I recently attended the funeral of the elderly father of a close friend, Joachim. In his final months, the father had suffered from dementia and had difficulty remembering things, including the Bible stories that had informed his faith from childhood. Joachim, the eldest son, recalled at the memorial service how he had read through the Passion narrative on Good Friday, reminding his father of that central and pivotal story, at which his father just shook his head and remarked what a sad and terrible event the crucifixion was. Joachim had asked his dad if he knew what happened three days later. Shaking his head, the elderly man said that, no, he didn’t know, he couldn’t remember, so Joachim told him that on Easter Sunday morning the stone was rolled away and this crucified man was resurrected to new life. Joachim’s dad had just stared at him, gobsmacked, with eyes wide and mouth agape, before saying in amazement, “You’ve got to be kidding!”
And that seems to me to be just the right response to the gospel. The Bible is replete with announcements that should stop us dead in our tracks with amazement. Such as the message that dry-wombed, barren, and ancient Sarah would bring forth a child, and this child would become a multitude, bearing blessings for every nation and the whole creation. Blind eyes would see, deaf ears hear, lame limbs would leap, and tears would be turned into laughter. Water will gush forth in the wilderness, and streams will flow in the desert. A green twig grows from a dead root. Dry bones bear living flesh. Empty wine glasses will be filled, the hungry will eat their fill, the humble poor will be lifted up and the arrogant will tumble from their high horses. And a barren woman would deliver children enough to require a bigger tent with an enlarged nursery. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” is right.
The Great Reversal, for which the Bible employs so many gorgeous metaphors, is given perhaps its most tender and lovely rendering by Isaiah, when he invites a lamenting barren woman to sing and shout, for her womb has been refreshed and she will bear children to love and nourish. The names of women who serve as such examples come rushing to mind: Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth—indeed, the whole nation of Israel. This image is what Isaiah 54 has particularly in mind: the whole of the people of Israel—whom God had ‘divorced’ in exile—now being welcomed home, revived, embraced, cherished, and given good reason for hope now that her future has been made available to her once again.
As I read Isaiah, my thoughts turn to scenes of barrenness: desperate Syrian refugees perish in open waters, and mothers are left to mourn the children that they lose or leave behind. Nigerian parents wait for news of daughters stolen in the night by Boko Haram; daily, thousands of little ones will be born malnourished, brought into the world by mothers who are themselves malnourished, victims of famine and drought and economic policies from whose equations they are excluded. Canadian aboriginal families are distressed by the continuing legacy of residential schools, the after-effects of children being torn away from families, families and whole communities made bereft of their future by having children taken and never returned.
A bumper crop in my district sits unharvested while, in other areas of the world, ice caps melt, coral reefs deteriorate, species disappear, and climate changes threaten to make a barren mess of Creation.
Only days ago, we witnessed the election of a new American president whose campaign was littered with threats and fear-mongering, bigotry, and vitriol, signalling a repudiation of decency. Many women in my community lamented the miscarriage of equal opportunities for women and minorities. They too said, “You’ve got to be kidding”—but they spoke without the wide-eyed enthusiasm of Joachim’s father.
My thoughts turn to barrenness, and, if the words of Isaiah were not at hand, I would be tempted to despair. But here is Isaiah—and not just Isaiah, but, better yet, Isaiah’s God bringing promises of fruitfulness, reversal, renewal, forgiveness, compassion, a “steadfast love that will not depart from you,” a “covenant of shalom that shall not be removed,” and a promise that “great shall be the prosperity of all your children.”
For most of us reading this, I imagine that the Great Reversal does not arrive like startlingly new or even brand-new news. It comes instead as a reminder to hope, which we hear and receive as a summons to be faithful, to strengthen the feeble knees, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to release to the prisoners, and to announce to all that “Our God reigns!” But these words are not only a summons –as Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 1: in Jesus Christ, all of God’s promises are fulfilled, and for that reason, to the Glory of God, we say “Amen!” Or perhaps, “You’ve got to be kidding!”