Glory and Canopy: Hope for a New City

A Wine Before Breakfast Meditation on Isaiah 4.2-6

by Brian Walsh

It always comes back to creation and exodus.

Figure out Genesis and Exodus and you’ve got the most foundational outline of the biblical story.

And when the biblical imagination takes a redemptive turn,
when a prophet moves from judgment to hope,
and the biblical narrative transitions from the ruins to rebuilding,
there are two themes that will pretty much always be found:
……creation and liberation.

We’ve heard so much bad news from Isaiah,
so much condemnation on the Holy City of Jerusalem,
that I didn’t have the heart to read Isaiah 3 to the community this morning.

The poet’s depiction of the collapse of all societal and civilizational structures and supports,
his portrayal of a community devoid of any leadership,
his condemnation – yet again – of the oppression of the poor,
his denunciation of opulent luxury,
and his provocative picture of the smell of perfume being overpowered by the stench of death,
……the sashes that the fine ladies wore around their wastes become ropes for their necks,
……their beautiful hair gives way to baldness,
……their rich robes become sackcloth,
……and instead of beauty they are adorned with shame,
all of this just seemed like too much.

And then, when the passage ends with there being so many dead amongst the men that the women clamour around the remaining few men begging to be known by their name, begging to be taken into their families, so they won’t be left destitute and alone, well, it’s all so degrading and embarrassing.

And almost as if he knows that this can’t go on any longer,
as if he knows that his hearers can’t handle this any more,
the prophet leaves poetry behind and writes some hope-filled prose.
But it is no less rich and nuanced for being prose rather than poetry.

And it all comes back to Genesis and Exodus, creation and liberation.

In his vision of restoration, the prophet remembers the beauty and fruitfulness of the land that we first meet in the creation narratives.

Indeed, he uses the word “create” for what God is about to do,
God will create something new in the ruins of the devastated city.
And this act of new creation will deal with the filth, the death, the shame of the past.
The bloodstains – both evoking the ritual uncleanliness of menstrual blood and the literal reality of the blood of war that has stained the streets of the city – will all be cleaned.
And it is the Lord God himself, the Holy One of Israel, who will get down on his hands and knees and scrub those streets clean.
This is new creation, but new creation always comes at a cost,
……a cost to the Holy One,
……a cost paid, in the end, by God.

And then, the prophet weds together the language of creation with the language of exodus.

“Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night.”

That’s got to ring some bells.
A cloud by day and a fire by night.
These are, of course, strong exodus images.

If there is to be hope for the city,
if there is to be rebuilding in the ruins,
if there is to be an urban renewal that will go deep enough to deal with the urban rot and corruption,
then there must be a new exodus.

There is no new creation without a new exodus.
There is no city of God without liberation from the empire
that has held the city captive.
This vision of a new city, this theology of urban ministry,
this hope for beauty to arise out of the ashes,
is not a vision of arrival, but of departure.

The prophet here tells us that there is a new exodus on offer,
a new path of liberation,
a new journey that is tenuous, long and dangerous,
but that is led by nothing less than the cloud by day and the fire by night.

If the picture of judgment is one of the defied and insulted glory of God
abandoning his people and giving them over to judgment,
then the hope of this new exodus is that the glory returns,
God’s presence accompanies them on this journey,
sojourns with them, and takes up residence again in the restored city.

And over the glory, the prophet pictures a canopy.
A sacred canopy of protection, a place of refuge,
a shelter from the storm and the rain,
that replaces the fallen and fraudulently constructed canopy of Israel.

Shelter from the storm,
a sacred canopy of protection,
a place of refuge.

The picture that the prophet paints is very interesting.
You’ve got this glory, this sense of presence,
……this sense of cultural and religious weight to things,
and over the glory there is a canopy, a pavilion,
……a shelter from the storm.

Now it seems to me that this sense of glory and canopy is pretty common to the way in which humans shape culture and conceive of their civilizations and cities.

Cities bear their own glory, their own sense of identity,
their own gravity, their own weight of meaning,
value and esteem.
Their glory can be found in their accomplishments,
often celebrated in monuments and events,
but that glory can also be a matter of reputation and fame,
and it is most often manifest in the built environment of the city,
its towers and neighbourhoods, parks and public buildings.

And over all of this glory, human life lives under a sacred canopy that provides ultimate legitimation and protection for that glory.

Now think about it for a moment.
The canopy legitimates the glory,
the canopy protects and justifies the glory.

So if you think of something like fascist architecture,
together with the well-ordered civic structure of fascist societies,
then the sacred canopy over that fascist glory will be a mythology, a narrative,
that provides sacred legitimation for this fascist state
and also for the fascist leader.

Or think of the glory of Washington, D.C
While there a sense of a borrowed glory from ancient Rome in the classic architecture and urban planning of Washington, D.C., there is a glory nonetheless.
A glory manifest in the monuments, the museums, the Capital building and the White House. The glory of America is palpable when you go to Washington.
And, of course, that glory all exists under the sacred canopy of American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny and a particular telling of a narrative of exodus from bondage to freedom.

The glory of the city and the sacred canopy of the city will always be mutually supportive.

So here’s the question.
If the sacred canopy over the city of God is the biblical narrative of creation and exodus,
if this is a canopy erected by the covenant keeping God who will personally clean the blood from our streets,
indeed, if this is a canopy that in Jesus Christ is erected in the shadow of the cross where his own blood was shed,
then what would be the glory of such a city?
What would the presence of God look like in that city?
What would the social structures look like?
What would refuge look like, and who would be given such refuge?

If there is no going back to the city of judgment,
……with its oppression of the poor,
……it’s ostentatious opulence,
……it’s never ending consumption,
……it’s social, racial and ethnic discrimination,
……it’s built structure of human arrogance,
……and it’s fraudulently constructed canopy of human autonomy,
then what does this city of God look like?

I don’t know about you, friends,
but my life is pretty much all about looking for that place of refuge,
that shelter from the storm.

I’m right there, looking for this better city, this habitation of God,
this exodus journey home.
I’m right there, shivering in the cold, slipping under this canopy,
finding my way into the pavilion, getting warm in the glory.
That’s part of what Wine Before Breakfast is all about.
A time to come in from the cold,
a place of refuge,
a shelter from the storm.

And the canopy over it all is the story of this blood-cleaning God:
……Christ has died,
……Christ has risen,
……Christ will come again.

Under that canopy, and having tasted that glory,
I long for a city – this city! – to be a place of refuge for the refugee,
…….a place of shelter for those who are most vulnerable,
…….a place that finds its glory
in the quality of life that is shared by its inhabitants,
the depth of justice of its social and economic structures,
and the rich neighourliness of its common life.

So come under the canopy, friends,
let’s build the city of God.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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