A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 4, 2016
University Baptist Church
Many people think that the prophets in general, and Isaiah in particular, offer comforting words preparing the way for the Messiah. They do, and yet if we look more closely, they also give poetic voice to centuries of rage and ire at wrong done in the name good name of God. The story of our faith is of an epic struggle for dignity, for integrity and for standing in a sin-sick world. The prophets were the truth-tellers and put not only the people but God on trial. The prophets’ words rail against the religious and government leaders who continually make life worse for the people of Israel. The Prophets call the leaders to repent and the rest of the people to open their eyes. The book of Isaiah is a listing of the evidence against the leadership. Jeremiah is even more pointed. Ezekiel is downright apocalyptic. And the only solution is a revolution—a revolution at the hands of the Messiah.
So as we enter into this Advent Season where we expect and look for the Messiah, we would be smarter and more faithful if we first looked at the evidence presented by Isaiah.
The book reads like a trial. Isaiah gives the evidence and provides the witnesses. He sends the case to the jury and seeks a fair judgment. Who are the players? Well, the plaintiff is the people of Israel, wronged for centuries by the powers and principalities. The defendants are the power brokers—the pillars of religion and government who have colluded to make the way things are the way things are. The police and the military are the court officers and the prison guards—beholden to the power brokers. The judge, of course is God. We are at times the witnesses, the courtroom observers and the jury. In the next few weeks, we’ll unpack all of this. Next week, we’ll look at the witnesses. The week after that, the jury, and finally on Christmas Eve the verdict. This week, we’ll look at the evidence. Through it all, we can’t help but see parallels with our current predicament. A key question for us is, which role do we play in the proceedings?
Isaiah was a man not unlike other men of his time, except that he was a priest and that made him a bit of a muckety muck in ancient Judah. He campaigned for kings, lobbied and preached in such a way that the policies of the king would be followed. It’s one of the temptations of the pulpit.
Isaiah’s favorite king was Uzziah. King Uzziah brought stability to a country that had been in civil war for fifty years. As King of the southern land of Judah, which held Jerusalem as its capital, Uzziah was a calming and expanding force. He made sure that the towers were fortified. He built a sophisticated army. He expanded the borders of Judah and made friends with its neighbors, even Israel, the Northern Kingdom. During the 40-year reign of Uzziah of Judah, there were four kings in Israel’s Samaritan capital. His approval ratings were through the roof.
But stability isn’t the same thing as justice. And God is more interested in justice than stability. The priorities of the kingdom became self-serving. The people became arrogant in their prosperity and forgot the widow and the orphan. They began blaming the poor for their lot in life. They started to distrust outsiders and levied curses against those people. They trusted themselves and their own power more than they trusted God. This is the evidence of a world gone wrong. Does any of this sound familiar?
Isaiah’s calling happened the year King Uzziah died. It was when God made him realize that it is better to collide with the powers that be than to collude with injustice. God took a burning coal and stuck it on his mouth and then told Isaiah to tell the truth. God told him to repent of his practice of being a priestly yes-man. God made Isaiah, the former establishment priest into God’s agent for change.
Over and over again God told the people what was required of them, but they ignored it. The first chapter of Isaiah puts it this way: “Thus says YHWH, “when you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
But the people kept on doing their own thing. They were lulled into the illusion that if you ignore the problem long enough, it will go away. That’s easy to say if you’re not the one who is poor, or a minority, or an international, or without health insurance, or a decent education or without food, shelter or dignity. But for the mainstream media of the time, it was acceptable, seemingly appropriate, and popular to fall in line with the status quo. Isaiah coined a word for this. He called it idolatry.
I think of the centuries of government policies that have robbed the Native American people of their land and their rights. We did it with treaties that we broke, mineral rights that we hoarded for ourselves, all in the name of development, expansion and settlement. We even employed missionaries to educate the poor natives, enticing them with food and shelter and punishing them if they used the sacred language of their tribes—and we act surprised when they stand up to protect what little they have of their land or water. They teach us a lot about dignity. How would they read Isaiah differently this Christmas, given the evidence all around them?
Isaiah railed against national pride that put more faith in the government than in God. It was not only the government they put their faith in, they put their faith in the leaders of the government. In this case it was the king. Isaiah prophesied during the reign of four Judean kings. All of them got it wrong when it came to doing God’s work. And the result was that the people were sent into exile. Hear some of the evidence Isaiah produced as he made his case:
“How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her—but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.”(1:21-23)
“Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight! Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of their rights!”(5:20-23)
“I know your rising up and your sitting down, your going out and coming in, and your raging against me. Because you have raged against me and your arrogance has come to my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth; I will turn you back on the way by which you came.”(37:28,29)
The evidence is clear today. There is an increase in hate crimes against people of color. There is a tacit approval of hate speech against marginalized groups. We have elected a president who boldly makes lewd, racist misogynistic comments, has made money off of the gambling industry, brags about not paying his fair share and then wraps himself in the Christian flag. Something is not right. This would be Messiah is not. Just look at the evidence.
