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The Politics of Giving Hope—Isaiah 51:1-6 (Fritz Wendt)

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. 2Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. 3For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.

4Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. 5I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. 6Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.

When, in 1952, Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote his short story “Der Tunnel” (“The Tunnel”), he created a surrealistic classic. The protagonist of the story is a 24-year-old student who boards his usual train for his university, but finds that when the train enters a very small tunnel, the tunnel does not end. The darkness continues for 10, 15, 20 minutes. The student gets nervous, but the other passengers are calm, because they don’t see (or don’t want to see) the imminent catastrophe.

The student finds the train conductor, and questions him about what is going on with the train. The conductor is evasive at first, but eventually leads the student to the locomotive, which is empty. The conductor tells the student that the engineer already jumped when he realized what was happening to the train. After a failed attempt to pull the emergency brake, the train gets faster and faster, tipping into an abyss.

Finally, the train is heading completely vertically and the falling student lands on the front glass of the still falling locomotive, where he greedily stares into the oncoming darkness. The train conductor, ever concerned with duty, asks what they should do, but the student answers: “Nothing … God let us fall. And now we’ll come upon him.” In the second version, published in 1978, Dürrenmatt abridged the ending, omitting the last two sentences and letting the story end with the word “Nothing”.

Dürrenmatt’s short story can be read as a description of how every life inescapably approaches a catastrophe (death, for example), and that people escape into banality to avoid their terror. Others read the story as a social commentary on the ignorance of society in the face of imminent disaster, as people place unquestioning trust in leaders without concern for where they are being led.

Above all, Dürrenmatt’s is a story about hope—losing it and finding it. So is our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 51. That passage is part of a pastoral sermon Second Isaiah is preaching in order to bring comfort and hope to a community struggling to recover from mass exile. When many of his contemporaries feel like the author of Lamentations (“Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord”—Lamentations 3:18), he starts healing the wounds of disorientation.

The prophet wakes up the people of God by bombarding them with imperatives such as “listen” and “look”, and, as he creates a kind of collage of Israel’s history, he uses poetic license, freely mixing and remixing themes of the past:

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. (Verses 1-5)

As Second Isaiah artfully weaves the old traditions into his poetic sermon, he sounds notes these hopeless people haven’t heard in a long time. He makes them re-member; that is, he reminds them that they have dismembered themselves the moment they gave up on hope. As he helps them re-member, he invites them to regain what they have cut off: the fact that they have a history with God: “I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.”

Amid the ruins, surrounded by the taunts of the skeptics, and tempted by doubt, the prophet asserts his willingness to stretch into the future. He looks at the ruins, and with the eyes of faith, sees what God can do with a pile of rubble. He is ready for God, and he is able to rest upon God. He has no guarantee and no signs of victory except for his conviction that God has not stopped being gracious and loving.

The author’s trust in God opens up new possibilities for the barren and ravaged world in which he lives. He is not caught up in what his less hopeful contemporaries might call their realism; he is able to envision a new world.

Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended. Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my teaching in your hearts; do not fear the reproach of others, and do not be dismayed when they revile you. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but my deliverance will be forever, and my salvation to all generations. (verses 6-8)

I contend that our perspective on life is dependent on whether or not we believe that God is present in the stories of each of our lives. If our answer to the question of the chief conductor (“What shall we do?”) is “Nothing”, then we have given up on hope. However, if we answer, “Nothing … God let us fall. And now we’ll come upon him,” there is hope and meaning even when we are still terrified.

Rev. William Barber II, North Carolina minister and political leader, wrote of the odd way his grandmother used the word “hope” whenever she and her friends had finished cooking a meal:

She and some of the other sisters from the church would make up some to-go plates and, with their aprons still on, head out the door to visit the sick and shut-in. ‘We going to hope somebody,’ Grandmama would say.

Pastor Barber describes how he finally understood what his grandmother meant when doctors told him that he would never walk again: “When no one could help me, I needed somebody to hope me.” Barber learned to live again against all his hopelessness because there were people who instilled hope in him.

Hope is a serious activity, and as the people of God, we are some of the best-equipped people to practice hope. Is anyone hoping? Is anyone having a vision? Is anyone holding on to that true strong way of looking at the world?

Nevertheless, there will be those who say, “There is no light at the end of the tunnel.” When you hear it from others or from voices within yourselves, then it is your task to say, “I am practicing hope.” When they say, “What’s the use in complaining? The politicians will do what they want anyway,” tell them, “I am practicing hope.”

Tell them you hope because your Lord is your light. Tell them you know there is a light at the end of the tunnel because that light is your Lord. When they say, “The train of this world is going to hell,” tell them they are wrong. When they say, “The train of this nation is going to hell,” tell them they are wrong. Tell them that you have hope.

No matter how established we may think we are in this life, we are always on the way to another. To steady our step and to guide our path, we need to practice hope. The more we do so, the greater is the chance that others will imitate our practice, so that they too learn to hope even when it seems as though the light at the end of the tunnel is far off.

We pray: Come, Holy Spirit, come in visitation; you are the truth, our hope, and our salvation. Baptize with joy and pow’r; give, O Dove descending, life never ending. Amen.


Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.

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