Thursday, February 01, 2007

5 Epiphany, Year C: Isaiah 6:1-13

The appointed lesson for this Sunday, the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, is another commissioning narrative, Isaiah's call by God in the year King Uzziah died: Isaiah 6:1-13.

Isaiah 6

Let's be brave and start our reflections with the most difficult section. The lectionary makes verses 9-13 of our passage optional, and one has to ask why. Do we fear that people in the pews are not tough enough to hear its harsh message? Are we unwilling to accept God as Isaiah presents God to us?

The message of Isaiah 6:9-13 is hard: Amazingly, Isaiah's foremost task is not to win the people's repentence. It is to allow God's word to harden people's hearts, thus making them ripe for God's judgment.

One can certainly protest and search for guidance on how to hear this word, but what one cannot do is claim that this God of Isaiah is somehow different from the God of Jesus. If you check out passages such as Matthew 13:10-17; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:9-10; John 12:40; and Acts 28:25-29, you quickly see that we have a theological insight here deeply imbedded in both testaments of the Christian Bible.

Part of the theological mystery here concerns how sin is its own punishment. The path of sin, once started upon, leads one down the road into greater insensitivity to sin and deeper entanglement in it. Callousness is enhanced the more it is exercised; the more one rubs a callous, the more numb and larger it becomes. Abraham Heschel saw this clearly. Heschel wrote that the divine word can have the negative effect of intensifying or extending what people have done to their own souls.

Heschel saw a positive note in this dark truth, however. He believed that the act of enhancing people's callousness may bring them to see how deep they have sunk into sin. If the burden of callousness can become unbearable for them, perhaps they may decide to be honest with themselves and others and seek to change. If the hardness can become complete, and lead to despair, prayer will burst forth.

It would be wonderful if God's word could simply be delivered and received by people with true integrity and receptivity. Unfortunately, real life is not so simple. People constantly work to "domesticate" God's word, to make it a more comfortable word, a word that allows them to retain some control. People do not want to do the hard work of grappling with difficult truth and radically transforming their form of life. It is a rare person who will greet God's word on its own terms, and devote oneself to hearing it aright.

For most of us, then, unfortunately, God's puzzling, foreign, hard sayings come to us first and foremost in a way that makes us ripe for judgment. How can we deal with this? We must learn to understand this judgment as an opportunity to truly know ourselves as sinners. We must accept this judgment, ultimately, as an expression of God's grace.


Blogger Eliz F said...


Thu Feb 01, 08:53:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Peter Carey said...

Preach it, Brother Man!!!

I may want to quote this at length in my sermon on Sunday - well done!

Thu Feb 01, 08:57:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

You two are very supportive; thanks! ---S.

Thu Feb 01, 09:17:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The voice from the pit may sound like:
‘God, you're my last chance ...
I spend the night on my knees before you.
I've had my fill of trouble;
I'm camped on the edge of hell.
I'm written off as a lost cause,
I’m one more statistic, a hopeless case.
Abandoned as already dead,
one more body in a stack of corpses,
Without so much as a gravestone—
I'm in a black hole in oblivion.
I've been dropped into a bottomless pit,
I’m sunk in a pitch-black abyss.
I've been battered senseless by rage,
relentlessly pounded by waves of anger.
My friends have turned against me...
I'm caught in a maze and can't find my way out,
blinded by tears of pain and frustration.

I call to you, God; all day I call.
I wring my hands, I plead for help.
Are the dead an audience for your miracles?
Do ghosts ever join the choirs that praise you?
Does your love make any difference in a graveyard?
Is your faithful presence noticed in the corridors of hell?
Are your marvelous wonders ever seen in the dark,
your righteous ways noticed in the Land of No Memory?

I'm standing my ground, God, shouting for help,
at my prayers every morning, on my knees each daybreak.
Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear?
Why do you make yourself scarce?
For as long as I can remember I've been hurting;
I've taken the worst the world can hand out, and I've had it…
I'm bleeding, I’m black-and-blue.
I’ve been attacked fiercely from every side,
blows have rained down till I'm nearly dead.
Lover and neighbor alike have dumped me;
the only friend I have left is Darkness…

Psalm 88 personalized

Sat Feb 03, 11:39:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I really appreciate the comments about how sin begets further sin and deeper entanglement in sin. I have been trying to articulate this for a while, and haven't been able to do it quiet so eloqently. I think it's a message our congregations need to hear and I thank you.

Sat Feb 03, 12:55:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger eyeowaypastor said...

Thanks Steve for the perspective... you articulated in a different way something that I was mulling over...

Tue Feb 02, 12:13:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Unknown said...

Kierkegaard articulated it powerfully: "The most terrible punishment for sin is the new sin. This does not mean that the hardened, confident sinner will understand it this way. But if a man shudders at the thought of his sin, if he would gladly endure anything in order to avoid falling into the old sin in the future, then the new sin is the most terrible punishment for sin" (Journals, II A 420).

Thu Feb 07, 04:52:00 PM GMT-5  

Post a Comment

<< Home