I’ve always been someone who is up for a challenge… but today we are faced with an almost impossible task... trying to cover in one, twenty-five minute sermon the longest, grandest and easily the most complicated of all of the Old Testament prophetic books, the Book of Isaiah. There is no way that I will be able to do justice to this amazing, complex book in such a short time. I’m not one to get carried away with superlatives but Isaiah is one book that deserves superlatives… here is an example: I know that one of the jobs of all of the prophets was to tune our hearts to the heart of God… to get us in line with what God is doing in the world… but this book… the Book of Isaiah, why, it may be, outside of the gospels, the greatest, most potent heart ‘retuner’ in all of literature! Why, this book is so remarkable that almost every commentary I’ve read on Isaiah starts out with an author’s disclaimer that says something like, “There is no way even in the 1500 pages of my commentary that I will do justice to the grandeur of this incredible book.” So, I can confidently say we are only going to barely scratch the surface of Isaiah in 25 minutes. Today will only be an introduction. But… I can also say with equal confidence that even when you just scratch the surface of this book it will retune your heart because you will find the following message on every page and in every passage of Isaiah: God is a God of tough love. He will do whatever he must to save us from ourselves and he will do whatever he must to bring us back into his loving arms… and I think that is worth spending 25 minutes talking about. So, here we go!
First, here is what we know about Isaiah the man and it isn’t much. We know his father’s name was Amoz; we know the names of two of his sons… one of whom, like Hosea’s children last week, was unfortunately given a name to make a spiritual point: (Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz) quick to the plunder; running to the spoils. We know that Isaiah was an active prophet for over 40 years under 4 different kings, both good and evil. We also know he was a contemporary of both Amos, the prophet Barry talked about two weeks ago, and Hosea, the prophet Dave talked about last week; and the messages he received from God covered the same basic subjects as the messages of Amos and Hosea: the coming destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians and the destruction of southern Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians. That’s what we know. We’re pretty sure that he was a city boy who grew up in a powerful Jerusalem family and if the traditional Hebrew story is true, then Isaiah is the prophet that the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells us was sawn in half. And, of course, we know he wrote a book… a big book… a big, complicated book that at times is very difficult to follow. But there is a very practical reason that this book seems so complicated: in the 8th Century B.C. scrolls were very expensive and so writers like Isaiah worked to squeeze as much as they could on to each scroll. So, every time Isaiah had a message from God or an experience with God that he felt needed to be recorded, he’d write it down right up against the last thing he’d written without any breaks in his text or mentioning that he was changing subjects or anything; now, he was simply trying to jam as much as he could on each scroll… but by the time Isaiah’s 40 years of being a prophet ended his collection of prophecies was so large that if you didn’t have an intimate knowledge of the past 40 years and what was up with Isaiah it was really difficult to know which bit went with which bit and when he was changing subjects or voices or whatever. In fact, Isaiah’s writings have been a difficult read almost from the beginning because of this. But the Jews knew his writings, though difficult, were important and so they kept them and copied them and continued to read and study them. And even though the book still seems difficult at first, even with all of the study helps we have these days, I still believe with all of my heart it is absolutely worth the work it takes to read, because Isaiah, of all of the Old Testament books gives us the greatest, most unequalled look into the heart of God; it is an unparalleled vision of God’s intensions for his world and the grace he offers to us. It is a book that can, like I said earlier, put our hearts in tune with the heart of God and lead us into the great ocean of his love. So, our not knowing much about Isaiah is okay. What we do know is that Isaiah knew a great deal about God and what he tells us, if we give him a chance, can change our lives forever.
As I said earlier, Isaiah was a contemporary of Amos and Hosea… and he was also a contemporary of a number of other prophets that we find in the Bible. And I know that when you first read these prophets it can sound like they are all saying the same things… well, the reason it sounds like they’re all saying the same things is because they are all saying the same things. Every one of them says this in some manner: ‘You have all been rebellious and sinful; you will be punished if you don’t repent and it isn’t going to be pretty. Mark my words, repentance will come someday when you finally come to your senses and turn from your sin, and then God will gladly restore his relationship with you.’ They all say this same thing repeatedly in many different ways. There is actually a theological term for this repeating ‘punishment-followed-by-restoration’ pattern we find in the prophets: it’s called the Divine Monotony. Now, you might wonder why so many prophets all living at the same time would need to be saying the same things. Here is the reason: this was a world where every message had to travel by word of mouth. And God loved his people so much that he wanted as many people as possible to hear his warnings and about his love for them. And so he sent numerous prophets from every walk of life into every walk of life telling this same message in as many ways as was possible; God wanted everyone to know that without a change of heart the Jews were going to pay a terrible price for their sin; but he also wanted them to know he wasn’t going to abandon them; he loved them and was waiting to forgive them and take them back. And we can see this Divine Monotony message right off in Isaiah. In fact, the first 20 verses are essentially a high level summary of what we will see throughout the entire book. Listen to these first 20 verses and I’m sure you’ll see that they follow the Divine Monotony pattern to a tee. (page ??? in the house Bible and if you are in Fishers if you need a Bible raise your hand and we’ll give you one).
