Christ Centered Resources


Rev. Ed Searcy

Isaiah 6:1-13, Luke 5:1-11
University Hill United Church : Sun, February 11, 2001
I'm stumped. This is no easy thing to admit. You likely aren’t thrilled at the prospect of a preacher who leads off with such acknowledged ignorance. But there is nothing else to say. The sixth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah has me stumped. I can hardly believe that it says what it clearly says or that it means what it plainly means. This chapter must be exactly what Isaiah has in mind when he announces: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”. (Isaiah 55:8-9) Perhaps you’re wondering what I’m so exercised about. You’ve heard this story before. You remember Isaiah’s call. In fact, “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?” is already one of your favourite hymns (Voices United #509). You even recall that I have preached this very passage in years gone by. I wasn’t stumped then. You wonder what has changed. Back then I told the story of Isaiah’s overwhelming call. A vision of God Almighty holding court in the heavenly throne room, surrounded by six winged seraphs hiding their eyes from the brilliance of God’s glory and singing “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory”. You recall that in the span of eight brief verses we discover the pattern of our Sabbath day worship. First the heavenly song of praise echoed here, in this earthly holy place. Then the confession of the painful truth. To glimpse God’s glory is to confront human frailty. Isaiah cries woe: “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. Simon Peter is witness to Jesus’ power over nature and can only say: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”. But Jesus orders Simon Peter: “Do not be afraid”. Isaiah’s filthy lips are purified by with the white-hot heat of a burning coal. Then comes the voice of the Lord: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Finally a response, an offering, a decision: “Here am I; send me!”. As Luke says: “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him”. The call of Isaiah, the call of the disciples ... our call ... always like this: wondrous praise; painful confession; amazing grace; compelling word; willing response. But that is, you may recall, where we left it. Back then we stopped in mid chapter, at verse 8: “Here am I; send me!”. We didn’t read further because our calendar of readings stops here, too. Well, to be honest, the lectionary does include verses nine through thirteen ... but only in brackets. The conclusion of the sixth chapter of Isaiah is an optional reading on today’s calendar. Usually the presiders, planners and preachers opt not to have it read aloud. Because, you see, it stumps them as it does me. Having offered to carry the message of God, Isaiah is now told what to preach: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their eyes, and shut their ears, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.’.” Imagine being ordained to spend a lifetime preaching in order to confuse, to deafen and to puzzle. Sent by God to keep people from turning towards God and being healed. Are you beginning to see why I am stumped this morning? How can this be the truth? How can this be God’s intention for Isaiah, for me, for us? How can the call to turn people away from God possibly be ‘The Word of God - Thanks be to God’? Like a politician instructing his press secretary, Yahweh explicitly commands Isaiah to obfuscate, to cover-up, to keep people from comprehending what is really going. Isaiah is as shocked as we are and asks in bewilderment: “How long, O Lord?”. One press release? One sermon? One season? One era? How long am I to purposely confuse and bewilder your people? God’s answer is immediate and without qualification: “until!”. “Until cities lies 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.” Isaiah says nothing. But it is as if Yahweh hears the newly ordained prophet wondering aloud: “What if a faithful few hear and turn? What if a small remnant is faithful? What then?”. The LORD answers the unasked question: “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.” Isaiah is instructed to preach to confuse “until” ... until everything that the people of Israel have built ... everything ... is destroyed. Maybe, like me, you have been imagining, hoping ... praying even ... that this cannot be the living Word of God to us today. This is, after all, God’s Word to Isaiah, a prophet to Israel in the 8th Century BC. This message is almost three millenia old. Doesn’t this strange text belong to the ‘former things’ which Isaiah speaks of in later chapters? This is God’s radical judgment on ancient Israel. What in heaven’s name could it have to do with our post-modern Church? Surely it would be more profitable for us to spend the morning in the world of Luke’s gospel, joining with the disciples as they turn to follow. Surely. Except for one troubling footnote. To my surprise I realized this week - for the first time - that Yahweh’s instruction to preach in riddles and to purposely confound is quoted directly in the New Testament not in one gospel account or even in two. This shocking command is found, word for word, in the Gospel according to Matthew (13:14-15), Mark (4:12), Luke (8:10), John (12:37-43) and, yes, even in the Acts of the Apostles (28:26-27). I suspect that there are few, if any, Old Testament passages which can claim this singular distinction. The New Testament evidence is stunning. Jesus, his disciples and the early church read Isaiah