Ghost towns….Towns that once existed but to the modern day visitor, all you find is a collection of weathered old buildings, perhaps a family or two still living in an old home, content to be where they have lived for generations, despite no longer having a local post office or town government. Back home, the little town of Elk Falls, KS, bills itself as “the world’s largest living ghost town”. Walking through town, you see “what was”, the old buildings remaining as silent testament to “the good ole days”, yet you wonder whether or not there is any life left in such a place.
In the book of Isaiah, the prophet faces a similar situation. The latter half of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) deals with the prophet speaking to a people who have lost everything. The great Jerusalem and the kingdom alike are in ruins. It was not always like this. There was a time when the city stood proud and the kingdom was still holding its own, despite its internal corruption and the threat of conflict with neighboring nations. The prophets called out for the people to repent, yet they were not heeded. Eventually, the kingdom became vulnerable. The Babylonians came in, their forces removing much of the populace from Jerusalem, and the city was sacked.
Seventy years later, when those who were hauled off into captivity were gone (or perhaps quite elderly), the prophet Isaiah spoke a word to the conquered peoples: their return to Jerusalem was at hand. As they arrived home, the returnees stood in the midst of a large city mostly run down. Jerusalem the proud, Jerusalem the great, now gone to seed.
Isaiah offers a vision of hope to the returnees. They see the devastation, and they have a hard time believing this place has any good left in it. Just as the prophet saw the people’s downfall, Isaiah sees a future where the city returns to new life. It will take hard work and commitment on the people’s part to get there, yet Isaiah sees with something the people do not have readily in hand. Isaiah’s eyes and heart is attuned to God. The prophet sees and trusts in God’s future plans for the people, even as the prophet has to be the one teaching them how to learn and relearn what it means to be God’s covenant people.
In the opening verses of Isaiah 55, the people are called to come and take the bread, the wine, and the milk, given freely by God. To a people who have been through a difficult time, somewhat due to mistakes of their own devising, these opening words sound positively euphoric—and perhaps not in a readily believable way. These words are hard to take in, the idea that there will be “enough” when you live in a place that is constantly a reminder of how things fall apart. How can such a good word be true when most of your waking hours are spent toiling away at the difficult task of rebuilding?
A few years ago, a Bulgarian Baptist minister wrote a memoir of his experiences being a pastor during the Communist era in his country. Religious people did not have it easy, as the government hassled and harassed religious leaders. Not so long ago, eastern European Christians endured a great deal of hardship for being religious persons. The book features a cover photo that reflects the stories of determination and courage within. The cover features an old rusty padlock discarded on the ground. Despite the rocky soil and weeds around the padlock, somehow a single flower has grown up, actually sprouting somehow through the keyhole of the padlock.
The prophet Isaiah echoes this same sort of belief. He offers up a vision of abundance as he has come to believe this is God’s last word. If there is any way to understand the devastation of the past and the uncertainty of the present, Isaiah does not give up on the future turning out the same way. He lives with a sense of abiding trust that the people’s future is in God’s hands and that God shall not leave them cast aside. Even in the midst of perilous circumstance, there is hope.
If you ever visit Elk Falls, KS, you will find that its locals have made the best out of the situation. Those who remain in the town developed a plan to attract tourism, which is fairly audacious considering the town is on a less traveled road. The town’s quiet was a selling point for a number of artists looking for a place to live and set up their studios. The town of Elk Falls, population hovering around 100, has become a novelty tourist stop, where folks can find a little, off the way place to stop and look around. And, if you’re lucky, you might hit the time of year when they offer their “outhouse tour”.
The story of Elk Falls is one of determination. They may not have many amenities like a larger town or city, but they have learned how to live a different sort of life. Elk Falls may not be what the town leaders thought it would look like a century or even fifty years ago, but the town is holding on with a sense of hope, allowing that hope to sustain them.
When I read Isaiah, I find the book keeps gaining in its hopeful vision of the future. While the people have much to learn, let alone rebuild, the people are given these words of hope. At first, they may not know what to do with the prophet’s words, but that’s part of the lesson to be learned. Opening their hearts and minds to these words will start working down their fears and frustrations. The city is never beyond repair, and the people’s future is never beyond hope.
Isaiah’s vision, however, has a much broader scope than that of Israel’s return from Exile and restoration as a nation. In the midst of proclaiming hope for the people and their homeland, Isaiah offers a vision for all who thirst, who hunger and who seek the better path. As Israel is summoned back from captivity, their return is just one part of a wider hope. In the prophetic literature, a new thread of hope arises up: the hope restoring Israel shall not be for Israel alone. The latter chapters of Isaiah begin to resound with a far more inclusive hope: Israel shall be the place where the nations, far more than Israel herself could imagine, will gather alongside. Those who seek the Lord will be known for their faithfulness, not their nationalities or political prominence. This remnant gathered back in Jerusalem will be the light to the nations.
Wandering through Elk Falls, you might think there is nothing left in this town. The locals have to travel a few miles for groceries. The post office is still there, however, with the talks of downsizing the US Postal Service, small towns like Elk Falls might not retain one in the coming years. The county census figures are declining to the point school districts are looking at ways to consolidate with fewer students. The phone book covers a very large area of southeast Kansas, yet the white and yellow pages combined do not make for a hefty phone book. What good will is this talk of “tourism” and “hope” in the long run?
For Isaiah’s reader, one might voice similar doubt. Israel rebuilt Jerusalem, yet eventually, the city would fall, the nation would fall, and the people would be scattered again. Even in our modern era, as Israel has its own nation once more, there is a keen awareness of the fragility of peace between Israel and its neighbors and the headlines note the violence there, as Palestinians and Israelis struggle over land, politics, and control. Does Isaiah’s hopeful word still matter?
Reading Isaiah and related texts in the Bible is a matter of choice for the reader. Despite being filled with stories of tragedy, wrongdoing, and other tales of a sin-fractured world, the Bible speaks of hope. Living in the world, still fraught with complication and heart-ache, the reader must decide if hope is optimism loose of its tether to reality or a word so powerful that it gives us a sense of trust that the future will turn out all right. Isaiah’s prophetic ministry was for a given moment, a word to the people needing encouragement to rebuild. As a reader, knowing the realities of Israel’s history, I find it remarkable that they kept these texts, trusting that even as Isaiah’s generation became a distant memory, the next generations would read these texts as a witness and keep these words as sacred text, meant to be read and wrestled with.
Something powerful is found between the lines of prophecy. It is a hope tethered to a people seeking and failing to be in covenant with God. These are words that sustain, as if milk or wine or bread nourishes. These are words that give life and help us overcome those things that lead us away from God’s pathway. Hope shall overcome all of our troubles. Hope is indeed a glimpse of that last word that God alone shall speak.
Our story is part of a wider Story that has been going on for millennia. Isaiah told part of it to a world in need of hope. And now, we join with others, within and beyond the Church, telling of a hope that abides.