Red Sky in Morning

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Isaiah 9:2-4; from Isaiah 9:1-4, lectionary text for Sunday January 26, 2020

The days I teach, I set off for work in the dark, and by the time I arrive it is day.  Driving through earth’s quotidian turning is one of the consolations of having to wake so early.  How does the light come?  I close my eyes and try to see it on the insides of my eyelids.

How the light comes.  First the sky begins to glow.  Night’s midnight blue takes on a suffused purply hue then softens to lighter shade.  When the sky is clear, light’s coming shows as a nuanced series of variations as the sky shades from mystic violet to indigo to chambray, each shift so fine that I realize the series only when I recognize the sum of them:  Oh, the sky is blue.  It is different when there are clouds.  The sun begins to light them even before it has risen above the horizon.  Still itself unseen, the sun tints the clouds raspberry and coral and peach and lemon.  The clouds catch fire, flare with amazing colors, become the sun’s heralds, proclaim coming.

‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’  

It is the clouds that make light’s coming so wonderful, that blare it with such fanfare.  Yet they proclaim not just light but storm. ‘Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.’   

‘For the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.’  This is a battle image.  Gideon and his 300 and the LORD’s triumph of blaring trumpets and flaring torches and shouts and clamor.  [Judges 7]  It is not a peaceful dawning but victory sounding.  God breaking apart the enemy — loudly, violently, irrefutably.

I’m not sure I like that part.  In my mind’s eye I was watching for the light.  Now suddenly I’m waiting for a storm, listening for the wind to rise, to hear trees creak loudly as they sway, and to wonder what will happen if one comes crashing down.  

I have walked in darkness.  I pray for light.  For the bars that weight shoulders to be lifted away, rods wielded by oppressors to be broken.  But I am aware that privileges of my life burden others, and structures that sustain me oppress others.  The rod broken by the LORD may be to me both freeing and jarring.  (What did Israel do once fear of Midian no longer united them?  Was the rejoiced-over spoil enough to divide or did the plunder cause new division?).  

I have walked in darkness.  I pray for light.  Light to break the dark and light to show the brokenness in the day.  Light enough to see by and light enough to have my sight transformed so that I can rejoice and not resent, can greet it with without fear but with exultant joy.

I pray, LORD, that I may pray for light.  I pray, LORD, that I may welcome it as it comes.

‘Come now’

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.  If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Isa 1:15-20 (from lectionary text for Aug 11, 2019; full cite Isa 1:1, 10-20)

It is somewhat unnerving to come to this week’s text in a week after news of new shootings, new raids.  Bodies torn open.  Families torn apart.  (I find myself almost, perversely, relieved that the last shooting of the series — the last as of this writing, and based on the information now known — seems to be ‘merely’ wanton criminality rather than flowing from our nation’s divisions.)

It is difficult to read the text’s reference to ‘hands full of blood’ as anything other than literal in such circumstances.  Yet the blood-full hands are not only those dripping from intimately physical violence, the oppression of brethren (whether distanced as ‘other’ or acknowledged as kin).  The blood-full hands are also those which have offered the right sacrifice —  ‘the blood of bulls or of lambs or of goats’ (Isa 1:11) — yet who live in complicit accommodation of the systemic iniquity.  The reference to ‘blood’ implicates not only that wickedly shed but also that properly required and accounted for.  Even that reddens the hands.  Open your palms; spread your fingers wide; flare your nostrils at the iron smell; see the red so bright before it darkens, grows thick and sticky.  You’ve touched pitch; did you think you could escape the stain?  Rub your hands together; the spot remains.

The blood-full hands are literal and metaphorical.  The bloodshed is individual and communal. And even that widened gaze is not enough.  Not this week.  Because this week has felt a fresh storm of violence, physical and emotional.  I need not just a word to the community (notwithstanding all my teaching, my inmost and utmost conviction that this text was given to and through and for community) but a word to me.  A word to bring me through to next week.  That’s all I ask.  Not a forever word but one for-now, a sustaining sufficient to bring me through these days and back again to the text for next week’s word.  

Maybe it’s because last week’s text already evoked the motif of the LORD as parent:  ’When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son’ (Hos 11:1).  Maybe it’s because the motif appears as well in verses just prior to those assigned for this week:  ’I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me’ (Isa 1:2b).  Maybe it’s because of how I myself feel after this storm of emotion, of anger, of weeping.  I am left wrung out, not just limp but lined and turned askew with the marks of its twisting.  I read and re-read, and a line catches me.  It catches my eye, first, and then, as my lips shape to sound the words, my ear.   ‘Come, let us argue it out, says the LORD’ (1:18).  And though the ‘Come’ is plural in Hebrew, in English I can hear and imagine it as addressed to me, even me.  ‘Come,’ the LORD invites, ‘Come now.  Let us argue it out.’  Let us dispute it; let us reason it out.  ‘Let us reach an understanding,’ reads the translation of the Jewish Publication Society.  The summoning is implacable but not harsh.  Is there not a warmth in it?  The LORD wants the argument, the reasoning, the understanding.  The LORD wants the conversation.  The mouth of the LORD speaks as a mother does to a child wrung limp, turned askew by a temper tantrum, the throes of violence having passed, leaving a damp exhaustion behind … and the corresponding inability to figure out any way out of the impasse, any way to resist the paralysis, any way through to newness.  

The mouth of the LORD has spoken.  The storm need not be a full-stop end of sentence.  There is another word.  There will be another after that.  And it is through the word, the speech, the argument, the reasoning, that the cleansing shall come.  It is through relationship that the scarlet stain will be lifted and the white of snow or wool given instead.  

Newness shall come. I don’t know how.  I don’t need to know fully — I did not ask a forever word, after all, but a word sufficient for this day, for the next.  And this is the answer.  Come now, the LORD invites.  Let us talk together.  Through this day, and on into the days coming.