chapter six - all of chapter six - as the gospel truth. We know that teachers in the early church speak of Isaiah as a ‘fifth gospel’. They hear in its cadences all of the crucial claims of Christian faith. Can you see why there was no other option this morning? We simply must read Isaiah chapter six - all of chapter six - even if it leaves the preacher ... and the people ... stumped. Then Janice reads this passage. As a Christian Educator she is just as confounded as the rest of us. She writes a note, saying “Work with me here, God - I have enough to contend with ... I don’t need God working to dull minds, stop ears, and shut eyes!” In her confusion she does something surprising ... something unusual ... something radical. She begins to read Isaiah from the beginning. Yes, she goes back to Isaiah, chapter one. I know, it is a novel approach. I wish I had thought of that! But, with her prompting, that is exactly what I do. I read the opening section of the book of Isaiah, chapters one through twelve. The effect is overwhelming. The verses are eerily contemporary: “The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard”. I turn on the news to hear that due to global warming ice in Antartica is melting at such a rate that the oceans will soon rise by five feet. And it is as if no one believes it ... or cares. Isaiah continues: “The spoil of the poor is in your houses.” I open my closet door and see it hanging there. The spoil of the poor in my own house. And it stays hanging there, as if I do not realize what I am wearing each day. Once more, Isaiah: “What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord GOD of hosts” (Isaiah 3:13-15). Stopping to pick up some food at Safeway my eye sees the cover of the latest issue of ‘Time’. The stark black and white photograph is accompanied by the simple words: “This is a story about AIDS in Africa. Look at the pictures. Read the words. And then try not to care.” I find a chart which notes that in Mamolete’s homeland of Lesotho it is conservatively estimated that twenty-four percent of adults are infected with HIV/AIDS. And yes I care. And yes I wonder what to do. And yes I know that things would be different somehow if one in four adults in England or in Ontario or in the Cariboo were infected with HIV/AIDS. I know that we would turn in a massive outpouring of compassion. And yes I see that God’s true word must be a harsh and painful indictment of our silence. It is an indictment which is as crystal clear as every nightly newscast and yet it is as if no one sees and no one hears and no one understands just how far gone we are. And the church lives under the sad illusion that repentance is simple and straightforward. We imagine that God has ‘renovations’ in store for us. We cannot fathom a God who would, instead, intend to wipe us out. A flourishing congregation of the United Church of Canada announces church membership classes on its web-site. The invitation, in part, reads: “Beginning at noon, for exactly 45 minutes on March 4 and March 11 in the Church Library, we will discuss the questions asked of members. Come both weeks if you can; even once, if you can’t. There’ll be no pressure on anyone. This is a chance to find out what’s involved.” No pressure to drop everything and turn and follow. No call to die in order to live. And us? Dare we sit in smug self-satisfaction? Well ... for all of our talk of discipleship and all of our longing to be changed we, too, finally keep driving our cars and buying more clothes and reading the news, mysteriously unchanged. It is as if God is blinding us, stopping our ears, restraining us from acting. Seeing this, Isaiah hears the awful, painful divine Word that we will not turn away from our old ingrained destructive habits until ... until our proud ignorance and willful arrogance is burned to the ground ... until the mighty oak is a charred stump. Until we are stumped. Notice this strange, enigmatic conclusion. A contemporary commentator writes that the three Hebrew words which comprise the final verse “are not clear, something about holy seed from stump, something about the impossible possibility of new life from deep failure, something that the book of Isaiah ... relentlessly asserts, never able to leave the terrible message finally at nullification and termination” (Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, Westminster, 1998, p. 62). The God who speaks such damning judgment here is the same God who, in Isaiah chapter forty, says ‘Comfort, comfort ye my people’ . First, though, the stump. First the Cross is the end of life. Only later is it the Tree of Life. There can be no avoiding the stump of crucifixion. There are no easy alterations or programs or fixes which will quickly bring us to resurrection. The four gospels - and the ‘fifth gospel’ of Isaiah - inevitably and necessarily lead to the stump of termination. Paul says that this message stumps believers and unbelievers alike (I Corinthians 1:23). It stumps even those who preach it. No wonder we hesitate before the risk of announcing such odd news. We fear that the church will call our preaching scandalous. We do not want to become the laughing-stock of our reasonable, rational, right-thinking neighbours. Nor does Isaiah. But Yahweh says“my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways”. And Jesus prays: “Yet not my will but yours be done.” Knowing what we know, having heard what we have heard, will we turn with Jesus to this God who is beyond our comprehension and pray: “Your will be done”? Dare we pray for anything else?