A bride always stands out at a wedding, overshadowing even the groom. Perhaps that’s because the bride is simply more beautiful than the groom. Because of this, no one pays much attention when the groom and his attendants enter the sanctuary with little or no fanfare. But, when the bride's maids enter the sanctuary, the crowd grows quiet and attentive, because they know that the real show is about to begin, and the person they’ve all come to see is about to enter the room. When the appropriate music begins, the crowd turns around and watches expectantly, hoping to get a good look at the bride as she walks down the aisle in all her glory. Watching her enter the room with much pomp and circumstance, the audience “oohs and aahs” at her beauty, her splendor, and her radiance. Yes, bedecked in her flowing white gown, a dress she’ll likely wear only once at great cost to her family, it’s quite apparent that she’s the star of the show.
Now, when the groom sees his beautiful bride, he’s just as impressed as everyone else. He beams from ear to ear, because at the end of the day he gets to go home with this wonder of beauty. I speak of this spectacle from experience, because I too was once a groom, and my bride looked radiant the day she walked down the aisle to meet me at the altar.
1. A CHANGE OF NAME
As we listen to this morning’s text, we hear a word about a wedding of great importance. Like an attentive groom, God declares his joy at seeing the beauty and splendor of his bride, even though this bride is in reality a scraggly group of exiles wandering home to the holy city of Jerusalem from Babylon. This remnant people returned home to find a wasteland, where the Temple and the palaces had been destroyed. As they surveyed this land of theirs, they didn’t feel much like a beautiful bride. But into the midst of this scene of despair comes a word of hope. God is ready to transform and vindicate his bride.
Although a patriarchal understanding of marriage and family stands behind this passage, an understanding that we would no longer affirm, if we can separate out the chaff from the wheat, there is a word to be heard in these verses from Isaiah.
It is still customary for the bride to take the groom’s name, but names carried more meaning in the ancient world, and so when we hear, in this prophetic word, God changing the bride’s name, the change serves as a sign of hope. Indeed, in this name change, we hear a promise that old is gone and the new has arrived (2 Cor. 5), to paraphrase Paul. The one who was named “Desolate” is now to be called “My Delight is in Her.” Yes, God says to the bride, from now on, you’ll be a "crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand" of God. And your name will change from "Forsaken" and "Desolate" to "City of God's Delight" and "Bride of God." Yes, the prophet declares: The "Lord delights in you" and "your land shall be married."
2. THE JOYOUS GROOM
I may be reading too much into the text, but I come to this passage from the perspective of one who has been a groom. I remember my heart leaping with joy when I saw Cheryl standing at the doorway of the sanctuary. I was thinking how incredible it was that someone that beautiful would marry me, a poor seminarian with few prospects for the future. I knew that when Cheryl was growing up, she never envisioned marrying a seminarian or a preacher – in fact I believe her father had envisioned her marrying a lawyer or a successful business man -- but on that sunny day in July, she seemed happy to be taking the plunge with me. And I considered myself blessed! And so I wonder, could God have looked at Israel with similar eyes?
I don’t know what was going on in the mind of God, but the prophet does write that "as a bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you." This is no ordinary joy; it’s a joy that can’t be contained. Indeed, this isn’t half-hearted joy; God seems to be absolutely jubilant. God reaches out to Israel and promises to be its protector and provider, so that on that day, the bride who had seemed to be barren and forlorn, is forsaken no more. Again, if we can move past the patriarchalism that’s present in the text, we can hear God’s promise to stand with us no matter what the situation is.
3. THE BRIDE OF CHRIST
What is said here in Isaiah gets reflected in passages found in the New Testament, where we hear the church spoken of as the bride of Christ. While this image again reflects an understanding of marriage and family that is different from ours, it does describe the intimacy that exists between Christ and the Church.
In these passages we hear Jesus saying to us, you are my bride and I rejoice over you. If you have felt forsaken and desolate, know that you are now an object of God’s delight. We hear bridal imagery in the book of Revelation, where we hear the declaration that Christ and the church will live together in intimate union, with the church being adorned with God's glory and radiance (Rev. 21:9-14).
When Ephesians 5 urges husbands to love their wives, even as Christ loves the church, we can hear the voice of the gushing groom of Isaiah 62. Seeking to present his bride to the world as holy and full of glory, Christ washes the church with "water by the word," and he makes sure that the bride is without spot or wrinkle. Everything is in place, so that the bride’s beauty might declare the glory of God to the world.
Yes, there is more than a hint of patriarchalism in all of this, but if we’re willing to listen closely, what we’ll hear is an invitation to enter an intimate relationship with God through Jesus. And, the promise we hear is that God will bless us and care for us, transforming us into agents of transformation. That is, having been transformed by this intimate relationship with God, we can invite others to share in this same life-changing relationship, one that is rooted in the story of the one who himself died and was raised to new life for the benefit of others.
The goal of this work of transformation is the birth of a new world, where people will be included rather than excluded, a world that shares rather than hoards, a world where the color of one’s skin no longer matters as much as the content of one’s character, a world where love rather than fear is the guiding premise of life. This was the dream of another prophet named Martin Luther King, Jr., whose memory we honor this weekend.
Dr. King had a dream, but he didn’t live to see it realized. In a sermon preached just a month before he died of an assassin’s bullet, he acknowledged that this dream, even if not yet fulfilled, can give us hope for the future. He declared to the congregation:
Well, that is the story of life. And the thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time, saying: “It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow, but it is well that it is within thine heart. It’s well that you are trying.” You may not see it. The dream may not be fulfilled, but it’s just good that you have a desire to bring it into reality. It’s well that it’s in thine heart.
He goes on to say:
In the final analysis, what God requires is that your heart is right. Salvation isn’t reaching the destination of absolute morality, but it’s being in the process and on the right road.
Isaiah offers a promise of freedom and liberation. It may not be a promise that is fulfilled in our lifetimes, but it is a promise that can sustain us as we join with God in a life of faithful service.
We hear this word from God on a day set aside to remember the life and words of a modern day prophet, and during a week that saw a nation stricken by a horrific natural disaster. The nation of Haiti is one of the poorest and most neglected of the world’s nations. It has been poorly served by its leaders and by its neighbors, and now it has suffered a severe blow. As we contemplate the magnitude of this situation, can you not hear God saying to the people of Haiti through our gifts and prayers: “My Delight is in You.”
As we hear this word today, may we hear God saying to us, I delight in you and I stand with you. May this word bring you joy and may it inspire you to join God in the work of redemption and restoration of this world that God loves.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
January 17, 2009
2nd Sunday after Epiphany