Tuesday Scripture - Isaiah 1:15-17
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
The message that Isaiah is called to bring, the new voice he is empowered to exercise, is revealing. God appeared to Isaiah to give him the courage and ability to speak about an uncomfortable truth. Religion has itself become and idol, enabling privileged Israelites to ignore the pleas and plight of impoverished and vulnerable Israelites, perhaps even profit from it. So Isaiah's new voice is rich and complex mixture of God's displeasure, an amplification of the voice of the poor, reminder of that which Israel is supposed to love and trust (which some have evidently forgotten about) and an invitation to repent and return. But in its essence, it reveals aspects of the lives and culture of Israel that they would rather not accept or admit.
Moses is sent to reveal the ugly truth of slavery and violence which is the foundation of Egypt's power and prosperity. Elijah is empowered to reveal to one of Israel's own King's, Ahab, that his lust for power impoverishes the lives of his subjects. Nathan is sent to reveal the moral emptiness of David's murder of Uriah. John the Baptist is assassinated for revealing the moral bankruptcy of Herod's reign at the time of Jesus. I mention this because it can be particularly disturbing to read the prophets. Their rhetoric is angry and at times violent and seems far removed from the love of Jesus. Isaiah's language too can be troubling. On Sunday we heard Isaiah speak these words from God, “Until cities lie waste, without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate." Why such abrasive words and images? I would suggest because it is hard to be heard, especially when the message will not be popular. The prophets are called to reveal what people do not want to hear. They speak in a shocking manner in order to be heard.
But we also know that inflammatory rhetoric is dangerous. It can lead to speech that does not build up, but tears down. The Apostle Paul reminds us to speak the truth in love. I'm uncomfortable with prophetic speech myself. I don't like confrontation and the prophets including Isaiah, seem particularly confrontational. I want my words to bring peace to people, not cause discomfort. And in our current climate culturally, incendiary speech certainly seems to contribute more the problems we face, than to their solutions. Now more than ever Republicans and Democrats not only disagree, but fear one another according to research and don't see each other's views as merely a reasonable difference of perspective, and instead as dangerous for the nation. In the context of church, there are many who use the pulpit (television, the internet) to demean and castigate those with whom they disagree with righteous indignation. So what are we to do with this dilemma. As humans, we ignore the worst in ourselves and must at times be shocked into realizing an uncomfortable truth. On the other hand, shocking speech can create real damage (not just hurt feelings, but wounded spirit) and even lead to wounding action.
Perhaps we need to begin to allow the mission of the prophets to reveal to shape us by teaching us to listen. If Moses is speaking for the enslaved and Elijah the impoverished and Isaiah those denied justice, then the revelation of Isaiah shapes us by challenging us to practice NOT dismissing that which is discomforting. Furthermore is teaches us to give consideration to the lived experience of those whose journey is unlike our own. It expands our view from our own self-interest to compassion for those more vulnerable than ourselves. Isaiah is challenging the wealthy elites to consider life from the perspective of those who struggle to feed their families. Then this story shapes us by showing us the importance of amplifying the voices of those most often dismissed and so unheard and devalued. So how do we help the unheard be heard, the unloved to know they are loved.