Creation, Exile, and the Pandemic

Inspired by our chapel series last fall called “Hope of All Creation,” I have been increasingly interested in how the creation itself reflects the actions of God and the relationship between humanity and God in the Bible.

One idea I wanted to explore is the way in which the good news of Jesus is not just about redeeming human souls, but all of creation. The entire cosmos will be restored to right relationship with God. Paul beautifully describes this cosmic hope found in Christ:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:18-25

With any eye towards the “universal restoration” (Acts 3:21) promised in the gospel, I am curious how creation imagery in the Bible reveals a broader picture of God’s creative actions. Our theology often emphasizes the relationship between God and humanity to the exclusion of humanity’s relationship with creation and God’s relationship with creation. In an age of unprecedented climate change that threatens the well-being of the vulnerable throughout the world, I believe it is crucially important to highlight these relationships in our faith communities, drawing from a deep well of biblical ideas about creation.

The book of Isaiah is filled with creation imagery that reflects God’s intentions and the people of Israel. The prophet sings a love song depicting the nation of Israel as a vineyard that produced the wild grapes of injustice and bloodshed (5:1-7), but will one day make peace together with God (27:2-6) and “fill the whole world with fruit” (27:6). God’s salvation will be known in all the earth (11:9, 12:5; c.f. Hab 2:14) by way of a Messianic seed: “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (11:1).

One key text that discusses the state of creation in response to social injustice is the so-called “apocalypse of Isaiah” (ch. 24), in which the economic and social upheaval present in Israel (24:1-3) associated with the destruction of the environment:

“The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.”

Isaiah 24:4-5

I’d argue that, in most of the Old Testament prophets, the state of creation seems to reflect the relationship between God and God’s people. In our time, human-made climate change, brought about by needless consumption (and made possible by exploiting the poor), has ravaged the environment. In this way our world is experiencing “ecological consequences” of injustice, which are found throughout the book of Isaiah.

Without downplaying the devasting human impact of Covid-19, I believe that the pandemic can lead us to reflect on our relationship with the environment. Recently scientists have noticed an unprecedented drop in C02 emissions as much of the industrialized world “shelters in place” to control the spread of the pandemic. According to the historian of 2Chronicles, one purpose of the exile was “to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.” (20:31) In other words, while the people are not presents (and are away in exile), the land itself is finally able to rest after Israel had neglected the commandment to care for the land (observing a weekly Sabbath rest).  I am struck by the parallel.

As we come to terms with the destruction of the environment, we lament. We might be inspired by the language of the prophets, who personify land that “mourns” the exile (Hosea 4:3, Jer 12:4) In the NRSV Bible, Joel 1 has the header “Lament over the Ruin of the Country” and plainly observes that “the fields are devastated, the ground mourns; for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails”(Joel 1:10). In my estimation, all of the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible (save, perhaps, Obadiah and Daniel) describe the destruction of the earth. If the exile (the subject of the prophets) is about a fall from grace due to social injustice, then injustice and the destruction of the earth are deeply intertwined.

Through sharing the gospel, Christians see themselves as being agents in God’s plan for the redemption of humanity. But I wonder how much “building the kingdom” also involves caring for creation.  I am currently reading The Green Gospel which seeks to provide an agricultural context to the time of Jesus and how this might prompt us to redesign food systems to be more sustainable and equitable.  

Despite the destruction evident from exile, the hope of the gospel spreads further, to the far reaches of the cosmos:

  • “By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.” (Psalm 65:5)
  • “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:19-20)
  • Like the lovers in the Song of Songs, in which creation is animated by love and mutuality, we long for the day when “the flower appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (2:12).

Perhaps one of the most poignant messages of hope for our time is expressed in Habakkuk 3. Despite destruction during the Bible and destruction now, God’s saving work continues:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.”

Hab 3:17-19

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Pandemic reflections

This has been a strange summer. The global pandemic has forced faith communities around the world to find new ways to “be the church.” I believe that this time can transform and grow us as followers of Jesus if we accept the invitation.

When the pandemic gained momentum in the United States I became curious about theological lenses  for viewing this unique time. I attended a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Veritas Forum called Coronavirus & Quarantine: What Big Questions Can We Be Asking?  I was inspired by the idea that the Judeo-Christian narrative makes meaning out of suffering by attaching it to “a narrative of redemption.” They discussed this idea in the context of the theological journey of Israel in exile and Jesus’s own plea, “let this cup pass from me” (Matt 26:39). One speaker suggested that “lament is the seedbed of creativity.” In other words, how can the limitations and pain of social distancing spark creative ideas for connection?