The evidence was tampered with when it came to telling the truth in the campaigns. The president-elect was found guilty of lying and went ahead and repeated the lies louder and more often until we could no longer distinguish between the lies and the truth. The media largely gave him a free pass and let him rant unchallenged for months on end. Even the director of the FBI gave faulty evidence just 10 days before the election about his opponent. Even though the majority of the people did not vote for him, he was elected. But he is not the Messiah. That evidence is clear. He may claim to be the savior, but he is not, nor is any president. There is only one. And that one sides with Isaiah. The evidence of the true follower of God is how they encounter and help the poor and the outcast.
Until the Messiah comes, there is the remnant. The faithful witnesses—the ones who see the truth and are set free. They are the ones who see through the propaganda and commit to God’s ways. We are called to be that very remnant.
We can’t wait for the kings or the government to get it right. The government doesn’t save us. Isaiah’s words are given to us so that we might have the strength to be the remnant. It is the job of the empire to discredit and laugh at the remnant. But we have an ace in the hole. We know God’s true nature. We know the difference between a prophet of hope and a fraud who has sold out to the highest bidder. So in Advent, we remember as we consider the evidence of idolaters, God’s vision for the people:
For the evidence is not just in the gloom, it is also in the hope that abounds. In the people that are so captivated by the vision, that they will not let go until we receive the promised blessing. Hear again the words that open Isaiah’s prophecy and set the stage for the Messiah of our imaginations.
As we saw in last week’s service, “God shall judge between peoples and they shall beat their swords in to plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war anymore.”(2:4)
“The cow and the bear shall feed side by side and their young shall lie down together. The lion will become a vegetarian. The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the sheep. Children young and old will have a place to call home. No one shall hurt or destroy and just like the waters cover the sea, the whole earth will know about God's plan for all of creation.” (11:6-9)
These words ought to carry more weight than nostalgic sentimentality. These words are revolutionary. When we take them seriously, then we see what God’s action at Christmas is all about.
My friends, the prophet tells the truth about our world. The evidence is clear. The outcast remain outcast. The deck is stacked against the poorest of the poor. But hear this, too. The empire that does this is also doomed. It cannot last. Its own folly will topple it. And God will usher in a new and better realm. One that we can be proud of.
As Isaiah 11 says, the new leader will judge the poor with righteousness, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…God’s leader will be clothed in righteousness and faithfulness.
But here’s the thing. God doesn’t do this by a magical wand or a lightening bolt. Rather God inspires good people to take a better path. God inhabits the places where hope seems lost and offers a little light. God infuses us with a story that is better than fear, that provides lasting peace and true hope. That’s what we come back to in that manger scene every year. That story of God smuggling the divine self into the world in some backwater country to an unwed couple, rejected by their own family and constantly on the run. Refugees. This is where God moves. And where we need to look for God. That’s the challenge of Advent. It’s looking for God in all the right places. That’s where we find evidence of God’s handiwork.
Let’s not just look at the evidence of what is wrong in the world. Let’s look at the evidence of what is right.
People are finding their voices.
People are creating beauty in music.
Churches, schools and cities are declaring themselves sanctuaries—places of refuge and inclusion.
Clergy and veterans are deployed to Standing Rock to protect water and advocate for the rights of our Native sisters and brothers.
Recounts are underway.
All of the negativity is causing people to find new ways to be compassionate. The scales, we hope, are starting to come off of people’s eyes.
People like Kevin and Emma and Teresa are joining this church to better be counted as a part of a movement for good.
We continue to gather and get strength from these ancient stories, because it is so important.
This is the evidence that a shoot really will come out of the stump of Jesse. The remnant will rise again. In fact it has already begun.
Clarence Jordan famously said that “faith is not belief in spite of the evidence. That’s not faith, that’s foolishness. Faith is action in scorn of the consequences.”
God’s told Isaiah to gather the evidence and tell the truth. That’s what the remnant does. That’s how we prepare the way and even experience God’s presence. May we be the evidence of faith, of hope, of truth. May the remnant rejoice in spite of the evidence. For we are the evidence of God’s presence and action in the world.
O come, o come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lowly exile here until the child of God appear.
Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel shall come to thee o Israel.