Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-13
As you know from the past few weeks, I’ve been taking requests – Bible passages or topics or questions that you’d like to hear me preach about. This was one of the requests I got:
I would like to hear a sermon on Isaiah 6, particularly verses 9-13. [That’s the part that goes “Make the minds of this people dull; make their ears deaf and their eyes blind….] This is one of those passages where I want to know why God would ask for hearts to be made calloused, ears dull, etc.
Like last week when we talked about the existence of evil, there’s a lot to struggle with here, and like last week, I don’t promise that you’ll be going home with a definitive answer. But I do, as always, really believe in struggling with the hard questions the Bible poses openly and publicly and together. I tend to think God would want it that way.
If you’ve been a churchy kind of person for long, there is a good chance you know Isaiah chapter 6. It’s one of the famous call stories of the Bible, in which Isaiah is commissioned to do the prophetic work that God has for him, as well as the inspiration for several well-known hymns (we’ll sing one of them a little later.) In it Isaiah has a vision of God in the Temple. He looks up to see the hem of God’s robe filling the Temple, while the winged creatures the Bible calls seraphim flying around God, and as these creatures call to each other the sound of their voices makes the doors shake and the room is filled with the smoke.
“Holy, holy, holy,” they sing, and Isaiah is overcome, with the greatness and holiness of the God who is before him and his own sinfulness, smallness, nothingness in comparison.
If you’ve ever been overcome with a sense of God’s holiness, you may know that it’s not a fundamentally peaceful experience. Instead, it’s too much, it’s unsettling, it’s scary; for Isaiah, it seems to be even anguish-inducing, as he cries out “Woe is me!” He knows that he is not worthy to be in God’s presence. But a seraph takes a pair of tongs, and takes a burning coal from the altar where sacrifices are made, and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, purifying him.
Once Isaiah’s lips have been purified, God speaks, and God says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
And Isaiah responds, with his famous words, “Here I am. Send me.”
As much as we love and identify with Moses for his reluctance to accept God’s commission, we love Isaiah for his enthusiasm. Here I am. Send me.
This is where the Sunday School version of Isaiah’s call story generally ends.
But the passage goes on.
Here’s a good life lesson for you: never volunteer for something when you don’t know what it is. I used to teach that lesson when I substitute taught in elementary school classes a lot. Apparently, though, Isaiah did not learn that lesson. He’s just volunteered himself for God’s service, and he has absolutely no idea what his assignment is going to be.
“Go,” says God, “and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend. Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so that they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
Ah. Maybe that wasn’t quite what Isaiah had in mind.
Because that’s not really how prophetic commissions are supposed to go, is it? God is supposed to send prophets to God’s people to get them to repent, not to…get them to not repent.
Do you remember the story of Jonah? In it God sends Jonah, the most reluctant of all the prophets (and that is saying something) to the people of Nineveh to tell them to repent. Jonah runs in the exact opposite direction because he doesn’t want those people to repent; they’re his enemies and he would rather see them burn than be redeemed. But God is pretty insistent, even putting marine wildlife to use in hunting Jonah down and making sure Jonah goes and shares this message with the people he is supposed to share it with.
I read Isaiah and I think, where is that God? I like that God.
Do you remember the story of how when the Israelite slaves were on the cusp of escaping from their captors in Egypt, and Pharaoh was considering letting them go, but then God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he didn’t and God could get in a few more plagues?
That’s the God we seem to meet again here in Isaiah 6, and to be honest I am less sure about that God.
Who is this God who wants to make it harder for people to repent and be saved?
I do want to back up here a little for a little history lesson. If you were hear for the series we did on The Life of a Prophet back in the summer, and if you were paying attention, you might remember some of this. This part of Isaiah takes place, we are told, in the year King Uzziah dies. That’s somewhere right around 740 BCE, when the Assyrian Empire is gaining power in the Ancient Near East under its ruler, King Tiglath-Pileser. The Assyrian army is on its way east, and it’s pretty clear that this is going to mean bad news in some form for God’s people, both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. When Israel is destroyed, the prophets will blame this on the people’s lack of faithfulness to God. They have failed to execute justice and righteousness; they have ignored and even exploited the poor and needy in their midst; they have given into the temptation of worshiping other gods.
This impending danger is the context in which God gives Isaiah this message.
That doesn’t really do much to answer the question, though, of what we do with that. Even if God’s people are doing the wrong thing – even if they are exploiting the poor – even if they are ignoring the needy – even if they bow down to an idol every once in a while – doesn’t God want them to repent? Doesn’t God want them back? Doesn’t God always take us back?
Because the reason the message is so discomforting is because it’s not just about the people of Israel and Judah in the year 740 BCE, right? It’s about us, and whether God wants our broken selves back, and whether God is going to make it easy for us, or hard. And, perhaps, it’s about who that God is, and whether or not we feel compelled to return to God at all.
