Life is desperate sometimes. Desperation born out of “Acts of God” and “Acts of Man.” Days when there is no hope. To you saint, “Arise, shine. Your light has come.”
Isaiah 60:1-6 (NRSV)
60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
60:2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
60:3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
60:4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
60:5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
60:6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.
My great-grandmother recently died. She was 101. She was born in 1911. A story I learned of just recently was of WWI. When it ended, she and her friend ran to the local church and rang the bell for an hour in celebration. She lived through all the seminal events of the 20th century. One that came up alot was the “Great Depression.”
Not everyone was in a state of depression when the stock market crashed in October 1929. The farmers of America’s Great Plains were enjoying the rewards of a bumper crop that year.
Everybody was looking decidedly down on Wall Street. Everything was looking up on the farms of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and the other wheat-producing states of the Plains.
Even in 1931, with the rest of the country in the grips of the Great Depression, things looked pretty good for these farmers. It seemed that the sky was the limit.
But then the sky betrayed them. The rains stopped, and these farmers were rocked by years of drought. Then the winds came, and nothing could prevent the years of devastation that followed.
Stripped of the deep-rooted grasses that kept topsoil in place, the overplowed land was swept away by apocalyptic dust storms. The region — and the collective events — became known as the Dust Bowl.
When drought struck from 1934 to 1937, the soil lacked the stronger root system of grass as an anchor, so the winds easily picked up the loose topsoil and swirled it into dense dust clouds, called “black blizzards.” Recurrent dust storms wreaked havoc, choking cattle and pasture lands and driving 60 percent of the population from the region. Most of these “exodusters” went to agricultural areas first and then to cities, especially in the Far West.
All across the plains states, cities, towns, villages emptied. Generational farms were simply abandoned. Life was without hope.
One of the characteristics of the storm was how dark it got. When the dust came, it was as though the sun was simply, blocked out.
My father was born during a dust storm on July 23, 1933 in Custer County, Oklahoma. According to my grandmother, their house was located in the country. In order for the doctor to find the house, a kerosene lantern was placed on a fence post. The birth went well and another baby boy was born in 1935. I should add that the second baby was not born during a dust storm. The family relocated to Nebraska in the late 1930s due to the Great Depression. They remained Nebraska where they became successful farmers. However, many of my grandmother’s relatives still live in Oklahoma.
— Judy Cantrell
People just left. Old men and women watched their children just pack up and leave. Schools graduated no one. Sports teams stopped playing, there was no one to play and no reason any more. Hopeless
This is the Dustbowl story of Bruce Campbell. It is excerpted from The Salt of the Earth, edited by Bernadette Tabor Pruitt (Evans Publishing Co., 1988). Campbell, of Checotah, Okla., died in 2011. His story was told to Randy Pruitt:
Bruce Campbell, like so many others, tried to ride out the Depression. However, it proved to be a wild horse nobody could saddle. Conditions in the 1930s continued to deteriorate, but what made it worse was the fact that people were depending on him: his mother, two brothers, two sisters, a wife and their baby. Campbell had become head of the household at age 19 when his father died. The drought in the summer of 1936 made his decision for him.
‘By the first of July, crops was all burnt up,’ he recalled. “By the middle of July, we had all the corn done cut off and fed green to the cows. The best cows in the country just brought $15 apiece.
“When I left Oklahoma, there wasn’t nothin’ to do, wasn’t no work to do. You didn’t have anything. It looked like starvation living anywhere you was at.”
Talk of California was drifting up and down the streets of Checotah and through back-road communities like Central High, Onapa and Mt. Nebo.
‘Cal Collins – he ran a school bus here in Onapa – he just kind of let it slide around that he was goin’ to California at a certain time and anybody that wanted to ride with him could for $10.”
Campbell and two good friends scrambled to find some money.
“I sold a pair of mule colts for $19,” he said. “When I got ready to go, I didn’t have but $28.” He used $10 of it to pay a friend’s way.
When the trio arrived to leave early that sultry August morning, they were surprised to find not 20 people – the number expected – but more.
“There was 30 of us on that truck,” he said, “20 men, five women and five kids.”
All Campbell took with him was a quilt and the clothes he wore.
The pace westward was slow and grueling. Campbell could still hear the overloaded one-ton Chevrolet truck straining up the hills in compound gear. “I was wondering if we was ever going to get there.”
They arrived September 1, after being on the road seven days and sleeping on the ground.
