Two talks on Isaiah 1:1-20 by Rev Richard Keith on 2 December 2018
What is your name? Where are you? What day is it? These questions are often used by doctors and nurses and paramedics to test if a person with a head injury is orientated to person, place and time. They are a quick way to find out if they know who they are, where they are, and when they are?
And they are very good questions to ask when we are orienting ourselves to a new book of the Bible. For the next few weeks in the lead up to Christmas we are taking a break from Mark’s Gospel and looking at the book of Isaiah. Because there are three crucial passages in Isaiah chapters 7, 9 and 11 that we will be looking at at our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. Three passages that talk about the coming of the Messiah. So I thought it would be a good idea for us to get to know this book of Isaiah a bit first. Starting with the questions: who was Isaiah? where was Isaiah? and when was Isaiah? Orienting ourselves to his person, place and time.
Chapter 1 , verse 1 reads:
The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
So who was Isaiah? Isaiah was a prophet. He heard messages from God. He saw visions from heaven. Visions that let him see over the horizon of time into the future. Visions that let him see through the curtain of appearances to see not what things looked like, but what they really were.
But this book doesn’t just contain Isaiah’s visions. It records Isaiah’s vision. All the prophecies, all the visions, are one single vision. A unified message from God. A vision wide enough to include all peoples. A vision that penetrated far enough to include all times. This book is a message from God for us today.
So where was Isaiah? Isaiah lived in Jerusalem, the capital city of the kingdom of Judah. Judah is that country in yellow on the screen. The blue country to the north is Israel. In Isaiah’s time, what we think of as “Israel”, God’s chosen nation, the descendants of Abraham, the people God had rescued from Egypt and brought to the Promised Land, that nation had split into two separate countries. Israel and Judah.
The northern half Israel, in blue on the screen, had rebelled in a civil war against the line of kings that descended from David, and had gone off on its own with its own kings, capital and worship of the Lord. Only Judah, the southern half in yellow, had remained loyal to the house of David.
The capital of Judah was Jerusalem. Jerusalem wasn’t just the city where the king’s palace was, it was the place where God’s palace was. The temple that Solomon had built. The dwelling place for the name of the Lord. God was king of the world. Supreme ruler of the universe. He reigned in heaven above. But the earthly counterpart of his heavenly throne was the temple in Jerusalem.
This is what we biblical scholars like to call a big deal. This is very important. Judah might be a tiny country in the middle of nowhere and more than half of it was desert. But the pearl in this oyster was the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, the Lord would bless the world.
So when was Isaiah. He served as a prophet during the reigns of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Uzziah’s long reign was a time of relative peace and prosperity. Trade routes were open and the rich got richer. Sadly, that prosperity also sowed the seeds of injustice as the rich and powerful got their way taking advantage of the poor who became little more than slaves in their own country.
That time of peace, however, finally came to an end, and the kings that followed Uzziah were helpless before the rise of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians eventually swallowed up the northern kingdom of Israel, and threatened to do the same to Judah. The 700s BC ended in a time of fear and anxiety. It was a time when God’s people learned two things about their kings. Firstly, they were no match for the great empires that surrounded them. And secondly, that they fell short of what was required of a godly king. They were more interested in protecting their own power than in protecting the weak and vulnerable. And hardly any of them could even live up to the example of their ancestor King David, who, by the way, was no saint either.
Isaiah’s vision in this book, then, is the story of how the Lord, the God of Israel, the God of all the world, would take responsibility for his people. For a day would come when he would send his Messiah, which means his anointed one, his promised King. He would come from the line of David, but he would not just live up to the example of his ancestor David, but he would be God’s perfect servant to establish God’s justice, to bring true and lasting peace, in fact, to bring about the renewal of all creation.
This is why the book of Isaiah is what we biblical scholars call a big deal at Christmas. Because on Christmas Day we celebrate the birthday of the Messiah. And we look back to the promised King that Isaiah looked forward to. Let’s take a break and then come back for a quick look at Isaiah chapter 1.
If we were honest we’d admit that we come to church for a message of comfort. A message of peace. Just a bit of encouragement to help us get through the challenges of life.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of comfort in Isaiah chapter 1. Don’t get me wrong. There is good news here. But it isn’t the sort you’d find in a Hallmark greeting card or on a motivational poster. It isn’t a message that everything is going to be alright. Because what good news there is here in this passage is wrapped up in a challenge from the Lord to his people.
In verse 2, the Lord summons heaven and earth to hear his complaint against the people and rulers of Jerusalem.
“I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master. The donkey knows his owner’s manger. But Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”
The Lord’s complaint is that even dumb animals know what is good for them.
I learned this when my cat was caught up in a tree. How the cat got up there, I don’t know. But once up there, it didn’t know how to get down. Now, a foolish person who didn’t understand cats would try to climb up and get it. A silly person would ring the fire department and expect them to come with ladders. But because I understand cats, I knew exactly how to get cats down from trees.
Step one, wait six hours. This is important. It gives the cat plenty of time to get down by itself without me having to climb up and get it. Step 2, after six hungry hours, get a tin of cat food, a can opener and a spoon. Step 3, walk out to the base of the tree. Make sure you stand right where the cat can see you and the tin of cat food. Step 4, open the tin of cat food with the can opener. Step 5, and this is another crucial step, take the spoon in your right hand with the open tin in your left and tap the top of the tin with the spoon. This is the universally recognised signal among cats that din dins is ready. Within 60 seconds, the cat will be at your feet. It won’t be pretty to watch, it might even be ugly, but the cat will find a way.
