St Michael’s, 1st November 2009
If there’s one thing in life we really don’t like, it’s someone writing a report about us. After all, how many of us have ever skipped home happily from school, knowing that in our bag there is a brown envelope which contains all our teachers’ comments about us? It’s hard, isn’t it, knowing that all our effort and all our results over the past year are going to be summed in just a few bald lines: “Must try harder” “Could contribute more to the class” “Has worked quietly and well”. Maybe that’s why when it’s report time children up and down the country tend to come home a little more slowly, slip in through the back door when no-one is looking, and are generally found hibernating in their bedrooms. We just don’t like reports.
But reports are a fact of life, and not only for children. For example, if you’re a teacher or a governor you know all about OFSTED inspections and the way their judgement on your school affects your whole working life. Or again if you’re being assessed for promotion at work, you know that what your supervisor writes about you will almost certainly determine your future prospects. Like them or loathe them, reports are an essential part of life, and we have to learn to deal with what they say.
Maybe that’s why I enjoy being a vicar so much. There isn’t – at least yet – such an organisation as OFREV checking up on the number of visits I have done this week, or how long I have preached for, or how many meetings I have attended. I don’t have to fill in a timesheet each day as I did when working as a chartered accountant, and I don’t have make my files open for an annual inspection. There is still to a large degree a great freedom in being a minister of Christ, although, having said which, I know that perhaps in some ways I am more accountable than anyone else to the people that I serve and I feel that responsibility deeply.
Nor is there yet any organisation such as OFCHURCH which goes round telling churches whether they fall into the categories of “excellent”, “good”, “satisfactory” or “poor”. I mean, how could you really tell whether a church was good or not? Yes, there would be the obvious things like the preaching or the strength of the tea, but what about the faithfulness of the church members, or the quality of love they showed to others? From a human perspective these would be impossible things to measure. But suppose, just suppose, someone was able to write a balanced and honest report about St Michael’s, what do you think they would say?
Let’s hold that thought as we turn to the book of Isaiah. Because in many ways this book of Isaiah is the Lord’s report on the state of Judah and Jerusalem in the late 8th and early 7th century BC. The opening verse could hardly be clearer on this point: The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. In other words, this is a message to God’s people from the Lord through his prophet. But should we doubt for any reason that what Isaiah saw came from the Lord then the next verse immediately answers that question: Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the LORD has spoken. And the fact the Lord summons heaven and earth as witnesses to what He is about to say should make us sit up and realise that what He has to say is urgent, is serious and demands a response.
But why does the Lord feel it necessary to issue such a report at this particular time? Well, there are three particular areas that concern Him, and as we go through this opening chapter – which I admit isn’t particularly comfortable reading – I think there are some important lessons that we could do well to learn.
The first is about the people’s relationship with the Lord.
Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” (vs2)
Now I want you to imagine how you would have felt as you heard the prophet Isaiah pronounce these words for the first time. You would have been pretty offended, wouldn’t you? After all, you could trace your family tree back to Abraham. You knew how your ancestors crossed over into the promised land with Joshua. You had been taught from the earliest age that you were a member of God’s chosen people, Israel, and that you had a special identity as one of His children. But here is this prophet standing up in the temple, comparing you unfavourably with an ox or a donkey. How dare he? Doesn’t he realise who he is speaking to?
Well, of course he does, and the words the Lord has given him are deliberately designed to challenge and provoke his hearers. You see, the problem was the people of Judah and Jerusalem thought that they were children of God because they had the right family tree and the right pedigree. They thought that God particularly loved them and favoured them because they were His special people in His chosen land. They had in fact completely missed the point, that to be a child of God they actually had to be in a living, growing relationship with the Lord and it was this that mattered. In many ways they were like people today who think they are Christians because they go to church or have been born in a Christian country or have had Christian parents. Yes, they may certainly have learnt something about the Christian faith and they may try their best to live a Christian way of life, but without that personal knowledge of the Lord they have no more right to claim to be Christian as the next man, woman or child.
And the reason why Isaiah tackles this issue head-on, right at the beginning, is that this point underpins every other aspect of our faith. Because unless we know the Lord, unless we are in a living, growing relationship with Him, then we cannot hope to know His will or find out how we can best serve and please Him. For as Isaiah points out here, there is a direct link between having a relationship with the Lord, and knowledge and understanding. One of my favourite quotes comes from the 17th century Puritan writer Richard Baxter and it says this: “Nothing can be rightly known, if God be not known; nor is any study well managed, nor to any great purpose, if God is not studied” (p.56, TRP). The people in Isaiah’s time had by and large given up on getting to know the Lord better and they were in danger of losing their identity as God’s special children. Is there, I wonder, a lesson here for us?
But if what Isaiah said about their relationship with the Lord was offensive, what about his next words about their religion?
Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. (vs4)
To which the people quite naturally would have said – what do you mean, we have forsaken the Lord? Look at the number of sacrifices we make. Look at the festivals we keep. Look at the amount of incense we burn. If you want proper religion, we have it by the bucket load. You can hardly go to the temple without being impressed by the amount of worship that’s going on – and we do it all in the name of the Lord. Yet, you say we have forsaken Him. You just don’t know what you are talking about, do you?
