The prophet Isaiah calls the Israelites “worms” and “maggots” and does so, not to insult them, but to signify what has become of them after terrible catastrophes have left them enslaved or in exile.
Around the year 722 BC the armies of the Assyrian Empire laid waste to the northern territories of the Israelites, decimating the population that lived there. 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel were annihilated and those that survived disappeared into exile.
In the year 587 BC the southern territories of the Israelites were invaded by the armies of the Babylonian Empire, the inhabitants were enslaved or driven from the land, the city of Jerusalem with its temple were utterly destroyed.
This is the context from which we can understand the prophet Isaiah’s words. He is speaking to a people who have experienced the worse, and fear that even worse things are yet to come.
Isaiah’s words are filled with consolation, as he assures the Israelites that despite all appearances, their God has not abandoned them and he will rescue his people.
This promise was cherished by the Israelites, who longed to see the day the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God as Savior of his people would be revealed.
Christians believe that God has revealed himself as the Savior in Jesus Christ. We believe that Christ is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies and that it was Christ whom Isaiah foresaw in his visions and dreams.
Precisely how Christ is God the Savior defied the expectations of many Israelites who expected a worldly warlord who would deal with the enemies of the Israelites through force of arms. God had another plan in mind and his plan is related to us in the Gospels.
God’s plan would be to not to violently engage the political or cultural enemies of the Israelites, but the powers that lurked behind them and supported them- the dark powers of sin, death and the devil. Having defeated these powers, God in Christ would re-establish Israel in a new way, and through this new Israel, effect the transformation of the world.
This is the Church. The Church is an integral player in God in Christ’s plan to rescue, to redeem and to save.
Or at least it is the Church when we do not, in our narrowness or in our defiance, stand against or athwart Christ’s mission for the Church.
There is much at stake when we subvert Christ’s will for the Church, when we attempt to make the Church into something that is exclusively there to serve our own causes and needs, when we insist that the Church be ever more what we want and less what Christ wants. When this happens, the Church cannot fulfill its mission of world transformation and as the Church falters in her mission, then the powers of sin, death and the devil re-assert themselves.
The Israelites came to understand that it was their unwillingness to be the people God wanted them to be that weakened them and made the vulnerable to their enemies. When the Israelites faltered in their mission, the world became a darker place. So it is with the Church.
This lesson is as urgent for the Church to learn as well.
Christ’s words in his Gospel might seem cryptic. He praises John the Baptist, extolling his virtues and identifying him as one of the greatest of all the children of men.
But then Christ speaks of his Kingdom, observing that it suffers violence and that the violent seize his Kingdom by force.
Sages and scholars debate the meaning of this strange observation, some noting that the Church will always be set against and in conflict with the dark powers that lurk in the world.
Others understand in Christ’s words a reference to the fierce asceticism, willingness to endure hardship, and self-sacrifice that was manifest in the John of the Baptist and all the great prophets of the Bible. Christ’s Kingdom will come, but not without sacrifice, not without risk, not without a willingness to struggle and the strength to endure.
For the sake of Christ’s Kingdom, for his Church, what will be our sacrifice? What will be our risk? What is our struggle? Do we have the strength to endure?