In Vs 2. God calls the Heavens and the Earth, the whole of creation, together and says, ‘Listen to me… can you believe it? My children, the people that I raised up, are dumber than animals… even ox and donkeys know who they are supposed to listen to and obey. But my people… they don’t!” Yikes! I don’t want God to every say that about me! And then in verse 4 Isaiah steps in and begins to call out the people. He says, ‘You have no excuses; you’re guilty. You’re a brood of evildoers; you’re corrupt; you’ve turned your backs on God. In verses 5 through 9 Isaiah points out all of the trouble the nation’s sin is already causing and he essentially says, ‘You’re all thinking like you got whacked in the head! And then we get to verse 8 where Isaiah says this, ‘You’re like a shelter in a vineyard; like a hut in a field of melons’ (cucumbers literally). Here is what that means: it was very common for thieves to sneak into fields of ripe fruits and vegetables at night and steal the crop, so communities would build shelters or huts out of branches for guards to stay in overnight and keep a lookout for robbers. But once the harvest was over they’d abandon these huts and let them simply fall apart and rot. This is what sin had made of God’s people… a rotting, abandoned hut that used to have a purpose but was now useless… and sin still does the same thing to us today... it leaves us useless especially for the things of God. And speaking of useless God speaks up again in verses 10 through 15 and says, “Your worship is useless and I am sick of all of your meaningless gatherings and your insincere noise.” You can read these verses again later to get the full force of God’s disgust but I want to tell you why God felt this way. Everyone in the entire ancient world, except the Jews, believed there were lots of gods out there controlling the weather and crops and such. The Jews were the only people in the ancient world that believed there was only one God. But the various pagan people that lived alongside the Jews found it incredible that the Jews wouldn’t at least hedge their bets by worshiping their gods alongside the God of Abraham just in case one of their gods might be real and able to help them out. And the Jewish people started listening to their neighbors and bottom line, many Jews started practicing the dark rituals of their pagan neighbors just to be on the safe side in case they were wrong about this one-god thing. You can see why God couldn’t put up with this affront then and might I add, why he is unwilling to put up with it now… no matter what or who we might be putting our trust in, if we are trusting in our wealth or our position or our brilliance to take care of us then we are no different than the 8th century B.C. Jews and God will not put up with this affront. But here is an even bigger point: all pagan worship in the ancient world was purposed to obligate a god to give you what you wanted. If you were serious enough in your ‘worship’ that somehow manipulated the gods into do your bidding. This is exactly the opposite reason we worship our God. We don’t do things, or at least we aren’t supposed to do things we call worship, in the effort to obligate God to do things for us. All Jewish worship was to be a time of thanksgiving for what God had done for them. But many Jews had stopped gathering to thank God and were trying, through their overzealous approach to worship, to force God into blessing them because they were so obviously ‘religious.’ And God’s reaction was to say, “I will hide my eyes from you.” And rightly so. And then he tells them exactly what he wants them to do in verse 16. ‘Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!’ And then he outlines what is right: ‘Seek justice; encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.’ Now, we see the heart of God; he doesn’t want overwrought worship; he longs to see justice and mercy and his desire is that his people are proactively seeking, encouraging, defending and pleading for those under oppression. He expects us to know right from wrong… and to act like it. He wants the people called by his name to be people after his own heart… no, he doesn’t just want it… he demands it!
