A Love Letter Returned

A Valentine’s Day Meditation on Isaiah 65:17-25 preached on 14 February, 2012 at Wine Before Breakfast.

by Jake Aikenhead

So, today is Valentine’s day….

Rest assured I have no intentions of commenting on this commercial holiday, either for good or for ill, except to say that a blog I often read paid tribute to Valentine’s day this week, and that I found the content of this tribute to be of interest. They posted a series of anonymous and love-related confessions. Some were hopeful, some were clearly the product of a broken heart, but one of them particularly fixed my attention, and I will repeat it here verbatim:

I once returned a love letter to the girl who wrote it.
I returned it with all of the spelling mistakes corrected in red ink!
I was a jerk!

Perhaps we can relate to one side or the other of this love-letter exchange. We poured our heart out to someone and were met with cynicism, indifference and hurt. Or, having received this kind of a gift, we coldly and promptly pulled out our red pens and wielded them like knives, cutting it to pieces.

If you find that you identify with this confession, then you are in good company. You see, this was so often the posture of our spiritual ancestors. Responding to genuine acts of love with scorn – it’s in our history, if not our blood.

This history is utterly apparent in the book of Isaiah, which begins with a cosmic declaration of the fact that God has been spurned by his people:

Hear, O Heavens, and listen, O earth;
I reared children and brought them up,
But they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
And the donkey its master’s crib;
But Israel does not know,
Israel does not understand. (Is. 1:2-3)

And then, of course, there is the parable of the vineyard: “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done for it?” I planted it on a fertile hill, and I removed its stones. I planted the choicest vines… “Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?” (Is. 5:4) God extends himself, Israel turns away in disregard.

It’s actually quite painful to read.

And these two vignettes account for only a fraction of the emotion that we encounter in Isaiah. The book in its entirety documents a kind of dramatic interplay between God and Israel, the movement of which has a responsive and almost physical quality; a sort of “you move here, I move there,” action and reaction structure. You could stage it as an argument between lovers that runs late into night. There is anger, repentance, and forgiveness. There are moments of close proximity and instances where the two parties couldn’t be further apart. At times, one can’t bear to look the other in the eye.

It is within the context of this relationship that Israel, newly returned from exile in Babylon, calls out to God. It is a call of distress. In the words of Walter Brueggemann, they have returned home to find that in their absence, Jerusalem was not simply “empty space.” So now there are all kinds of issues regarding land ownership, and there are issues regarding religious practice… in short, Israel doesn’t have a unified identity and Jerusalem is the centre of all dispute. It’s a mess.

So, to the God that they have so often abandoned, Israel lets out a cry for mercy, and they repent:

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.” (Is. 64:6)

We’ve been jerks.

Of course, for anyone following the plot, this cry of repentance seems, well, half-hearted. Unsubstantial.

And given the history, we would expect that this so-called repentance would be met with indifference, and justifiably so. At least, that is how I would write it if I were the author of this drama. As the prophet tells us earlier, this is the nation that has made room in its bed for idols (Is. 57:8), which is the epitome of unfaithfulness.

They are not deserving of mercy.
Not after their idolatry, not after the whole vineyard fiasco.
Not in their current state of dispute and disunity.

But this is precisely the moment when God breathes into this broken people a new vision.

There is another love letter.
Another vision of what life could be like together.

Into the ruins of post-exile Jerusalem, God delivers a vision of a new city.
Indeed, he promises a new city.
And not just a new city, but complete cosmic renewal.

“Behold, I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth.” (Is. 65:17)

And then the prophet goes on to tell about the shape of this New Jerusalem:
The sound of weeping and crying will be heard in her no more.
And Israel will not labour in vain.
And they will not bear children who are doomed to misfortune.
And in this city their lives will have longevity.
They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and enjoy their fruit.

Wow. They probably were not expecting this kind of a response. Complete, cosmic renewal.

I wonder if they would have been able to believe it.

And I must admit that I wonder, too, in my ingratitude and short-sightedness, if this vision is really what they were looking for.

What good is a promise of future peace and well-being, when there is an immediacy to the despair that makes it difficult to imagine that promise as a real possibility?

