Plymouth United Church of Christ

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Sermon, Year B, Proper 10, July 15, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: Isaiah 1, 6, 9, 40, 43, 65, and Matthew

We are looking at the prophet Isaiah this morning. We have so far read from three of the minor prophets – Hosea, Amos, and Jonah – but now we get a major prophet. If you were here on June 3, you may remember that this distinction between major and minor has nothing to do with their importance or how they are held in esteem by anyone, it just merely has to do with the length of their book. The three major prophets have very long books. The twelve minor prophets have very short books, so much that even all twelve together are not as long as any of the major ones.

Though Isaiah does stand out as major in the other sense of the word “major” in that he is incredibly important within Christianity. Among all of the fifteen prophets that we have in the Old Testament, Isaiah is very important in Christendom. I don’t know how he stands within Judaism or within Islam. That would be an interesting thing to look up. But within Christianity he is very important because Isaiah has the most about a promise of a coming messiah, a savior, the one who would come to redeem the people and help restore and bring reconciliation. Isaiah has a lot of those texts. And he is quoted more than any other prophet in the New Testament. He is quoted 151 times throughout the New Testament. And that may sound like a big number, and it is a big number. The only other book of the Old Testament quoted more is the Psalms (at 173) and the next most quoted prophet is Jeremiah [I say “Ezekiel” in the sermon, but I meant Jeremiah], and he only gets quoted 26 times. And so Isaiah is quoted almost six times more than the number two. Because Isaiah was so, so important to the early Christians.

And Isaiah is also unique with Jonah within the prophetic canon. Jonah, because his book was not written by him, but about him, 300–400 years after he was alive. And so it is a story of Jonah, though we know Jonah was a prophet in the time of Hosea, Amos, and Isaiah, because he gets a mention in 2 Kings 14:25. But all the other prophetic books were written by the prophet, or their followers, or their group. But for the most part all the texts were written at the time the prophet was alive. Though like any book in the Bible, there are later additions and some of the text gets moved around. But, for the most part, all of the books are the words of the prophets as they were being said.

Except Isaiah, in that Isaiah’s book covers the time of the prophet Isaiah but there was also either an Isaiah school of prophetic thought, or followers, or other people who prophesied in his name, and so the book of Isaiah covers a little over 200 years which is unique among the prophets that his covers such a long time span. And Isaiah’s book begins at a time of relative peace and economic goodness for the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom, Israel and Judah. Though the poor were not doing well. But, there wasn’t a lot of war going on. Economically, the country was doing well. The rich people, the merchant class, the government officials had a lot of money. The poor were getting hammered, and the prophets constantly speak out against that, but for the most part relatively good times when Isaiah begins.

Then Isaiah, this book, is there as the Northern Kingdom is invaded and destroyed, and the Southern Kingdom is invaded and destroyed, and Jerusalem is destroyed and the Temple is destroyed and the people are sent into exile. And then Isaiah is still there as the people are allowed back into their homeland.

So Isaiah’s book is the record of the prophet but also this continuing record of his school of thought that lasted for a couple hundred years. [Scholars are inclined to think that Isaiah had followers who kept up his work after he died. There have also been editorial additions made to the text that are probably not Isaiah’s or his followers’, but are from the final editors of the Jewish scripture.]

So we have this long book covering a very important period in the history of the Jewish people, from a time of relative peace to complete and total destruction and exile. And Isaiah is in three groupings. First Isaiah, Chapters 1–39, covering this time of just before and after Assyria invades the Northern Kingdom. Second Isaiah, chapters 40–55, were written during the Babylonian exile in the 500's. And then Third Isaiah, chapters 56–66, which comes after the exile in the year 539 when the people were allowed back to rebuild Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple.

And so Isaiah is unique for the length of time it covers, and a major prophet by dint of length of book, but also, for Christians, a major prophet. Probably THE major prophet, because of what he said about the time of a coming Messiah.

[I then showed the importance of Isaiah to Christianity by showing some books called Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, a collection of things that various Christians, such as scholars and preachers, wrote in the first 600 years of Christianity. I held up a volume dedicated to Ezekiel, another to Jeremiah, and a volume that contains commentary on all twelve of the minor prophets, and then held up the *two* volumes needed for Isaiah. The ancient Christians wrote so much about Isaiah that the editor of the series wrote in the foreward that he had so much material he had an awful time cutting it down to two volumes.]

The beginning of Isaiah offers judgement against the people of Judah for defiling what is holy, for forgetting God, for not living as they are supposed to be living. They are not being faithful. And Judah, the southern kingdom, is where Jerusalem was, and therefore the Temple, which was thought to be where God lived. Isaiah declares that God cannot live in an unholy place. The people have made it unholy. So God will come to cleanse Jerusalem and cleanse the Temple. And not going to cleanse it with a steam cleaner and some elbow grease. It was going to be a pretty severe cleansing that he predicts, being conquered by the surrounding nations.