During the pandemic we feel distant and disconnected. We find joy from phone calls, socially distant gatherings and perhaps more time with loved ones. But relying on fleeting bits of connection is not God’s intention for humanity. We are meant to live in community: to be with and beside people, to perform acts of kindness and generosity. We long for the ability to connect with people again, in more fulfilling ways. During the pandemic I have wondered how our angst during the social distancing might be parallel to the eschatological hope that God will make all things new. We see only fragments of God’s rule and reign a care for humanity and creation. We long for God to make all things new through the resurrection of Jesus, until that day when we relationships  between God, humanity and creation are fully restored, sustained by the river of life and the tree of life, whose leaves are for “the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2).

A closely related lens for the pandemic is that of apocalypse. As in every generation, Christians identify current catastrophes with images in Revelation or even claiming it as God’s judgement. But the word apocalypse does not mean “the end of the world”. This is a modern misunderstanding, particularly in American Christianity. Scholars Tim Mackie explains that the Greek word for “apocalypse” means “uncover or reveal—to make something visible”.  Thinking about an apocalypse as an unveiling of things that were previously hidden forces us to acknowledge buried realities that have come to light (Luke 8:17). In the United States, the reality of systemic racism has become more apparent by the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on communities of color and rampant police brutality, both of which have stamped out Ruach Elohim, the breath of God.  According to John the visionary the blood of all who are unjustly murdered will be accounted for (Rev 18:24). In this way, we see apocalypses as opportunities to “pull back the veil” and more fully understanding of underlying realities and pursue justice.

I have come to see that the Gospel, the good news about Jesus is inherently political. The word “politics” means “the affairs of the city” and deals in the welfare of its people. The Old Testament prophets had harsh words for those perpetuating systemic injustice: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees” (Isa 10:1). Jesus spoke about God’s government – the kingdom of heaven – more than any other topic: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)  I believe Jesus’s jubilee mission to free the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19) presents a marching order for white Christians to pursue racial reconciliation.

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Lamentations 5 for today

In light of our study on Lamentations and everything happening in the world today, we are sharing with you a paraphrase of Lamentations 5 for today as written by Soong-Chan Rah.

The following is a short excerpt:

“Trust in our ultimate triumph has diminished;
          our triumphant proclamation of victory has turned to a funeral dirge.
Our sense of exceptionalism has been exposed.
          Woe to us, for we have sinned. . . .
Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us for so long?
Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
renew as that we may find a new way forward
unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.”

Soong-Chan Rah

Pentecost and cutting off the breath of God

During quarantine I have been recording multi-track handbell videos of hymn arrangements. Since this coming Sunday is Pentecost (the arrival of the spirit in Acts 2) I posted a recording of the hymn “Breathe On Me, Breathe of God.”

It didn’t occur to me for several hours how my video may have been inappropriate (or at best, awkward) to post just a day after black man George Floyd was pinned by white offers, screamed “I Can’t Breathe” and then died in custody. This story (and the countless others like it) continues to fuel both righteous anger and deep complacency in the United States.

As I began to consider Pentecost in this context, I was filled with anger. While Pentecost is (and has been since Ancient times) one of the most lively days in the life of the Church, I began to lament, knowing that God’s gift of the spirit — God’s breath — has been denied to so many people of color in the United States. At the very beginning of creation God’s spirit actively participates and “hovers over the waters” (Gen 1:2). God’s breathe continues to form and reform us. When we hurt others, we both deface the image of God and deny God’s gift of breath. We deny the gift that God will “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17).

For many of us it’s easy to think that we don’t commit violent crimes and therefore “we’re good”. But Jesus offers a stunning rebuke to our complacency by describing in the Sermon on the Mount what life in God’s kingdom is all about:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment … So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:21-24)

Maybe Jesus knows that anger can lead to hatred and hatred can lead to violence. Maybe Jesus knows if left unchecked anger leads to unhealthy relationships, to mental and physical anguish. Anger has the power to destroy us and to destroy communities, just as police brutality does again and again.  For Jesus, living in the kingdom of God (and in true communion with God) is about reconciliation: “first be reconciled to your brother or sister”. For Jesus, building the blessed community involves acknowledging our pain and our brokenness and working toward restoring our relationships with one another.

