Looking to the Rocks

August 13th, 2014

Isaiah 51:1-6

The Chinese wedding was about to begin in the family home. We had been invited as special guests to an intimate family gathering. We gathered with the family in the front hall, bowed low to the parents as required by traditional Chinese custom, then gave appropriate, individual, Chinese greetings to the bride and groom, wishing them peace and prosperity in their new life. We then moved to the side of the room for the special family festivities to begin. Trying not to intrude on this very intimate family moment, we observed the traditional customs that began the Chinese wedding day.

In the front room of the home was a long, oblong, black-lacquered table. On the table stood two vases of tall red gladiolas and white chrysanthemums beautifully arranged in the two corners. In the center were black, long, marble tablets with Chinese characters, written in a beautiful, flowing Chinese script. Other items, such as prayer stones and family portraits, were scattered on the lace doily that was in the middle. As the day of special celebration began, after the greeting of family and friends, the couple made their way to the table. The groom, dressed in fine attire, formal suit with white shirt and shiny black shoes, and the bride, in a white wedding gown and long veil, looking more like a model from a magazine in the USA than a traditional Chinese bride, stood reverently in front of the table. In a few moments, words were softly spoken, so soft that we could not fully hear. The ritual bowing began, bowing to the table, to the parents flanked on either side of the table, and then to one another. The central point of interest for the wedding party was not the table, the flowers, or the prayer stones, but the large, black tablets with ancient Chinese words. Later I would learn about those important tablets.

My friend, the brother of the beautiful bride, would tell me the meaning of the ritual at the end of day, when the bride and groom had left the house and we could talk in private. I learned that we had observed a very important and intimate family ritual in a traditional Chinese household. I learned that before every important family event, the ancestors are remembered. The large table, which featured the tall, black tablets, symbolized the presence of the many generations of ancestors, gone on before. Their names were carefully written on the tablets, representing more than ten preceding generations. In moments of joy or sadness, despair or celebration, members of the family would stop by the ancestor shelf and remember their dead relatives, or as our text calls them, “the rocks from which you were hewn.” My friend told me that in moments of great decision making, regarding a job, a marriage, buying a house, the ancestors were always consulted. Likewise, in the times of loss, of death, of financial anxiety, the ancestors were also remembered. They were always there.

The author of Isaiah 51 knows the power of remembering the ancestors, especially in the time of trouble. Chapters 40–55 were written during the time of the Babylonian exile. Loneliness, despair, homesickness, financial destitution, loss of family and property describe the state of affairs for the Israelites. In 586 B.C., Babylon conquered Israel, taking all the citizens into exile, forcing them into slavery, using their skills as carpenters and artists for the strengthening of the Babylonian Empire. Jerusalem was a distant memory. The precious temple was gone. They were in a strange land. The psalmist describes this pain and longing: “By the rivers of Babylon— / there we sat down and there we wept / when we remembered Zion. / On the willows there / we hung our harps. / For there our captors / asked us for songs, / and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, / ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ / How could we sing the LORD’s song / in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4) What are they to do in this state of constant despair?

They listen to the words of the Isaiah: “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.” These words of comfort give strength. The rationale is clear. Even while living in exile, in the Diaspora, among the many dislocated, distressed citizens of Jerusalem, one can know that the blessing is not gone, that life is not over. Even Abraham, who was just one person, was given hope when he was called. So much more will the blessing be for an entire nation, who has been brought into the pit of despair by a dominating power of oppression. God will bring comfort and power to the weary child of Abraham and Sarah. The way to hope, however, is to remember the “rocks from which you came”—your family of generations past.

The promise is there, written in the words of the earlier prophets. The reality is even closer in the presence of the dead ancestors. We can receive strength by remembering those who have gone on before. The ancient church placed in the calendar a special day of remembrance, called All Saints or All Soul’s Day. The modern church remembers those who have died by special memorial offerings, memorial plaques in stained-glass windows, special flowers at Easter and Christmas. Country church cemeteries provided a constant, weekly reminder for the family walking the familiar path to the door of the church, while glancing toward the tombstone or grave marker of a dead relative. The saints, the great cloud of witnesses, still speak to us today. From their faithfulness, the lessons in courage, examples of persistent living, we gain hope for the living of these days.

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