I have decided to stop paying attention to all writing and preaching that takes issue with how I practice my faith.
Not that I have suddenly been transported above error. I’m just tired of insecure souls who build themselves up by tearing others down. Telling me I am wrong in my theology. Wrong in the way I sleep. Wrong in how I view other people. Wrong in what I eat. Wrong in my political opinions. Wrong in how I dress. Wrong in what I write.
I am tired of the smug folks who tell me what to do, not because they have any real concern for me, but because they enjoy thinking themselves right.
Being judged by a know-it-all isn’t God’s way. I won’t be restored to oneness with God by their lecturing. Even if they have memorized scripture and developed an advanced theology, they don’t serve God by telling other people what to do.
Restoration to God is an invitation. It starts in tender regard for the one being invited, not in smug disdain. It starts in knowing the one being invited—as a person. Restoration to God is a journey home that an exile chooses to make, not a forced march at the end of a cattle prod.
The great biblical narrative of restoration is found in the book of the prophet Isaiah, starting in chapter 40. The prophet was sent to the exiles in Babylon to lead them back to Zion. Cyrus, king of Persia, had set them free, but being free to go home is much different from actually wanting to make the journey and then making it.
The Hebrews had made lives for themselves in Babylon. They were reasonably comfortable there. They had heard of Jerusalem but didn’t know the way, they just knew that a dangerous wilderness lay in their path. If they were to make the journey of restoration, they had to be sold. They had to be convinced of God’s intentions and providence. They couldn’t be ordered to leave, as they had once been led away by the Babylonians. They had to choose it.
Isaiah didn’t start by telling them they were in the wrong place. Nor did Isaiah judge their reluctance to leave. “Fire and brimstone” always feels righteous to the impatient preacher who yearns to compel submission. Isaiah didn’t do that.
In words that Handel would adopt as the very first words sung in Messiah, Isaiah said he had been told to “comfort” God’s people. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” and tell her, in words that would later be applied to Jesus’ ministry, “she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” Israel had been “redeemed,” the price paid for her salvation.
But we don’t know the way, people say. God will “prepare” a way for you, said Isaiah. What about the wilderness? God will “make straight in the desert a highway,” where valleys shall be “lifted up,” mountains “made low,” “uneven ground” made “level,” and “rough places” made “plain.”
The sight of you walking home to Zion will reveal “the glory of the Lord,” said Isaiah. The daughters of Zion will see you coming and rejoice. God isn’t like the cruel overlords of this world. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
Why would God do this? “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
This is the restoration that God promises. Not a victory of right-opinion. Not admission to the elect. Not being declared superior and entitled to rule the nations. God leads the beloved home. God restores people to oneness. God chooses to forget “the former things.” “I am about to do a new thing,” said God.
Our part in this is to accept what God wants to do. In gratitude, not pride. Mustering the courage to leave what we know in order to go to a place that God prepares for us.
The key for us is this: As comfortable as we might be in the world we know, God has something new and better in mind for us. Faith means letting go and allowing God to lead us. Not clinging to what we know, but trusting God to show us God’s “new thing.”
This isn’t a “virtual” journey, celebrated in a Sunday prayer, then forgotten by Monday. God deals in the specific and practical. The Hebrews were living in Babylon; God hoped they would leave that place and go to another. Transformation of life isn’t merely a good idea; it is real, practical change.
Thomas Ehrich is author of the Lent 2016 book, The Gift of New Creation: A Lenten Study Based on the Revised Common Lectionary and With Scripture as My Compass: Meditations for the Journey. He was a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal for six years. He then went to seminary and was ordained as an Episcopal priest. In 1995 he left parish ministry to join a colleague in founding a computer consulting firm. He now travels widely, writes a syndicated newspaper column, and continues to write winsome theology through On a Journey, which he began eight years ago and now distributes to 3,300 readers daily.