And anger is not “good” or “bad,” by itself. It may more useful to acknowledge, as with any emotion, that anger can be helpful and harmful. Righteous anger has the power to move us to action, particularly after an injustice has happened. Jesus, speaking truth to power, became angry with those who upheld unjust systems. Later in the book of Matthew, Jesus says to the pharisees: “woe to you…for you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23). While these leaders “followed the rules” for presenting temple offerings and sacrifices, they failed to enact the intent behind the law: justice and mercy and faith.

As a so-called Christian nation, we are so far from pursuing justice for black and brown people. Who is it, really, that can’t breathe? We claim that we live by the Holy Spirit, we ask for it to “break me, melt me, mold me, fill me”. But do we really trust and follow the spirit’s power do so? The book of Acts tracks the movement of the Spirit after Pentecost and describes ways that it led the apostles to pursue justice. Early on Peter bears to the spirit’s power to convict the counsel or Jesus’s unjust killing:

“The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God  rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.'” (Acts 5:27-32)

This language of “whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree” (used several times in Acts) has deeply painful overtones in the United States, where many historians observe that today’s victims of police brutality are much like victims of lynching after the Civil War. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes:

“The lynching tree—so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgatha – should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’s death. But it does not. In fact the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections on Jesus’s cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was essentially a first century lynching.” (30)

Jesus Christ already died for our sins. How long do black and brown people have to die in the United States for the sin of racism? Floyd’s is just one of countless black lives lost to police brutality in the United States. With the prophets and the Psalmist we cry “How long, O Lord?” Because when we kill image-bearers, we kill God.

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern.

Reflections on Lamentations

The book of Lamentations is hard to read. Its five chapters contain some of the most angry and resentful passages in the Bible. While even the darkest Psalms usually contain some words of assurance, the book of Lamentations only has a few hopeful verses.

The lamenting poet knows the promises of God but feels like none of them are true. “He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light” (3:2) is in direct contrast to God’s creative action which “separated the light from the darkness” (Gen 1:4). When we are suffering or when all we see is suffering, we question God’s promises or we wonder if they have been subverted (3:35-36). Along with the poet we might say “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’” (3:17-18)

During the pandemic, some of the words in Lamentations might resonate with us as we try to understand a “new normal” separated from other people. It is a time of food insecurity when people “search for bread” (1:11), when the city is lonely that “was once full of people” (1:1) and cultural activities are suspended as “the young men [have left] their music” (5:14). In the United States it is also a time when economic and racial injustice are more clearly seen, bringing into question the true “greatness” of the country. Speaking about Jerusalem, the poet writes that onlookers sarcastically jeer and say, “is this city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of the earth?” (2:15)

I appreciate that this book is in the Bible because it speaks about reality. Suffering is a prominent part of the human experience and this book witnesses to the way that God’s people have long wrestled with the problem of human suffering. I believe that these words suggest that anger and lament are authentic expressions of faith rather than doubt. Too often in our culture we ignore pain and suffering and say “look on the bright side” or “just trust in Jesus,” like band-aids for flesh wounds. The pain of sufferings is even described in these terms: “he has made my flesh and my skin waste a way and has broken my bones” (3:4).

Liturgically speaking, what I learn from Lamentations is the necessity of lament: during times of crisis it is important to name the realities of suffering. Christian worship usually includes a time of confession to acknowledge sins, seek forgiveness and receive assurance. Perhaps this pattern happens too quickly. The chorus of “Great Is They Faithfulness,” one of the great hymns of assurance, comes from Lamentations 3, which has some of the only words of hope in the entire book:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:21-24

The fact that these words are found among deep laments of sorrow makes them all the more profound. While we might seek a quick resolution from the sin and injustice of the world, the poet struggled through some 64 verses of lament before “calling to mind” this great hope, suggesting that we could do more to acknowledge our own realities in worship. Not only is our grief and suffering acceptable to bring to God, but we share it in Jesus.

– Mitchell Eithun, Pastoral Intern

How lonely is the city

“How lonely is the city that once was full of people!” is how the Old Testament book of Lamentations begins. These words suggest that the life of the city is dependent on people and the relationships between people. When these are absent the city itself feels lonely and “the roads to Zion mourn” (Lam 1:4). 

