St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 3rd November 2013
Today we are beginning a whole new sermon series, from the Old Testament, as in the run up to Christmas we look at the first 12 chapters of Isaiah. Now I know that for many people the Old Testament is a difficult and forbidding proposition. It contains lots of strange names, such as those of the kings mentioned in verse 1; Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. It refers to strange and sometimes shocking events that happened way back when in a distant land, for example the downfall of Sodom and Gomorrah in verse 10. And, if we’re honest, its general themes of judgement, punishment and destruction we all find rather difficult. Nobody wants to think too much about being devoured by the sword (verse 18). Perhaps it’s not too surprising that while we regularly read the gospels, and may even delve into other parts of the New Testament, such as Acts or Romans, on the whole the Old Testament remains a confusing, obscure body of work that remains unread and unloved.
So why read the Old Testament at all?
Well, I think there are three general answers. First of all, despite all the advances in knowledge, despite all our economic and social development, human nature still stubbornly remains the same. There is still inequality between rich and poor. The strong still oppress the weak. People still offer meaningless religion, and ignore the word of God. If you like, the Old Testament acts as a mirror in which our own faults and failings are reflected, and sometimes we need to allow its message to challenge our attitudes and behaviour, particularly perhaps as we come to Advent and prepare for the coming of our Saviour.
And this leads on to the second point, that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God we worship today. After all, the thing about God is that He does not change. We don’t have to wake each morning and wonder if God has somehow become different overnight. No, the God revealed in Holy Scripture is consistent all the way through, from Genesis to Revelation, and He is still the same God today. So if we want to know about this God, we need to discover all we can about Him, and read every part of His word.
Which is fine in theory. But what about all these themes of judgement, punishment and destruction? How do we reconcile these with a God of love and patience and kindness? Now that’s too large a question to cover in a single introduction, but maybe there’s a clue in some verses we passed over this morning, Isaiah 1:2-3:
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.”
You see, the God of the Old Testament, our God, is passionate about His people. As a Heavenly Father, He spends time and effort rearing and bringing up His children. But how is all this care and patience rewarded? By rebellion, by a refusal to listen, by a generally stubborn and defiant attitude that will not learn. That’s why the God of the Old Testament seems so often bent on judgement. He has given chance after chance after chance, but nothing has ever changed. Isaiah’s words of doom were by no means the first, nor the last, but part of God patiently, persistently warning His people over many centuries of what would happen if they kept ignoring their Creator and Redeemer.
And if you spend some time grappling with the Old Testament, I think you will find that by the end you are just longing for someone who can intervene, for a Saviour who can rescue God’s people and deal with all the rebellion and defiance of the human heart. This leads to the third point, and the ultimate reason why we read a book like Isaiah, that the Old Testament prepares for, and points forward to, the New Testament. Sometimes in very specific ways, like the prophesy in Isaiah 7:14 of a virgin being with child, sometimes in more general ways, like the prospect of all nations streaming to hear the word of the Lord in chapter 2. And let’s not forget, the Scripture Jesus read and learnt was the Old Testament. It was the words of a prophet like Isaiah that in many ways shaped and influenced His ministry and His mission.
So those are some general points about why we read the Old Testament. But what, then, do we make of this particular passage, in front of us this morning?
Well, I suggest the way into our reading of Isaiah is to think of a time when you’ve made out a report about somebody else. It might be when, for example, you made a statement to the police. It might be when you were asked to assess the work of a colleague, something even I do as a vicar. Or it might be that regular end of term challenge you face regularly as a teacher. We all know what it’s like to come home with that brown envelope in our school bag and nervously hand it to our parents, wondering just what has been written about us this time.
So what does a report contain? To begin with, it has to have some introductory details. You need the name of the author. You need a date. And you need to know who the report is for. They may only be small details, but they are important. If little Johnny comes home with a brown envelope carefully hidden at the bottom of his school bag, when you find eventually find it, you need to confirm (a) that it is his (b) when it was written and (c) who exactly wrote such charming things about your boy.
