Words of life-giving and hope create a new reality even when events around us point to the contrary
Occasion: Pentecost + 6
Text: Isaiah 55:10-13
Topic: The Power of Words
The picture on the pew leaflet is of a someone’s right hand holding on to another person’s left hand. It captivates us, because it is not an ordinary photograph or painting. Instead of lines we have words forming the outline and shape of the image. The way they clasp is also interesting. It is not the violent grip of one person trying to control another. The fingers are also not intimately intertwined like those of lovers. Rather the image suggests support and care. It is possible to make out many of the words used.
The left hand has phrases like
- ‘Why am I feeling this way?’;
- ‘I don’t understand why I am not like everyone else.’;
- ‘I can’t deal with this by myself’;
- ‘Someone help me!’;
- ‘It is not fair’;
- ‘I don’t want to be alone’; and
- ‘I just want to be okay’.
It is obviously the hand of a person in some sort of distress.
The right hand has expressions like
- ‘I understand’;
- ‘I won’t leave you’;
- ‘I will protect you’;
- ‘You will be fine’;
- ‘Don’t worry’;
- ‘I believe in you’;
- ‘You are not alone’;
- ‘I am here for you’;
- ‘You will be alright’;
- ‘I am here to help you’;
- ‘Everything will be ok’; and
- ‘We will get through this’.
The real situations which gave rise to these despairing cries of the left hand are not specified. We are dealing with art which invites us to create our own meaning. The left hand words suggest numerous contexts. It may be just feeling down because today things are just not working out. For the sixth month in a row my utilities bill hasn’t been sorted out, even though I have made countless phone-calls, sent numerous emails, and stood in endless queues. Perhaps it is the discomfort of realising you are a misfit in the social circle you are moving in. When they discuss other people, you want to talk about the meaning of life. When the topic is the new fashion, a new motor car, or stacks of money made from contracts, you’d rather take a walk in the park and spend some quiet moments looking at a sunset.
It may be that you experienced some grave injustice. The one who slept her way to the top got the position, while you actually are much better qualified and has more experience. Then, of course, there is the perennial break-ups of relationships. A family member spread a nasty rumour, or a friend stabbed you in the back, or a loved one whom you regarded as next to God brought you the largest disappointment. Or it may just be the pressure of making a decision all by yourself, about a new job, or how to improve yourself, or ending a destructive relationship and you feel it is just too much to handle.
In these contexts we need a helping hand. Of course, the right hand’s consolations on our pew leaflet are clichéd. We have all uttered them. Don’t underestimate their power. They can bring some serenity and composure and clarity of mind.
The words of the first ten verses of Isaiah 55 could merge together to form this helping hand. For the left hand we have to read the rest of the book. We can express it with phrases like,
- ‘I don’t want to be alone’;
- ‘My life is aimless’;
- ‘I have lost all hope’;
- ‘I want to go home’;
- ‘I need help’;
- ‘I can’t go on like this’;
- ‘where is God?’; and
- ‘It is unfair.’
The concrete situation which gave rise to this despair is well-known. The prophet is talking to people who had to put their lives together after a terrible catastrophe. At the beginning of the 6th century BCE, king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon flattened the temple which King Solomon had built in Jerusalem and levelled the city. The Babylonians devised a policy to suppress rebellion. We can call it ‘decapitation’. It is based upon the maxim, ‘Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered’ (quoted in Ezech 13:7 and Mt 26:31). It is the favourite policy of dictators and tyrants. You target the leaders, be they kings or generals or priests or intelligentsia, and isolate them from the ordinary people. This is done by execution or imprisonment or exile. Today we call it abuses of human rights. China’s most prominent political prisoner, Liu Xiabo, who campaigned ceaselessly for democracy, died on Tuesday from cancer aged 61. This is a good example of how the decapitation strategy was used to suppress insurgence.
During the Babylonian Exile, a complete generation of Jews grew up without artisans to teach them to build or to make swords, without clerics to tell them the stories of God, and without kings who were believed to be the shepherds of the nation. For those remaining behind and for those who had been taken away, it was a devastating period of grief and unanswered questions, of doubt and despair.
Isaiah 55 addresses the exiles. Perhaps if we fused the words together it would form a helping hand with phrases like,
- ‘God has a plan’;
- ‘Things will work out’;
- ‘You will be happy again’;
- ‘Things will be like they were’;
- ‘You are accepted’;
- ‘You are forgiven’; and
- ‘You will go home.’
The chapter culminates in the few verses we read together using a striking simile. Rain and snow fall down from heaven. These are for a purpose, to water the earth, to make plants grow, to give seed to the sower and bread to the eater. Only then does the water return to skies again in the endless cycles of nature. Rain and snow may cause hardship and cold and damp, but in the end there are new life and growth. Similarly the word of God, even the empty phrases of ‘All will be well’; ‘Be patient’; ‘I am with you’, and ‘These are the birth pangs of a new future’, stimulate healing and growth and new beginnings.
As it goes with empires, the Babylonian one was replaced by the Persian one. The new empire was more humane. Cyrus the Great allowed the exiles to return, the bookmen, the artisans, the nobility, the clergy. Some did. Others stayed behind because they were making a good life. For those who undertook the long walk home, it was as if the words of Isaiah came into fulfilment: ‘You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.’ For them, in a sense, the seeds of Isaiah’s words bore fruit.
Isaiah’s right hand language, perhaps, is a little bit rosy-coloured, poetic, idealistic and clichéd. The returned exiles found their homes destroyed. Families were torn apart. Leaders had been executed. The head had been decapitated. They built another temple. It was so ordinary compared with Solomon’s that many wept in disappointment when it was dedicated. They tried to remake things as they remembered them, but they never could restore the past, only build a new future.
Yet they understood what the dream of God was, the word of God, the seeds that were waiting to be planted and watered and bear fruit: justice for those who had been exiled, justice for those who own land, and those who don’t have a place to stay; justice for those who run their own businesses; and justice for consumers and those who want to start a business; justice for majorities and justice for minorities; justice for the missing children of the Cape Flats, and justice for their parents, reconciliation between those who are at war, and cooperation for those who are at peace; a world where the mountains and hills burst into song, and the trees clap their hands when human beings draw near; not where the mountains and hills blacken with fires, and trees are chopped down never to be replaced.
We are therefore called to speak words which give life and hope and make a difference. Words are powerful and even the clichéd expressions of consolation have the capacity to make great things happen. I think about words like liberty, like freedom of speech, like equality, like the rule of law, like love and acceptance, like tolerance.
Words can also destroy. Don’t you have words which still echo in the deepest recesses of your mind: ‘You will never make it’; ‘You are a loser’; ‘You are an embarrassment to the family’; or ‘I wish you were more like your sister!’
Think how much wealth and lives have been destroyed in our country due to phrases like ‘kill the farmer, kill the Boer’, the K’ word, ‘fags’, ‘bitches’—the list is endless. Think how a marketing company like Bell Pottinger was willing to stoke the fires of racial hatred in South Africa by coining the term, White Monopoly Capital, during the Gupta’s campaign to retain control of the state.
In the Gospel of John Jesus is called Logos, Word. It is this powerful word that transforms, that forgives, that encourages, that protects, that appreciates, that validates, that redeems, that liberates, that makes peace, and that changes everything. It is the word with which we embrace the hand of the world we live in. Perhaps things will never be the same, but our hand, our words can help give birth to new futures. ‘It is unfair’. Yes. ‘Let’s tackle it together.’