St. Giles’ Church, Jefferson, Maine
February 10, 2019 – The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 6: 1-13
Our reading from Isaiah this week recounts the call of the prophet. Last week, we heard the account of the call of Jeremiah, and as was the case then, Isaiah’s call includes the would-be prophet offering an excuse, even trying to get out of the responsibility, only to be met with God’s rebuke or God’s action to counter the objection.
“I am only a boy!” says Jeremiah; “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy!’” says God. “I am a man of unclean lips!” says Isaiah – in other words, “I am through and through unclean, since all that I eat must touch, and be tainted by, those unclean lips. What is more, any word I speak will also be rendered unclean as it passes my lips.” In response, a seraph brings a burning coal to Isaiah’s lips to cleanse them. And when the prophetic assignment comes, we see why in each case the prophet-to-be tried to get out of the task. God tells Jeremiah to “pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow,” and only then “to build and to plant.” Isaiah is given an even more austere task: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend … make the heart of this people fat.”
This sounds unfair. Is God causing us to be deaf? Making us impervious to truth? If that is what God is doing, then I’m off the hook, and it’s all on God.
But that is not what Isaiah’s message is. Perhaps we can grasp it more readily if I quote, not the ancient Hebrew prophet, but the great 20th century literary scholar and Christian writer, C.S. Lewis. In the course of his writing about how we approach reality, he remarked: “Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”
And that, I think, is the point. Through the words of Isaiah, God is telling the people, “You are stopping your own ears. You are refusing to see what is right in front of you. You are making yourselves stupid. And no, it’s not on me – it’s on you.”
What is it that the people will not see? What are they trying to avoid? In Isaiah’s time, it was the fact that they were forsaking the call to holiness that God had put before them during the Exodus from Egypt and at their entry into the land, and they were abandoning this call at precisely the time when they were under an increasing threat from the outside: oppression, and even conquest, by a great ancient Near Eastern empire, the Assyrians. It was much more comfortable to look the other way, to pretend that all was well, and to continue to carry on with their daily lives without making the effort needed to bring themselves back into harmony with God and to accept their responsibilities to act in the face of a major threat. The Assyrians, in fact, would soon conquer, and exile, a great number of God’s people.
Isaiah, in the final scene of his call, asks the crucial question: “How long, O Lord?” “When will the people awaken from their self-induced stupor? When will they see things as they really are? When will they see you as you really are?”
And the answer that comes back is utterly devastating. “They will not see, they will not understand – by their own choice – until it is far too late. Not until every city, every house is vacant – not until every field is desolate – not until everyone has been banished, and the land is one vast, hollow, echoing void – not until then will they wake – wake to what they have lost, to what they have thrown aside.”
If anything is left, the passage concludes, it will be only the embryonic source of a possible renewal. Not a flourishing kingdom, not a healthy, growing commonwealth, but at best a seed, a stump that might sprout new growth.
Strong words for hard times. God doesn’t pull any punches. But what is this saying to us? We are not reading this, here and now, merely as a lesson in ancient history.
Of course, there are many things in our world that we need to attend to: The environment, our law and politics, our relationships with the wider world, among many others. But those matters are complex, and far too large for a small parish like this to engage with. We as citizens must decide what we can do, but that is not something the St. Giles’ community can undertake.
But what we can undertake is something much closer to home. I ask myself: “What am I refusing to see? What do I need to pay attention to that I am avoiding?’ And to ask the question is certainly to recognize one thing that I don’t like looking at: my own behavior.
This is something that, I believe, we all need to keep in the forefront of our lives. Especially within the St. Giles’ community, we need to express our care for one another, our sense of the worth and dignity of one another, our support for one another. If we can’t do it here, where will we do it? And one way to start doing this is to listen to ourselves. How am I coming across to others when I am speaking to them? Am I helping them to be better, stronger, kinder? Or am I causing them pain, sorrow, or anger? Am I building up, or tearing down? Am I planting, or uprooting?
This has been a tough passage from a tough-minded prophet. But sometimes we need to hear the unvarnished truth so that it finally gets through to us. And that is not the end of the story.
I said these were strong words, and they are. But there’s another strong word that we need to keep in mind, and it’s also one that we meet in Isaiah, in a different passage. The Hebrew word, nacham, means to “feel with” someone, to “have compassion” for them. We translate it with the English word “comfort,” from the Latin meaning “with strength.”
When we comfort someone, we are not simply soothing them or murmuring soft words. We are offering them strength, and courage to meet their difficulties, by entering into their distress and, to the extent we can, sharing it with them. We can only do this if we mean to build them up, plant them in new soil, encourage them to grow. But here, the best description of this is from Isaiah’s: words from and about God to the people who will return from their banishment:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid ….
He will feed his flock like a shepherd,
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
May we share with one another in that massively gentle strength, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.