Isaiah’s vision may be one of the strangest commissions in all of Scripture. He sees the heavenly throne; the hem of God’s garments fills the temple as it shakes and fills with smoke. Isaiah feels undone – both for his own part and for the part of his people. God blots out Isaiah’s sin and commissions him to preach to the people, Israel. What is he commanded to preach? That the people should keep hearing, but not comprehend; they should keep looking, but not understand. Isaiah is to make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, listen with their ears, comprehend with their minds, and turn and receive healing.
It’s difficult to decide which is more frightening – Isaiah standing before the living God, knowing he is lost as a member of a stubborn people and fearing for his life, or that God has now decided to speak and not be heard, to appear, but not be seen. God will cut Israel down to the stump. The tender vine so carefully planted God will prune to the point of death. God’s patience has run out, and God now pours exasperation into a bitter cup that Israel will drink to the last horrible drop.
It’s difficult to imagine being in Isaiah’s shoes. He is called to preach to a people who would not, and now will not (indeed, cannot), listen. It is, in effect, a commission to fail at preaching if we believe that preaching is about drawing people in and making them feel good about themselves, their community, and their nation.
Isaiah shared this dark task with his contemporaries, Hosea, Amos, and Micah, who also spoke of God’s great compassion and breaking heart, of God’s faithful works on behalf of a faithless people, and of God’s plan to tear down, destroy, and make desolate, the cities, towns, houses, and fields.
As we examine the preaching of the prophets, we must ask ourselves, “What has brought the people to their unrepentant condition? What has brought God to the brink of consuming everything with a fiery wrath? The writings of Hosea, Amos, and Micah say the people had forgotten God.
They had forgotten God by forgetting their neighbors – by striving for advantage over one another in order to build their own holdings at the expense of others. They had become, in effect, religious opportunists who pictured Yahweh in their own image, rather than Yahwists who could picture Yahweh in their neighbors. They had failed to be just and merciful in their dealings with others. In the final analysis, the prophets said, they had forgotten to walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8; Amos 5:24; Hosea 6:6 and 13:6).
The fundamental spirit of our world, its nations, communities, societies, and even families, is the spirit of competition. This way of life divides peoples into winners and losers, and reverberates as the question, “What’s best for me?” Founded on what some have called, “the myth of scarcity” – there’s only so much of anything anybody wants and I want it –a very influential viewpoint in every life.
We’ve consumed ourselves in the pursuit of prizes that have the greatest value among our peers, the ones that make the most sense to us, and ones that answer the question “What’s best for me?” Nevertheless, in the end, as much as we manage to fill our lives with them, our lives are vain and empty. Yet, when the prophets preach our lives are vain and empty, we wave our collection of brass rings, and say, “Look what God has blessed me with; look what God has done for me. How can this be wrong?”
What prevents us from surrendering our all? Not the surrender that says, “Here I am Lord, come and get me if you want me,” but the kind that says, “Here I am Lord, send me.” What prevents us from acting with justice and mercy in the politics of Cincinnati, or the politics of mid-term elections? Why do we pursue empty brass rings at the expense of others? Have we forgotten our shared Spirit, our shared Image? Have we forgotten our neighbors, and in the process, have we forgotten our God?