Our new car... well I call it new, it is 3 years old now, but it has a lane holding feature. It reads the lines on the highway and keeps the vehicle between the center line and the edge of the road. It is a safety feature; one that promises a degree of protection if the driver's mind drifts so that the car might drift. I admit that I like to take my hands off the road and let it drive itself. But after a little while a notice comes up on the dashboard: “keep your hands on the wheel!” If I ignore that pretty soon it starts beeping at me. I've never tried it beyond the beeping to see what it does next. But this car is kind of like the prophet Isaiah. As I researched a bit I stumbled across this and similar statements over and over: “(Isaiah's) conflicting messages have produced a lively debate about the historical prophet. Did Isaiah primarily proclaim judgment or hope?” Does my car's warning system primarily judge my driving or give hope for a safe trip. Okay, maybe a kind of wild analogy.
But we do know this, Isaiah is one of the most recognized prophets in our Old Testament. Today Amy read from chapter one which tells of Isaiah's account of a vision of judgment on the nation of Judah, warning them to keep their hands on the wheel-- if you will-- with the hint of a promise of protection at the end.
But I want to start with a little background before we look at the warnings... and the promises... from our Isaiah passage. I've always found it confusing that there is an Israel and a Judah in the history books in the bible. What had happened is this, the kingdom of Israel had divided into a north and south kingdom because the twelve original family divisions were no longer united. Isaiah was a preacher to the southern kingdom which was identified as Judah and which had the holy city of Jerusalem within its borders. During the time of Isaiah and during the reign of King Hezekiah, the northern tribe—Israel-- was destroyed by the Assyrians and never regained nationhood. You may have heard the phrase “the lost tribes of Israel”, that refers to the ten tribes that made up the northern kingdom at that time.
Isaiah begins his long book with a vision of the destruction of Judah in verses 2-9 which the lectionary skipped. In verse 9 he compared them to the sinful, destroyed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Then we join the passage with Isaiah addressing the rulers and people of Judah calling them people of Sodom and Gomorrah. His point being that the nation had become as corrupt and as worthy of judgment as had those ancient cities. He uses a phrase common to the prophets of God, words that tell his listeners, or readers, that these are not his own words but that what he conveys is the word of God. “Hear the word of the Lord.” And what does the Lord say? That the sacrifices, the offerings, the use of incense, the religious festivals were not pleasing to the God of the Israelites. “I have had enough of burnt offerings... I do not delight in the blood of bulls... bringing offerings is futile... incense is an abomination to me..I cannot endure (your) solemn assemblies.” The problem was not so much in the use of these ways to worship, but the fact that the act itself was considered enough and their hearts were not in it. They went through the motions but did not make the connection between acts of worship and living a life of justice and love. And that spirit led to consequences as God tells them, “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” God was not happy! And God promised judgment.
I share some examples from chapters 9 and 10, from The Message: “Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims—What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue?” So God incited their adversaries against them, stirred up their enemies to attack: From the east, Arameans; from the west, Philistines. They made hash of Israel. But even after that, he was still angry, his fist still raised, ready to hit them again”.
God was angry. And we know from history that Israel was defeated and exiled and occupied over and over again. They were warned, but as Isaiah says elsewhere, “they were a proud and arrogant bunch and... They dismissed the message.”
But we also know from history that destruction was not the final plan of God. And Isaiah had lots to say about that too. “48:17 Israel shall be saved in the LORD with an everlasting salvation:” 54:10 For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” “60:1-3 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
That last one may remind you of the prophecies about Jesus. And Isaiah had those too. “'For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace'” (Isaiah 9:6).
I titled this “Isaiah's Prophecies” because his prophecies are a mixed bag; judgments and promises, death and life, doom and hope. The greatest hope came from the promises of Messiah. Jesus came and fulfilled the very personal promise of forgiveness Amy read in today's reading; “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Isaiah contrasted the deep red of committed sin with the pure white of forgiven sin. And we know that it is through the fulfillment of Immanuel, God with us, that our sins of scarlet shall be forgiven. And the connection is often made to the red of the blood Jesus shed on the cross; the sacrifice that led to the forgiveness of our sins. The red of the blood contrasted with the white of snow, a snowy white fleece; our sin contrasted with the purity of Jesus imbued in us. The blood as the seal of the new covenant, the covenant of forgiveness and eternal life with God which we celebrate in communion.
Isaiah brings us warnings but also brings us promises in the name of God. As we read the history of Israel, we see that there are many connections between God's judgment seen in their defeat by other countries. But in all cases, God always holds out the promise of forgiveness and grace. We learn in this history that God is the God of judgment and justice, but also the God of grace. God is not one or the other, but both justice and grace. And we are called to live out the justice and the grace that is God. The purpose of warnings is to cause a change—keep your hands on the wheel! Isaiah delivered God's warnings because destruction, judgment was not inevitable. What Israel did, how they acted mattered. And what we do today matters. Judgment is not inevitable for us. But is grace? It begs the question, what are we to do? Isaiah gives us that information as he declares the word of the Lord: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” On a personal level, it suggests the need for repentance; “remove the evil of your doings”. On a broader level, God demands that we live out the justice that we proclaim in the gospel.
In confirmation this week, we talked a bit about sanctification. Simply put, it is becoming more holy as you live in the power and grace of Jesus. But we also said it isn't automatic. We are to do our share; study, pray, read, gather in community. And we are to live out the truths that God's word consistently teaches: care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan. Seek justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. In reality, it comes down to how we treat those around us in our corner of the world. Our immediate challenge is to make a difference right now, directly, in someone's life today. Caring for others is not an option that God gives us, and certainly not in the teachings of Jesus. It is a command. God judged Israel harshly for failing.
Judgment will be ours as well if we fail to care for our neighbors. The warnings we speak of today reminds us each that how we live matters. Even Jesus warns us to be ready, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." And ultimately what is most important is responding to God's grace. Jesus brings the promise that grace is available for all who turn from wickedness and turn to the Lord. Our response to God's call on our lives does matter. We are called to live out this faith. Yet somehow in God's wisdom, even in our failures, grace wins. In Ephesians we read, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”
You've been warned. We do need to do good works in this world. But our hope is not based on our good works but on the great faithfulness and grace of God. We are saved by the wonderful grace of God, by grace alone! And this promise is true, for God is faithful. Let's sing of the great faithfulness, the great compassion, the great mercy, the amazing grace of God whom we seek to serve!
Hymn: Amazing Grace 280 PH