All we need to do is spend a few minutes listening to the news, or perhaps checking our Facebook or Twitter feed and we will find reasons to be afraid: fires burning out of control; storms ravaging communities; unprecedented numbers of refugees; wars and threats of war; economic uncertainty; abuse within the community of faith; gun violence in “peaceful” neighborhoods; devastating illnesses … the list goes on and on. It often seems as if all of life is out of balance and there is no place where one is truly free from threat of one kind or another.
It is to ourselves and to those around us that Isaiah instructs us to speak the words, “be strong, do not fear.” But of what use are these words when you are facing a diagnosis of untreatable cancer? How do the words help when your home and everything in it has been destroyed by fire, water or earthquake? What do these words mean when people who have been driven from their homes by war are begging us to do more? Or when we are confronted with the stories of those who have been abused within our churches? Or when violence comes to the doorstep of someone we know? When does being strong and avoiding fear become nothing more than an act of denial?
We are not asked to be strong for the sake of strength, nor are we told not to fear because fear is bad. When we are the ones who are breaking, we are told that fear is unnecessary because the brokenness is temporary. In every place where there has been suffering, God will bring healing. Those who are blind will see; those who are deaf will hear; those who cannot walk will run and leap; those who cannot speak will sing; and even the land will be restored. In some ways, the words of Isaiah are like the words of a parent to a child about to try something new: “don’t worry, I’ll catch you.” If you have an untreatable illness, remember that death is birth into eternity. If a loved one has died remember that love never dies and you will meet again. Although the pain of the moment is very real; you can still experience hope.
But today’s readings are not just a reassurance that God will catch us when we fall. They are not just comfort when we fear that the patterns of suffering will never change; they are also encouragement when we fear that change will cause us to suffer.
Isaiah tells us that God will come with “terrible recompense.” The word recompense indicates a return to fairness. The balance of creation that was lost through sin will be restored. God will not tolerate the human misuse of power and the casual acceptance of inequality (condemned by James in the second reading) forever.
Today’s readings not only call us to hope, they also call us to honest self-examination. When we are the ones who benefit from an imbalance of power and an unequal distribution of resources, we are also told, “be strong and do not fear,” strong enough and courageous enough to surrender our human power, privilege and comfort for the sake of others.