In the 12-Step Program of Recovery from the disease of addiction, a primary vehicle of the spiritual solution the program offers is meetings, when members come together to support one another by sharing their experience and hope with each other. One thing every meeting has in common, regardless of the specific focus – whether it’s an Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous or Alanon, etc. meeting – is that it begins and ends with prayer. The prayers help members remember that they are powerless over their addiction or obsession, that they have tried everything to free themselves of the substance, behavior or thought pattern which has a hold on them and have failed, and that no human power can relieve them. Through the prayers, they remember and claim again that there is one who has the power to relieve them of their obsession and to restore them to well-being and sane thinking and that one is God, a benevolent Higher Power. always.
Often, the closing prayer begins with a call and response, with one person asking the group, “Who keeps us sober?” to which the group confidently responds, “God” followed by the Serenity Prayer. The call and response I find the most powerful is, “Who hangs the stars?” And the group, with voices raised, responds, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name….”
We humans have a built-in forgetter. Addictions can serve to uncover this truth readily. Though an addiction or obsession may bring us to our knees in surrender, out of desperation for relief, if we don’t stay “spiritually fit,” (Alcoholics Anonymous), eventually we will forget the harmful part of the disease, and only remember the relief we felt when engaged with our obsession. We will forget that the pleasure we felt was always ever so fleeting, and that it left us in despair, desperate and alone again and again.
“Who hangs the stars?” Having asked and answered this question together once again, the 12-Step group members depart their meeting remembering that, though they themselves are forgetful, there is a loving Higher Power at work on a Cosmic scale, who never forgets. They depart with renewed hope that the God who remembers the stars, remembers them, too, and is at work restoring them to lives of usefulness, joy and freedom.
In today’s passage the prophet Isaiah is preaching to God’s people, the people of Judah, who, like us, have a built-in forgetter; they have forgotten who they are, as God’s children. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”, the prophet asks them. “Hasn’t it been told you from the beginning? Don’t you remember? It is God the Holy One who says to you, ‘To whom will you compare me; who is my equal? Look up at the sky. Who hung those stars, numbered them, and gave them names? Not one is missing, left out or forgotten, because I, the Holy One, am great in strength, awesome in power.’”
The people’s history and present reality have fostered their forgetfulness, leading them to doubt God and to lose hope. Many years ago, they were forced to leave their homeland by the superpower Babylonian, which invaded their land, sacked the Holy City of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple – the proof of God’s presence with them – and forced the people of Judah into exile in the land of Babylon.
The people of Judah were warned this was going to happen by prophets who came before Isaiah. But, as biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine points out, “Nobody likes prophets; they give bad news, [and] we don’t want to hear what they have to say. But we all need a prophet.” (The Great Courses: The Old Testament, 2001). While they were still in Judah, God sent the prophet Jeremiah to warn them to stay devoted to God no matter what. Jeremiah grieved as he witnessed the people grow in self-reliance, and become convinced that they were untouchable by any enemy force. Afterall, they inherited the promises of God to David, and to Abraham before him, that God would be their god and they would be God’s people, forever. No harm could possibly befall them, they reasoned.
Jeremiah kept warning them that were not immune to calamity, that they would suffer for forsaking Yahweh. Nevertheless, the people of Judah kept putting God’s decrees to the test. Contrary to God’s command to put no one or thing before God, they began dabbling in alliances with other, more powerful nations, lured by their power and other “shiny” things. The people forgot God and God’s promise to be faithful to them forever. Babylon came, conquered, and took them into captivity.
Next, God sent the prophet Ezekiel to the now exiled people of Judah. They didn’t want to listen to him either. He brought a word of judgment to them, exhorting them to repent, and return their devotion to God. Among other idolatries, the people had begun worshiping the foreign gods of Babylon – images made from wood and metal. The people did not share Ezekiel’s sense of urgency, for they were convinced they would not be in exile for very long, that their return home would happen any day now.
As AJ Levine imagines, the people say to themselves something like, “Yes, we probably deserve what we’re getting, but God’s loyalty will bring a quick end to this, this won’t last long.” Ezekiel warns them otherwise, telling them to settle in, for this exile will go on for a long time.
Like our faith ancestors in Isaiah, we too can become forgetful of God’s promises of loyalty to and for us. Many things can “threaten our memory of God’s faithfulness…political threats and discord, social upheavals and polarity; a pandemic that goes on and on, bringing great loss, grief, despair, isolation and separation from those we love and a lifestyle or security we once enjoyed.” (Richard A. Puckett, Feasting on the Word.)
