John 2:1-10; Isaiah 62:1-5
Once upon a time there lived a very unhappy woman. She had made some mistakes and completely messed up her life. Her husband had left her with nothing. The house they had shared had fallen in around her. She wandered the streets looking for work, until IT happened. That fateful day she was grabbed by slave traders and shipped to a country far away where she worked her fingers to the bone.
It appeared that her fortunes had turned when a new, benevolent king came to power. He sent all the slaves back to their homelands. He even sent charitable contributions to assist in the repair of her home. Nothing extravagant, but her home could get a roof and a basic coat of paint. There she sat, a broken old woman, in a little house on that still-shabby street, with little to disguise the disaster which had fallen upon her there.
Each morning she got up, and when she looked in her little cracked mirror, all she could say was, “Lord, the day you made me, you certainly made a mistake!” Her eyes were sunken and dark, wrinkles cascaded down her face. Her hair was a tangled gray mess; her mouth drooped on one side.
The return was supposed to have been glorious! A grand reunion of people with their land. All the promises of her youth still echoed in her mind. A princess people used to call her. She was the glory of the prom. The prince twirled the studded crown in his hand with joy as he placed it on her head. She would be queen, the chosen one, the glory of the land!
Then she stirred from her reverie and saw her reflection again in the broken glass.
Her name is Jerusalem.
God had brought his bride out of slavery in Egypt, claimed her, covenanted with her in a marriage of God and people, to be their God and they his people. God gave them a land, built with them houses, fields, a temple and walls of safety. But they messed up. They became an adulteress, fawning over the gold and jewels of other husbands. Until, one day, like a slap in the face, it was all gone! Homes, fields, temple, walls – all gone, smashed to dust. Having “played the harlot” Jerusalem was humiliated before the whole earth by her destruction and the carting-off of her best and brightest to work in the courts of Babylon.
This passage reminds me that one of the most common prophetic motifs in the Scripture is that of Israel’s infidelity towards Yahweh. For example, the entire book of Hosea makes use of the image of the prostitute, whom the prophet is commanded to take as his wife, in order that Hosea might understand how it feels to be God in relationship to God’s unfaithful people.
Against this backdrop, what seems to be celebrated is that the shame of being a “fallen woman” has been lifted. Judah is again Beloved, Married. The “nations” and “kings” (v. 2) who witnessed Jerusalem’s degradation now behold her “glory” (v. 2), her restoration.
It is the classic rags-to-riches story, the great reversal which happens in a life when one is loved – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, the Frog Prince, and many other stories. It is the story of the gospel. That God loved human beings so much that God entered our lives and became one with us, so that we can be glorified by love.
Through the prophets, God made extravagant promises to the people in exile. Earlier in the book of Isaiah, God promised to build up the barren and forsaken city of Jerusalem with foundations of sapphires, ruby towers, gates and walls of precious jewels (54:12). God promised to bring the exiled people home, and promised them the richest of feasts (56:2).
But when they returned to Judah, their life was far from the glorious promises! The land seemed to them like a desert. When the exiles returned, it was all they could do to secure homesteads for themselves and try to grow crops to feed their families. Times were difficult, and people were hungry. When prophets finally convinced them to rebuild the temple, it was clear that its glory could not match the glory of former days. Where were the glittering jewels? Where was the abundant feast? The city seemed forsaken, bereft of God’s sustaining presence. What could be the reason? Was Jerusalem still suffering God’s punishment?
When you read this portion of Israel’s story, there is a sadness running through it like a thread. Broken by exile, the people did not enter their restoration quickly. They came back, still burdened with discouragement. So, the prophetic voice rings out, determined to get God’s attention, and strong to plant a new courage in the lives of the people.
It was an unceasing, loud, chant:
It will not be possible to make me shut up. I will talk and not stop talking, proclaim and not stop proclaiming, preach and not stop preaching. I will shake the skies with my voice. I will not pause. I will not rest, for the sake of the precious city God loved and left, and I will keep this up until every nation and king can see that Jerusalem has been declared innocent and lifted up to a place of glory and honor. You will shine with a new name: “My Delight,” “Married,” once more, “My People.” You will be again the adored bride on the arm of the divine bridegroom.
The words are wedding words. God will again be married to the people. God will give them God’s own names: “Holy People,” “Redeemed of the Lord,” “Sought After” (62:12).
Jerusalem’s glory is that of a bride – brought into community and the partnership of a husband. The loneliness of discouragement is gone. It reminds me of Jesus’ words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). The promise is not of wealth and leisure, but of company for the journey.
This passage has brought me to consider some things about weddings which make them a good metaphor for God’s relationship with us.
1. Weddings are public affairs. A wedding is a kind of celebration which kept the village strong together, renewing bonds of family and community. Every family had a chance to be host at some point in their lives. The community would pull together to make it happen for its less fortunate ones. It was a celebration which formed the couple, and also the community.
God’s relationship with humanity is also a public affair. It is written all over the pages of history. Sometimes it takes prophets to tell us how to read the story, but it is there. God acts in big ways, saying God is not embarrassed to be associated with us. God is proud of us and will tell anyone who will listen. God is proud of you! What amazing words! Public wedding words!
2. Weddings proclaim the new status of the couple. “By the authority given to me as a minister of the church, I now pronounce you husband and wife. And you shall be known from now on as Mr. and Mrs. Married.” You have a new name which announces your new character.
The power of the name in ancient cultures was thought to be an indelible mark on someone that defined both their character and their destiny. To be tagged with names like “Forsaken” and “Desolate,” as Jerusalem had, would have seemed to people to be an almost insurmountable obstacle to any kind of positive transformation. Yet on Jerusalem’s wedding day, the prophet insists that such transformation has become a reality for her, and that the old names have been sloughed off in favor of a new identity. When it comes to our relationship with God, we are named, “Beloved,” and it makes all the difference.
The metaphor of marriage between Yahweh and his people is one of the central images used in Scripture to portray God’s relationship to humanity. Like harlotry is the metaphor for our unfaithfulness, marriage is the metaphor for restoration. And there is good reason for this metaphor. It has its roots in God’s character as love. More than anything, God is love. Marriage and family are concrete ways we live a life of love, as human beings.
Perhaps here is the value of this metaphor. Marriage is a life pattern. We know when we do it poorly (which is often) and we recognize when it is done well. Our relationship with God is also easily recognized. It is not an intellectual assent to certain truths, but is recognized in community as a life of love engaged with God, lived every day in a very public way in our world. Remember that one of the first observations of Christians was: see how they love one another! (John 13:35, cf. Tertullian’s writings). Our relationship with God, like Jerusalem’s is public. People know when we do it well and when we do not. They expect us to love each other as good married couples. They expect us to build our family of acceptance in our community. They know it when we do not. Our marriage with God is all out there for people to see. Sometimes we forget that we are married.
I have lived more of my adult life as a single person than as married. And even the time I was married has left scars. I have learned to work hard and get life done on my own. So, I become much like Jerusalem at this point. The shambles which was glorious Jerusalem is in ruins, seemingly beyond repair. I, too, get discouraged. There is too much to do. I can’t do it all. And that is the point. I forget that God has partnered with me in all I do. I forget the ringing voice of the prophet that I am Beloved, and God’s Delight. And that I am not alone. That is what I miss most about marriage – the sense that I am not alone in direction or decisions, that we will accompany each other and share the load.
I sometimes hear the same thing in the session and this congregation. We feel discouraged because we are alone. We have lost so many people who have shared the journey with us, and we can feel bereft. There are not enough people left in our community to do all the things we dream of, the things God seems to have promised. But we forget that we are Beloved, God’s Delight.
We are not alone. We, like the prophet can call out to God, our partner, for help – for God to come alongside us and renew our hearts in our covenanted relationship.
The good news for us today is the same as it was for Jerusalem in the 6th century – we are not alone, we are God’s partner, we are married. God has skin in this game. And we can call on God to come and bring God’s gifts of provision and joy. We can remember that we are married, in this life-creating business of the world together. And together, we won’t rest until all enjoy the blessings of justice, mercy and love, even though they may not look like what we thought.
The prophet prays and insistent prayer. Come. Do your work among us. Prepare the celebration. God is here.
Working Preacher website: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=495
Political Theology Today website: http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/isaiah-621-5-the-politics-of-marrying-god/