to be the not-so- promising land. Not long after, the occasional judge gives way to the cry for a king and after one miserable failed experiment with monarchy, young David gives up a slingshot for a crown.
But even then, ruin and despair are not far behind. Son Solomon drops the ball miserably; the nation splits in two, with the north falling to an angry Assyria, while the south glories in its bull markets, political deals, and high standard of living only to rot from within before collapsing into the grips of Babylon.
Fifty years pass and Cyrus the Persian tells the Jews to go home. Grandparents tell grandchildren all about glorious Jerusalem, rabbis chant alleluias, and the remnant of David’s exiled children finally head home. But, ruin and despair await them on their arrival. Cyrus was no fool. He sent this company of complainers back to a city that looked like an earthquake had just struck. With an initial rush of enthusiasm, rebuilding the Temple starts and the coals of hope survive, but as the economy fails, enthusiasm evaporates, leaving them with the worst kind of fatigue. They look around at all the devastation and conclude that once again God has left them desolate, abandoned, to live in ruin and despair in unholy solitude.
Talk about a tough congregation to preach a sermon, Isaiah preaches words that must have sounded surreal. His sermon opens: “You will be called by a new name which the Lord will announce . . . No more will you be called Forsaken, no more will your land be called Desolate, but you will be named Hephzibah and your land Beulah; for the Lord will take delight in you and to him your land will be linked in wedlock.”
Isaiah tells them that due to no faithfulness on their part, no badges of good citizenship, no miraculous transformation of beasts into beauties, God has chosen to see beyond their sin and give them a new name, Hephzibah or “My delight is in her.” And, no longer are they to be known among nations as the Divorced, but as Beulah, a Hebrew word for married. God and God’s people are on speaking terms again, says Isaiah, and it is God who has saved the marriage.
This good news will continue long after a body will be flung across a wooden beam and because of it, Christians will be foolish enough to rejoice that God has also forgiven us and given us a new name that reminds us we are not alone and assures us that in God’s service there is not only safety but meaning. And, because God has forgiven and claimed us, you and I are also invited to live in Beulah land.
Isn’t that nice? But who needs to live in Beulah land? We may not live in post-earthquake Haiti or war-torn Afghanistan, but we do live “in the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Times may be tough, but they are not catastrophic. Most of us are not federal workers or contractors wondering how to pay the bills because of an idiotic federal shutdown. We have our homes, enough food, enough gas to fill the tank. We hardly need a religious nut from ages past telling us that God has forgiven us. What’s to forgive?! We do not need a pushy prophet telling us that God has restored our lives. What’s to restore?!
After all, we are people of the Manifest Destiny, we will let God know when we need God. We have our GPS, IRA, 401K. We are walking acronyms of confidence living a far cry from the ruin and despair of Haiti or the violent storm in the forest in Kingsolver’s novel or the ancient devastation of Jerusalem. We not only deserve a break today, we make our own breaks and we do not need God to rebuild anything. We will do that for ourselves. Thank you very much.
Yet, despite all that American bravado, why do so many people living in the “land of the free” feel as if they are enslaved to debt, crushed by family pressure to climb a work ladder of no interest at all? Why do so many who have so much feel like there is something missing from their lives? Why do so many of people living in the “home of the brave” need a pill to get going in the morning, a pill to keep anxiety in check during the day, and another pill to sleep at night? Why is suicide on such an alarming rise in America? Why do those surrounded by so many feel absolutely alone?
I do not know about you, but I am ready to give Isaiah another hearing. I love being back in Virginia, but I want to make my home in Beulah land, far from anxieties that blind, greed that overwhelms, and ambition that numbs the soul, close to a God who delights in me and in you, who gives us a reason for our living and never abandons us in our dying. I want to make my home in Beulah land.
I want to live in Beulah land, but it is only rarely that I step foot there. It is a beautiful land, but I do not always have a good eye for beauty. It is a peace-filled land, but too often I am poised for a fight. It is a redemptive land, but too often I want to wallow in bitterness. In Beulah land, you and I will not find a pot of gold or a genie who will grant our every wish. What we will find is a God who knows us better than we know ourselves and even so still says to you and me, “Come back home.”
See you in Beulah land!