Because even a dumb animal knows its master. Even a cat knows its owner’s can opener. They know who looks after them and who feeds them. So even if they sometimes wander off and even get stuck in trees, they know what’s good for them and they will often find their way back.
But the Lord’s complaint against Israel was that they didn’t know what even a dumb animal understands. That he looked after them. That he fed them. That he was like a father to them, and yet they turned their back on him and rejected him and thought they knew better and tried to live without him without a thought for him, without realising that everything they had, every good thing they enjoyed, as a gift from the Lord.
It reminds us that rejecting God is like a man lost in the desert, walking away from his only source of water. The Lord is life, and his love is better than life. Knowing him and serving him in the fellowship of his people is better than oxygen.
This is what they had forgotten in Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time. God’s own people had forsaken him and were suffering as a result. Turning their back on God’s will, they were living under his judgment. Turning their back on his blessing, they were living under a curse. Isaiah describes the nation in verses 5 and 6 like a body covered in sores and open wounds. The Lord can’t understand why they won’t turn to him for healing. Instead, as verses 7 to 9 reveal, foreigners have invaded them, their towns have been burned, their crops stripped, and the city of Jerusalem alone has been left standing like a hut in a field, like a lean-to left leaning to in the middle of a paddock.
The Lord’s harshest criticism is revealed in verse 10.
Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
Now, Isaiah wasn’t talking to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities that were famous in the Old Testament for their ruthless wickedness and injustice. He was talking to the people of Jerusalem. The message is loud and clear. You lot are as bad as the worst people ever.
This is very different to what we are used to believing. Talk to most religious people and they’ll tell you that the church is good and that the world is bad. Believers are good and atheists are bad. Lots of churches are like little huddles of people trying to reassure themselves that even if the world burns, that they’ll be fine. Isn’t that what a lot of preachers are teaching their people? Isn’t that what a lot of Christians are hoping for? That a rapture will happen, taking the church people to the safety of heaven and letting the rest of the world go to hell.
But in Isaiah chapter 1 the Lord’s accusing finger isn’t pointing at the heathen. it is pointing fair and square at his own people. And he is sick of them turning up for worship at his temple with blood on their hands.
“The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings. I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your festivals and appointed feasts my soul hates. The have become a burden to me, I am tired of putting up with them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you. Even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood.”
I mean, imagine if we turned up for church and found the sign on the front door: Church closed by order of God. What are these hymns you sing? says the Lord. Your communions are a burden to me. I cannot bear your morning teas. When you pray, I will not listen. When you preach, I will not speak. I will not come to your church if you come to my church with hate in your heart and poison on your lips.
Now, I’m not saying these things about you. I’m just trying to translate Isaiah’s words into our culture and language. But the point is that we can’t fool God. God sees right through our religion into our hearts. And the service he requires is not endless church services and Bible studies and prayer meetings and working bees, but justice and integrity and mercy and holiness and faith and hope and love.
It’s not an either-or. We don’t have to ditch our religion to become social justice warriors, always busy with our causes, but never having time for God or his causes or his people. It is both – and. It’s about our outward expression of faith being in tune with a heart fully devoted to God and to his purposes. But we can’t fool ourselves into thinking church – good, world – bad. Believers – good, atheists – bad, when God does not spare his own people from his judgment if they fall short.
In Isaiah’s time, the people were going through the motions of religion. The temple was full of sacrifices and songs of praise. The priests were doing a roaring ecclesiastical trade. But it was meaningless because it did not express a heart right with God, doing what was in line with his will. Instead, they felt like they sin at will and that the temple was their get out of gaol free card. They could not have been more wrong.
And so our passage ends with a challenge and a promise,
“Wash and ake yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight. Stop doing wrong, learn to do right. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
It is the call to repentance, not just to stop doing wrong as if life was just about avoiding sin, but to actually start doing good, making others’ lives better, sharing what they had with those who had not, to use their power and resources for the powerless and defenceless.
This was the challenge and now this is the promise,
“Come, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land.”
It is the promise that whatever problem there is between the Lord and his people can be resolved. It is the promise of forgiveness. Their wickedness and their sins will be swallowed up in God’s great forgetory. You know, how some people have a great memory. They remember people’s names, their birthdays, even their phone numbers. Some people have a great memory. But God has a great forgetory. When we repent and turn to him sincerely and confess to him our sins, it’s like they never happened. Our past mistakes will not determine our future, for when the Lord forgives he never holds it against us, he never keeps it and uses it against us later at a time we least expect.
It is the same challenge and promise of the gospel. As the Bible says in 1 John chapter 1,
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
What it means is that the vision of Isaiah is a message for us today. The Lord is sick of our empty religion. His will for us is that we remember our master and that he is Lord. His will for us is that we find healing in his blessing. His will for us is that our outward expression of faith be matched by an inward love for him and for others. His will for us is that we stop doing wrong and learn to do right and that our wickedness and sin be swallowed up in his vast and spacious forgetory.