Littlewell
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Stumped

Isaiah 6
Luke 5:1-11
Sun, February 11, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
I'm stumped. This is no easy thing to admit. You likely aren’t thrilled at the
prospect of a preacher who leads off with such acknowledged ignorance. But
there is nothing else to say. The sixth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah
has me stumped. I can hardly believe that it says what it clearly says or that it
means what it plainly means. This chapter must be exactly what Isaiah has in
mind when he announces:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts”. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Perhaps you’re wondering what I’m so exercised about. You’ve heard this
story before. You remember Isaiah’s call. In fact, “Here I am, Lord. Is it I,
Lord?” is already one of your favourite hymns (Voices United #509). You even
recall that I have preached this very passage in years gone by. I wasn’t
stumped then. You wonder what has changed.

Back then I told the story of Isaiah’s overwhelming call. A vision of God
Almighty holding court in the heavenly throne room, surrounded by six
winged seraphs hiding their eyes from the brilliance of God’s glory and
singing “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his
glory”. You recall that in the span of eight brief verses we discover the
pattern of our Sabbath day worship. First the heavenly song of praise echoed
here, in this earthly holy place. Then the confession of the painful truth. To
glimpse God’s glory is to confront human frailty. Isaiah cries woe: “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. Simon Peter is witness to
Jesus’ power over nature and can only say: “Go away from me, Lord, for I
am a sinful man!”. But Jesus orders Simon Peter: “Do not be afraid”. Isaiah’s
filthy lips are purified by with the white-hot heat of a burning coal. Then
comes the voice of the Lord: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Finally a response, an offering, a decision: “Here am I; send me!”. As Luke
says: “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and
followed him”. The call of Isaiah, the call of the disciples ... our call ... always
like this: wondrous praise; painful confession; amazing grace; compelling
word; willing response.

But that is, you may recall, where we left it. Back then we stopped in mid
chapter, at verse 8: “Here am I; send me!”. We didn’t read further because
our calendar of readings stops here, too. Well, to be honest, the lectionary
does include verses nine through thirteen ... but only in brackets. The
conclusion of the sixth chapter of Isaiah is an optional reading on today’s
calendar. Usually the presiders, planners and preachers opt not to have it
read aloud. Because, you see, it stumps them as it does me. Having offered to
carry the message of God, Isaiah is now told what to preach:
“Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their eyes,
and shut their ears, so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’.”
Imagine being ordained to spend a lifetime preaching in order to confuse, to
deafen and to puzzle. Sent by God to keep people from turning towards God
and being healed. Are you beginning to see why I am stumped this morning?
How can this be the truth? How can this be God’s intention for Isaiah, for me,
for us? How can the call to turn people away from God possibly be ‘The
Word of God - Thanks be to God’?

Like a politician instructing his press secretary, Yahweh explicitly commands
Isaiah to obfuscate, to cover-up, to keep people from comprehending what is
really going. Isaiah is as shocked as we are and asks in bewilderment: “How
long, O Lord?”. One press release? One sermon? One season? One era? How
long am I to purposely confuse and bewilder your people? God’s answer is
immediate and without qualification: “until!”.
“Until cities lies waste without inhabitant,
and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate:
until the LORD sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”
Isaiah says nothing. But it is as if Yahweh hears the newly ordained prophet
wondering aloud: “What if a faithful few hear and turn? What if a small
remnant is faithful? What then?”. The LORD answers the unasked question:
“Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing when it is felled.”
Isaiah is instructed to preach to confuse “until” ... until everything that the
people of Israel have built ... everything ... is destroyed.

Maybe, like me, you have been imagining, hoping ... praying even ... that this
cannot be the living Word of God to us today. This is, after all, God’s Word to
Isaiah, a prophet to Israel in the 8th Century BC. This message is almost three
millenia old. Doesn’t this strange text belong to the ‘former things’ which
Isaiah speaks of in later chapters? This is God’s radical judgment on ancient
Israel. What in heaven’s name could it have to do with our post-modern
Church? Surely it would be more profitable for us to spend the morning in
the world of Luke’s gospel, joining with the disciples as they turn to follow.
Surely. Except for one troubling footnote. To my surprise I realized this week
- for the first time - that Yahweh’s instruction to preach in riddles and to
purposely confound is quoted directly in the New Testament not in one
gospel account or even in two. This shocking command is found, word for
word, in the Gospel according to Matthew (13:14-15), Mark (4:12), Luke
(8:10), John (12:37-43) and, yes, even in the Acts of the Apostles (28:26-27). I
suspect that there are few, if any, Old Testament passages which can claim
this singular distinction. The New Testament evidence is stunning. Jesus, his
disciples and the early church read Isaiah chapter six - all of chapter six - as
the gospel truth. We know that teachers in the early church speak of Isaiah as
a ‘fifth gospel’. They hear in its cadences all of the crucial claims of Christian
faith. Can you see why there was no other option this morning? We simply
must read Isaiah chapter six - all of chapter six - even if it leaves the preacher
... and the people ... stumped.