The other week we began studying Lamentations in response to everything happening in the world because of COVID-19. The grief-filled words remind us that lament is an important part of a life of faith. We lament to express frustration and even our anger for the way things are. The book of Lamentations helps with that, as “Lamentations is a searing book of taut, charged poetry on the subject of unspeakable suffering. The poems emerge from a deep wound, a whirlpool of pain, toward which the images, metaphors, and voices of the poetry can only point.” Kathleen O’Connor, “Lamentations” in NIBC, 879

Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in his book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, talks about how lament gives voice to the grief and sadness that result from the task of “reality,” or honestly identifying the state of things. This can be especially challenging when others do not share our concern. We hear this also in Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?” (Lam. 1:12). O’Connor echoes Brueggemann:

“The book of Lamentations practices truth-telling. It refuses denial and reverses amnesia by inviting readers into pain and affliction in all their rawness. It urges us to face suffering, to speak of it, to be dangerous proclaimers of the truth that society wants to repress. … Advice like ‘Get over it,’ Get on with it,’ ‘Look on the bright side,’ reinforces the dehumanization of the sufferers by refusing to accept their stammering efforts toward truth” and healing. (O’Connor, 892). 

Wherever you find yourself in this journey, may we be supportive of each other, being people that “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). In our communities may we share words of comfort and hope in the midst of struggle. Like with the book of Lamentations, may our “stinging cries for help, [our] voices begging God to see, [our] protests to God who hides behind a cloud – all create a space where communal and personal pain can be reexperienced, seen, and perhaps healed.” (O’Connor, 879).

– Mitchell Eithun and Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink

More Prayers

The following prayer related to COVID-19 is taken from the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Social Justice

“In this time of unprecedented, global crisis, we all struggle to hold the weight of it. Worries abound and drastic changes to how we work, parent, shop, gather, worship – indeed how we live – are compounding quickly. We, as Jesus followers, are being called to change our behavior out of love and care for our neighbor. There are many directions to pray in so here are a few we could hold before us today.  

Prayers for Leaders and Decision Makers

Abba, the leaders we have in government, healthcare, business, education have exceedingly difficult decisions in front of them. Open their ears and eyes to recognize wisdom. Guide decisions to reflect their positions of “servants of the good.” (Rom. 13:4).  

Help our leaders see the breadth of our connectedness – the ecology of the whole creation.  Help them hold the truth of our humanity before their decisions.  

Guide them with the next right steps in this crisis.  

Grant them sleep and health so they can endure the distance they have to go as our leaders during this time.  

Prayers for the Vulnerable

God, protect the vulnerable. Some members of our society are more adversely affected than others and we hold them up to your care at this time. We hold the immuno-compromised, the already sick, care home residents, the health care workers and their families up to you. We hold the homeless population and those who depend on food banks up to you in this time of resource scarcity. We hold communities with less resources, doctors, clinics and money in mind. We hold the elderly, the already isolated, the already lonely up for your presence and care. Protect bodies and minds from that which separates us from our love and your love. Help those who can care for the most vulnerable among us do so well. By keeping distance, by staying home, by delivering meals, by making sure our neighbors have ways to stay in touch with us.  

And God, help us to remember that injustice around the world still abounds, affecting the most vulnerable most adversely.  Help us to see truly in this time. 

Help us to know that we are in your hands, and that we are also in each other’s hands. (Lynn Ungar)

Prayers for Uncertainty

God, the myth of certainty is laid bare at our feet.  Will you now raise up trust and faith in your unwavering presence?  

The myth of certainty has been taken down and we hold the weight of not knowing what the future holds.    

Help us to hold our own fears, responsibilities, unknowns with grace.  

Give us enough for today, help us to take the next right steps for tomorrow.  

Be with those whose livelihoods are at risk -provide for them.  

Be with those who are unable to see loved ones – care for them.  

Be with those who are not sure how to balance all the new ways of daily living, all the shifts to important plans.   

Be with us when we inevitably will feel the fear, angst and weight of this uncertainty—point us to your love in those moments.

Help us not trade justice for certainty, making an idol out of plans that work for us but not for everyone.

Spark in us possibilities and bigger imaginations in a time where what we thought was certain is no more.  

Prayers for the Body of Christ

Spirit of the Living God, you have called us to be the embodied community of the living Christ. Help us all take steps away from fear and hostility, bravado and self-righteousness, towards agape love.  Towards a love that demonstrates your care to all who encounter us.  