In the same kind of way our reading begins: The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. So this tells us, first of all, that the book was written by a real human author. We would love to know more about Isaiah son of Amoz but the point of any report is not to draw attention to who wrote it, but to what it contains. It also tells us when the book was written. I’m not going to explain who Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah are, but you can find out more about them in 2 Kings 15-20, and just as importantly in other historical records of the Ancient Near-East. This report is not fiction, it was written in a real place at a real time. And to whom was it addressed? Well, we are told it is: The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem. So it is a report directed to a people, Judah, who were in a covenant relationship with the Lord and to a city where His temple had been built.
Now it’s important to realise that in Isaiah’s day there were lots of prophets who claimed to have visions. Some of them claimed to have visions in the name of the Lord. Some of them claimed to have visions in the name of other gods, like Baal and Ashtoreth and Molech. But we don’t have these other visions preserved. Only Isaiah’s survives. Why is this? Because the subsequent history and experience of God’s people confirmed that what Isaiah was saying was the true word of the Lord. People kept this report because even though it might make uncomfortable reading, it was an honest and accurate assessment. Isaiah didn’t just write this report out of his own imagination, but under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit. And if we claim to be part of God’s people then Isaiah’s vision doesn’t just concern Judah and Jerusalem. It also concerns us, and we need to read his words under the guidance of the same Holy Spirit to understand his message today.
So what is that message? Let’s go back to the idea of a report. Because, as we’ve just said, a report contains an assessment of how things are at the moment. So, for example, when you finally fish little Johnny’s report out of his school bag, you will find that a teacher has worked hard to measure his academic progress, his attitude to learning and his expected results at the end of the year. For the whole point of a report is to present things as they really are, to give you the tools to accurately measure and evaluate the situation in hand.
So, looking at today’s reading, what is the Lord’s assessment of the current state of play in Judah and Jerusalem? Well, on the surface it seems that there is an awful lot of good, honest religion going on. If you plough through the small print of the book of Leviticus you will quickly discover that all these sacrifices mentioned in verse 11 – burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals… blood of bulls and lambs and goats – were precisely what the Law demanded. There was a constant procession of religious festivals one after another. The calendar was dominated by, verse 13, New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations which was exactly as it should be.
And yet, and yet … Isaiah compares Judah and Jerusalem to two ancient cities which according to Genesis 19 were overthrown because of their great wickedness and which today probably lie buried somewhere under the southern end of the Dead Sea. Verse 10: Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah! I guess his message must have been a real shock and puzzle to his hearers. After all, with all this religion going on, the word of the Lord must have been read over and over again. You had to know what the law demanded to offer all these sacrifices in the first place. So why, then, was Isaiah’s report so harsh and so damning? And why did the Lord seem so bent on destruction?
Well, the problem seems to be that the people of Judah and Jerusalem suffered from the same issue that affects many people today, namely, they had a kind of pic’n’mix attitude to the Scripture. They took the bits they liked, all that stuff about sacrifice and seasons. But they ignored the bits they didn’t like, all that stuff about how to treat your neighbour and to live honestly. For example, reading on into verse 23, Isaiah tells them: Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. In other words, the worship the people offered did not connect with their daily lives. They believed God would be pleased with all their ceremonies and rituals but were blind to the fact this same God demanded them to care for the weak and the vulnerable.
It’s little wonder, going back to verse 14, that the Lord says: Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. You see, and this is something we need to hear again and again, the Lord isn’t just mildly irritated by, or slightly concerned about worthless religion. He hates it. It’s a denial and a travesty of all that He expects of His covenant people.
Can you start to see the relevance of Isaiah’s message, today? It’s not just enough to have the word of the Lord read to us, or have some kind of familiarity with the law of our God. When God tell us to do something, it is up to us to obey – not just those commands we find easy or comfortable but maybe and especially those parts which demand we change our lives and truly love our neighbour as ourselves, even if they are orphans, widows or strangers.
