The purpose of a sermon, I think, is to help folks encounter the Gospel – the good news of Jesus. So, I tend to focus on the appointed Gospel reading. But encountering the Gospel is not just an encounter with a written record. In fact, it is never just that. The Gospel is a living thing; our encounters are lively and intimate. Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John reliably point us in a good direction. But they are guides along the path, not the destination. And not the only guides.
I say that as a way of acknowledging that I’m not much focused on this morning’s Gospel… Because the passage from Isaiah is just too irresistible.
Isaiah, whoever we may mean when we use that name, wrote a long time ago. He, if it was in fact a “he”, wrote over a period of several hundred years… so “he” either lived a very long time, or he had some help.
The book of Isaiah divides neatly into two parts and it would be lovely if the parts followed some sort of linear, timely progression. But they don’t. The prophet offers us a landscape, not a road map.
As a very basic premise, we (the faithful Jews of Isaiah’s time, the disciples of Jesus’ time, and us) are given the Law of Moses to help us live our lives in a way that pleases God. The role of the Prophet is to help us understand the law, and to warn us when we aren’t getting it right – we still need that help today.
The pattern in much of Isaiah, as in other prophets, is to draw attention where we are in
rebellion against God’s law, and to call us to repentance and amendment of life… or else…
In recent times we have developed the notion that Prophets are in the business of predicting the future. This notion of prophesy is hard to resist when the Gospel writers appear to have scoured Isaiah for predictions of Jesus’ birth. But really the task of the prophet was to tell people of urgent issues in their own time, not some far-off future.
The imagery in the book of Isaiah is quite compelling and it couples with the Birth of Jesus in powerful and beautiful ways – but we need to keep in mind that while we may find predictions of the distant future in ancient prophets, Isaiah was not predicting anything. He was telling folks off…
If we let our view of prophets shift too far in the direction of predicting future events, then we lose the immediacy and relevance of the prophets in their own time. And the big danger in that is that we then lose the immediacy and relevance of those same prophets in our time.
So, what do we encounter in Isaiah from this morning’s reading? Well we seem to encounter a prophet who is in a bad mood… “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom… you people of Gomorrah.” This is a tough start. These are two cities that were wiped from the face of the earth. Their destruction hints that our own potential destruction may be coming… Rulers and citizens and all…
If you haven’t lost heart already, think about what comes next: “I (meaning God) have had enough of your offerings… trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile… Your new moons and festivals my soul hates… even though you make prayers, I will not listen.”
Yikes. God does not want us to come to church. God has had enough of our offerings. God will not even listen to our prayers. Where can we go from here? It seems that Isaiah has just read to us the sign that Dante places over the gates of Hell: Abandon hope all ye who enter here. How do we get from this point to the good news of Jesus?
The purpose of the Prophet is not to bring us to despair, but rather to bring us to repentance. And what Isaiah is doing in his pronouncement is telling us that lots of good words and lots of wonderful offerings and many beautiful liturgies do not add up to repentance. Repentance is going to have to start somewhere else.
Isaiah has some good starting places. Cease to do evil and learn to do good. Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow. Of course, we will hear this list again… from the mouth of Jesus.
Orphans and widows had a particular place in the society of the time – and that was not a good place. Your value and status in the community came from the family and the family was a projection of the father. A widow had no status because it died with her husband. And orphans had no status because it died with their parents.
Isaiah is talking about the most powerless people in the neighborhood… the people nobody wanted to even notice… And Jesus, centuries later, is saying the same thing – apparently, we didn’t learn. In modern times, widows and orphans are no longer the great pariahs of society… but we have not eliminated that place, we’ve just relegated other people to it. Isaiah and Jesus are both calling us to repent…
But then Isaiah takes this marvelous turn. After we’ve been told that our prayers and our worship are worthless and that blood is on our hands, Isaiah says come, let’s talk. Let us reason it out… our sins, which are blood red, can be washed white as snow… if we are willing to become obedient.
If not, we will be devoured by the sword. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Following Jesus is about relationship. Our relationship with God, our relationship with our brothers and sisters, our relationship with all of God’s creation. Was Adam’s sin about an apple or about damaging the pure and direct relationship he had with God? Sodom wasn’t destroyed because of sex, but because they refused hospitality… they refused relationship with strangers and, in so doing, refused God. The sin of neglecting widows and orphans, or whoever it is that we wish to avoid, is in rejecting relationship.
The ancient Jewish understanding of the obligation to God is the ancient Temple creed – love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength. In Christian Tradition that is paired with the command to love our neighbors.
These days there are those who like to cast themselves as prophets – and they fill this role by predicting destruction. Natural disasters, like earthquakes and floods, as well as tragedies like airline crashes seem to bring these voices out of the woodwork. God is punishing us because… of whatever. The Rev Pat Robertson, a rather infamous televangelist, after the events of September 11, 2001, boldly asserted that God had lifted the veil of protection from the United States because of – and you can fill in the rest…
But notice that while Isaiah does hint that great destruction is possible, maybe even imminent, what he really wants is for us to love the people around us, especially the ones we don’t want to love – those persistent widows and orphans…
Br Andrew used to joke about a preacher’s message which seems to say that God loves us so very, very, extremely much that he just can’t wait to blast us to smithereens if we get one step out of line… That is not the good news of Jesus.
The good news of Jesus is that God’s loving and forgiving grace is always poured out for us – even when we do not know it or accept it. And especially when we don’t deserve it – since we never deserve it…
Our response to God’s grace, as in the days of Isaiah, is to live in faith and to seek justice for all of creation. Martin Luther King taught that justice is the calculation of God’s love. The call from Isaiah and from Jesus to us is to seek to love all of creation, and to let ourselves be loved. Nothing more and nothing less.