Rosemarie Freeney Harding was a civil rights worker in the 1960s. Reading the memoir of her life, you get a sense of the real atrocities she experienced. But that’s not the focus of the memoir. The focus is a deep spirituality of natural compassion. There were RESOURCES that helped them stay their course: communal prayer and support, continual affirmation of their particular goodness, and a sense of beauty in their lives and actions.
REALLY Good News.
Good News is an amazing gift! It changes our orientation from negativity and even despair to optimism and hope. Good News transforms more than our countenances – and REALLY Good News can turn our lives around. Good News has transformative power even when the anticipated event isn’t here yet! Just hearing the ANNOUNCEMENT of Good News can change our outlook, change our behavior.
God’s people in Jerusalem in the time of Second Isaiah were in a time of lament. Since Babylon had defeated them in 587 BCE, many of their leaders have been living in exile in Babylon, and the remainder or remnant have been eking out survival in their ruined land.
But they were trying to see beyond their moment. They had been trying to get past the human norm of myopic vision, trying to look beyond their immediate circumstances to a very different future.
Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit priest in a Soviet prison during World War II who underwent unbearable hardships, wrote in his book He Leadeth Me that the question of why terrible things are happening is not one of doubt, but rather of our human incapability to see beyond the agony we are in. In the midst of our own suffering we sometimes forget that God’s love for us is so great that Jesus came to live with us and experience our lives, with its suffering. And we instinctively push back against any idea that our suffering is less real, less intense than those of others.
The GOOD NEWS of deliverance in this passage startles folks out of their myopic vision. Even without a time frame, it’s still wonderful news: the end to their mourning is near -- deliverance is coming! The messenger appears, running over the mountains and saying that God is coming to deliver the people. And look what happens: everyone reacts with joy!
The messenger shouts the good news to the watchmen.
The watchmen join in the cry of the messenger, singing across their guard posts.
Their singing wakes us the inhabitants of the desolate wasteland with good news.
Even those in exile will hear the news and begin their return journey home.
It’s not just a chain effect like dominoes – it’s more like an avalanche, picking up mass and force as it tumbles down the mountain! And it all starts with the messenger who bring good news. To the suffering people, this messenger is beautiful right down to his feet! In the same way that a cup that delivers water to a thirsty person is beautiful – regardless of chips, color, or shape – this messenger is beautiful for he delivers what is desperately needed. The American GIs in their tanks coming to liberate prisoners in German death camps were beautiful – regardless of their olive-drab uniforms and lack of showers and shaves. To suffering people desperate for the word that the suffering would end, this messenger of much longed-for good news is beautiful, even his torn and bloody feet.
But there’s more! This is more than just good news that the suffering would end. This is the news that GOD is coming in triumph! And it isn’t only Jerusalem that is redeemed, it is all nations! “Your God Reigns!” the messenger announces! This is REALLY Good News – even WONDERFUL news! God will restore God’s people! This means peace, reconciliation, and salvation. Transformed Living!
(POLITICAL statement.) We will not understand the power of this passage if we don’t understand that “Our God Reigns” is a political statement. It is even the forerunner of the cry of the early church, “Jesus is Lord!” That was a political statement too – and for the first three hundred years of the church, you could be put to death for saying that. The Romans knew that claiming God or Jesus as Lord in a time when those claims were reserved for the military/political leaders, like Caesar meant insurrection, even a threat to the authority of the government.
Here’s why: IF God reigns, then other national leaders are left out. If Jesus is Lord, then no one else is. Caesar isn’t. Kings, Potentates and presidents aren’t. AND -- If our allegiance is to Jesus who IS Lord, then we will not worship any other self-proclaimed lordlings strutting around. “Our God Reigns” means that Babylon doesn’t reign. Persia doesn’t reign. Egypt doesn’t reign. Neither do Russia, China or the United States. These two statements realign earthly power and authority -- putting them in the hands of God and Jesus.
For people who have been suffering under the hands of oppressive government, the news that God Reigns, that Jesus is Lord, comes as REALLY, REALLY, REALLY good news. God coming to deliver us – that’s WONDERFUL news!
Hope is an amazing motivator. It helps us keep our hearts open in really hard times. Hope allows us to be open to glimpse beauty and goodness that, while there, might not be obvious. Hope keeps us going when it would be easy to give up.
Many of us have family stories of ancestors who left home and loved ones for a chance at a better future for their children. They left Ireland and India, Brazil and Wales, Italy and Eastern Europe to come to this country. Some migrated north as a part of the Great Migration after the Civil War, and some came from the Pacific Islands. Others came as refugees seeking a place of safety from countries torn by violence. But whatever their point of origin, they came with hope in their hearts. They were willing to leave what they knew behind, and suffer hardships on the journey, unsure what they Where can we find hope? This too is a very hard, dark time. We have a nation divided, polarized to an unprecedented degree – so even health issues like wearing a mask become political issues. We not only have a health pandemic with COVID that is wreaking havoc not only on our health but also on our social interaction – but we have a pandemic of racism as well. The economy is at the lowest point it has been in our lifetimes. And truth has also come under assault with what appears to be a conspiracy of deception. We don’t know what to believe. Where can we find hope in the midst of all of that?