So a report contains an assessment of how things are. Secondly, a report – if it’s any good -sets out the action to be taken. After all, if you’re told your performance is not up to scratch, or there’s an area where you’re failing, you need to be told how to improve. That classic line from school reports, “Must try harder” is all very well, but if you don’t know where to put the effort in, or what you need to do, then it doesn’t really help.
Fortunately in our reading today, the Lord is very specific about the action Isaiah’s audience needs to take. Verses 16-17: wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. That’s all pretty clear, isn’t it? Sometimes folk think that the Christian faith is all terribly difficult to understand, that you need to be clever or particularly well-educated to make head or tail of what the Bible says. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. If you claim to belong to God’s people then you need to stop doing wrong. You need to get clean on the inside. You need to turn away from all that is evil. And you need to live a new kind of life where you do what God tells you to do. It really is that simple.
In fact, the only difficulty we face is actually wanting to put all this stuff into practice. After all, if you think about it, the people of Judah and Jerusalem did not set out to break God’s commands. They thought they were being very faithful to the law. But what they could not see is that their hearts were set on other things. They said they loved the Lord their God. They put on a great religious show. But at the end of the day what was more important to them was their bank balance, the amount the money they could make, their own comfort and their own easy way of life. That’s why they ignored the call of Isaiah and all the other prophets time after time after time. They knew what God wanted but they didn’t want to listen to Him. What about us?
Now again a good report not only gives an assessment of how things are, and sets out the action to be taken. It also spells out the alternatives of what will happen depending on whether its recommendations are put into practice or not.
And this takes me on to the wonderful and astonishing promise of verse 18. Now there’s a popular myth out there that the Old Testament is all about judgement and destruction, but that it is to misunderstand the whole purpose of its message. The God of the Old Testament is a God of passionate, committed love for His people. Even here, even after likening Judah and Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah, after telling them exactly how much He hates all this meaningless religion, the Lord still makes this most generous and gracious offer:
“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”.
Isn’t that a wonderful invitation to people who are blind to their sin, to people who have broken God’s commands, in fact to people like you and me? Of course, Isaiah’s hearers might well have wondered how their sins could be washed away, and the stain of their wrongdoing removed. After all, the Lord has just made it abundantly clear that He is not pleased with all these animal sacrifices. He has said in verse 15: When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. So, people might well have asked, how could it be possible to reason with a God who hates your religion and will not hear your prayers?
For a full and complete answer to this question, we have to remember what I said earlier about the Old Testament pointing forward to the New. Because again, if you read through the Old Testament, by the end you do wonder how on earth can anyone be put right with God. That’s why when you read a verse like this, you begin to see how Isaiah is paving the way for the coming of Jesus, the One whose sacrifice God accepted, the One who is seated at the right hand of God interceding for us. Because in the end the only way our sins can become as white as snow, and like wool, is, strangely enough, through the blood of Jesus. He took the wrongdoing that stains our human heart and dealt with it once for all upon the cross. He paid the price for our failure to heed God’s assessment of our situation and our refusal to take the appropriate action.
It would be wonderful to finish at this point at verse 18. But we need, however briefly, to move on to the end of the passage to verse 20. Because God’s offer to us is just that, an offer. He does not force His grace and mercy on us. He leaves it up to us as to whether we accept it or not. Yet we need to realise there is an alternative outcome for those who will not listen, who hear God’s offer of mercy yet do nothing about it. Think about the rich man in Luke 16 we considered a few weeks back. He knew the law of the Lord. He was religious. But he persisted in ignoring both the word of God and the poor man at His gate. And I hope you realise where he ended up – if not, read the story again.
Isaiah’s words really are words also to us. Sadly his audience only recognised the truth of his words once it was too late. Only too late did they gather up Isaiah’s words and recognise the mouth of the Lord has spoken. What about you? What about me? Today let’s take heed of the Lord’s assessment of our lives. Let’s consider the action we need to take. And as we think about the alternatives that lie before us, let us respond to the Lord’s offer while we can and then rejoice in the gift of Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.