[Read 1:1–4, 16–20, 26–27]

[Some side notes I made while reading the above: the list of kings is a list of the kings of Judah while Isaiah was alive. ]

The constant refrain of the prophets is the peoples’ unfaithfulness. And specifically, they were unfaithful to be just, merciful, and compassionate. They were not unfaithful so much in making sacrifices of animals, the burnt offerings, honoring the festivals or the holy days. They were doing okay at that. Though there was the problem in that they were making sacrifices, keeping festivals and holy days to a whole bunch of other gods, which isn’t good, because they were only supposed to have the one God. But they were doing okay on the superficial trappings of the faith. Where they were going wrong was by despising God by the way that they lived. The merchants were cheating their customers. The government leaders, the religious leaders were unjust, they were oppressive, they were not defending the orphan, they were not pleading for the widow, they took bribes, they ran after gifts. In a lot of ways, not so different from today. As I said before, it is good to read the prophets because they are 2500 or more years old, but we really haven’t changed in how we do things. They still speak to us.

The answer to all this unfaithfulness was to repent. And to repent by living in justice and by living in righteousness. We’ve heard other prophets say God does not want sacrifices, empty rituals, or holy days [that are the only days anyone bothers to be holy]. God wants justice, mercy, love, and compassion. God wants justice. Jesus does not want us in the church, although he does; Jesus calls us to be the church. To be the body of Christ in the world outside of these walls. We come to worship because it’s a time to learn how to be the church, how to do that. A time to re-energize, and to be fed and nourished, at least I hope that is what you all experience when you come in to worship. But if we don’t take this experience beyond these walls, then it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Then we’re back to Isaiah’s time, and his words are an indictment against us.

I thought about this, and the possibility of an empty church, or an empty sanctuary. Imagine on a Sunday morning a church is empty, but it is empty because the people are out being the church: they are out feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, helping the homeless, looking for sick people to take for help, taking lonely people out for brunch, helping shut-ins shop for groceries, babysitting for a frazzled single parent so he or she can find a few hours to go do something that they can’t do with a child around them, like maybe just have adult conversation for a couple hours. Or if the members were not in the sanctuary because they were out pounding on the walls of the capitols demanding justice for the poor and the marginalized. I don’t think any pastor would be upset if the church were empty because the people were doing that, out being the Church. We could also imagine a church that is filled on Sunday morning because the people have so done God’s work that there is nothing left to do. Imagine that world. Or full because all of us during the week have been so busy being the church that we need this hour to come together, to have this time of sabbath, to re-energize, to rehear the Good News, the Gospel, to refocus and energize us to go back out and be the Church.

At the end of Chapter 1, Isaiah says, or God says to the people through Isaiah, “For you shall be ashamed of the oaks in which you delighted; and you shall blush for the gardens that you have chosen.” Saying, there is going to come a time, and I don’t think this is a word of judgment but a word of hope, but there will come a time when you will be embarrassed by the things you chased after that were not God. That you chased after because you thought they would bring you wholeness and happiness. There will come a time when God will be so present, and we will be so in tune with God, that we will be embarrassed by the things that we chased after.

Then after the people were sent into exile, Isaiah offered these words of comfort, coming from the second Isaiah section. You may recognize these as we read this at Advent as well. [After the Babylons conquered them in 587 BCE, which was God’s punishment for their failure to repent, second Isaiah offered these words of comfort:]

[Read 40:1–5, 10–11]

A few recognizable things in there. The words of John the Baptist, “Make way a road in the desert”. [I meant to say “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God”, which is what the scripture passage says] And this hinting of Jesus as the shepherd to lead the sheep and to carry the lambs.

And then this passage from chapter 9. This is one that we read at Advent, and what Jesus was referencing in that second Gospel lesson about light and dark and blind and seeing. [Read 9:2–7]

And lastly, from third Isaiah, the one writing after the people have been allowed to return to Jerusalem after the exile. This is sometime after the year 538 BCE. Babylon had conquered Judah and sent the people into exile, and then Persia conquered Babylon. It was King Cyrus who allowed the exiles to go back and rebuild the Temple. That is the Temple that Jesus would have known. It was still there in Jesus’ time, and was the temple that the Romans destroyed about 40 years after Jesus’ resurrection. There is still a remnant from that temple: the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. It is the only thing remaining from the temple, and it was actually not part of the temple per se but was part of a wall around the temple built by King Herod a few years before Jesus was born. But after Rome destroyed Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, that chunk of wall is all that is left. And that is the wailing wall.

So, anyway, Third Isaiah is writing at a time when the Jewish exiles have been allowed back to Jerusalem, to rebuild the Temple and try to be a people again. They were not their own country, they were under Persia. They never become a country again until after World War II. But Isaiah had this to say. [Read 65:17–19,25]. This reminds me of a verse back in chapter 2, Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

There are two other times in the New Testament I want to mention, of Isaiah being quoted. You may remember from two months ago we read from the Book of Acts the story of the Ethiopian eunuch that the apostle Philip meets on the road. The eunuch was reading from Isaiah, from the fifty-third chapter, and Philip explains “That’s talking about Jesus.” The eunuch becomes a believer and is baptized.

And then Jesus himself, a story in Luke 4. Jesus goes to the synagogue and he is handed a scroll. He opens the scroll, unrolls it, searches through it looking for a specific passage and he finds it. The scroll is Isaiah, and he reads this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He then rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the man that gave it to him, and then said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (This story is in Luke 4:16–21)

And so it has. These words of comfort from a long ago prophet who saw his homeland destroyed and his people sent into exile. He reminds these people that God’s promise to Abraham and to Moses and to everyone else, that God’s promise still holds, a promise that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and continues to be fulfilled by all who strive for the Kingdom.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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