Text: Isaiah 55:1-9
We live in an age of enormous knowledge, discovery and information. Today, we know more about the human body and brain than we have ever known. Youth, listen to this. As of 15 years ago, scientists believed that the vast majority of brain development occurred during the first few years of life. Through structural and functional MRI studies, however, researchers have discovered critical brain changes during adolescence, especially in the prefrontal cortex and limbic systems, which are involved in social decision-making, impulse control and emotional processing. There are reasons you are the way you are at this age. Today, we know more about planet Earth than we’ve ever known. We know that climate change/global warming is real and most of it is more than likely human induced. Today, we know more about genetics, the eco-system and the animal kingdom than we have ever known.
Just think about these latest discoveries. A new study based on calculations of gravitational influence suggests that at least two more planets are circling the sun in our solar system far beyond Pluto’s orbit. Last year, scientists discovered teixobactin, the first new antibiotic in 30 years, through a breakthrough method that used an electronic device to isolate antibiotic compounds in soil. Researchers can now grow human skeletal muscle in the laboratory that contracts and responds just like native tissue to external stimuli. A new physics model that applies quantum correction terms to complement Einstein’s theory of general relativity proposes that there was no Big Bang and that the universe has existed forever. And, lest you think none of these things affect our daily lives, think about this 2015 medical discovery: A lab-made molecule that mimics an antibody from our immune system successfully keeps four monkeys free of HIV despite large doses.
For certain, technology has played a huge role in this new knowledge and discovery. I remember the first cell phone I got that had text messaging. It must have been about seven or eight years ago now. Jack McKinney and I were co-pastors at the time. We went together to the Verizon store to purchase our new phones because we were quite certain they would help us be better pastors to you. I remember coming back to the church with the new gadgets in hand and each of us retreating to our offices. Within minutes, maybe seconds, the text messages started—Jack in his office and me in mine—less than 50 steps from one another. Having a bit more technology experience, Jack was a faster learner than I. Within 15 or 20 minutes, Jack figured out that I was struggling a bit. He came down to my office, sat down and said, “Nancy, I think this might be too much technology for you.” Now, with that gadget, I have all the latest news and information that I could possibly need. The resources I have at my fingertips from that device that fits in the palm of my hand helps me navigate life in a way that has changed dramatically how I live and work, and, yes, pastor you.
We live in an age of knowledge, discovery and instant information. Within seconds, we can access data and information on every imaginable topic or event happening in the world. And still, with all of this at our fingertips, much of our life is spent searching for the intangible aspects of life that offer purpose and meaning that can’t be discovered in a laboratory, or measured by white or gray brain matter, or found on a gadget that fits in the palm of our hand. The big questions are the same now as they were 100 years ago, and likely, 1,000 years ago. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? How do we find happiness and peace? How do we come to know God? And beyond that, how do we come to know God’s ways for our lives?
There are two ways that we can approach this Isaiah 55 text in this season of Lent. The first way is from a historical, contextual perspective. Who better to turn to for an exposition of this passage than our good friend Walter Brueggemann. He writes of these nine verses in Isaiah 55:
These verses are addressed to elite Israelites who had been forcibly deported to Babylon when Jerusalem had been destroyed. While these deported elites yearned for a return to Jerusalem, it is clear that they also came to terms with the Babylonian regime and the Babylonian economy, enough to participate in the opportunities and requirements of the imperial order. In doing so, they inevitably compromised their quite distinctive Jewish identity as members of a neighborly covenant. It was an uneasy balancing act for them, to participate fully in the dominant economy and to practice at the same time an intentional and distinctive faith identity… [It is] Into that uneasy arrangement comes the powerful poetry of the text. The message of Isaiah is that he wants his Jewish listeners to heed his call to reembrace their distinctive identity, and so to retreat from commitment to the empire. The purpose of his summons is that his listeners will be prepared to return to Jerusalem with a clear covenantal identity…
The poem, [Brueggemann concludes], makes a vigorous and emphatic contrast between “your ways and thoughts” and God’s “ways and thoughts.” The poet dares to introduce to Israel in exile an alternative resolve that has not been on their screen. “Your ways,” you who have colluded with the empire, is a way of fear, scarcity and anxiety that requires labor that does not satisfy and purchases that are not bread. God’s way, by contrast, is a way of generous, reliable fidelity that makes such fearful collusion both inappropriate and unnecessary. Thus Isaiah’s listeners are summoned to deal with the reality of God, God’s way, God’s thought and God’s future that constitute a palpable alternative to the offer of Babylon.
