Julie and I took three granddaughters up to Itasca State Park last weekend. We had a great time. It was fun to see how the girls reacted to the little stream that was the Mississippi River up there. They spent quite a bit of time wading in the river. We stayed in a hotel in Park Rapids, lots of time in the pool! Julie also had a craft project for the girls to work on, so while they were doing that, I got out the Gideon's bible and did a little work on today's sermon. I wrote that Isaiah was warning Israel of God's coming judgment. I paused and looked around the room and saw a warning I hadn't noticed before. It was a sign hung up by the emergency sprinkler head and it said this: “Do not hang items from the sprinkler head. This will cause flooding.” It hardly seemed necessary for that warning, but obviously someone had hung clothing from the sprinkler and it had caused flooding.
I want to start with a little background before we look at the warnings... and the promises... from our Isaiah passage. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, the kingdom of Israel had divided into a north and south kingdom, the twelve tribes 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 was destroyed by the Assyrians the and never regained statehood. You may have heard the phrase “the lost tribes of Israel”, that refers to the ten tribes that made up the northern kingdom called Israel at that time.
Isaiah begins his long book with a vision of the destruction of Judah in verses 2-9. 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 Sodom and Gomorrah. It seems he was making a point here; 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 worshiping God 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.” 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--
Laws that make misery for the poor,
that rob my destitute people of dignity,
Exploiting defenseless widows,
taking advantage of homeless children.
What will you have to say on Judgment Day,
when Doomsday arrives out of the blue?”
“The Master sent a message against Jacob.
It landed right on Israel’s doorstep.
But they were a proud and arrogant bunch.
They dismissed the message, saying,
“Things aren’t that bad.
We can handle anything that comes.
11-12 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 said, “ 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 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 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.
3 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 some of 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).
And 7: 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
I titled this “Warnings in Isaiah” but we see there are promises too. The greatest are these promises of Messiah. Jesus came and fulfilled the very personal promise of forgiveness Darlene 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 contrasts the deep red of committed sin with the pure white of forgiven sin. (altar clothes?) 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 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. Heidi sang of this promise, quoting Isaiah then the following verses telling how “He’ll forgive your transgressions, And remember them no more.”
Isaiah brings us warnings; 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 hold 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. And we are called to live out the justice and the grace that is God. The purpose of warnings is to cause a change. Isaiah delivered those warnings because destruction, judgment was not inevitable; is not inevitable for us. What Israel did, how they acted mattered. And what we do today matters. So 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. But as we consider how to do that, those words of Isaiah to the people of Israel come to my mind, maybe yours as well, “But they were a proud and arrogant bunch. They dismissed the message, saying,“Things aren’t that bad. We can handle anything that comes.”
If you spend any time on social media, and if, like me, you have friends on both ends of the political spectrum, these words ring very true. Each side is sure they have the answer... and both sides are sure that they are on the side of God. God's word consistently calls for us to care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan. And we recognize that nationally and internationally, there are terrible abuses occurring. We need to keep informed and be involved. But in reality, it comes down to how we treat those around us in our corner of the world. There are steps we can take to try to alleviate suffering in camps. But 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. A few weeks ago I quoted Matthew 25 concerning how God sees and rewards our acts of kindness. Here comes the second part; in this parable Jesus shared the judgment that is coming. “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The warnings we speak of today reminds us each that how we live matters. Isaiah: “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”. Good things, important things. But 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, evne in our failures, grace wins. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 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 work for justice. But our hope and are lives are not based on our good work but on the great faithfulness 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 of God whom we seek to serve!
Hymn: Great is Thy Faithfulness 276 PH