Help us to be good neighbors, locally and systematically, within our communities.  

Draw us together in new bodies of worship, word and sacrament.  

Open our eyes and ears to your Spirit’s movement during this time.  

Surprise us and lead us to become communities that bring life to our cities, leaven in the bread.  

Help us move through our own fears, naming them, and offering them to you.

Increase our trust in you and increase our love for our neighbors.  

Even in a time of social distancing, may the resurrected Body of Christ be truly embodied, alive, pulsing with grace in our neighborhoods and keep doing your work in us in unexpected, subversive and life giving ways.   

Give us new songs from this time, that we may sing of how you do not leave us or forsake us.”

Amen.

God of tomorrow, some day, and forever

In the season of Advent, a lot of people look to the book of Isaiah and find hope in how the texts point to the coming of Christ (especially Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7; 11:1-9). Ironically, though, I find the texts less hopeful when the focus is primarily on how they’ve been fulfilled by Jesus’ birth. I believe that the point of these Isaiah texts is not simply to provide hope to the Israelites that God would some day do something miraculous connected to salvation. Instead, the texts provide hope of how God would be working in the near future for their salvation. God is, after all, God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, or, in the case of this text, a God who works for salvation tomorrow, some day, and forever.

There is hope in recognizing that God did not act only in history one time: during Jesus’ time on earth. Instead, God is active in all time. God cared enough about the Israelites to provide salvation to them in their time. God gave a sign to Ahaz (and the people of Israel) showing that the siege would end in the very near future. By the time a child not yet conceived was old enough to know right from wrong, the kings attacking them would have fallen and they would have recovered from the current siege to the extent that the child would be eating honey and curds (Isaiah 7:14-16). Isaiah 9 and 11 speak to deliverance through the coming of a king who would bring justice, a king who would do what “was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done.” A king would come of whom it would be said: “there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not stop following him.” This king was Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, as described in 2 Kings 18:3-6.

Yet, just as the text gives hope for the immediate future of the people, it also provides hope for our future. Because as much as the text was immediately fulfilled in Isaiah’s time and was more fully fulfilled with Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:22-23), it has not yet been fully fulfilled. The justice and righteousness spoken about in Isaiah 9:7 and Isaiah 11:2-5 were not fully established with Jesus’ coming. Nor is the peaceful kingdom presented in Isaiah 11:6-9 a current reality. Recognizing the many layers of fulfillment in the text allows me to be honest about how they have not fully been fulfilled. And so we can read these texts with longing and hope. We can honestly lament that, even though Jesus came at Christmas, the world is still so much not the way it ought to be. The injustices that Isaiah speaks about, such as prioritizing profit over the well-being of others (especially the marginalized) have re-surfaced in new ways today, such as the Flint water crisis, sweatshops, and extreme weather because of climate change.

These texts give me space to lament the suffering and injustices of the world. Yet, they also allow me to rejoice in the significance and wonder of Jesus’ birth while longing for Christ to come again and fully bring about the justice that first was established in Hezekiah and more fully in Jesus. And these texts reassure me that my hope in Christ coming back to bring justice is not in vain. Because certainly a God who has been faithful in assuring that the words of these texts came true in the near future and the some day, this God can and will fulfill the words in a future that is still before us.

Fall Chapel Service: Hope of All Creation

This October we partnered with three other campus ministries – MSU Wesley, One Community Lutheran Campus Ministry and The Peoples Church – to host a weekly communion service in the Alumni Memorial Chapel at MSU. During this service we reflected on Jesus as the hope of all creation and supported each other in our mutual ministry with MSU students.

In our liturgy we lamented through prophetic texts the ways in which the earth is being destroyed: “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have … broken the everlasting covenant” (Isa 24:5). This ancient witness should stir us to think about how our institutions have contributed to the destruction of the earth. In keeping with the CEF spirit of intellectual inquiry, we also reflected on some unusual scripture passages including God as a mother in labor (Isa 42) and a “springtime rhapsody” in the Song of Songs 2.

Chapel services offer an opportunity for worship in the midst of busy academic life. The Alumni Memorial Chapel is not usually used for religious services and our continued relationship with the sexton Steve Aikin has allowed us to produce quality worship experiences in an ecumenical Christian tradition and witness to God’s presence on campus.

