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Isaiah and Martin Luther King – Hope in Exile

4 May 2010

Just now in church, we are exploring themes of exile and return, devastation and comfort. With the help of sermons, we are reading the profound prophetic texts of Isaiah 40-55. These texts came out of the exile of the Jews who were taken from Jerusalem in 598 BC and did not come back from Babylon till the new ruler Cyrus let them go in 538. Those were testing traumatic times. Giving up in despair, with anger or in quietness, was a plausible way of coping. But the prophetic community hears God somehow, sees God in the gloom, and so these texts come down to us.

They come down to us. They were written for and to the Jews of that day and meant so much they were treasured and preserved and read. They were seminal for Jesus and the early Christians – these chapters are more quoted in the New Testament than any other part of the Hebrew Scriptures. What God did for Israel through Cyrus, God does for the world in Jesus Christ and more. Sin is forgiven, the exiled return, the despairing hope again, the blocked roads are opened.

These texts have not come directly to us from the time of Jesus. They have spoken to many people on their way to us. These readers, now dead, share the texts with us; they shape our reading of them by letting us see what they got from them. We hear more in these texts when we listen with their ears as well as our own.

For example, there is Handel with his Messiah. Since 1743 has anything done more to impress key parts of Isaiah’s text on people? (Isaiah 40.1-5, 9, 11; 53.3-6, 8; 52.7) Do we know it still? Do we value it as music but not as preaching and prayer? It would be serious if that were so. An American general was complaining the other day that the nation was threatened because so many men were obese that they were no good to the military. Some Christians are historically obese, so cluttered with the traditions of the past that they are not available for mission today. But in our church that is not the problem. We are more likely to suffer from historical anorexia. There is plenty to eat (like Messiah) but somehow we don’t.

Is it a matter of age? Did older people grow up with Messiah, while the younger – under fifty? – have lived in the age of the fading of Messiah? I heard Messiah as a boy in ordinary poor chapels, not cathedrals, where people had a go on Good Friday. Having a go at Messiah still happens, but not in ordinary chapels. And then it fixed itself in my mind – so I never hear it now without this association – when I was in Cyprus in the RAF at Christmas 1957. On the camp we all had nearly a week off. Some of the men drank and tore the barracks to bits. Some of us gathered in the Scripture Reader’s Hut and Dave Morrell, an RAF cook, and an ardent rather anti-intellectual Christian, who later surprised some of us by becoming a minister with a doctorate in theology, put on his long playing vinyls of Messiah again and again – it was all we had, so far from home, in a kind of exile, but it was enough.

But even if there were no Handel, Isaiah would be speaking still. By accident, I have just come across a bit of Isaiah in Martin Luther King who has much to teach us about faith in God and the discipleship of following Jesus. Is he fading into the mists of history? That would be our loss.

King was a black Baptist minister in the USA and a leader in the civil rights movement. It started for him with the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955. Rosa Parkes refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. The law said she should do that. Her tired feet and her sense of justice said she should not and it was time to take a stand by sitting where she was. Black people and others boycotted the buses. After months of struggle the buses were integrated. The wider campaign rolled on, with King being bombed, going to prison, and many others suffering and some being murdered. It grew. In August 1963, King made his famous speech, I have a dream, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, before a crowd of 250, 000.

Here are some quotes from his speech. (The full text and a video can be found here).

In italics are bits which resonate with Isaiah on exile and comfort and one direct quote. Isaiah wrote to proclaim the liberation of a whole people from exile in Babylon and to arouse the people to understand it as a gift from God. King was talking about the liberation of a whole people in a long history of exile. He was not domesticating this great text as we are often tempted to do.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
Five score years ago, a great American, (President Abraham Lincoln) in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. (cf Psalm 30.5)
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition……..
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
……I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” (Isaiah 40.4-5)
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

God who promises this gift of liberation is one who requires justice. Not only justice for the people against their oppressors, but justice of the people in their dealings with others all over the world.
Isaiah makes that plain. And do did King. In the middle of his speech he said:

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
The marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.
We cannot walk alone.
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.
We cannot turn back.

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