Pentecost 20 A: The Death of Death.

Isaiah 25  O Lord, you are my God;

I will exalt you, I will praise your name;

for you have done wonderful things,

plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

2     For you have made the city a heap,

the fortified city a ruin;

the palace of aliens is a city no more,

it will never be rebuilt.

3     Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;

cities of ruthless nations will fear you.

4     For you have been a refuge to the poor,

a refuge to the needy in their distress,

a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,

5        the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,

you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;

the song of the ruthless was stilled.

6     On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,

of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

7     And he will destroy on this mountain

the shroud that is cast over all peoples,

the sheet that is spread over all nations;

8        he will swallow up death forever.

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,

and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,

for the Lord has spoken.

9     It will be said on that day,

Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.

This is the Lord for whom we have waited;

let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Sadly, all of the news swirling around us about what is going on in Israel and Gaza makes it all too easy to feel the emotional charge of the first six verses Isaiah 25—appointed for the Old Testament reading for October 15, 2023, in which  the prophet rejoices that the Lord has crushed Judah’s enemies.

I will exalt you for wonderful things.

For you have made the fortified city a heap of ruins.

You have crushed those ruthless aliens.

You have stilled their song.

We can well imagine the Jews of Israel today ready to revel in these verses. A young Israeli who survived the massacre of hundreds at a rock festival, and saw his friends being shot in the head or dragged away, was just about to be mobilized by the Israeli army and was asked what he was going to feel. “I can think of nothing but revenge,” he said.

Hamas murdered and raped and took hostages of helpless civilians, all while shouting “Allah is great” and laughing. We know Israeli Jews have been thinking, “They were not human, they were animals.”

Ah, but at the same time, it should not be difficult to imagine Hamas militants, and many of the Palestinian civilians of Gaza now running for their lives, having the same thoughts.

They have wished too to shoot their rockets and instill fear in the Israelis.

“If Allah would only give us revenge!”

“Israel has put us under a long blockade that has now become a siege with food, medicine and electricity nowhere to be found.”

“Hundreds of thousands of us are now homeless and with nowhere to run for our lives.”

“Oh Allah, if you would destroy those filthy animals – those Jews, we would glorify your name forever.”

“Palestinians are not humans, they are animals. For they have committed atrocities.” shout the Jews of Israel and their Christian, evangelical Zionist friends in the US.

“Jews are not humans, they are filth.  They have committed atrocities,” shout the Muslims of Hamas and Gaza.

Those first 6 verses of Isaiah 25 speak from the gut of a person who has been hit hard by countless atrocities. Revenge is on the prophet’s mind. “Lord, it would be wonderful to see the palaces of the wicked – and the cities of those animals, blasted into ruins.”

But do you recognize those last four verses of the reading for October 15?

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make a feast. He will destroy the shroud cast over all peoples. He will swallow up death forever, and wipe away the tears from all faces.”

If these verses are familiar and even dear to you, it is because they are used at so many funerals. “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.”

Why are they the perfect funeral or graveside reading? For two powerful reasons: Because of what is hoped for: Not the defeat  a people—not of our hated enemies out there—but the hope of death itself. And because of that little word, “All.”

God will set a  feast for ALL people.

The Lord will remove the shroud of death from ALL people.

God will swallow up death itself, and wipe away the tears from the faces of ALL.

Here’s an interesting note:  It might surprise you to know that the prophet Isaiah borrowed this idea of God swallowing up death forever from the people Israel hates the most in all of its ancient stories: the Canaanites. Joshua, it is said, was ordered by God to make room for Israel by ethnically cleansing the land of people like the Canaanites.

But the Canaanites had this story of their god of rain and storms, Baal, swallowing up the god of death, Mot. And Isaiah thought, “That is a wonderful hope!  That’s what we all hope for, isn’t it?”

Now, we believe death is no god.

And we believe the world isn’t run by a squabbling bunch of gods, but One Loving God.  

And we believe death is no match for that loving, almighty God.  

But, YES, we can see that God will swallow up death forever, and that’s what we hope for.

Not the death of other whole peoples—our enemies–but the death of the One Great Enemy: Death itself.

So, isn’t it ironic that wedged within Isaiah’s rant against hated neighboring enemies, he picks up on an idea straight from the hated Canaanites?  “Those enemies had something to teach us.”

And it’s all doubling ironic to learn that modern DNA studies have shown that Jews and the people of Israel actually are one people with the Canaanites of old. They share the same DNA.

Now, you might ask, “Were the prophets of the Bible really anti-war activists? Were they a perfectly peaceful people ? Or were they understandably human – thirsting like Israel’s government of today for some juicy, oh so satisfying revenge?” 

Someone—either the prophets or their editors afterwards—certainly did have that revengeful side. They had that patriotic side that says, “My people – my side–at all costs and by all means necessary.” They had that all too human side.

But the prophets  also were inspired to imagine Zion as a mountain where something greater than human would happen, “where death will die, and where all people–even our enemies–will come and be saved.

Perhaps the single prophet named Isaiah had both revenge and the death of death and the end of the cycle of revenge in mind, and wrote them both into this chapter. (The chapter even follows these verses about the death of death itself and the salvation of all peoples with a very ugly wish that neighbors in Moab would somehow drown in a pit of manure!) Perhaps Isaiah himself is wrestling with the sentiment that calls him out of a thirst only for revenge to a nobler, more divine vision.

Or perhaps what we have in the Bible is a weaving together of different ideas from different times in Israel’s history. In either case both sentiments are there, and we today must struggle with all victims of war of all times in balancing them in our hearts.

But the bottom line is that, to this day, the Jews have been witnesses for peace, mercy, democracy, and even inclusion. At their best they have been agents against war and the culture of death.

So too for Christians. At our funerals, and at our best, we are not suckers for the drum beaters. We see past their false hope and the lies about “them against us,” and the talk about the animals and the truly human. We read history and we know that each unconditional surrender and each war to end all wars, really and truly just set the stage for the next war. And that’s why we cling so tightly to these next four verses of Isaiah 25 that speak to this.

We read them at our funerals. We celebrate them every Sunday.

We cling to the hope of a mountain where the shroud of death will be removed not by war, but by the gospel of love. We see that mountain of hope in Calvary and the Cross.

So we, as Christians in a time of war, must ultimately renounce the thirst for revenge. We must learn from history, and we must learn from Jesus who overcame hate by love, on the cross. We must witness today and always to a way out of the addiction to war that shouts, “Kill those animals and it will fix everything.”  We must amplify our Lord’s command, “Put up your sword. They who live by the sword will die by the sword. You be peacemakers.”  

We must hope for and proclaim not the death of people, but the death of death.

We must hope for and proclaim not peace and justice for us alone, but peace and justice for all. Peace will come to us only when it comes for all.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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