Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage (Isaiah 19, esp. verses 11-15) transports me to some of the more regretful nights and painful mornings of my rebellious teenage years, when I discovered my unfortunate inability to hold my liquor. For whatever reason, it seemed important to acquire a taste for bourbon and moonshine, elixirs that at first feel exceedingly hot and harsh and evoke a reflexive gag and cough after a swallowed shot. Some of these experiences are particularly etched into my memory bank: the time a group of us consumed some homemade shine before going to a basketball game, and I made a complete mess of the bumper of my dad’s Ford Galaxy 500 trying to change a flat tire while under the influence. And then there was the infamous Spring Formal Dance, when a friend and I took our dates on a detour by the ABC store for a fifth of Jack Daniels, and I woke up in the back seat of our assistant principal’s Cadillac, where I proceeded to lose whatever Jack was in my stomach. It would take many of these blind staggers and ensuing homages to the porcelain goddess before I would cultivate the palate and learn how to sip and savor just enough to gladden the heart without becoming the victim of its raging mockery.
Isaiah is a prophet who must have observed those stern consequences of reckless drunkenness. In need of a metaphor to describe God’s action among the power-hungry empires who possessed about as much sense and sensibility as a rebellious teenage boy, he envisions God as the great moonshiner in the sky, pouring 150 proof well-aged spirits of confusion into the open mouths of rowdy bullies. God slips the empires a mickey, causing them to stagger and reel and ultimately to heave back all they have consumed in violent spasms. These empire builders have not learned how to hold the Spirit, and wind up being dizzied by the strong drink, blinded by the light of day, bellies emptied and heads throbbing and minds reeling.
Perhaps the most important Bible verse I ever learned was the simple definition of God found in I John: God is love. It has always followed, for me, that God cannot act in any other way than out of love. So when I read a verse about God pouring a spirit of confusion down the hatch of the horrific imperial powers, I interpret that to mean that there are occasions when humanity simply cannot hold the distilled love of God when it comes pouring down. Our lust for power can put ourselves in the position of teenage boys who can’t hold their liquor, who haven’t learned how to drink, who gag and cough and stagger at the warmth flowing down their throats. God’s love is an elixir, a spirit, a holy homemade hooch; it’s the sweet mash of mercy fermented by the yeast of grace, and if we haven’t learned to drink it properly, it can be completely confusing and confounding and knock us off our feet. This is the prophet’s message to the foolish embodiments of adolescent power seen in Egypt and Assyria. They’re about to reel under the influence of the the Spirit of love. And then, later in the chapter, the prophet provides hope for these hungover empires. God will bring in the morning-after antidote, the hair of the dog that bit them. The passage tells us that God will make the Holy known to these foolish powermongers, this time in a way they can handle, and ultimately they will be welcomed into the circle of holy love. In an astounding word that must have been part of the inspiration for Jesus’ radical vision of peacemaking, the prophet envisions Israel’s hated enemies, the Egyptians and Assyrians (modern day Iraquis) welcomed and blessed as equal partners in the covenant community, full members of the family of faith. Now there’s a staggering thought, sure to confuse us when we are stuck in systems of belief that limit God’s grace and restrict God’s mercy as applicable only to those who possess the appropriate pedigree or confess the correct creeds or practice the required rituals of orthodox religion. So we do well to sip it slowly. Savor it. And when we’re through gagging and coughing and retching, if we have the courage we may actually aquire a taste for this radical and inclusive love that knows no bounds. Cheers.
How about you? Where does this prophetic passage take you on your journey of faith?