As I sit to write this, it’s one of those times in the year where everyone is starting to wrap up their old lists of to do’s while looking ahead to what is next. This is true for me as well. One of the largest personal projects I am currently wrapping up is a year long commitment to the book of Isaiah. Yeah I know, what a book to voluntarily spend a year in. The wariness toward it was exactly my reason though. What is it about this message of doom and gloom for an idol-toting, child sacrificing nation who had forgotten who they were that feeds the otherworldly hope in our most ancient and joyous Christmas carols? How can it be so daunting a book to study, yet still fill us with wordless wonder? While I came it at it with all these questions, I find myself leaving with something completely unexpected — excitement over imagination’s role in God’s kingdom here, now.
I am certainly not claiming any specialized insight here, it’s just that I’ve never noticed how imaginative the book of Isaiah is and how applicable that same type of imagination is to us right now. Consider: In the middle of all of Isaiah’s doom and gloom messages for Israel, there is an equal amount of hope offered as well. Judgement is coming! Yet so is someone who can save you. The nations will rise up and crush you! Yet the King of the world will also rise. Your kingdom will be completely destroyed and you’ll be dragged from your homes! Yet another kingdom is coming, a kingdom that cannot be moved. Over and over again, through the Word itself, the commentaries, the historical bits and bobs, it all pointed to the same thing – The kingdom coming. Why?
It was about midway through the year that I first started to piece this together, and I think I have Andrew Abernathy to thank for that. His summary of the main themes of Isaiah in “The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom” caught and captivated me for months.
“Within theology, imagination is not simply to dream up the impossible or unreal. The dramatic play that fuels christian play is altogether different: it is the ability to form mental images of what is really present – the kingdom of God – even though it cannot be perceived empirically by the senses”
The words of Scottish preacher and storyteller George Macdonald, which I stumbled across later, explained that same concept of theological imagination a bit deeper. And by “deeper,” I suppose I mean it in a way that dips down into the fairy land that is the philosophical realm and brings a handful up into everyday life, making it no longer just concept but application.
“A wise imagination, which is the presence of the spirit of God, is the best guide that man or woman can have; for it is not the things we see the most clearly that influences us the most powerfully; undefiled yet vivid visions of something beyond, something which eye has not seen nor ear heard, have far more influence than any logical sequences whereby the same things may be demonstrated to the intellect.”
Isaiah must have had this wise imagination that could be called the very presence of God’s Spirit. He must have strained to see the really real, the kingdom to come. How else could he have endured this suicide mission that he volunteered for? Walking around naked, living in odd situations, people not listening, finally dying at their hands. Which begs a whole other point – might the doom in Isaiah’s message be rooted in Israel’s imagination gone horribly wrong? They were certainly shaping that imagination of theirs with everything but the wisdom of God, which sounds scarily familiar, doesn’t it? Yet, here is where hope steps in. Time and time and time again with every inch of doom, God still offered Israel hope in a joy unseen. Unseen. It would be years upon years before that unseen joy became a reality in the Messiah, years upon years of walking forward in blind hope.
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow… If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.”
They only needed to say yes, to believe forward with imaginative hope. Also familiar, isn’t it? Flipping ahead a few books, I found why.
“Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb.12:1)
Did you catch that? Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before Him. Joy that was not yet real, just a vision of hope urging Him forward. And just like He did, just like Israel had to do, we are to do the same. That, my friends, struck me with holy excitement, “So this is what imagination as God intended it looks like!” The eyes to see beyond shadow and into the shining reality that is God’s kingdom. A kingdom in which even now, despite our shadowy state, we live and move and have our being within.
As I shelve Isaiah, the residue of excitement is not all that’s staying with me, there’s a sense of responsibility now too. Imagination is something to be treasured and nurtured, not just packed away into the nostalgia of childhood. Or maybe, that’s where we have it right? Perhaps the really wise and responsible thing to do is to simply to remember ourselves as children of God and to humbly, as children, hop from one nail imprinted footprint to another through grey shadows and into the bright beyond.