But then God immediately goes right from his demands to his desire for reconciliation in verse 18. First, He says, ‘Come let us reason together.’ Now, this word that the NIV translates as ‘Reason’ is a big word with a lot of nuances; but at its core it means to make a judgment as to what is right or to prove that something is the proper way of doing something… God is saying, ‘Come, let’s look at the situation and figure out what is right together.’ Even in this there is grace. If there is anyone with the right to tell us what is what, it’s God and yet he says, ‘Come on… let’s do this together.’ And then God promises that once we’ve come to the right conclusions and act on them he will make our scarlet sins as white as snow. God offers forgiveness, blessing, hope and restoration. And this is always a part of God’s message to us through the prophets. You are going to see this everywhere in Isaiah if you take the time to read this amazing book. And that is our hope… that you will take the time to read this book because if you do it will take you to the very center of the heart of God; yes, you will see that He is not one to be trifled with; He is watching and he will not let you get away with sin forever (and by the way, no amount of spiritual theatrics on anyone’s part will obligate God to let them off the hook). But, you will also see that God’s heart is always open to offering you forgiveness and restoration and his hope is that you will chose to live in a way that brings healing and mercy and justice into our broken and needy world. I know it can get monotonous hearing this same message over and over but it’s clear to me that God believes that repetition is good for us. He is clearly willing to say the same thing over and over until we finally hear it and take it into our hearts. Repeatedly telling us the truth a part of tough love.
One thing that we know for certain is that the Jews, particularly in the hundred years leading up to the coming of Jesus, read Isaiah. First off, all of Isaiah’s prophecies about what was going to happen to Israel, Judah, Jerusalem and the Jewish people happened… so the book had great authority! Plus, they also knew that this book also said that there was a day coming when Israel would once again be free from foreign powers, Jerusalem would again be a great city, the temple would be rebuilt with its original grandeur and the nation would be led by a man who would conquer all of Israel’s enemies… a man they called the Messiah. Isaiah soon became the primary prophetic source for figuring out when this new day was coming and how they would recognize their Messiah. So, the Jewish religious leaders read it and studied it and discussed it and interpreted it and quoted it like no other book in the Old Testament; it gave them hope that there was a new kingdom coming led by this powerful Messiah! And by the time Jesus came the religious leaders of Israel believed they had really figured Isaiah out. They believed that the book of Isaiah was telling them that the best way to ensure that God would soon give them this new kingdom was to work as hard as they could to keep everyone from ever breaking any of God’s laws. And they were also absolutely certain that Isaiah said that the Messiah was going to be a military leader who came in like a bull and took no prisoners! Oh, they read Isaiah… but they only paid close attention to the parts that spoke to their desires for the future. They’d missed God’s heart and his desire to see justice and mercy ruling in Israel. And they’d certainly missed God’s offer of grace if they would turn from their prideful ways and submit to his deepest desires. This is why the religious leadership had no time for Jesus. He didn’t fit any of their expectations. He broke their ‘laws’… he showed kindness to people they considered their enemies. As far as they were concerned, he wasn’t the Messiah; he was of the devil. This is why on that first Palm Sunday, something we celebrate today, the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey while multitudes were shouting out ‘Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,’ the religious leadership, the very people who were schooled in Isaiah, couldn’t see that their Messiah had come… their hearts were too out of tune to recognize him. And it makes sense to me that after all of the hoopla of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem was over and while the religious leaders were off in the shadows plotting to kill Jesus, he stopped and looked out over Jerusalem and said, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.’ I think these are some of the saddest of all of Jesus’ words and they echo the sad words of God that we find everywhere in Isaiah as He realizes that his people’s hearts are out of tune with his… that they have rejected his love and protection, turned their backs on him and now they need some tough love.
I said earlier that Isaiah knew a lot about God and that if we listen to what he says it can change our lives. My prayer is that you will listen to what Isaiah says. Yes, you will read that there is punishment waiting for those who rebel and in their arrogance turn their backs on God. But, you will also find that God’s heart is singing a song of grace and he is waiting to take those who have lost their way under the shelter of his wings. This is the great message of the Book of Isaiah and it is the great message of the whole of the Bible. Next week, on Easter weekend we will be looking at the specific passages in Isaiah that foretold of the suffering and victory that Jesus brought about on the first Easter. It should be an amazing time together. But in the week leading up to that celebration I think it would be a good idea if we all, together read through Isaiah. Not for the purpose of understanding every little detail of this complicated book, but for the purpose of letting Isaiah’s words retune our hearts to the heart of our God… when our hearts are in tune with God’s heart we will feel his hatred of what sin does to his world… when our hearts are in tune with God’s heart we will live in ways that show that we know right from wrong, when our hearts are in tune with God’s heart we will focus on bringing justice and mercy and healing into the world and when our hearts are in tune with God’s heart we will lead the lost to the only place anyone can find peace and shelter: under the wings of Jesus.