In our service and our gathering we shared hope together—hope that through Christ all of creation will be liberated from decay (Rom 8:21). Still we wait for the reign of God to come to its fullness. when new leaves will grow and they will be for the healing of the nations (Rev 22:2).

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge Intern

Isaiah and the Prophetic Call to a Just Society

At the beginning of his book, the prophet Isaiah convicts a “sinful nation, people laden with iniquity” (1:4). The society he describes is full of bribes (1:23), fixes itself on material wealth (2:7) and denies justice to orphans and widows (1:23). Even the worship of the people is meaningless without justice: “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me” (1:13).

The prophet implores the people to “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17). As Christians, what do we to in response to this call to social justice? How can we be “repairers of the breach and restorers of the streets” (58:12)? Reflecting on the words of Isaiah, here are some thoughts on how we can faithfully approach justice issues today.

1.    Build Theological Knowledge

Unfortunately many injustices have been perpetuated by theologies that seek to build wealth and retain power.  One way to confront these forces is by reading the Old Testament prophets. The prophetic word exposes collective, societal sins, such as denying justice to orphans, widows and the poor. After announcing God’s judgment on nations and rulers,  Isaiah reveals God’s vision of a just future as nonviolence (2:4), equity for the poor (11:4) and a renewed creation (65:17-25).

The words of the prophets and the example of Jesus affirm that Christians are called to stand with vulnerable people. Fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah (61:1), Jesus announces his mission in Luke 4:18:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.

Accordingly, during his ministry, Jesus identified himself with the poor (Matt 8:2; 2 Cor 8:9), urged followers to sell their possessions (Matt 19:21) and imagined a future in which the guests of honor will be the poor and oppressed (Luke 14:12–14). The words and actions of Jesus have inspired liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez and James Cone to argue that God’s justice for the oppressed is at the heart of the gospel.

2.    Learn About Injustice Today

The complexity of human societies make it difficult to know how approach justice issues. Often we participate in systems that have upheld social inequality. This means it is important acknowledge the ways in which society has been constructed that have given us an advantage. Recognizing these power dynamics, Isaiah speaks often about God’s great reversal: the proud will be cast down and the lowly will be lifted up (5:15, 11:4, 14:30). This means that responding to God’s call for justice means listening to the marginalized people (Phil 2:4). We can do this by approaching conversations openly and embracing uncomfortable moments as a chance to learn and grow. 

It can be helpful to start by exploring the historical context behind one issue. Drawing inspiration from the language of Isaiah, concerning issues today include gun violence (2:4), land appropriation (5:8), government corruption (10:1-4) and the climate crisis (24:4-5). Joining a justice-seeking community such as a church ministry or an advocacy group is a a great way to learn about local efforts to combat injustice.

3.    Speak Out

Inspired by the example of the prophets and apostles, Christians are called to advocate for a just society today by speaking the truth to power and performing nonviolent direct action.  While it is easier to stay neutral, the gospel is inherently political and has implications for public policy. Isaiah openly confronts the sins of oppressive political leaders, saying “ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right” (Isaiah 10:1-2; see also Matt 23:23). While we do not need to walk around naked for three years (Isaiah 20:2-4) or cook food over human waste (Ezekiel 4:9-13), we can draw inspiration from the prophets, who spoke out boldly against injustice.

In the midst of the struggle for justice it is also important that we are called to pray for and love our enemies (Matt 5:43-48). Amidst God’s judgment, Isaiah reminds his readers that “[God’s] hand is stretched out still” (Isaiah 5:25, 9:12, 9:17, 9:21, 10:4, 14:26) and on the day of the Lord, even Assyria, Babylon and Israel will together be a “blessing in the midst of the earth” (Isaiah 19:24-25).  By serving in humility (Matt 23:11-12) we admit our mistakes and rely on God’s grace (Isaiah 30:18).

Furthermore, we acknowledge that human political systems are deeply flawed. While confronting unjust leaders, the early church boldly proclaimed that “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  No political party will be able to bring about a completely just society, no particular candidate can be our “savior” and no earthly nation will thrive forever (Dan 2:44-45; Isaiah 60:12). The good news is that Jesus is the true ruler of the world (Isaiah 9:7; Rom 1:1-4). As Christians we are called to participate in building God’s kingdom of justice and peace: “Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1).

Potential Resources and Readings

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern