Isaiah was none of these. Instead, he was sophisticated, educated, a member of the upper class with an extraordinary command of the classical Hebrew language. He lived in two worlds.
“Whatever his family circumstances, still in his youth he came to know the face of poverty—and the debauchery of the rich. He was at home with the unprotected, the widowed and orphaned; with the dispossessed, homeless, landless; and with the resourceless victims of the moneyed man’s court. He was also acquainted with the rapacious authors of the prevailing misery: promulgators of discriminatory laws, venal judges, greedy landgrabbers, fancy women, thieving and carousing men of means, and irresponsible leaders, both civil and religious. In other words, he was intimately aware of the inequities and evils of human society—which may have been no worse in Israel in the 8th century before Christ than many critics believed they were almost everywhere in the 20th century after Christ.”
For the poor he was their advocate and megaphone to the rich. For the rich he was a nuisance, an embarrassment, and a traitor to his class – as some called Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.
To the smug and self-satisfied religious set he was contemptible with his railings against their luxury and exhorbitant worship. He was a fly in the ointment and worse. He was a voice they could not simply ignore because he was uneducated, uncultured, and low class. He was one of their own calling them to account.
To those who had worked out secret arrangements and alliances with their national enemies he was a danger. Instead of applauding them for their savvy maneuvering and statecraft he called them what they were – traitors, cowards, and colluders.
To a nation being squeezed by powerful forces from the outside and at risk of losing their freedom at any moment he was a voice of both despair and hope. Despair because they had abandoned the Holy God and hope because there would be a remnant and someday a return.
Let’s look at his calling in Chapter 6 before we look at the assigned Chapter 1.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Master sitting on a throne—high, exalted!—and the train of his robes filled the Temple. Angel-seraphs hovered above him, each with six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew. And they called back and forth one to the other,
Holy, Holy, Holy is God-of-the-Angel-Armies.
His bright glory fills the whole earth.
The foundations trembled at the sound of the angel voices, and then the whole house filled with smoke. I said,
“Doom! It’s Doomsday!
I’m as good as dead!
Every word I’ve ever spoken is tainted—
And the people I live with talk the same way,
using words that corrupt and desecrate.
And here I’ve looked God in the face!
The King! God-of-the-Angel-Armies!”
Then one of the angel-seraphs flew to me. He held a live coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with the coal and said,
“Look. This coal has touched your lips.
Gone your guilt,
your sins wiped out.”
And then I heard the voice of the Master:
“Whom shall I send?
Who will go for us?”
I spoke up,
He said, “Go and tell this people:
“‘Listen hard, but you aren’t going to get it;
look hard, but you won’t catch on.’
Make these people blockheads,
with fingers in their ears and blindfolds on their eyes,
So they won’t see a thing,
won’t hear a word,
So they won’t have a clue about what’s going on
and, yes, so they won’t turn around and be made whole.”
Astonished, I said,
“And Master, how long is this to go on?”
He said, “Until the cities are emptied out,
not a soul left in the cities—
Houses empty of people,
countryside empty of people.
Until I, God, get rid of everyone, sending them off,
the land totally empty.
And even if some should survive, say a tenth,
the devastation will start up again.
The country will look like pine and oak forest
with every tree cut down—
Every tree a stump, a huge field of stumps.
But there’s a holy seed in those stumps.”
I love the way Frederick Buechner tells it:
There were banks of candles flickering in the distance and clouds of incense thickening the air with holiness and stinging his eyes, and high above him, as if it had always been there but was only now seen for what it was (like a face in the leaves of a tree or a bear among the stars), there was the Mystery Itself, whose gown was the incense and the candles a dusting of gold at the hem. There were winged creatures shouting back and forth the way excited children shout to each other when dusk calls them home, and the whole vast, reeking place started to shake beneath his feet like a wagon going over cobbles, and he cried out, “O God, I am done for! I am foul of mouth and the member of a foul-mouthed race. With my own two eyes I have seen him. I’m a goner and sunk.” Then one of the winged things touched his mouth with fire and said, “There, it will be all right now,” and the Mystery Itself said, “Who will it be?” and with charred lips he said, “Me,” and Mystery said “Go.”
Mystery said, “Go give the deaf hell till you’re blue in the face and go show the blind heaven till you drop in your tracks, because they’d sooner eat ground glass than swallow the bitter pill that puts roses in the cheeks and a gleam in the eye. Go do it.”
Isaiah said, “Do it till when?”
Mystery said, “Till hell freezes over.”
Mystery said, “Do it till the cows come home.”
And that is what a prophet does for a living and, starting from the year that King Uzziah died, when he saw and heard all these things, Isaiah went and did it.
That is always the question, isn’t it? How long? How long until they listen? How long until they repent? How long until they see things God’s way and start down another path? How long do I have to speak to the deaf until they hear? How long until I can retire from this work?
For Isaiah the answer was 64 years…and they still did not listen, see or repent. They were bent on their own self-destruction and he could only watch as they fell for the lies of their religious, political, and cultural leaders.
You’ve heard the quote from Soren Kierkegaard?
“There are two ways to be fooled:
One to believe what isn’t true.
The other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
For the people of Israel they chose both. They chose to be fooled and led astray at the expense of their freedom. Tradition tells us that at the end Isaiah was sawn in half by the king Manasseh. At the end of the 64 years the nation of Israel was destroyed and taken into captivity in Babylon for 70 more years until they returned again from exile to rebuild the ruins of Jerusalem.
So, now back to Chapter 1 and we pick up the words of the Lord Isaiah speaks to the people.
God has already punished them time and again for their willful disobedience but now he is apparently throwing in the towel. Let me read that from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of The Message:
Why bother even trying to do anything with you
when you just keep to your bullheaded ways?
You keep beating your heads against brick walls.
Everything within you protests against you.
From the bottom of your feet to the top of your head,
nothing’s working right.
Wounds and bruises and running sores—
untended, unwashed, unbandaged.
Your country is laid waste,
your cities burned down.
Your land is destroyed by outsiders while you watch,
reduced to rubble by barbarians.
And this is where we pick up the text for today:
Quit your worship charades.
I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing
people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
One of the benefits of COVID-19 has been eliminating much of the religious activity that people needed to feel like they had been to church. We’ve had to focus on the basics and in spite of the inconvenience and loss of coming together I think we will look back and see that many people have grown spiritually by not having all the props and entertainment. Yes, it feels like home school and we miss all the meetings and conferences and public parts of religion but I have heard many stories from people telling me that they have had to depend more on themselves, their families and their friends for spiritual growth than simply showing up for church. I’ve even heard some say they will miss the challenge of taking more responsibility for their growth and discipline when things return to some kind of normal.
We have had it spooned out for us for so long that now we are having to, as Isaiah says, learn to do right. We cannot depend on experiences or the performances of other people. We are having to learn the basics for ourselves. I see it. I see people who might well have passed by on the other side in normal times start to stop and show compassion for those most affected by the pandemic and the consequences of a faltering economy and the loss of businesses and jobs. I have seen “the sightless rich” begin to notice the poor for the first time. I have begun to see the often deaf and insulated upper class become aware of hunger, poverty, hardship and being worn down by circumstances beyond the control of many. Do you realize that instead of declining during this time actual giving has increased? Donations to food banks and other assistance programs has increased by almost 700%. The experts thought we would hold back but it has been just the opposite. People have opened their hands.
Yes, when this has passed they may go back to their comfortable ways of “hearing, but never understanding; ever seeing, but never perceiving” but that is not true for all. Some will go back to worship charades, meetings, entertainment, and performance but for more than we would have thought there may well be permanent changes in the way we see and practice religion.
There are reasons to despair but there are as many reasons to hope. There are those who will continue down the path of listening to lies but there are others who will wake up and begin to hear the voices of truth. There are many who will choose self-destruction and captivity but there are also those who will turn away from corruption, rebellion, and idolatry and back to the Holy One.
“Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they are shall be like wool.”
How long, O Lord? Till Hell freezes over.
How long, O Lord? Till the cows come home.