This week we read some the most familiar prophesies of Isaiah. It’s important to remember just what prophesies are and are not. They are not predictions of the future like looking ahead in a time machine. They are, instead, God-inspired words and images giving poignancy to what is. My Old Testament professor would say, the predictions of prophesy come from a very keen awareness of what will happen following the trend and direction of what is going on now … like a mother saying to her three year old, you will be burned when you touch that stove.
With that in mind, while the familiar advent prophecy clearly points to the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, it is also (and perhaps more importantly) the Word of God for the people then, and the people now. This is where we need to be aware that the redactor of The Story puts forth a traditional interpretation of the text. Frazee writes that “Isaiah’s prophesies end with a promise of a suffering Servant, the Messiah, who would usher in a glorious kingdom without end.” There is a danger in thinking this messianic interpretation of the text is the only true meaning. Hearing the words of Isaiah only as a statement about the promise of the future coming of Jesus who will bear the sins of the world is true, yet limiting.
If we don’t merely assume this passage is about the coming of the Messiah, we hear a lot more … particularly in the areas of social justice. It is a statement about oppression, suffering and hope that calls us to awareness and action. Today the reading took me to the realities of oppression against LGBTQ folk and the poor.
First, I had been watching the documentary, Bridegroom, about a couple of young men, their childhoods, their love, and their grief. Shane and Tom were soul mates. At the age of 29, Tom died unexpectedly after falling off a roof during a photo shoot. Tom was the epitome of manhood; he was joyful, caring, athletic, handsome, gregarious, successful. He didn’t have a bad word for anyone. Even when his own father came after him with a gun because he came out as gay, Tom responded with an ability to understand how difficult it is for his father to have a gay son. The movie painted Tom as Shane’s savior … the one who lifted him out of the mire of depression and shame. The silent suffering and ultimate death of Tom is now giving life to many others … through the grief and hope of his partner, Shane, and in the telling of the story through video and documentary. It’s a Christ-story for our generation. The hope that comes out of suffering is a realty that comforts us and heals us and fuels us.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
Second, I was reading an article about Fox News’ Adam Shaw’s rant against Pope Francis. Shaw claimed in an op-ed last month that the Pope was the Catholic Church’s Obama. He spurned Pope Francis for his love and care of the poor and his attacks on the abuses of capitalism. In Shaw’s most recent rant he writes:
In [Evangelii Gaudium] Francis says that “the powerful feed on the powerless” in a free market economy, and that those who engage in the market become “incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor.” He says the “culture of prosperity deadens us.”
The pope’s snub of the struggle for prosperity is a typically derisive attitude toward the American quest for self-development, and an attitude that is often encountered among rich European liberals, or, in this case, clergymen (sic) who have not had to work to provide a better life for their families.
When reading or discerning prophetic words, we have to listen without defensiveness and with an openness to accusation. Not so that we feel guilty or are “bad” people, but to help us see clearly, to live with a glimpse of a better future, and to make a difference. The Word of God is often contrary to the assumptions of society. Isaiah goes on at lengths saying how despised and unlikable and in low esteem we hold the one who saves. The truth is often heard from the unexpected. So we hear Francis calling us to hear the voices of the poor and oppressed … just as Isaiah did … especially in the verse
By oppression[a] and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.[b]
“Yet who of his generation protested?” That is the haunting cry that has stuck with me since adolescence when I learned about the holocaust and realized the accusation of my own German heritage. Who of our generation will protest the exploitation of the poor when wages are too low to live on? Who of our generation will protest the criminalization of those who suffer disease such as addiction and mental illness? Who of our generation will protest the systemic inequality of those with dark skin? Who of our generation will protest the hate and abuse and bullying of LGBTQ youth? Who of our generation …?
This week, we focus on the writings of Isaiah. More so than, I think, any of the other prophets of the Old Testament, we Christians look to Isaiah as the one who foretold the coming of the Christ. But, for me, I’ve always been drawn more to Isaiah’s calls for justice and true devotion than his predictions that are typically referenced as referring to Jesus. For instance, Isaiah 1:11-14:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation —
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
That sound to me a lot like Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees who followed the forms of religion, but had no real faith.
Or how about Isaiah 1:22-23
Your silver has become dross,
your wine is mixed with water.
Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not
come before them.
Isaiah is calling the people to return to the ancient ways — to ensure that the powerful care for the weak, rather than focusing on themselves, and maintaining their own station. To my mind, the call to our own time is obvious. Especially in our society, where we value the “self-made” person above all else, we need to hear the words of Isaiah. Now, I have to say I’m feeling pretty hypocritical at this point. While I say that I think caring for the less fortunate, I’m not very good at actually doing it. I like my creature comforts far too much for my own good. I can definitely empathise with Isaiah when, in the vision reported in chapter 6, he says
Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!
That vision passage is one of my favorites in Isaiah. In it, a seraphim touches a burning coal Isaiah’s to his mouth, to purify him to enable him to speak for God. Part of me wishes I could have that experience, but I think a bigger part of me is afraid of how much that would HURT.
At the end of that vision, we get Isaiah 6:8
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here I am; send me!”
That is this inspiration of my all-time favorite hymn: “Here I Am, Lord”
This week we’ll be reading the story of the fall of the northern kingdom. That’s Chapter 16: The Beginning of the End (of the Kingdom of Israel). For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: 2 Kings 17-19; Isaiah 3; 6; 13-14; 49; 53 Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning. In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here. Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory