When I was right out of college, I packed three suitcases and moved from Texas to Washington, DC. My parents were understandably concerned. They were worried that I would be alone, that I would have trouble finding my own way. I’d made some connections and a few weeks after my arrival I was invited to rent a room in the home of a family. There’s a particular transience to the DC area. Nearly everyone is from somewhere else and this family was no exception. They remember what it was like to be new and they were particularly good at helping outsiders become insiders.
When I moved in, I was given a chore. My simple task was unloading the dishwasher. It may seem odd, but it made me feel like part of the family. Before too long, their friends became my friends and my friends became their friends. Our life together painted a different picture than the one we so often see in the midst of American suburban life. Like most any family, they were busy people. Their schedule was already full. The thing is, this family didn’t try to fit me into their schedule. They invited me into their life.
In reality, their decision to open their home and their lives to me and to others made their schedule easier. In the years I was living there they didn’t throw a Christmas party. They threw a Christmas decorating party. They made the chili. The guests put the lights on the tree. For anyone who was far from home this experience offered a blessed taste of home. Their hospitality welcomed us into a new kind of family.
The prophet Isaiah tells us about a new kind of family, a family that welcomes the outsider to a married land—a land filled with promise.
The nations will see your righteousness,
and all kings your glory;
you will be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.
You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand.
a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
No longer will they call you
or name your land Desolate.
But you will be called Hephzibah (married),
and your land Beulah (promised).
for the Lord will take delight in you, a
and your land will be married.Isaiah 62:2-4
The book of Isaiah is often called the fifth gospel because its pages are filled prophesies that point to the birth of Christ. It’s quoted in the New Testament more than any other book of the the Old Testament. The words of the prophet helped shape Israel’s collective memory. The first section tells the story of the power of God and of King David’s dynasty. The second section is written for the community of Israel found dejected and deported, living in exile in Babylon. The third section takes place after the return of the Israelites from Babylon. They expected a glorious restoration of Jerusalem but are met with many hardships.
Despite the hardship, there is hope. Israel will not be forsaken. The land will not be desolate forever. It will be fruitful. Her salvation will be like a blazing torch for all to see. The promise of Israel is available to all!
These three themes of Isaiah are instructive for us as we think about the life of the church.
Like Israel, we have a collective memory. Many of us remember a time when it seemed like everyone we knew went to church. Now that time has passed and it can feel like we’re living in exile. But the exile changes us. It makes us stronger. We may dream of returning to the place where we once were— that place never looks the same. The house we grew up in always feels smaller than it did when we were kids. And we can’t expect the church to look the same either. Like the prophet Isaiah, we must remember that no matter the hardship—the people who are ushered into the promise of Israel will be given a new name and a new family. The promise of Israel, the prophet says, is a torch for all to see.
When I say Israel, I don’t mean the country. I mean the promise—the promise of our salvation. The promise that God will rejoice over us. The promise that no matter how rejected and dejected we are, God wants to give all of us a new name.
A question we must ask ourselves is how the story of our life of faith in Jesus is available to all. What are the marks of our personal faith and what are the marks of our greater story of faith?A question we must ask ourselves is how the story of our life of faith in Jesus is available to all. What are the marks of our personal faith and what are the marks of our greater story of faith? Click To Tweet
Remember that we call Isaiah the fifth gospel because of all of its connections to the New Testament.
While not widely celebrated in the English speaking world, the Epiphany, or the manifestation of Christ to people who are outside of Israel is beautifully depicted in the appearing of the star to the magi—where the salvation of Israel is indeed shining like a blazing torch. Those magi follow the star to the home where Mary, Joseph and Jesus are staying. Some streams of the Church celebrate Epiphany from January 6 to the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on February 2. Others celebrate Epiphany until Mardi Gras just before the beginning of Lent.
I’m one of those Christians. I love celebrating pieces of our faith that help show our true identity. The truth is, we wouldn’t be here without the Epiphany.
Which brings us back to family. The magi are outsiders who are invited inside. They give Jesus a baby shower. This story is a tangible depiction of the fact that the whole world has been invited into the celebration of the marriage between God and his people.
Think about it. Israel was a closed family. There were rules about associating with outsiders. Through Jesus, Israel became open to the whole world. The promise that Abraham’s decadents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky (Genesis 26:4) was made known in the star that appeared over the place where the Jesus’ family was staying.
Thankfully Jesus’ family didn’t have the television up too loud when the wise men came to the door. Thankfully they didn’t need to make sure all of their laundry was folded before they let them inside.
There was something special about this family, they revealed something to the world and the world couldn’t help but notice.
The same should be true of our families—and the church as a family of families. Think about it, if God’s marriage with his people Israel resulted in the possibility of outsiders finding life within God’s life, how might God use our own families to unite himself with those who are outside of our families?If God’s marriage with his people Israel resulted in the possibility of outsiders finding life within God’s life, how might God use our own families to unite himself with those who are outside of our families? Click To Tweet
1. Celebrate holidays (holy days) that help tell the story of Jesus to your friends and neighbors who desperately need a good story! For Epiphany (Jan 6) Have your friends and neighbors bring items for kids in need. Let the children who come to the party take the wise men on a journey to the manger scene. On the Feast of the Presentation (February 2) offer to host a shower or blessing for a newborn baby in your neighborhood.
2. Invite those outside your family into your life rather than trying to fit them into your schedule. Share errands with someone who is new in town, invite your neighbors over for a spontaneous breakfast on Saturday morning and don’t clean your house beforehand.
3. Pray with your spouse, children or housemates before you go on an errand or out to eat. Ask God to show you a person who might need a blessing. People in our fresh expression of church have made this regular practice. They often come back with a story or testimony about God at work on the grocery aisle.
The promise of Israel is the promise of a new identity, a new family, a new name. It is up to us to live into the new name and to help others see that no matter where they are— the Epiphany— the manifestation of the power of God reveled in Jesus is available to all.
Gannon is the Director of Ministry Formation for Fresh Expressions US and leads the Fresh Expressions efforts of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He earned the Bachelor of Arts Degree from Baylor University and the Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. Prior to entering seminary, Gannon worked as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate and as a public affairs officer in the anti-human trafficking office at the U.S. State Department. He enjoys forging partnerships between followers of Jesus from different traditions and has served in various roles at several churches, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican. Gannon is married to Carey, who also is a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Together they work to bring fresh expressions of church to the collegiate community at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.