God often preaches to me through the text I’m supposed to preach to other people. This week I’ve been wrestling with Isaiah 62:1 where he writes, “For Zion’s sake I will not hold my peace… until her righteousness shines forth like the dawn.” It’s a perfect encapsulation of the zeal of a prophet, which is something I feel called to be and often fail at doing right.
Anybody who’s journeyed with me knows that I have a lot of trouble holding my peace. Sometimes I really feel like it’s right to speak up, but other times I say careless things that don’t make Zion shine. What I wonder as I turn this verse over in my mind is what Isaiah was refusing to hold back: praise or criticism? Does he make Zion shine by standing up for her against other peoples’ attacks or by naming the flaws that make her ugly so they can be removed to stop covering up her beauty? To put this question into today’s terms: when are you supposed to critique the church and when are you supposed to stand up for it?
Zion was originally the word for the hill where King David conquered the Jebusite fortress that preceded his capital city of Jerusalem. It became known as the “mountain of the Lord,” and in the imagination of the Israelite prophets, it came to transcend a specific physical location but became a word for what the world would look like if everyone worshiped God together: in other words, the city of God.
Zion is contrasted Biblically with Babylon, another name taken from a historical place that came to symbolize what the world looks like when it’s centered around man instead of God, whether this takes the form of an empire that conquers or a market that seduces. The problem is that every one of us inhabits Zion and Babylon at the same time. Moreover we often confuse the two.
This is the problem Isaiah describes about his fellow Israelites in Isaiah 2:7: “Their land is full of silver and gold; there is no end to their treasure. Their land is full of horses; there is no end to their chariots.” Though Israel was God’s people and were supposed to be the society in which God could make Zion manifest, they had for all practical purposes become Babylon because of their worship of weapons and treasure. Israel’s history is the story of a people who went back and forth between being a Zion people who depended on God and a Babylon people who depended on worldly power and wealth.
One way of describing the Israelite prophets’ vocation is to say that they sought to defend Zion from turning into Babylon. When the Israelites put their trust in worldly things over God or caused injustice in their societies that was out of step with Zion, the prophets would call them out, even though they were often persecuted or killed for doing so. In comparison with other ancient cultures, it is remarkable how openly self-critical ancient Israel was. No other ancient culture talked as negatively about its kings as Israel. Look at the books of 1st and 2nd Kings and see how many kings are described as “doing evil in the sight of the Lord.” Only a handful like Josiah, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and maybe a couple more are called good kings. This transparency became the norm because the prophets made it socially acceptable to publicly criticize the king, a practice which would have been unheard of in other ancient societies. Zion had to be defended even from kings whose job was to defend Zion.
In any case, what I’m wrestling with is how to defend Zion in our world today. We live in several overlapping contexts. On the one hand, I feel like I’m supposed to name Babylon whenever it rears its ugly head among God’s people and thus defend Zion from corruption. But what about when people outside the church are critical of Christians? My instinct is to try and show them that not all Christians are the same way in order to shatter their stereotypes. I feel like part of my outreach is to listen to the church’s critics without being defensive and to affirm whatever truth can be affirmed with integrity. The trouble is when I get carried way trying to show that I’m not like “those Christians you’re talking about” and I end up selling out my own people. If it happens in a public setting, then fellow Christians who see it can feel discouraged and betrayed, which seems a failure to defend Zion.
So it seems like defending Zion involves a balance between being forthright about our imperfections as a church so that we can look more like the Zion that is waiting to shine in our midst and at the same time making sure that how we talk about our flaws is not going to demoralize Christians who are just trying to be faithful disciples. Zion is perfect because Zion is the realm of a perfectly just and loving God; we are sinners who will never run out of imperfections to polish away so that we can reflect the beauty of God’s perfect city. So let’s defend Zion and shake the Babylon out of our churches.