Then Janice reads this passage. As a Christian Educator she is just as
confounded as the rest of us. She writes a note, saying “Work with me here,
God - I have enough to contend with ... I don’t need God working to dull
minds, stop ears, and shut eyes!” In her confusion she does something
surprising ... something unusual ... something radical. She begins to read
Isaiah from the beginning. Yes, she goes back to Isaiah, chapter one. I know, it
is a novel approach. I wish I had thought of that! But, with her prompting,
that is exactly what I do. I read the opening section of the book of Isaiah,
chapters one through twelve. The effect is overwhelming. The verses are
eerily contemporary: “The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and
princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard”. I turn on
the news to hear that due to global warming ice in Antartica is melting at
such a rate that the oceans will soon rise by five feet. And it is as if no one
believes it ... or cares. Isaiah continues: “The spoil of the poor is in your
houses.” I open my closet door and see it hanging there. The spoil of the poor
in my own house. And it stays hanging there, as if I do not realize what I am
wearing each day. Once more, Isaiah: “What do you mean by crushing my
people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord GOD of hosts” (Isaiah
3:13-15). Stopping to pick up some food at Safeway my eye sees the cover of
the latest issue of ‘Time’. The stark black and white photograph is
accompanied by the simple words: “This is a story about AIDS in Africa.
Look at the pictures. Read the words. And then try not to care.” I find a chart
which notes that in Mamolete’s homeland of Lesotho it is conservatively
estimated that twenty-four percent of adults are infected with HIV/AIDS.
And yes I care. And yes I wonder what to do. And yes I know that things
would be different somehow if one in four adults in England or in Ontario or
in the Cariboo were infected with HIV/AIDS. I know that we would turn in a
massive outpouring of compassion. And yes I see that God’s true word must
be a harsh and painful indictment of our silence. It is an indictment which is
as crystal clear as every nightly newscast and yet it is as if no one sees and no
one hears and no one understands just how far gone we are.

And the church lives under the sad illusion that repentance is simple and
straightforward. We imagine that God has ‘renovations’ in store for us. We
cannot fathom a God who would, instead, intend to wipe us out. A
flourishing congregation of the United Church of Canada announces church
membership classes on its web-site. The invitation, in part, reads: “Beginning
at noon, for exactly 45 minutes on March 4 and March 11 in the Church
Library, we will discuss the questions asked of members. Come both weeks if
you can; even once, if you can’t. There’ll be no pressure on anyone. This is a
chance to find out what’s involved.” No pressure to drop everything and
turn and follow. No call to die in order to live. And us? Dare we sit in smug
self-satisfaction? Well ... for all of our talk of discipleship and all of our
longing to be changed we, too, finally keep driving our cars and buying more
clothes and reading the news, mysteriously unchanged. It is as if God is
blinding us, stopping our ears, restraining us from acting. Seeing this, Isaiah
hears the awful, painful divine Word that we will not turn away from our old
ingrained destructive habits until ... until our proud ignorance and willful
arrogance is burned to the ground ... until the mighty oak is a charred stump.

Until we are stumped. Notice this strange, enigmatic conclusion. A
contemporary commentator writes that the three Hebrew words which
comprise the final verse “are not clear, something about holy seed from
stump, something about the impossible possibility of new life from deep
failure, something that the book of Isaiah ... relentlessly asserts, never able to
leave the terrible message finally at nullification and termination”
(Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, Westminster, 1998, p. 62). The God who speaks such damning
judgment here is the same God who, in Isaiah chapter forty, says ‘Comfort,
comfort ye my people’ . First, though, the stump. First the Cross is the end of
life. Only later is it the Tree of Life. There can be no avoiding the stump of
crucifixion. There are no easy alterations or programs or fixes which will
quickly bring us to resurrection. The four gospels - and the ‘fifth gospel’ of
Isaiah - inevitably and necessarily lead to the stump of termination. Paul says
that this message stumps believers and unbelievers alike (I Corinthians 1:23).
It stumps even those who preach it. No wonder we hesitate before the risk of
announcing such odd news. We fear that the church will call our preaching
scandalous. We do not want to become the laughing-stock of our reasonable,
rational, right-thinking neighbours. Nor does Isaiah. But Yahweh says“my
thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways”. And Jesus
prays: “Yet not my will but yours be done.” Knowing what we know, having
heard what we have heard, will we turn with Jesus to this God who is
beyond our comprehension and pray: “Your will be done”? Dare we pray for
anything else?