Do you remember the first time you did something that you knew, you absolutely totally knew, your parents would not like?
But you did it anyway.
You weighed the pros and cons and decided that even though your parents had told you no, everything in you was saying “yes,” and . . . ”yes” it was going be.
Every one of us has gone against something our parents taught us, one way or the other. A lot of us have been on the other side of the equation, too, seeing that look of defiant power in our child’s eyes as they said “no” for the very first time.
Now try to imagine God’s anguish from the point of view of a parent. Some of us can really feel it! We have been there, gotten that awful phone call from the police station, or from the school, found the sex paraphernalia or the drugs in our child’s room, realized who it was that took the money or the credit cards out of our wallets.
It hurts in ways words cannot describe, a betrayal that cuts to the bone, that guts us.
Others of us remember how awful it was to disappoint our parents, or to cause them real fear or pain or anxious worry. It is in this vein that Isaiah began the recounting of the sixty-year-long vision God had given him.
This first chapter provides the foundation for the rest of the book: God’s love for God’s people, holding them to account for their sin, warning them about judgment, and promising them forgiveness, redemption, and restoration.
Court is in Session
The scene opens up in a cosmic courtroom:
Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;Isaiah 1:2 (NRSV)
for the Lord has spoken:
Hear ye, hear ye, the court is now in session. God called all of creation, heaven and earth to take their seats as witnesses.
This was to be a huge event!
God had cared for God’s people every step of the way.
- Clear back in Genesis, during Abraham’s life and with each of the patriarch’s, God protected them, blessed them, and promised them a land, a people, and an inheritance.
- Through Joseph in Egypt, then Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, God covenanted with God’s people, taking them through the wilderness, miraculously feeding them, bringing them to the land God had promised them.
- God had even given the people kings when they asked for that.
- God had acted graciously towards God’s people, keeping God’s promises, even when the people failed God, again and again.
I reared children and brought them up,Isaiah 1:2 (NRSV)
but they have rebelled against me.
God compared God’s people to donkeys and oxen. Even these stubborn creatures learned to respect and depend upon their masters, but Israel did not seem to know the first thing about following their God.
God is the judge in this opening scene, as well as the prosecutor.
But more than anything, God is the broken-hearted, compassionate parent, who is grief-stricken over the devastation of sin.
Ah, sinful nation,Isaiah 1:4 (NRSV)
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
Listen to God’s groan of pain, “Ah.” My beloved people are a sinful nation full of ones loaded down with guilt.
Question of Guilt
Sin is one of those words we use a lot in Christianeze.
But out in the regular world, it feels weird, sometimes, to say “sin,” does it not? It is offensive to some people, other people roll their eyes, “yeah siiinnn. Whatever!” It is on the laugh-track for others, something kind of quaint, or actually everything that is fun except those buttoned-up prudish Christians get so uptight about it.
But the fact is, sin is a timeless concept, even if the word itself has gathered a lot of baggage over the centuries.
Sin represents a wrecked relationship with God.
Our understanding of sin begins in Genesis 3, describing a wrecked relationship between people, and with all creation.
It is living life from a self-centered frame of mind, selfish, self-indulging, self-promoting. All you and I need to do to get a feel for the effects of sin is to look around at our environment, at our economy, at our crime rate, or even just take a look at what is going on in our own families, and our own communities. Pollution. Greed. Tempers flaring. Mean-spiritedness.
It is bad enough we do this to each other, and to our environment. But the deepest offense goes back to God. Isaiah said it right here,
who have forsaken the Lord,Isaiah 1:4 (NRSV)
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!
Sin is no different today than it was then.
Estranged From God
But wait a minute, you and I might be saying to ourselves, this message is not for me! I am close to God, I love God, I am abiding deep in God, and God’s Spirit fills me to overflowing.
What does reading Isaiah have to do with me?
It was the first question I had to ask myself, as I began preparing to study this prophet. Why would God guide me here? Is God trying to get through to me about something? Because, from the opening lines of his oracle, Isaiah made clear God was not talking to anyone else but God’s own people in this passage.
I finally decided, considering the disarray churches are in, in the west, being in Isaiah’s audience is actually the right place to be.
I think we at least need to hear what the prophet has to say. Because you and I are just as capable of keeping God at arm’s length as God’s people were those thousands of years ago.
I’m reminded of the Pharisees who kept trying to trap Jesus. At one point, they sent some of their disciples to maneuver Jesus into having to weigh in—yes or no—on whether the people should have to pay the oppressive taxes Rome had burdened Palestine with. If Jesus said yes, the people would feel betrayed, and Jesus would lose his popular, grass-roots base. If he said no, the Sadducees would go straight to Herod and get Jesus arrested for insurrection. It was an air-tight snare. They had him!
Until, that is, Jesus blew their minds.
They were so confident in their grasp of the finer details of the law, their hearts wrapped up in the law, in fact, they had forgotten God.
Jesus reminded them.
Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, he had told them, and God what is God’s.
But what is God’s?
The gold that made Caesar’s coins is God’s, the earth the gold came from is God’s, all the people on the earth are God’s, including Caesar. Even Caesar belongs to God.
Jesus sent those would-be tricksters back to the Pharisees with their minds on fire!
And that is what I hope Isaiah will do for you and me. Without paying attention, you and I can slowly but surely shift our confidence away from God and onto the things we think we can control, like our behavior, and rules and laws, and maybe even other people. We come up with doctrines in our attempt to define God and God’s parameters . . . then we can control God, too.
But when those things fill our hearts, then you and I have become estranged from the God Whom we love and Who loves us.
Check the Dashboard Lights
Once, when I visited my sister years ago, she picked me up from the airport and I noticed her engine light was on. It was late at night, and she knew I had had a long flight, but I said it would be fine with me if she wanted to go have that engine light checked out. “Oh, it has been on for a while,” she told me. “The car is still working, so it is probably nothing.”
That, I think, is what you and I are tempted to do with our consciences. “Oh, it is okay, everything is still working fine.”
Instead, let us give Isaiah a listen, and see if there is something in there for us, just as there was something there for God’s people then.