Like the people of Judah, we may feel we are in our own exile. We are growing weary. We may forget that there is no one like God in trustworthiness, no one like God to provide for us, and go after quick fixes for our pain and discomfort. Or, in this time of great need and suffering, we may seek God out in new ways, or for the first time, and wonder, “I see your stars, God, but where are you? I can’t hear you. You are taking too long!”
Jeremiah warned the people of Judah with great lamentations, Ezekiel judged the people, calling them to repent, and now the prophet Isaiah brings words that console. As the people saw the prior prophesies of their fate come to pass, they now have more openness to hear and believe that, though they’ve lived in exile for decades now, they will return home one day.
Isaiah calls the people to remembrance. “Have you not heard? Have you not remembered what you have been told from the foundations of the earth? Look up at the sky. Who hangs the stars? Yahweh is so vast, infinite, cosmic in magnificence, power and glory. Yahweh has come to console you.”
Isaiah reminds them that God, their Cosmic Consoler, has seen them through exile all these years and will continue to see them through. The prophet tells them to get ready, for it’s time to go home (Levine, AJ).
It is not for nothing that the people are restored to their homeland and restored in their devotion to God. It’s not for nothing that they remember once again their God of Cosmic Consolation and come to praise and glorify God with shouts of thanksgiving. Later in the book of Isaiah we will hear the prophet proclaim God’s promise: “I will make you a light to the nations, so that my salvation will reach people all over the world” (Isaiah 49:6)…so they too will be restored by my Cosmic love, lived out by you.
The prophet’s words are no less for us today. “Have you not known? Don’t you remember? It is I, the Holy One who created the heavens, who gives life to you. Look up and see. I care about the majesty of the stars; I name and claim them. And in comparison, my beloved people, you are like grasshoppers – fragile, tender, here on earth but for a breath – and yet I care intimately for you and about you.”
“Don’t you remember,” Isaiah preaches on, “the everlasting God gives power to the powerless, strengthens the faint hearted, lifts up the weary, and never ever grows tired. All who live expectantly for God’s consoling care shall run with energy, shall fly like the eagle, shall be restored to life anew!”
As for our faith ancestors, our restoration is not for nothing. In the gospels, Jesus demonstrates this over and over. Every person Jesus heals is restored to wellbeing, to community, to their true vocation of telling others the wonders God has done, and of loving and serving in Jesus’ name. Any experience large or small that we have of being restored serves to return us to our true vocation, also – of serving as vessels of God’s Cosmic, consoling love.
A newspaper headline from May 2020 reads: “US Native tribes and Ireland’s 170-year-old connection is renewed in the pandemic: The Choctaw gave to Ireland during the Great Famine. Now a fundraiser for the Navajo and Hopi nations has Ireland paying it forward” (https://www.vox.com/2020/5/13/21251420/choctaw-ireland-navajo-hopi-gofundme-coronavirus).
The article reads:
When members of the Choctaw Nation heard about the struggles of the Irish in the Great Famine in 1847, the tribe gathered up about $170 — $5,000 in today’s dollars — to send overseas for “the relief of the starving poor of Ireland.” The Choctaw gave the money to Ireland about 16 years after the Trail of Tears, America’s brutal forced relocation of the nation from the southeastern United States to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. That gift, coming so soon after the nation’s own tragedy, is lodged into Irish collective memory. The story is taught in schools and has been honored with a sculpture in Middleton, in County Cork. Irish Prime visited the Choctaw Nation in 2018 to pay tribute to the gift.
Last spring, when the COVID-19 virus began to ravage the Navajo and Hopi nations in the southwest USA, the families of these tribes started the Navajo & Hopi Families Covid-19 Relief Fund. As of May 8, 2020, the fund had raised than $3.6 million. More than 20,000 of the donors were from Ireland.
Here is an example of the “beautiful circle of life,” and the cosmic nature of God’s love, deeply planted within each of us – a love that when lived out, will grow cosmically, spanning generations, oceans, continents. This story shows how we can serve to help spread God’s Cosmic Consolation to every corner of the world.
The prophet Isaiah said (40:9), “Get yourselves up to a high mountain, people! Shout the glad tidings that your God, who never forgets you, is here, now!” This is the same glad tidings Jesus of Nazareth preached in his very first sermon (Mark 1:15), “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God has come among you!”
May we too shout the Good News – that God, who hangs the stars, is here among us now, loving us with a Cosmic, consoling love. May we remember anew today!