August 21, 2016
First Reading: Isaiah 66:18-21
It’s nice to know the end of the story. While we claim to like surprises, what we like even more is knowing the ending when other people don’t. That lets us hang on to our secret knowledge and even lord it over other people who don’t know what we know. We would all like to know “where we’re headed” or who will win the next election or whether our plans will turn out or not. Yet normally we don’t really know what will happen. We have our guesses, which sometimes hit the nail on the head, but usually they don’t. The uncertainty of the future is tantalizing and frustrating at the same time. It lures us in, but cannot satisfy us, since it offers only questions without answers.
All Nations and Tongues
In this Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah briefly lifts the veil on the future at the climactic end of his long poetic book. He points beyond his own time to a future age, an age that God will bring about on his own initiative. Through Isaiah, God promises “to gather all nations and tongues” (Isa 66:18).While we might think of God abstractly as the great unifier, for the ancient Jews, this prophecy goes beyond their normal hopes. Much of their focus was on being safe and alone in the land with God since the nations around them constantly threatened their peace and autonomy. Yet here, Isaiah points to the dawning of a new age, one in which the people of God expands from one group to all. That is, God finally brings the fulfillment of his promise to Abraham that he would be the catalyst through whom “all the families of the earth” will be blessed (Gen 12:3).
Isaiah envisions God fulfilling this promise by bringing in Gentiles from around the world, from many other nations, to come and worship at Jerusalem. These people will “see my glory” (Isa 66:18) then they will go out to the nations and proclaim it. Historically, this vision is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost when representatives of many nations hear the apostles miraculously preaching in their own languages (Acts 2:7-11). They witness the power of the Holy Spirit, become Christians, and then are empowered to proclaim the Gospel.
I Will Set a Sign
Isaiah goes on to prophesy that God will “set a sign among them” (Isa 66:19). The Hebrew word for “sign” (’ot) can mean a covenant pledge like Noah’s rainbow or even a military ensign or standard. Jesus himself refers to the power of such a sign: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32 RSV). For the New Covenant, the “sign” is the cross. It is the cross that is “set among” the believers as a pledge of God’s covenant fidelity. It is the cross which functions as the standard flag of the Church. The cross of Christ, the instrument of our salvation, embodies and symbolizes God’s love for us and the Gospel which we preach.
Fugitives to the Nations
After telling us about the group who will see God’s glory, Isaiah explains that they won’t just passively listen and then go home. Rather, they will become not just the recipients, but the proclaimers of the message. They will go back to all of their wild countries—he lists off several inscrutable proper names indicating various nations around the Mediterranean (Javan is Greece, for example)—and they will preach. Now that have “seen my glory” (v. 18), they will “declare my glory” (v. 19). The “fugitives” have survived times of upheaval and calamity. They are essentially refugees who have somehow been preserved. They will take the new message of God home and tell it to the Gentiles. This story is essentially the plot of the Book of Acts. The Jews gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost hear the apostles preach, they get baptized and then they return to their own lands with the Gospel message. Peter and Paul bring the message to the Gentiles and Paul himself becomes the chief ambassador for Christ to the Greco-Roman world, establishing churches, appointing leaders and proclaiming the Gospel.
The Gentiles as an Offering
Isaiah predicts that the fugitive-preachers will actually bring the Gentiles who hear of the glory of God back to Jerusalem as an “offering.” He visualizes them coming “upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries” (Isa 66:20 RSV). These new Gentile believers are depicted partially as sacrificial victims (“…just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering” [Isa 66:20 RSV]) and partially as new entrants to the covenant. God even promises that some of these newcomers will become “priests and Levites,” roles legally restricted to certain bloodlines in Israel. Sticking with the New Covenant interpretation, we can see how Christians fulfill these words as those who come to the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22) to offer their “bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1), from whom the Lord chooses some as bishops and deacons (see 1 Tim 3).
While we still can’t predict many of the events that we’d like to, the prophet Isaiah helps us peer into the future, the long-view future, to see God’s hand at work. While parts of his prophecy have already been fulfilled—the Gospel has indeed spread all over the world to all peoples and languages—the triumphant conclusion of the New Covenant era lies in the future. In fact, we still live in the time of proclamation, where each of us who have encountered Christ and come to believe in him are fugitive-proclaimers, bringing the Gospel to all the nations. While we don’t know every chapter, we look forward to the final one when we too will ride in triumph to the heavenly Jerusalem to be united with the Lord forever.