In a pastoral care class during seminary, my classmates and I were assigned the task of creating genograms of our own families and using them as tools to explore how our families had shaped us. A genogram is somewhat like a family tree but goes beyond names and dates in order to tell the more nuanced stories of relationships. A variety of symbols are used to represent relationships that are particularly close, particularly strained or even completely cut off. Other symbols tell the story of losses, patterns of addiction or abuse, marriages and divorces. Genograms can reveal how patterns get carried on or broken from one generation to the next, whether those are patterns of names, characteristics, vocations, or the like. By recognizing family dynamics in the generations that precede us, we can better understand why we are drawn toward or away from certain relationships and paths in our own lives.
This passage in Isaiah calls to mind a genogram of sorts, one in which the family of Israel has journeyed through generations of struggle. From the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of Sarah’s barrenness, to the communal trauma of exile in Babylon, the journey of God’s chosen people has been marked by great uncertainty and loss and more than a few tragic figures. But by this point in Isaiah’s prophecy, the energy is building toward a renewed vision of God’s intentions for Israel. Restoration is at hand! The story of God’s family is not ultimately a story of abandonment and destruction, even when God’s people make a mess of things or fail miserably. No, we are part of a family line in which God’s faithfulness appears in astonishing ways, whether that’s the pregnancy of a woman as old as Sarah, or the return of the exiles from Babylon. What seems to be forgotten, impossible, or cut off entirely is instead restored to wholeness and a new beginning filled with possibilities.
Listen! Look! Lift up your eyes! Hear me! Awake! There is such an urgency in the prophet’s voice throughout this passage. It’s as though the ones who most need to hear this word of hope are also the ones most at risk of being so numb to the pain of their experience that they have forgotten to wait boldly for God’s redemption. But deliverance is surely at hand, especially for those who have lost the energy to imagine that life will ever be different. Trusting and believing this assurance from Isaiah may challenge us today just as it would have challenged those who had gotten accustomed to life in exile. That’s why it’s helpful to envision ourselves in the long, winding lineage of God’s people, seeing the connections to the past and the way God has led others before us.
“Look to the rock from which you were hewn,” Isaiah instructs (51:1). We are like a chip off the old block in the lineage of God’s beloved, broken, redeemed people. The promises are good for us too, today as always. We are inextricably bound up with the company of those who carry on the old story of God’s deliverance.