“We landed down there at Arvin. ‘Ragtown’, we called it. There was a string of tents as long as from here to that road up yonder,” he said, indicating a half mile. “I had two dollars and a quarter and I’d never been to California.
“I went to work two days after I got there for old Don Jay Kavokavitch on a grape farm. I worked there for a few days then went to picking cotton. I stayed there three weeks and then I went over to McFarland to a camp south of Greenfield to a grape vineyard. I stayed there two years.”
The migrant camp, he said, was filled with people, mostly from Oklahoma and Arkansas.
At one point, his wife and seven-month-old son joined him. They lived in a chicken house rented for $4 a month.
“When you went to the field to work in the day, they hauled your water out in 55-gallon barrels strapped down to an old trailer behind a cotton truck. That water was hot enough you could shave with it when you was drinkin’ it. The only time you could get a cool drink was early in the morning.”
Campbell lived alongside the destitute, people who looked like they weren’t going to hang on for another week.
“In the winter of ’36, lots of people was out of work and they wasn’t no welfare out there. I don’t know how some of ’em got by. Of course, a lot of ’em made it. You’d see ’em sittin’ around, didn’t have no jobs. I guess I been lucky. I could always get a job. Might not make much, but I could always get a job.”
California held few fond memories for Campbell. While many Oklahomans stayed, he chose to leave and never return.
“I didn’t leave nothin’ out there to go back after,” he said.
He returned to Oklahoma with $54.
“I came home and borrowed $35 from the bank to buy a horse with and made a one-horse crop in ’38 and ’39.”
Campbell had read The Grapes of Wrath. “It was just about as bad as it read. Some things was exaggerated a little and some things wasn’t bad enough.”
The Dustbowl is one memory that would be burned into his mind forever.
“We’ve had a lot of droughts but none as bad as ’36,” he said. “I’d planted cotton in May of ’36, barefooted, and my tracks were just as plain when I left in August as they’d been when I planted it. It was just dry enough my barefooted tracks was still there and cotton hadn’t come up.
“In September, when I was in California, I got a letter from my mother. ‘It rained,’ she wrote. ‘You got a real pretty stand of cotton.’ The cotton seed had laid there all summer.”
— Bernadette Pruitt
This is the story of of a hopeless people. This is the story of a people in need of something, anything to help them get through.
Of course, the story of the dust bowl is not just about no rain, its about how the earth was treated, how the land was changed and stripped bare by those that simply didn’t understand how their plowing up the native grasses would impact the soil. The rain stopped coming and the wind blew but there was nothing to keep the dirt down.
It was an “Act of God” but it was also an act of man.
Isaiah speaks to these people. He speaks life to these people.
That is the story of this passage. Isaiah preached to a people who had left the “old ways, the old paths.” They had abandoned their reason for being. They had stopped acting as the children of God.
This is “3rd Isaiah.” This book was not written in order, as one complete thought, it was written to specific audiences. This one are those who were left after Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem and sacked it. When he came it was terror. He sacked the city and took everything from it that meant anything. Took everything that had value and meaning. He destroyed the Temple and took thousands of the young. Took the craftsmen, the layers, the accountants, the doctors, the religious. He took them all and left in their place, the old, the broken, the weak.
Read their confession:
Isaiah 59:9-15 (The Message)
9-11 Which means that we’re a far cry from fair dealing, and we’re not even close to right living. We long for light but sink into darkness, long for brightness but stumble through the night. Like the blind, we inch along a wall, groping eyeless in the dark. We shuffle our way in broad daylight, like the dead, but somehow walking. We’re no better off than bears, groaning, and no worse off than doves, moaning. We look for justice—not a sign of it; for salvation—not so much as a hint.
12-1 5 Our wrongdoings pile up before you, God, our sins stand up and accuse us. Our wrongdoings stare us down; we know in detail what we’ve done: Mocking and denying God, not following our God, Spreading false rumors, inciting sedition, pregnant with lies, muttering malice. Justice is beaten back, Righteousness is banished to the sidelines, Truth staggers down the street, Honesty is nowhere to be found, Good is missing in action. Anyone renouncing evil is beaten and robbed.
