First Reading for this Sunday, August 25: Isaiah 66:18-21.
This reading comes from the very last chapter of Isaiah, a prophet sometimes referred to as the “Shakespeare of the Prophets.” The book can be divided into two major sections: the Book of Judgment (chaps. 1-39) and the Book of Consolation (chaps. 40-66). The first section announces the Lord’s judgment of the oppressive nations and of unfaithful Israel; the second section reveals how the Lord will redeem his people from exile and oppression. Our reading is at the tail end of the Book of Consolation and it brings the prophet’s picture of redemption to a climactic close. The foreignness of the imagery makes this chapter a little challenging to understand at first blush, so I will try to break down some of the details here.
What Kind of Celebration?
When we try to describe what heaven will be like, we are often at a loss for words. We can suggest happiness, rest, unity with God, brightness, clouds, but we can’t quite put our finger on what it will look like. One biblical image that we can grip more easily is heaven as the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation. We have been to wedding feasts before so we have at least an inkling of what that looks like: eating, drinking, music, dancing, and lots of smiles. Here the prophecy of Isaiah points to the climax of salvation history, the end, the final bringing about of God’s plan. He paints the picture in terms of celebrations the Jews know well, the pilgrimage feasts.
The ancient Jews celebrated several holidays by going on pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple. These feasts, Passover (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuot), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) were connected with events in Israel’s history and with agricultural occasions such as harvest. During these feasts, Jewish men would come to Jerusalem from around the Holy Land, bringing sacrifices and grain offerings from their farms. They would eat ceremonial meals in the holy city and worship the Lord with special rituals. These feasts would be a wonderful time of unity, celebration and encounter with God. Isaiah uses these pilgrim feasts to portray the end, when God will finally gather in the redeemed. Here we can see a special connection to the ancient Feast of Booths (Lev 23:33-43), which is also called the Feast of In-Gathering since it is a harvest-time feast, a time when farmers “in-gather” produce (Exod 23:16). However, the final “in-gathering” that the prophet speaks of is a bringing in of people rather than grain
Whom Does God Gather?
The beginning of the prophecy says, “I come to gather nations.” While it could be argued that the prophecy is talking only about gathering the Israelites who had been scattered among the nations, I believe it actually points to the nations themselves, the Gentiles. (The word here is goyim, usually translated as “Gentiles” or “nations,” not a word for Jews.) This gathering of the nations is the aim of God’s plan of redemption, to bring all peoples to worship him together, to bless “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3). Here the Gentiles are brought to Jerusalem to join in the worship of God as at a pilgrim feast.
Sending and Gathering
In the prophecy, the Lord declares not only that he will gather the nations, but that he will send “fugitives” out to them to announce his “glory among the nations.” These “escapees” or “survivors” are those who have escaped oppression by the nations and God’s judgment. We can see in them the earliest Christian missionaries like St. Paul, who went around the world proclaiming the Gospel message. The role of these missionaries is bring in a “harvest” of Gentiles and gather them to the Lord at Jerusalem. While the idea of bringing an offering to Jerusalem (Isa 66:20-21) is mostly figurative for our purposes, St. Paul took it quite seriously. When he went around the Roman world proclaiming the Gospel to the Gentiles, he also took up a collection from the Gentiles to bring to the Christians at Jerusalem (Rom 15:25-27; 2 Cor 8–9).
Connection to the Gospel Reading
In the Gospel reading (Luke 13:22-30), Jesus mentions that “people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” Here again, we see the in-gathering of the Gentiles pictured. God plans to send missionaries and evangelists out to the Gentiles and then to bring them in to dine at his table, in intimate fellowship with him. Both Isaiah and Jesus portray the end, the consummation of God’s plan of salvation, in terms of a gathering-in of Gentiles to celebrate and worship God together. Both show salvation side-by-side with judgment. Before and after the selection from Isaiah the judgment of the wicked by fire is described (Isa 66:15-16, 24) and in Luke, Jesus mentions “wailing and grinding of teeth” (Luke 13:28) for the condemned. These two readings hold in tension two contrasting ends, the choice that is always before us: judgment or salvation. We can either be cast out or gathered in. If we hear the preaching of God’s “glory” and follow Jesus, we can look forward to the day we are gathered in to celebrate with the redeemed and enjoy the presence of God forever.