Ghost towns and future trust
Rev. Jerrod Hugenot
November 21, 2019
Such places may have been thriving, 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. For example, the little town of Elk Falls, Kansas, 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 old 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, they stood in the midst of a large city mostly run down. Jerusalem the proud, Jerusalem the great, now gone to seed.
In Isaiah 55, 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 are attuned to God. The prophet sees and trusts in God’s 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 Isaiah 55, Isaiah offers a vision of hope to the returnees of Israel. They see the devastation, and have a hard time believing that Jerusalem has any good left in it… While proclaiming hope for the people and their homeland, Isaiah offers a vision for all who thirst, who hunger, and who seek the better path.
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?
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.
Isaiah’s vision, however, has a much broader scope than that of Israel’s return from exile and restoration as a nation. While 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.
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, just as 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.
The Rev Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.