Walter Brueggemann: The God Laden with Narrative and Constancy
In these hard days, every pastor (along with many other folk) is asked, “How do you fend off despair?” and “How can we continue to hope?” In response to these questions, what follows here is my exposition of a single familiar text from Israel’s great Manifesto of Hope, Isaiah 40-55:
But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (40:31)
The statement is an adversative introduced by “but,” meaning to counter the weariness, faintness, and exhaustion of verse 30. The single mandate is to “wait for the Lord.” The term “wait” is in many places translated as “hope,” thus “hope for the Lord.” This single requirement is terse and does not by itself give us much. Until it is remembered that the name “the Lord” (YHWH) is almost always inflected in the Old Testament. And when it is not inflected, it is nevertheless tacitly insistent. Thus, we may consider what happens when we notice the characteristic inflections of YHWH, the one in whom we are to hope.
The characteristic inflection of the name of the God of the covenant takes two forms (here I am indebted to the great German scholar, Claus Westermann). On the one hand, YHWH’s name is regularly embedded in narratives in which YHWH plays a decisive and specific role. Most familiarly,
I am the Lord … who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:1).
The formulation is more complete in Deuteronomy 8:14-16:
… who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage … who led you through the great and terrible wilderness … who made water flow for you from flint rock … who fed you in the wilderness with manna.
This narrative recital reaches its most complete articulation in Psalm 136 where we get YHWH as active subject and agent of the verbs that tell the story of Israel and of the world:
who made (v. 5),
who spread (v, 6),
who made (v. 7),
who struck (v. 10),
who brought out (v. 11),
who divided (v. 13),
who overthrew (v. 15),
who led (v. 16),
who struck down (v. 17),
who gave (v. 21).
This list of active, transformative verbs portrays YHWH as an active agent who creates new futures for Israel.
This doxological formulation raises no questions and offers no explanations. It is simply the story that faithful Israel tells about the God for whom it waits and upon whom it hopes. Thus, the single terse mandate of Isaiah 40:31 implies the whole range of narrative memories in which YHWH is embedded. Israel’s hope is in the God who has performed all of these wonders. Israel’s hope is that this God will yet again, in time to come, perform such wonders. What God has done, God will do! Hope requires knowing, treasuring, and retelling that narrative that gives inflection to the name of YHWH.
On the other hand, Israel’s doxological tradition, in somewhat different grammar, makes YHWH the subject of participles that recite the characteristic actions that YHWH does over and over and continues even now. Whereas the narratives are “one-off” occasions, the participles bespeak constant actions and reliable commitments. Perhaps the most familiar and treasured such participial recital is in Psalm 103:
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live (vv. 3-5).
Here are five participles that attest YHWH’s ongoing work done constantly and repeatedly. It belongs to YHWH’s character to be the God who “forgives, heals, redeems, crowns, and satisfies.” The God upon whom Israel waits and hopes is the God who is doing all of these things.
This doxological catalog of pastoral constancy can be readily expanded. As a show of God’s power, Isaiah has it this way:
who turns back,
who says (Isaiah 44:25-28).
The repeated use of “who says” exhibits YHWH’s capacity to authorize and command by utterance. Or in the book of Job:
who saves (Job 5:10-15).
who does great things beyond understanding,
and marvelous things without number (Job 9:5-10).
The participial form lends itself variously to the historical requirements of Israel, or to the majestic sweep of all creation. In both modes, in history and in creation, YHWH is affirmed as the God who gives, sustains, and governs life, and who resists the powers of death. The mood of doxology is so confident and so sweeping that in the voicing of Israel there can be no hindrance or hesitation about the wondrous capacity of YHWH.
When Isaiah bids Israel in exile to “wait for the Lord,” the one for whom Israel is to wait is the God featured in the thickness of the narratives and in the vitality of the participles. The sum of such specificity and constancy is that this God is a reliable giver and sustainer of life when all else fails. It is evident then, that the work of pastoral, liturgical, and educational leadership in the church is to create materials (stories, songs, dramas) whereby Israel can reperform the narrative specificities and the participial constancies in our own particular context.
