If I Had A Pulpit:
We Cannot Be Made Great Again
There’s a story about ancient Assyria, when King Ashurbanipal ruled in Ninevah, that gives some clarity to Isaiah chapter 6 from this week’s lectionary text. In 653 BCE, Ashurbanipal invaded the Kingdom of Elam and decimated the country. Overwhelming military victories weren’t enough for the Assyrians, nor was the destruction of Elam’s cities and its people.
One of the defeated Elamite generals, in a display of humiliation before Ashurbanipal, was forced to wear the severed head of the Elamite king around his neck as he walked back to Assyria accompanied by the songs of Assyrian musicians. Alongside the general were plundered Elomite treasures and idols and the exiled Elamite population. Elamite nobles watched the scene in horror, some reportedly killing themselves at the sight of their decapitated king. Upon reaching Assyria, the general was slaughtered and strung up like an animal, his brothers were tortured and pieces of their bodies were sent throughout the empire. Others were flayed alive and had their tongues torn out for speaking against Assyrian gods. In a particularly horrific scene, two Elamite nobles were forced to grind the bones of their departed fathers, crushing them into ash. (A. T. Olmstead, History of Assyria)
The Assyrians were terrifying. The consequences of losing to them in battle was well known as scenes such as these were proudly cataloged and displayed by the Assyrian bureaucracy. Their armies were larger. Their soldiers? Better trained. Their technology? Far superior. Their political organization? More efficient. They were the first civilization in history to have a standing professional army and the first to equip their soldiers entirely with iron weapons. They pioneered siege technology, including battering rams and ultimately, siege towers. The cost of inevitably losing to the Assyrians was high.
The modern reader has very little context for the horror of this type of overwhelming gratuitous violence. Imagine if ISIS wasn’t just a terror group struggling against weakened Arab states and opposing secular militias. Instead, imagine they were the most powerful empire on Earth, and they regularly invaded other states and decimated their populations. Imagine that other nations were seemingly helpless before their military might, and they had been ruling in this capacity for centuries. Imagine if you were a small kingdom facing up to the reality of an impending invasion by ISIS with no hope of defeating their armies and no hope of saving yourself, your families, or your history – not even the bones of you ancestors would survive. What do you do?
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
Isaiah chapter 6: 1-8 is a well-known biblical story. It’s regularly repeated in churches and Sunday schools. The church sings hymns on Isaiah’s call story, and Isaiah standing before God with angels shielding their eyes from God’s glory is regularly depicted in Christian art.
But, we usually stop at verse 8 and ignore verses 9-13.
And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’
Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.
The prophet Isaiah writes the first 12 chapters of the book bearing his name during the Syro-Ephraimite War which started around 736 BCE. The name of the conflict references the alliance between the nations of Syria (Aram) and Ephraim (which I will refer to here as “Kingdom of Israel” or “Israel”) against the Kingdom of Judah. As the Assyrian Empire is rapidly expanding westward towards the Holy Land, the kings of Syria and Israel create an alliance to oppose Assyria and try to force Judah to join. If Judah refuses, these kings will invade Judah and install a new king who will join them in war against Assyria.
(It’s common to confuse “Judah” and “Israel”. After the rule of King Solomon, the United Kingdom of David and Solomon split into two separate kingdoms: the southern Kingdom of Judah with its capital in Jerusalem, and where Isaiah lives and works, and the northern Kingdom of Israel with its capital in Shechem and later Samaria.)
Upon the death of King Uzziah, mentioned in Isaiah 6:1, Isaiah counsels the new king, Ahaz, not to join the coalition of Syria and Israel against Assyria. He advises the king to wait, to stand firm in faith. He essentially says that in the face of the coming threat to do nothing. He believes that if they wait, Assyria will destroy Israel and Syria and, the threat will pass.
Ahaz listens, sort of. He doesn’t join the coalition. Instead, Ahaz joins with Assyria asking the mighty empire for protection from their northern enemies. Assyria invades Syria and Israel who face a predictable end when small kingdoms fight against superpowers. A decade later, Assyria invades Israel once again. Israel’s armies are destroyed. Its cities razed. Its people deported. The Kingdom of Israel and its people become lost to history. And Judah and the House of David, once a proud and independent kingdom, survives, but, they become a vassal to the Assyrian Empire. Their independence comes to an end.
Isaiah’s moving call story in chapter 6 verses 1-8 quickly loses its luster for both Isaiah and the reader when God reveals what Isaiah must do now that he’s called. Isaiah will preach and prophesy of complete destruction, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.” Isaiah’s mission from God is to “make the mind of the people dull” so that “they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds”.
Isaiah is to prophesy destruction and, he is to be the vessel that hardens the heart of the people, as if he were Moses before Pharaoh, so that they do not repent nor find God’s salvation.
If modern Christians and priests were honest enough to admit it, especially publicly and before their communities of faith, they would admit that we find what God doing through Isaiah in chapter 6 to be both shocking and cruel. If we were honest, which we aren’t, we would label our reactions to God’s here as being one of condemnation of evil. If God is truly hardening the hearts of God’s own people to prevent their own turning away from wrongdoing with the inevitable result being the total destruction of kingdoms, and cities, and lives, with the type of horror that the Assyrian Empire is sure to bring, we must ask ourselves if this is the work of the God who saves, or is this the work of the one who condemns? Is this the work of a God who is good? Or is this the work of the one who is undoubtedly, evil. Just who is calling Isaiah?