Well, I would like to suggest that this type of response to the vision of the New Jerusalem profoundly misses the point. And that is because this vision is not just about the redemption of the city. There is something else going on beneath the words of this promise.

When God responds to Israel’s plea with this vision, what we observe is an extension of abundant grace.

The kind of grace that will unquestionably fill every crack in Israel’s heart;
grace which promises redemption and promises renewal.

And the vision constitutes an extension of abundant grace because it comes from the God who unfolded the love-letter that Israel mockingly returned, sat down, wrote it out again, and sent it back.

Is this what they wanted?
It is everything and more.
It is what they deeply longed for, though their infidelity made it impossible to say so.

It is not until we imagine ourselves in God’s shoes that we understand the depth of this action. How could he possibly extend such grace to a rebellious people? Has he forgotten those callously returned letters already?

No. But he’s willing to.

Indeed, this is exactly what we hear at the beginning of the vision:

“Behold, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered nor come to mind.” (Is. 65:17)

The vision begins with a proclamation that the very structure of the relationship between Israel and God is going to be made new.

“Remember that time you returned my love letter?” God asks, and they stare at the ground because there’s nothing to say.

And then God’s voice again: “neither do I.”

But the beautiful and crushing thing about this extension of grace is the recognition that the God of Israel does not have amnesia. The former things have not been forgotten in the sense that they can’t be remembered, they have been forgotten because God has resolved to bear the pain and say nothing more.

And that is precisely why I can put my faith in this vision, because of the immeasurable lengths that God has already gone to in order to ensure that it comes to fruition.

Talk is cheap. But God’s words here are nothing short of extravagant.
They are, at their very core, words of self-giving love.

I can believe in this vision of the New Jerusalem because it is not a word that God speaks flippantly.

It is a vision that he enacts in real space and in real time, and the very act of giving this vision to Israel comes with a cost.
That is how the re-creating happens.

This vision of a new heavens, a new earth and a new Jerusalem is not simply a vision, it is a commitment.

By this point in our lives, many of us have probably learned, or at least begun to learn, that relationships are not a one-way street. And so, this discussion about God’s relentless commitment to Israel (and so to us) begs the question: what is our part in all of this? What does God ask of us in order to make this thing work?

In truth, I think that we know the answer to this question. But lest we slip, let us hear it again:

“To do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with the Lord our God.” (Micah 6:6-8)

“To let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength, and with all our mind; and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

Justice. Mercy. Righteousness. Love.

This is our end of the bargain.
This is what our merciful creator has called us to be about.
And this is most certainly our role in the New Jerusalem.
For it is a vision that God has promised, but it is also a vision in which we play a central part.

And that is a very, very good thing. Because though I am sometimes inclined to cry out “when?” and, “how long?!” I have also experienced the truth that we are invited to partake in and work toward this vision in the here and now.

When we become people of justice and mercy, we glimpse it.
When we devote ourselves to righteousness and love, we can start to see the shape of the New Jerusalem that God, in his unfathomable grace, has promised.

Today we celebrate just this sort of thing. We celebrate the anniversary of a place of refuge in our city, The Gateway: a shelter for homeless men, a drop-in for marginalised folks.

But it’s not the building that we celebrate, we rejoice in all of the justice and mercy and righteousness and love that has bounced around within that building’s walls and which has reverberated out into the streets.

And in this vein, we give thanks for all of the good people who work very concretely toward a vision of a new city, and for the love that has been shown and the justice that has been done through them in God’s name.

If you ever have the pleasure of working at the Gateway you’ll be privileged to don a blue collared T-shirt or a hooded sweatshirt on which is written, “The hand of God in the Heart of the city.”

And there will be days when you are utterly unworthy of that phrase.

But when you think about it, that pretty much says it. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

To be God’s hands and feet in the places that cry out for healing.

So, with the graceful gift of a promise for renewal, let us go forth today in love and in hope. And let’s take that tagline with us too.

Wherever we go, may we live up to the calling of being God’s hands and feet, and may we be people whose lives are a loving response to the grace-filled vision of the New Jerusalem.

God has been sending us love letters.

Now he sends us as his love letter to the world.

Jake Aikenhead

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