The call of the prophet Isaiah is exciting and disturbing with the glory of God made visible and yet in contrast the painful commissioning of the prophet to forewarn those who do not want to hear or see or know. Somehow even in this desolation the word is still a holy seed. (RCL Isaiah 6:1-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; and Luke 5:1-11.)
The call of Simon Peter the fisherman to be a follower of Jesus and a fisher of people is well known and well loved. And like most good stories one which reverberates at multiple levels from Sunday School songs and actions to deep life changing meditations on being called.
But what are we to make of the words of the prophet Isaiah this week? This is a very grown up and hard to hear call. I’m not sure what sprang to your mind as you were listening to the words of the prophet Isaiah, but it is bleak imagery indeed. And in this current world of pandemic and worsening climate change and disaster, emptying churches and empty political rhetoric, there are a lot of ways in which we might wonder if our ears, eyes and hearts have been hardened (or at least the rest of our generation!). We need to be careful about applying biblical reinforcements to our favourite “hot topic” but we do need to consider the human dilemma that we tend to be deaf and blind and avoidant of hearing prophetic warnings to our own detriment!
So how do we tread a respectful and wise path through the warnings of the prophet Isaiah’s word of God? Now we do need to be cautious when connecting ancient texts with our present day situations. A simple model of studying the word is to consider that there are always three stories, or levels, going on. One is “behind the text” or in the community in which the Scripture was written. The second is “in the text”; that is studying Scripture as sacred literature with all the usual stylistic, structural and linguistic issues as one would study in any literature from an ancient culture. And thirdly there is us “in front of the text” and all our preferences, priorities and prejudices. (This approach is based upon the work of Elisabeth Johnson.)
So “behind the text” we have Isaiah of Jerusalem, who is understood to have written the first 39 chapters of the book we know as Isaiah, who was actually concerned about how the chosen people were behaving in the southern kingdom of Judah 742 years (or thereabouts) before the birth of Christ. At the time of his call and this word of prophecy Isaiah was concerned about Assyria which was beginning to be a threat and that King Uzziah not go down the same path as the northern kingdom of Israel which had formed a coalition with Syria. Isaiah was particularly concerned that Jerusalem itself not fall. His prophecies are focused on the unjust behaviour of the people towards others in society and their abandonment of following the ways laid down by Yahweh for righteous living. For their sins, the judgment was going to be particularly harsh.
“In the text” itself we have a lot going on. This theme of “divine hardening” is very difficult to our contemporary ears as it smacks of predetermination and a lack of real choice. And if this is what the text really means them I find it repugnant too. But if we understand the text to have been written down well after the events then we can appreciate that the hardening of the people is a way of understanding when looking back on how things turned out. It is not so much a prediction as an explanation, a cautionary tale. And this is a common motif in ancient Scripture. And even more difficult is the sometimes theme that for God to do a new work then the old has to be swept away, destroyed, cut down, in order for the new order to be established. As actual history this is abhorrent to most of us. As spiritual truth we might be able to see this pattern.
The whole book of Isaiah has reoccurring themes of the importance of hearing, seeing, and knowing. And the problem of human hardness of heart is a perennial problem which we still can see in action today. At a psychological, socio-cultural, and spiritual level this hardening of heart is very much what seems to happen to us humans as individuals and communities and often it is not until there has been considerable, needless, destruction and laying waste, that we “come to” and hear and see and discern what is really happening.
How often do we make the same relationship mistakes? How often do we ignore the warnings of our health experts or climate scientists or economists? How often do we “come to” our senses in the middle of another prayer of petition and wonder “What is happening here? What am I not getting?”
'Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.'
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears, and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed."
Then I said, "How long, O Lord?"
And he said:
"Until cities lie waste without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the LORD sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing when it is felled.
The holy seed is its stump.”
Now, I don’t want to suggest that Isaiah had our specific issues - climate change, or our empty churches, or our inner desolation as we struggle with physical and emotional health issues – in mind when he spoke. No, these are the things we bring to Scripture. These and others are the issues we have “in front of the text”. But part of what makes Scripture inspired is it’s capacity to speak to us over thousands and thousands of years in ways still vivid and contemporary.
So as the people who are hearing and seeing and seeking to know the Word today then we need to listen courageously and discern wisely what we can hear. We need to work hard to keep our hearts open and not hardened against difficult words. There are seeds of destruction that seem to have taken root and we need to not ignore them. We, the people of God, do need to speak difficult words at times and to hear and heed them.
And we need to continue to speak a word of hope for as Isaiah ends his prophecy with the image of the stump that remains standing even when it is felled, the holy seed that is that stump, so too we have a gospel of hope to proclaim even in the direst of times.
This tendency for new life out of death is a holy seed. The tendency of the people for generosity when disaster strikes is a holy seed within us. This tendency toward being a good neighbour is a holy seed among us. This tendency toward starting over each and every day is a holy seed, the remnant stump of faith, in our midst. Let us proclaim the news that is good.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come open our ears, eyes and hearts to your Word.
Lent is drawing near and you may be interested that I am again producing a six week course that focuses on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for each week of Lent. Each day has a Lectio Divina styled meditation on one of the four set texts and then there is an integrated reflection on the theme of Lent as the Path of Descent. Follow the Button to an Overview and a free sample of Week One.