The passage from Isaiah was likely written toward the end of the Babylonian exile and suggests a shift in Israel’s theology and self understanding. Their certainty about how God works in the world and for the life of God’s people had been cracked open, creating space for their imaginations to grow and allowing new revelations to take root and sprout. The experience of exile was understood as God’s judgment for forsaking both their relationship with God and the purpose for which God called them into being. Their worship had become nominal at best and idolatrous at worst. They had abandoned God’s ways by neglecting the oppressed and most vulnerable among them, all the while propagating assurances of safety and prosperity for the most elite and powerful. Babylonia’s destruction of Israel and their policy of resettlement meant that Israel as a viable political entity would cease to exist as they had known it. What would this mean for the people of God’s self-understanding? What implications would it have for their status as God’s chosen, a nation set apart to be blessed and to bless the nations? How would they reconcile the tradition of their ancestors and their vision of their existence in the world with the contradictory reality they were now living?
Isaiah bears witness to a new revelation: God is not limited to work in the ways of human comprehension and certainty. What God does in the world and in the lives of God’s people to assure the growth and completion of the divine plan can take shape and manifest in ways that defy our current understanding – like using a foreign king to liberate God’s people. Salvation is God’s to offer and effect and therefore can (and will) be experienced in ways that challenge our grasp of assurance and our natural tendency to domesticate God. Isaiah’s vision of God and God’s people underscore that the trajectory of God’s saving activity in the world is expansive even as it aims at restoration, renewal, and regeneration.
To be in relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob demands an openness to the ways that God engages the world and the humility to admit that our best individual and collective understandings of who God is and who we are in relation to God are nothing more than provisional. The fullness of who God is, of the ways that God acts to reconcile us to Godself and to each other, the depth of God’s love for us and for all that God has created – these things are beyond absolute comprehension. And so, like Israel, we are beckoned into deeper faith and encouraged to look at the world and our present circumstances with new eyes, with eyes capable of detecting the abundance and generosity of God, who works and acts in unexpected and unimaginable ways. Like Israel, we are called to recognize the cracks in our worldviews and theologies created by our present circumstances and see in them an opportunity to deepen our awareness of God’s presence, and to grow our capacity to imagine with wonder the new thing that God is doing in our midst.
The provisional nature of our understanding ought not lead us to indifference or apathy. God is so much more than we know, so much bigger than we can fathom. God’s love is more pure, more deep, and more impartial than we can possibly describe in the limits of human language. When we open ourselves to God in the unexpected we find the intimacy of a God who holds us, calls us by name, and ignites within us a new song, a song meant to be sung not just to the choir but to the whole world. Our act of worship is not confined to the prayers we say, the music we sing, or the postures we embody when we gather as a parish, but in the ways that our collective witness shines through in every aspect of our lives.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus calls us to imitate the life he led, to be concerned with the things he was concerned with, and follow in the way of love that Jesus walked. To be sure, this includes what theologians call the “cruciform life,” the suffering and persecution we experience when the ways we live into our faith put us at odds with the world around us. But it also includes following Christ into the resurrected life, a life that is characterized by the kind of joy ignited by the Holy Spirit and manifested in the concrete and tangible ways that we love and care for one another.
The beauty of God’s invitation into this cruciform and resurrection life is that our provisional understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to God is not a hindrance. There is no litmus test of understanding we must pass to be able to proclaim the greatness and awesomeness of our God. Nor do we need absolute comprehension to bear witness to the new life that God offers us in Jesus. Following the way of Christ is not about intellection, but about imagination. It’s about imagining a renewed and restored humanity effected by the incarnation and envisioning a world nurtured by divine love. It’s about imagining the transformation of the world through the recognition of God’s image within each and every human being. It’s about imagining the ways that justice leads to a peace that passes all understanding.
Seeing the life God offers us through the lens of imagination rather than intellection is the only way to keep from domesticating God and falling into the traps of nominalism and idolatry. Imagination allows us to see the world differently, to envision a peace and prosperity generated by mutuality and love rather than intimidation and violence. It gives us new eyes through which to see the plight of the poor and the oppressed, disarming what we perceive as threats and compelling us to honor the humanity of those our society has forgotten. It moves the center of our worldview from selfpreservation to the restoration and flourishing of all that God has created.
Each of us individually and all of us as a parish have had experiences of trauma and crises that challenged our preconceived notions, pushed up against our prevailing worldview, creating a dissonance in what we believe and understand about ourselves and the God we follow with the reality we’re living. This year alone has presented us with crises that have disrupted our certainties: what happens when a lethal virus forces our buildings to close and our society to shutter? What implications does that have for our self-understanding as the people of God? How can we be a Eucharistic Community when we cannot gather around the altar and share in the heavenly banquet? What does the cruciform and resurrection life look like when the physicality of relationship is limited?
When we wrestle with these through the lens of intellection rather than imagination, our capacity to live into the cruciform and resurrection life is hindered. Intellection puts up walls around possibility as we tighten our grasp on what we believe is certain, which inevitably leads to our inability to see God at work within and among us. It traps us in patterns of behavior and existence that tamp out hope, limiting the reach of salvation to those who look, act, live, work, exist as we do. Intellection boxes us in, widening the gap of difference that we perceive between us and others, and prompting us to protect that boundary so that some semblance of our tightly held identity remains intact.
When we wrestle with these question through the lens of imagination, we follow the Holy Spirit into the divine mission of restoration, renewal, and regeneration. We are given vision to see each encounter soaked in possibility to plant the seeds of joy and hope, reconciliation and wholeness. We begin to recognize the humanity and dignity of all who cross our paths. In the hands of the Holy Spirit, our imaginations become the center of catalytic action, a place of empowerment and energy that fuels our ability to destroy the boundaries that separate us from all who are unlike us and to reach out in mutuality, care, and love.
Our passages today call on us to approach the challenges we face with openness and imagination. May God fill us each with an abundance of grace so that we might look upon our lives and the world with fresh imagination and wonder.