This historical, contextual perspective makes real the struggle we all face of choosing to live in this world by the ways and values and practices of the world or by living in this world through an alternative set of ways and values and practices that run counter to our culture. Do we live by fear, greed, scarcity and anxiety? Or do we live trusting in God’s generosity, in the abundance that comes through hospitality, and in the promise of God’s covenant that God made with humanity?
But as I said, there are two ways to read this text. The second way to interpret Isaiah 55 in this season of Lent is from a pastoral and contemplative approach. That approach invites us into the un-knowing, the mystery of God, and the acknowledgement of God’s ways are not our ways. There are two threads of theological inquiry if we follow the contemplative approach – one is called cataphatic, or the way of knowing. Cataphatic theology focuses on naming, on words, images and symbols. It is concrete, answerable, academic and reassuring. The other thread is called apophatic, or the way of unknowing. Apophatic theology focuses on absence, silence, darkness and mystery. Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr posits that these two threads of the spiritual life must balance one another, that in our faith we must seek to know, but that we must ultimately surrender to not knowing, or to un-knowing. This not knowing is not theatrical, nor is it conjured in order to appear “mystical.” As we know all too well, darkness is real. Absence is felt. Mystery is all around us. Apophatic theology asserts that these, too, are divine, and that they belong in our understanding of God.
Rohr makes the point that historically, Protestantism emerged around the same time as the invention of the printing press and also, in the next centuries, the Enlightenment. What has marked Protestantism from the beginning is a beautiful, but almost neurotic, need for certitude, ending up in redefining biblical faith with little knowledge of the older tradition of not knowing, of unknowing, of mystery and silence. Everything was a theology of light, clarity, order, certitude. So much so that Protestantism came to think it had a right to certitude. Faith got defined in a very western, left-brain, verbal way that had almost no space for mystery.
Isaiah 55 seems to be reminding us this Lenten season that true spiritual knowing has to be balanced by the non-need to know or as I name it, “the willingness and discipline to embrace un-knowing God.” God’s ways are not our ways. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. I don’t think that means that we can’t access God. But what I do think it means is that we can’t always participate in God’s ways through our knowledge, our knowing, our need for certitude. We have to be willing to enter the silence, the void, the absence, the un-knowing of God. For many of us, for our church, this a hard discipline to follow.
I’ll end with this illustration. It is a simple, quite ordinary illustration. I use it because I want to bring what I am saying into our everyday lives and the struggles we face. I have a friend who’s really struggling over whether to stay where she lives now, or to move back to the city where she lived last, where there are memories and connections, but also places of pain and disappointment. I have talking with my friend about her dilemma. Our natural way is to try to figure out the pros and cons, to analyze, to try to know the right answer. But what God calls us to is to sit in the unknowing of that and be open to experiencing where our soul needs to be. Choosing to move forward not knowing which is the “right choice” does not mean we have stepped outside of God’s will. If we stay in our heads, trying to come at that from knowledge, there is a lot of fear and anxiety. But if we come from an unknowing place, a curious place, there can be great generosity and surprise and connection. When our need to know exceeds our openness, then we keep God small and in a box. But when our unknowing can open us to new/alternative possibilities, then our understanding of God can grow beyond our wildest imaginations.
If you’re seeking God’s ways, consider not only relying on your knowledge and all the information at your fingertips. Instead consider God’s ways by exploring the alternative path, finding the possible in the impossible, holding onto hope in the midst of despair, welcoming the stranger while voices around us call for walls to be built, and choosing to love when the world pulls at us to hate.
God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” May we hear these words and delight in the mystery that forms us, that moves us, that heals us, and that promises peace beyond all understanding.