Prophetic images of a flourishing life
The prophets were poets, and not all of their proclamations were about doom and gloom.
“They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” – Isaiah 65:21
The prophets were poets, and not all their proclamations were about doom and gloom.
At a recent conference, I had the pleasure of listening to the insights of Dr. Cameron Howard, an associate professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary. She was asked to speak on a biblical understanding of stewardship at a Generosity Next gathering sponsored by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center in Tampa, Florida.
Dr. Howard called on those present – mainly pastors and middle judicatory leaders – to consider the language of the prophets, and focused much of her time on Isaiah 65:17-25. Here and elsewhere in Hebrew scriptures, God spoke words of hope and well-being in a time of uncertainty. Dr. Howard focused on four words that preach equally well today – work, flourish, rest and sustain – that Isaiah and other preachers of his day used.
Isaiah declares that a new day is coming, and that the injustice and inequity of those who struggle will come to an end. The image of Jerusalem (65:19) was both a physical place as well as an iconic symbol of God’s ideal.
The theme of inhabiting houses and growing vineyards (65:21-22) was a promise that God will again bring about the fullness of creation. Isiah wrote in the 8th century and spoke to a people confronted by foreign military forces and exile from their home land.
In many ways the church today is in exile as well. We live outside the design God intended, where God’s people lived together in community, caring for one another and inviting others to join them in the cause of returning to God’s intended life.
The powers that suppress God’s present community from being fully realized include individualism, self-sufficiency, materialism, and a sense of being driven to distraction by technology in all its forms.
Part of our redemption form these ills is developing a new mindset concerning God’s true intention for us.
- Work is a gift and was part of the partnership God had with Adam and Eve. No matter how menial our work may be, God can use us to give witness to Kingdom values in our attitude toward others.
- Flourishing was God’s design for humanity and was intended to be experienced in community, not in isolation from others. In a day of drawing lines and building walls, how can we live into a new model rooted in love and reconciliation?
- Rest was a time for reflection on who we are and what God expects of us. It is a reprieve modeled in sabbath, a break from labor that helps bring balance to life.
- Sustaining is about finding balance between embracing the present while looking to the future. It is concerned with the premise that while one part of the community thrives, it does not do so at the expense of others.
Stewardship incorporates all these ideas and more. The struggles of those who heard Isaiah in his day continue to be lived out in our churches today. We also desire that all would be able to build houses and dwell in them; and plant vineyards and eat from them. This was not and is not intended for the fortunate few.
The prophet’s message remains relevant, and the call to lean into these aspirations and work for these goals is ours as well.