If you like to read the Bible from a historical point of view, maybe you will like this way of looking at things: that this passage of Isaiah, written long after the death of King Uzziah and the entrance of Tiglath-Pileser and the Assyrian exile, is a way to justify the fact that Isaiah’s prophetic message did not, in fact, cause the people to repent of their wicked ways and return to God. They, instead, went on their merry way oppressing the poor and praying to whatever God seemed useful to them that day, and Tiglath-Pileser eventually blasted onto the scene and destroyed the kingdom of Israel. So if the message God had given Isaiah was to tell the people to repent, we’d be contending with the fact that Isaiah failed.
That’s helpful in one sense, but for those of us who read this story as part of our sacred narrative, it’s really not enough.
We could call the words that God gives Isaiah a strongly-worded warning. Maybe, paradoxically, it’s only telling people that it’s too late that will give them the wake-up call they need to straighten up. In that case, we might say, God doesn’t really mean it. It’s a rhetorical device.
Or, I think, we could accept that the judgment God tells Isaiah to lower onto his people is really a judgment they have already lowered onto themselves.
“Make the minds of this people dull,” God tells Isaiah. But they already are. They haven’t been engaging in discernment and truly seeking God’s will for their lives and community for a long time already.
“Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind,” God says, but they already are. It’s been a long time since they truly opened their eyes to the presence of God in their midst. If they had, they might have seen God among them in the orphans and the widows they passed by. And it’s been a long time since they really listened for the voice of God telling them what it meant to live a life of righteousness and justice. If they had, they might have heard it and responded and not gone off to look for other gods who didn’t demand as much, gods who they thought could do something for them.
If you think about it, we only ever hear of God hardening the hearts of those whose hearts were already rather hardened.
I sometimes think of this time one summer when I was at my aunt and uncle’s lake house as a kid, riding my bike down the street, and for some reason that day I thought it would be fun to try riding with my eyes closed. I opened them what was probably a few seconds later with my face about six inches from a mailbox. Sometimes, when we’re headed in one direction for long enough, it’s just really hard to turn around.
Really, it would be better not to wait that long. Because maybe at this point, even if God’s people began to look and listen, they wouldn’t have any idea anymore what they were looking and listening for.
I don’t know, though. Isaiah’s message does seem to say that if the people turned it around they would be healed, and that’s what it’s Isaiah’s job to prevent. And again, I don’t have a good answer for that, except to maybe say that sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better. Maybe God’s people have to hit rock bottom before they can realize their total and ultimate dependence on God and start living in response.
The easy example here is the addict who has to lose his job and family and wake up in jail before recovery and healing can begin. In some cases, nothing short of that is enough.
But I also doubt that for most of the people Isaiah would be speaking to the situation seemed quite so dire. Those people were, like many of us, going about their lives generally trying to do their best, keeping it together on the outside, at least, not heading down any discernible path from which there was no return.
But imagine this: you live a life where it is uncomfortable to be confronted with the need of people around you. So, slowly, you find ways not to see. You change the channel when it’s too much. You take another route to work to avoid that one person who is at the same intersection every day. You avoid eye contact with the ones you do pass. You do this every day, until you live in a world with people you simply don’t see, much less care about their stories or their futures.
Or imagine this: you attain some degree of worldly success. And it feels good, for others to congratulate you and look up to you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But then you start arranging your life so that that’s always the goal. Eventually it doesn’t really matter what you’re giving up; you’re following the path that the world thinks is good, and not necessarily the one God does.
Those are also paths that it may be hard to come back from, especially if we don’t even realize they are leading us away from God. But we may also ask what they are leading toward.
And so what I take from this passage is not that all is lost – but that the time to open my eyes and my ears and my mind and begin to be healed is now.
This may be a disturbing passage in the Bible, but it’s also only one. I’d say that the whole narrative arc tells a different story – one where God gives God’s people almost infinite chances. One where each time God leaves God’s people alone to face the consequences of their own actions, God hears their cries of anguish and relents. One where God keeps sending prophets with messages of judgment, yes, but also grace and hope on the other side. One where God finally takes the decisive action of becoming one of us, taking all of our brokenness on himself, of finally bridging that divide between God and humans that could never quite be closed before.
Even here at the end of Isaiah 6, as God is describing the utter destruction of the land, God says the people, if they were once like a mighty oak, would be no more than a stump. But then, it goes, “Its stump is a holy seed.”
All is not lost. With our God, all is never lost.
But may our eyes be open, now. May our ears be attentive, now. May our hearts be softened, now. Let’s recommit to be God’s people again – before we’ve forgotten how.