1819 was a hard time in Britain. Hunger and poverty, selfish government leaders using power to benefit themselves, apathy in religion, and manipulation of the law to benefit the rich were the state of affairs. In the midst of this the poet John Keats stood in the British Museum, looking at an urn from Ancient Greece. He wrote a poem, ending with these lines:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe than ours,
a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
There is deep truth in beauty. When we are nourished by beauty, whether the beauty of the natural world or the beauty found in art, it opens us up to contemplate the still greater beauty of the Divine. And it provides us with the resources of resilience and hope. We can accept the realities of suffering and injustice in the world because we know that isn’t the whole story. And we can respond to that suffering and injustice out of compassion and hope because we are fed by beauty – like a tree with deep roots that can withstand dry climate patterns because it is deeply nourished by hidden springs of living water.
Hope is an amazing source of strength. With beauty to feed us, we might even keep hope alive and well in this crisis.
Kenosis and Compassion
What began as a survival skill, noticing what was different and focusing on anything perceived as threatening, is now problematic as it alienates us – and worse. We have discounted beauty as an aesthetic thing – a kind of escape rather than the life-giving resource that it is. In order to come to a new understanding of truth about beauty, we need to empty ourselves of the old notions that aren’t serving us well.
The Ancient Greek word “kenosis” means self-emptying. Emptying ourselves creates space that can be filled with God. We become vessels of God’s goodness and beauty. St Paul encouraged the community at Philippi to empty themselves so they could be filled with the mind of Christ. Kenosis comes out of a desire for well-being and an awareness that we have to get ourselves out of the way! As we move away from our biases and self-centered ways of thinking, we expand our capacity for compassion. St Paul says, “Be compassionate – put on the mind of Christ. Build community. Love one another. This is the fullness and beauty of our lives. And we need to empty ourselves to make room for this!” We have to get ourselves out of the way, empty ourselves of self in order to make room for the intense longing for the well-being of all things that comes when we let God inhabit our inner spaces.
“If thou could'st empty all thyself of self,
like to a shell dishabited,
then might He find thee on the ocean shelf, and say "This is not dead,"
and fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou
and hast such shrewd activity,
that when He comes He says,
"This is enow unto itself-'twere better let it be,
it is so small and full,
there is no room for Me.”
Compassion and Justice.
Filled by God, we honor the beauty of others. We find that we cannot celebrate the beauty of others without mourning any assaults on them. An appreciation of their beauty prompts our compassion. We then cry out for justice on their behalf. We see actual beings who suffer – and, like the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ story, we stop on the side of the road when we see suffering. We’re drawn in – we can’t help ourselves! “Death comes to all things, but murder, cruelty, wanton destruction or greedy exploitation are painful interruptions of the dignity and grandeur of life,” says Wendy Farley, and we must speak out against them. In solidarity, we speak on their behalf. Our voices and actions then become the ACTIONS of hope -- actions that bring a new way of living into being. “Tenacious Solidarity” stays with, speaks for, and becomes shields to protect. We become part of the hope for change in the world to be more just for all God’s children.
This isn’t a one-size-fits all plan. Each of us must find our particular vocation of caring for the world and for others. We must find our own way to break down the categories that we put people in so that we can see them as beloved and beautiful children of God. The categories in our head are not of God. We need to SEE people. The police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck didn’t see HIM, he saw a category. The staff in the youth facility didn’t see Cornelius Fredericks when they restrained him and caused his death, they saw a category. People are killed because other people don’t SEE them as people. Awakening to beauty is awakening to the particularity of others in their sacredness. SEEING people leads to compassion and advocacy. When we SEE PEOPLE, we want to alleviate their suffering, NOT cause it.
Self-emptying and living in compassion is exhausting work. But we can do it. We must. Beauty, the goodness and sweetness of God, gives us RESOURCES. And yes, draws us into the tragedy of the world. We can’t sit in our gardens 24/7 and admire the roses. We can’t just be activists – we’ll run out of juice. We stop at the beautiful to be nourished – and then we move into the world. We need to let beauty restore us and fill us so we can continue the work to which God has called us.
The Good News is that God still comes, offering us a new vision and saving us from ourselves. Hope still nurtures us into a new way of living, especially when it is grounded in beauty. And emptying ourselves so we can be filled up with God’s goodness and compassion makes life worth living – even when it is hard. This is the good news of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.
1 Rosemarie Freeney Harding and Rachel Harding, Remnants: Memoirs of Spirit, Activism and Mothering.
2 Walter Ciszek, He Leadeth Me. Plough Weekly.
3 Richard Niell Donovan, Sermon Writer, “Biblical Commentary, Isaiah 52: 7-10.” https://sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary/isaiah-527-10-commentary/
5 Rough translation.
6 T.E. Browne. ttps://www.poemhunter.com/poem/if-thou-could-st-empty-all-thyself-of-self/ There is debate about which Thomas Browne is the author of the poem.
7 Wendy Farley.
8 Wendy Farley, Beguiled by Beauty.
9 Walter Brueggemann’s term, used for God’s actions towards human beings. I think it also works as a posture for us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.