Sermon on Isaiah 1 (specifically, Isaiah 1:1-3, 11-12, 15-18, 25-27); Hebrews 9:11-14. Delivered 7 September 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church. The first installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah.
Sometimes, I've wondered what it would be like to live in the world of the Old Testament prophets, or even to be one of those prophets. When you picture a prophet in Old Testament times, what images go through your head? For me, I often think of a John-the-Baptist type of figure: someone hairy, wild, unwashed, untamed. Dressed in strange clothes, saying strange words, doing strange things. Spending months in the deserts, coming back to scream fire-and-brimstone in the streets to a people unwilling to listen. Always coming from the outside, from the fields or the hills, called to criticize the constant wrongdoing of the kings and queens, the city-dwellers, the large landowners. Hated, disliked men that the 'respectable' worldly people wanted to avoid.
Many of the Old Testament prophets were like that. But Isaiah didn't quite fit that mold. The ancient rabbis had a tradition that his father Amoz was the brother of King Amaziah – and if that's true, then Isaiah was King Uzziah's cousin, and an elder relative of the next three kings during whose reigns Isaiah ministered. The first twenty years of Isaiah's ministry in Judah overlapped with Hosea's ministry in Israel, and Micah's forty-year ministry all took place while Isaiah was still at work. But while Micah was from the little country village of Moresheth-Gath, Isaiah lived in the capital city, in the palace, in the halls of power – the prophet-chaplain to the king's court. Second Chronicles 36:22 suggests that Isaiah may have served as an official royal historian and scribe.
Isaiah stands among the other prophets as proof that God doesn't call just one kind of person. He calls both the 'simple' and the educated; he calls both the poor and the rich; he calls both the country-folk and the city-slickers; and he uses both the young'uns and the elders. The Old Testament prophets remind us of Jesus' mixed choices of apostles – both a handful of simple fishermen and a trained scribe; both a former tax-collector and a former terrorist; both country-dwellers and, eventually, a man trained in Jerusalem in the leading rabbinic 'seminary' of his times. The gospel is preached by all sorts, because the gospel is for all sorts, and it stretches people of every personality and opinion to be open to the parts that are bigger than them, bigger than us. We most fully embody the gospel when we work together as a diverse church – not all brain, not all heart, not all hands, not all ear or eye or mouth, but a whole body filled with all its functions, all Christ's gifts and graces.
The same is true in the prophets who ministered under the Old Covenant and foreshadowed the New. And although each of those prophets has a message that, in ways we may never expect, points forward to the gospel, Isaiah is in a way the king of them all. The Book of Isaiah has sometimes been called "the Fifth Gospel". The church father Jerome called Isaiah "more of an Evangelist than a Prophet". There's a reason the New Testament writers loved to quote and reference Isaiah when they preached. Many prophets foreshadowed Jesus in one respect or another, but Isaiah's preaching is saturated in Jesus from angle after angle. The first five chapters serve as an introduction to most or all of the themes of the whole book of Isaiah – and what a set of themes they are!
Here, Isaiah paints a sketch – small compared to the grand masterpieces drawn cosmically large later in his collection of oracles and visions – of a rebellious Judah, a nation gone wrong. The chosen people of God have a collective bout of amnesia as to where they came from. They became a nation by the grace of God, who rescued them from Egypt, who tended them in the desert, who raised them in the Holy Land as his own children – but now the chosen nation as a whole, God's own children, are too idol-frenzied to even remember which God is really theirs.
In our day, it's easy to point the finger at a secularized America outside our walls and say, "You were a nation appointed by God, who gave you prosperity in the New World, who shepherded you through the Revolution, who safeguarded your 'unalienable rights', who set you free to be a light to the nations, who made you strong and victorious over all the nations of the earth – but now you, you out there, have forgotten God." Some of this is true, both the good and the bad, but we must not forget who really are the 'nation whose God is the Lord' - that is, the church – and who really is the Light to the Nations, and who really rules a victorious kingdom over all the nations – that is, Jesus Christ.
But more than that, pointing fingers of blame is easy, with our wrists and elbows straight. It's safe when they only point away. But that isn't the good news of Jesus; it's the bad news of the Pharisees. When fingers are pointed, gospel humility means that wrists and elbows always start bent – so that the finger points first at ourselves, acknowledging the planks in our eyes before we speak a word about the sawdust in anyone else's.
America has been blessed, truly and greatly and beautifully blessed, but the church has been spiritually chosen. In the church – not just this congregation, but the church, the whole church - do we remember the grace of God, who rescued us from the 'Egypt' of our sins, who tends us in our present roaming through this worldly wilderness, and who made us his own children and will reveal us as such when he raises us from the dead in the Holy Land of the whole new creation? Or do our modern idols – our work, our leisure, our pleasure, our money, our success, our social status, our independence, our privacy, our personal opinions – crowd out the God of grace?
Isaiah has those very concerns. The ox knows who owns it, and the donkey knows who manages it, but does the church know the God who adopted his children? Through Isaiah, God poses a biting challenge. It's easy, in a so-called Christian land, to let our Monday-through-Saturday lives come unhinged from our Sunday worship. We might assume that "going to church" is just one part of life, a compartment all its own, unrelated to how we treat our neighbors, our families, our bosses, our employees.
Judah had the same problem. That's why God had to remind her that her whole multitude of sacrifices were pointless if they came from a divided, compartmentalized heart. It isn't in the mere physical blood of sacrificial bulls and lambs and goats that God was pleased; it was in the heart of repentance and justice and faithful love that those sacrifices were supposed to reflect. The bloody sacrifices were just the outward vessel, a symbol of their inner meaning – but without a wholesale commitment to God and to righteousness, they rang hollow, because they were hollow. Outward piety became just perfunctory. Today, we lift up a sacrifice of praise, and make ourselves living sacrifices – but if our heart is divided, if we compartmentalize godliness to an hour or two on Sunday mornings, then our words and our lives are also hollow. And if we run to and fro with hollow lives, then all our worship is just "trampling God's courts".
But God offered Judah a radical and reasonable offer – reasonable, because God stoops to dialogue with his wayward people, to help them think clearly and rightly so that their lives can be shaped by the Divine Reason who the Gospel of John tells us was with God in the beginning, and whom we know as Jesus Christ. But the offer is also radical, because it is an invitation to repentance. And repentance is a radical thing. For people as far astray as Judah was then, it was no less than an about-face, a trade of all that they actually were for all that they were supposed to be.
God called Judah – and he calls us today, when we sin – to "stop doing wrong" and instead "learn to do right". We should minister in justice to a needy world around us, defending the oppressed, all those pushed to the margins by the systems of society. Isaiah's words point forward to the true washing from sin, and the true righteousness of God: Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who truly "settles the matter". Our sins were like scarlet, they were red as crimson – bold, unseemly, visible to God and others. They were vivid stains, blots on our lives. But through Jesus, God fought our red sins with his red blood, to make us white as snow, white as wool, pure from all stain – the color of holiness. Here in Christ, God is fully pleased: all the many bulls and lambs and goats give way to the one Son of God, the Wisdom of God, who makes his people understand.
Christ Jesus purges all our dross, everything unworthy in us – the process of sanctification, making us holy. Again and again, he restores his church from its confused and wayward and distracted state. He calls us back to repentance, back to holiness, back to revival. The idols fall, and the church stands upon its one foundation: Jesus Christ, her Lord. The church stands as Zion, the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City, pointing forward to when she is fully unveiled as the New Jerusalem, dressed as a spotless bride for her Divine Bridegroom, eager with intense longing for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.
Whenever we forget our gracious God, whenever we rest on all our Sunday works to cover our faithless weeks, whenever we trample God's courts, whenever we ignore what is right and do what is wrong, whenever we stain our holy unity with the dark red dye of sin, there is and remains hope in Jesus. We can repent – we must repent – and turn back to him. We must remember the grace of God, and that we did not earn it through our lifestyle or our worship. God offers his costly grace to all, though not all receive it. He offers his grace to adulterers like David, to murderers like Moses, to cowards like Simon Peter, to persecutors like Saul of Tarsus, to terrorists like Simon the Zealot and like the two convicted terrorists between whom our Savior died – and, yes, even to us. All equally, thoroughly, desperately in need of Jesus.
But this grace of God did not leave them as adulterers, murderers, cowards, persecutors, or terrorists. No, no, it sought and found them where they were and led them out of their sinful pasts into the hope of glory. And this same grace of God lays claim to all our days and all our hours, to all our opinions and all our relationships, to all our tasks and all our words. This grace lays claim to all of these, to all of each of us, for a purpose: to make them all, from all of us, reflections of the holiness and love of God. Grace is freely given, grace greater than all our sinful stains – but how? The hymnwriter Robert Lowry said it best (Gospel Music , no. 7):
What can wash away [our] stain? Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make [us] whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus....
Nothing can for sin atone – Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
Naught of good that [we] have done – Nothing but the blood of Jesus....
This is all [our] hope and peace – Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
This is all [our] righteousness – Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh, precious is the flow, that makes [us] white as snow,
No other fount [we] know, Nothing but the blood of Jesus!