Oh yes, I do, Isaiah replies. You’re looking at the amount of religion, at the sacrifices, at the festivals, at the incense. But what is the Lord looking at? He’s looking at the rest of your lives, at the things you do outside the temple, the things you do on normal working days. And what does He see? He sees the poor being oppressed. He sees justice being sold to the highest bidder. He sees the fatherless and the widow – the weakest members of society – without anyone to protect them. And that’s why ultimately the Lord hates your religion and refuses to answer your prayers. It is a sham, a charade. Because what you do in His house makes no difference to the way you behave in the marketplace, the law court, the public square. And the religion you practise is not only useless. It is hypocritical and deceitful. For you believe that by carrying on with these rites and rituals you will keep the Lord on your side, and you are deaf to what He is trying to say to you. He doesn’t want your religion. He wants your obedience. But you, people of Judah, just don’t get it.
It is little wonder, then, that Isaiah’s report about Jerusalem goes on to talk thirdly about their rebellion against the Lord.
Now I don’t imagine that the people of the time deliberately set out to rebel against the Lord. They didn’t wake up one morning and think, “Let’s see how many laws we can break today” or “I wonder what happens if we don’t bother with commandments 5-10 any more”. Because in my experience there are very few, if any, people who make a conscious decision to turn their backs on the Lord. But I do know there are many people who once were walking with the Lord but are doing so no longer. And I think it’s worth asking ourselves how exactly this happens.
For Isaiah’s audience their rebellion came about for two different, but connected, reasons. First of all, they failed to acknowledge the Lord when times were good. They didn’t see the wealth and the prosperity and all the good things as being primarily gifts from God. Rather they rejoiced in all they had, and began to wonder how they could possibly have more. That is how they began to oppress the poor and prey on the vulnerable. They were the people who represented easy pickings, people who wouldn’t make too much of a fuss if they took rather more than their fair share from them. And of course once they started on this course of action, the easier it became to carry on with same practices. A little greed for more, in other words, grew step by step into exploitation, institutional bias, and the undermining of fundamental human rights until no-one – apart from the odd awkward prophet – saw anything wrong in what they were doing.
But if they failed to acknowledge the Lord when times were good, they also failed to acknowledge the Lord when times were bad. Why should you be beaten any more? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and bruises and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil. (vs5-6) Now we don’t know the precise series of events that led Jerusalem to be described in these verses like a critically injured person, but it seems clear that the land had been invaded by other nations, and possibly there was also sickness and disease in the city. And what was the people’s response? Unless the LORD Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah. (vs9) In other words, yes, all these terrible things have happened, but He has still spared some of us. He still loves us and we are still His people. So that’s OK then, isn’t it?
Well, actually, no. The fact the Lord had spared some survivors was meant to be a sign of His undeserved mercy and favour. And instead of blithely assuming the Lord was still pleased with them, the people should have seen the recent tragic events as a sign that the Lord want them all to come back to Him and plead for Him to save them. So maybe, just maybe, there is a lesson here for us. Of course not every tragedy is a discipline from God, and we have to be very, very careful in saying that this or that event was sent by God to teach us a lesson, but perhaps there are occasions when we need to recognise that the Lord is trying to speak to us through some unforeseen circumstance and that He is using whatever situation to make us turn to back to Him. I don’t know about you but sometimes I am so slow to hear what God is saying, He has to do something – almost anything – to bring me up short and teach me once again to depend on Him.
I said this wasn’t comfortable reading, didn’t I? A broken relationship with the Lord, worthless religion before Him, and rebellion against Him. There are few passages of Scripture which in such a short space of time deliver such a damning verdict on its hearers. And I think we must be humble enough to accept there may be lessons for us here as well.
But before I leave you on a note of gloom and despair, there’s just one more thing I need to draw to your attention. Because this report on Jerusalem, just like any good report, doesn’t just identify what the problems are. It also offers the remedial action its hearers need to take.
“Come now, 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. (vs18) What an amazing and unexpected offer! Although time after time the people had turned the back on the Lord, the offer of a fresh start, a new beginning was still there. The sins that had shamed them and stained them could still be removed. A new relationship was still a possibility. If we ever needed proof from Scripture of God’s goodness and grace, Isaiah 1:18 provides it. And it is a word also to us today. I don’t know, but perhaps there’s someone here today who has been convicted by what I’ve said. Someone who realises their relationship with the Lord is failing, or who knows they have shut the Lord out of part of their life, or who has refused to acknowledge His goodness. There is even in spite of your failings good news for you.
But in order to receive that good news you have make a decision. You have to choose between one of two things – repentance or resistance. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (vs19-20) Or to put it very simply, you can either come or you can go. You can accept the Lord’s invitation and come to Him with sorrow and a new willingness to obey, or you can go away, and leave His offer of life and forgiveness and peace behind. The choice is yours. Which will you take?
This is not to say that the path of repentance is cheap or easy. Listen again to these words of Jesus from our gospel reading, from Luke 9:23: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. Repentance does involve dying to an old way of life. It does mean changing our attitudes to the weak and the vulnerable. It does mean resisting the urge to have more and more for our own sake. It does mean standing up for the oppressed and the poor. But ultimately we choose the path of repentance because it is the path to life, and if we are willing and obedient, then what we are promised as Christians is nothing less than the gift of the Holy Spirit to cleanse us, to renew us and make us fit to serve Jesus as our Lord and King. And surely that is a gift that is worth having, isn’t it? No matter what the cost.