The pain is palpable. They have failed. They are defeated. The image is that old Western you watched as a kid. The saloon, the sheriff’s office, the post/general store/hardware store. The bad guys are in town. The rain is pelting downward turning the street into mud and muck. I love the image of Justice being beaten back. He wants to help. He wants to succeed but he is beaten down in the street. As he lays there in the blood and mud, Righteousness wants to come out but she has been banished. She is sidelined and has to watch, as a spectator, as Justice bleeds out, beaten by evil. Truth staggers down the street, drunk, in a stupor, unable to reveal anything – the function of truth. Materialism taken it’s place. Good is simply not there. Not anywhere. Nowhere to be seen. Evil is complete. The darkness has overwhelmed the town. Those who might dare to renounce it hide in their homes, afraid of anything and everything. They crouch behind broken glass afraid. In the dark, everything inspired terror. To the terrorized, they are powerless.
In the OT, God relates to a people. Not particularly individuals but a nation. In the NT, a change takes place where God interacts with the Kingdom, this kingdom made up of you and me. We are the kingdom of God. When we read these old texts, I wonder, have we ever been here? Have we walked that path? Has truth been drunk in our lives, unable to reveal anything to us because of the lies we keep telling ourselves? Has darkness ever overwhelmed your thoughts and your being? Has Righteousness been sidelined?
Have you ever felt this empty? Experienced that humiliation and depression of the “years the locusts took?” Watched your children, your dreams just up and walk away because of the blows that life and your decisions dealt you?
16-19 God looked and saw evil looming on the horizon— so much evil and no sign of Justice. He couldn’t believe what he saw: not a soul around to correct this awful situation. So he did it himself, took on the work of Salvation, fueled by his own Righteousness. He dressed in Righteousness, put it on like a suit of armor, with Salvation on his head like a helmet, Put on Judgment like an overcoat, and threw a cloak of Passion across his shoulders. He’ll make everyone pay for what they’ve done: fury for his foes, just deserts for his enemies. Even the far-off islands will get paid off in full. In the west they’ll fear the name of God, in the east they’ll fear the glory of God, For he’ll arrive like a river in flood stage, whipped to a torrent by the wind of God. (God’s coming in power. The marshal has arrived and it’s on!! He picks up Justice, heals him; lets Righteousness free from the sidelines; sobers up Truth; releases Good upon the town!! God is here and darkness is banished!!)
20″I’ll arrive in Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who leave their sins.” God’s Decree.
21″As for me,” God says, “this is my covenant with them: My Spirit that I’ve placed upon you and the words that I’ve given you to speak, they’re not going to leave your mouths nor the mouths of your children nor the mouths of your grandchildren. You will keep repeating these words and won’t ever stop.” God’s orders.
The passage begins with a reference to light. In the darkness, everything causes fear. In the darkness, little things seem overwhelming and terrifying – in the light, they lose their power. “The people that have walked in darkness have seen a great light, upon those, living in the shadow of death, a light has shined.” (9:2)
Light brings hope. Light brings life. What sustains the community – the only thing that can sustain us through all our crises – is the faith that we are loved by God and that we exist for a purpose. We are here for each other, for the world around us, for God. We are sustained by that great hope.
I love, love, love, the image that closes our text – “Lift up your eyes, they are coming home to you. Your sons. Your daughters.” They are not the same. They have been changed by the journey but here they are. This place will return to some glory. It will not be the same, it will be better for you are better. You are changed.
Saints, this year, this Epiphany – know that you are better. You are changed. You are different now than you were. This last year may have been a year of great pain and sorrow for you. Maybe you failed, put Justice, Righteousness, Truth and Goodness on the sideline, wallowed in the Darkness, watched it overtake your life. Saints, upon you, the Light of Christ has shined!!! You are not alone! You are not forgotten! You are favored by your God! Look Up! You are coming home.
Just as you had a hand in your destruction, you have a hand in your redemption. Come to Jesus. Come to the Light. Bask in the glory.
Isaiah 60:1-7 (The Message)
“Get out of bed, Jerusalem!
Wake up. Put your face in the sunlight.
God’s bright glory has risen for you.
The whole earth is wrapped in darkness,
all people sunk in deep darkness,
But God rises on you,
his sunrise glory breaks over you.
Nations will come to your light,
kings to your sunburst brightness.
Look up! Look around!
Watch as they gather, watch as they approach you:
Your sons coming from great distances,
your daughters carried by their nannies.
When you see them coming you’ll smile—big smiles!
Your heart will swell and, yes, burst!
All those people returning by sea for the reunion,
a rich harvest of exiles gathered in from the nations!
And then streams of camel caravans as far as the eye can see,
young camels of nomads in Midian and Ephah,
Pouring in from the south from Sheba,
loaded with gold and frankincense,
preaching the praises of God.