A sermon on Isaiah’s call, Epiphany 5C, February 7, 2010:
Today, we hear Isaiah’s call. It begins with a magnificent vision of God’s throne, with a robe so immense it fills the temple. The seraphim aren’t cute cherubs or lovely angels, seraph referred to a fiery serpent. These basically are six-winged dragons flying around God’s throne. It is overwhelming and Isaiah reacts with fear and a sense of unworthiness.
But the song of the seraphim is so familiar that it’s easy to lose the holy terror of the scene. (It’s probably not helpful to suggest that you imagine the seraphim as we sing the Sanctus today?)
Isaiah responds with another oft-used line: “here I am, send me!” It’s often used at ordinations, along with the lovely song, Here I Am, Lord. And at this point, the lectionary gives us the option to end the reading.
Ah, but there’s more, as they say. Only after Isaiah has volunteered for this vague mission (“Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?”), he gets the details. He is to go and tell the people of Israel to listen but not to hear, to look but not to see, somehow intentionally to dull their minds for as long as it takes for their cities to be laid waste and the people either dead or in exile. How can God say, “Make the mind of this people dull, . . . so that they may not . . . turn and be healed”?
Fun. What are we to make of this disturbing mission? Isaiah is like the ancient Greek figure of Cassandra, who is given prophetic powers but when she refuses the god Apollo’s love, she is cursed so that no one will believe her. Is the God of Israel as fickle as the Greek gods? Is the story of Israel to be as fatalistic and impotent as that of the mortals in Greek mythology?
[I plowed through an article that wrestled with this question, pulling in all sorts of theories of interpretation, including the sociologist Emile Durkheim. It’s too early in the morning for that, and I think there may be another way to get at this ]
Both the biblical and the ancient Greek prophets are known for telling the future, but white for the Greeks the future is unchangeable no matter what we do, the goal of Biblical prophecy is not simply to predict. In fact that is perhaps the least important part of the prophets’ message. The future is presented to the people not as some magic trick or a way to make money on the lottery, but rather as a way calling the people’s attention to the present. The future is a consequence of the roots laid down in the present, in the actions, attitudes and beliefs of the people right now. If the people practice injustice, the prophets say, then society will not hold together, those who have power will overstretch themselves and be vulnerable to the powerful of those outside of the nation. Conversely, if the people hold to their covenant with God and do not follow other gods, if they remember the ethical component of their covenant, then their sense of identity will be maintained, even in exile, and God will be with them. This means that we have a choice—the future can be changed if we change the present.
I am of the opinion that today one of the closest people we have to prophets are mothers. They, too, have an ability to tell the future, in a way often most mysterious to their children: “if you keep rough-housing like that, someone will get hurt”—and bam! It happens! They can see beyond simply human abilities: “get your hand out of that cookie jar” and she’s not even in the room!
Mothers’ prophecies, like those of the biblical prophets, are based in the present, rooted in watching the patterns and the natural and logical consequences of the choices their children make.
Mothers’ prophecies can also, like those of the biblical prophets, fall on deaf ears. How many parents have found themselves yelling at their children over and over, repeating yourselves a thousand times, and it’s as if you’re – choose one: talking to yourself, talking to a brick wall, in a time loop? How many of you children (both young and grown) have heard that vague parental rumbling in the background, nodded your heads, yet have no memory of what’s been said?
Picture those situations and listen again to the words of Isaiah:Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds
God is highlighting the same dynamic. When we get used to ignoring God, when we think we’re fine the way we are (playing in our own little worlds, enjoying our own stacks of cookies, provoking our siblings), when we’d rather not get up and do our God-ordained chores (of feeding the poor, caring for the stranger, visiting the prisoner, tending to the sick) – when we do those things for long enough, we stop hearing. We nod and say, “yes, Mom,” but the meaning fades into the background.
At least until Mom – or God – gets tired of all this. At this point we have two ways to look at reality and the rest of the reading from Isaiah: the consequence of not paying attention is, by one account, God’s punishment, which means we (and Israel in Isaiah’s day) can attribute our future suffering to God’s wrath, an option I’m not entirely comfortable with (particularly in light of how that gets used against others, e.g. Pat Robertson’s comments about Haiti). On the other hand, it could be that the cities lying waste, houses without people, the nation in exile, all these things could be a consequence of not being attentive in the first place. Mom says, over and over, brush your teeth. If you don’t, the cavities are not Mom’s punishment but a natural consequence.
“Real life” in the big bad grownup world is rarely as simple as not brushing teeth = cavities, but I believe that God’s message through Isaiah points to an important truth. I couldn’t help but see our current economic situation in the references to houses without people, and to wars and natural disasters in the cities lying waste, and in the realities of environmental destruction in the desolation of the land.
Have we stopped listening to God? In our comfort, do we sit and play with our own toys, deaf to the cries of the poor next door and around the world? In our fear, do we plug our ears and sing “la la la,” so that we don’t have to deal with the consequences of our choices to live beyond our means, both individually and collectively. In our twisted sense of self, do we stare so hard into the bathroom mirror that we can’t hear the truth about either our sin or our loveliness? In our habit of not listening to God we grow calluses on our eyes, our ears and our hearts.
These are hard questions, perhaps more fitting to the season of Lent, although one of the themes of Epiphany is God’s revelation of truth, particularly in Jesus. I don’t want to move too quickly from these questions, as uncomfortable as they may be. I encourage you to take time in prayer, in solitary reflection, and in communal discernment, to be attentive to the ways that we have stopped listening to God (and not in the easy-out ways . . .
But I want to add a final note of encouragement. Despite Isaiah’s backhanded sign of hope (“the holy seed is its stump”), we do have always, always, always, the redeeming love of God in Christ. Doing the hard and scary work of recognizing the ways we have covered our eyes, blocked our ears, and dulled our understanding is not so that God can say “I told you so” or punish us. It is so that we can participate in that abundant life that God longs to share with us. In today’s gospel, Peter could very well have covered his ears when Jesus asks him to let down the nets again. Like some request from Mom to take out the garbage yet again (I took it out last week!), it may have seemed unreasonable. Yet he was able to hear Jesus’ voice, and in responding he got – more work, yes, more suffering, yes, a harder road, yes – but it was all in the context of a sense of God’s abundant love. And that love is always worth listening for.