For that reason, the generative work of leadership is never finished because recitals of faith are always to be reconstituted in ways that bespeak compelling contemporeneity. Such stories, songs, and dramas are in order to exhibit the irresistible force of the God who gives life to the world. Thus, the great hymns of the church have always told the story of God as creator and redeemer. The materials required for such faithfulness may be bold, confident, and artistic (this is in contrast, for example, to some so-called “praise hymns” that can sometimes feel lazy, anemic, and cowardly; they do not claim anything for God or assert anything remarkable beyond a recital of intimacy). Along with the provision of good materials for such faith, leadership is also to evoke and convene many venues, regular and ad hoc, large and small, where the faithful may together line out the narratives and participles which this inimitable God can inhabit.
In the provision of required materials and venues, we should not miss that in much of the church, conservative and liberal, we have become uneasy about such characterizations of God that constitute the core of the Bible. Conservatives tend to flatten the thickness of the narrative into a package of certitudes; liberals tend to change the subject away from vigorous holiness because such a claim is an intellectual embarrassment for “the cultured despisers of religion.” We may recognize, with a good heart, that for both conservatives and liberals, the church’s witness to God in narrative and in participle is voiced in a different dialect that does not accommodate the “low ceiling” of modernity. Not losing heart, I suspect, requires the nerve to speak in that very different dialect.
Israel is insistent that when we wait/hope in YHWH with glad hearts and full reliance on narrative specificity and participial constancy, something remarkable may happen to us. We may “renew our strength.” We may recover our courage, energy, and freedom. We may slough off the inclination to despair. Israel could indeed walk close up to despair:
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God” (Isaiah 40:27).
But what refuses despair is the regular, glad communal recital of the reality of YHWH.
Thus, our practice is to mobilize our most courageous testimony to YHWH, so that we have no room or energy left with which to inhabit the sorry condition of the world around us. Thus, the prophetic bid is to
wait for YHWH,
to hope in YHWH,
to bet on YHWH,
to take a chance on YHWH.
Wait, hope, bet, take a chance on the God who inhabits our stories and our participles, and then to notice how strength returns to us.
This is not new strength for self-sufficiency or self-regard for self-indulgence. It is, rather, new strength that moves us to act in generative ways:
Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
The poetry intends to move us into action at three different paces, depending upon our readiness and our capacity for engagement. We may:
Soar … mount up with wings like eagles,
Sprint … run and not be weary,
Stroll … walk and not faint.
What a triad of paces!
Soar … into bold actions of restorative freedom;
Sprint … make a dash for restorative justice,
Stroll … into the quiet steady work of peace.
In meeting regularly for shared celebration of this God, we come face-to-face with this holy character who occupies a core place in our lives. When we do not meet regularly to sing and tell and dance, this defining character disappears from our imagination and so from our lives; we are left to despair amid the hope-less condition of our common life that is defined by a narrative of death and by participles of either self-regard or self-despising.
The work of faith is to keep our lives focused on this dependable One in our story.
This is the one who keeps the future open, who refuses the shut-down of despair, who overrides our temptation to defeat. This is the one who makes a way out of no way, as was wondrously done amid the waters of the Exodus and the desert of the exile (see Psalm 77:19, Isaiah 33:8-10). When this one occupies our imagination, we are empowered to boldness, risk, and freedom, kept profoundly remote from all despair. Imagine, a way out of no way! We need only walk that way. It is no wonder we take ourselves to be followers of this more excellent way. We may do well to finish with John Calvin’s great hymnic affirmation:
Our hope is in no other save in thee;
our faith is built upon thy promise free;
Lord, give us peace, and make us calm and sure,
that in thy strength we evermore endure (Glory to God, 624).
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.
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