Christianity faces a crisis with a weary world and with our own adherents over a problem that we do not want to admit or one that we cannot see. It’s not a crisis over whether our God exists. That’s an old crisis. It’s not a crisis over whether our church is effective or good. That’s an even older one. The crisis that we face is whether or not our God, as depicted in Scripture and in history, is worthy of worship. It’s not “Is God dead?” Our crisis is “Is God good?” Can you answer that question with Isaiah chapter 6?
As long as you think God brings progress to creation in fulfillment of a better world and as long as you think that history’s arc is long but bends towards justice, I don’t think you can answer that question affirmatively. As long as you think God preserves our people and our church through the practice and protection of our traditions and through the worship and belief shared with our church fathers, I don’t think you can answer that question affirmatively. Isaiah chapter 6, along with numerous texts in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament show God breaking the world in often horrifying ways. We can justify the present order only when we ignore what God is doing in the Bible. See for yourself how many preachers this Sunday preach on Isaiah 6: 1-8 and leave out 9-13. I’m sure it will be a moving and reassuring sermon.
When God makes the mind of the people dull and stops their ears and shuts their eyes so they cannot see, or hear, or understand, God is doing what God often does to people in positions of power and comfort when God is nudging the world to change. Before God liberates God’s people and creates a new political community through Moses in the Exodus, God hardens the heart of Pharaoh and unleashes destruction throughout the land. Does King Herod find the news of the birth of a new king to be a liberating message? Or, does his heart harden and respond with violence as if he were Pharaoh reborn? Jesus even quotes from Isaiah 6:10 in John 12: 37-43 in response to the people who don’t believe, and particularly to the Pharisees who saw his many signs yet were afraid “they would be put out of the synagogue, for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.” God acts this way in history to end empires and bring about the possibility for human freedom.
“The prophet does not scold or reprimand. The prophet brings to public expression the dread of endings, the collapse of our self-madeness, the barriers and pecking orders that secure us at each other’s expense, and the fearful practice of eating off the table of a hungry brother or sister. It is the task of the prophet to invite the king to experience what he must experience, what he most needs to experience and most fears to experience, namely, the end of the royal fantasy is very near. The end of the royal fantasy will permit a glimpse of the true king who is no fantasy, but we cannot see the real king until the fantasy is shown to be a fragile and perishing deception. Precisely in the year of the death of the so-called king does the prophet and the prophet’s company see the real king high and lifted up (Isaiah 6:1).
“I believe that the proper idiom for the prophet in cutting through the royal numbness and denial is the language of grief, the rhetoric that engages the community in mourning for a funeral they do not want to admit. It is indeed their own funeral.”
–Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination
There is no better time for this type of prophesy and no more necessary time for these types of prophets than when you church is facing its end, as mine is doing in the United Methodist Church, and when your country’s historic injustices are made plain for all to see in a domestic political movement that no longer covers biblical injustice up or wishes biblical injustice away, but instead chooses to celebrate them as a defining characteristic. No wonder that the hearts of our political leaders are hard and that we as a political society are incapable of being moved by God.
Those of us who dare to open the Bible and live in communities of faith centered around its witness are called, as Isaiah was, to put an end to the powers that co-opt and domesticate our faith. We are called to revive and energize the communities of faith bound to that witness through a prophetic imagination that chooses the future God has promised us over the comforts fiercely and violently defended by the present order.
Brueggemann reminds us that perpetual fear and grief comes from those who cannot see any possibility beyond the present, especially when that order faces crisis. But, those of us who live according to God’s promises can see hope in the midst of despair, can see God’s kingdom when the foundations of the world shake, and can see life after death – even though we don’t comprehend what those things look like. He tells us that Jesus “was clear that rejoicing about that future required a grieving about he present order.”
We cannot be made great again. Those who say so are the prophets of a secular faith who place their hope in that which is rather than that which is promised. To these prophets, crisis is akin to a apocalyptic doom with no hope for ourselves or for a world that looks to them for stability, for hope, and for peace. For a people hopelessly attached to a politics and to a church whose old joints groan with any movement, our role is to mourn the passing of church and state with all the appropriate funeral rites so that we can imagine life unbound to its service.
I mourn the loss of my church and my denomination. I mourn the loss of the calling to which I was called. I mourn the loss of a body politic who was once, or at least once pretended to be, held together by values of liberty and peace. We don’t need to pretend that losing these things doesn’t hurt or that old wounds don’t sometimes re-open.
Isaiah lives to see the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel. He lives to see Judah go to war with Assyria. He lives to see Assyria besieging the city of Jerusalem, only to mysteriously turn back their armies back and go home. He isn’t finished prophesying destruction, nor is he finished criticizing the kings who sit in Jerusalem. The book bearing his name, with a number of different authors, write about future historical crises after his death including the the destruction of the temple, the people of Judah exiled to Babylon, and the end of the House of David.
Isaiah is a book that fully practices the task to which we are now called. It mourns what was lost, it condemns the powerful who choose to live by injustice, and it calls upon God to end it. And yet after each crisis, and after each horror of which kings and priests believe is the end of history, Isaiah sets forth a vision of a new world and a promise for new Israel. He never promises that we can be made great again. He promises that God’s future is great, that trusting that future is faith, and our faith requires us to move on.