A couple of months ago, at one of our meetings, your clergy—John and Anthony and I—agreed together we would preach and teach from Isaiah this month, this Advent. As far as Advent went, it would be All-Isaiah-All-the-Time.
We made this decision some while ago and have been second guessing ourselves ever since. Preaching and teaching Isaiah means we are not preaching and teaching from Luke or Matthew: the familiar Christmas stories we so love this time of year.
But we stuck with our earlier decision because Isaiah is, in a word, amazing. And because Isaiah is important. The Book of Isaiah is the first of the prophetic books in our Bible and it’s the largest, the longest. And, Isaiah has graced us with poetry and images that, well, it is hard to imagine our lives without. It is Isaiah who brings us:
- the image of the ox and the ass
- the phrase: and a little child shall lead them
- There would be no Handel’s Messiah, if not for the libretto supplied by Isaiah
- It was Isaiah who wrote: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
- Isaiah’s emphasis that God supports the cause of the poor helped give birth to Liberation Theology.
- Our forebears at Old South Church thought enough of Isaiah to place him stained glass here in the Sanctuary. Isaiah literally watches over our going and our coming in. And, you are in this pulpit, you cannot avoid the sense that Isaiah is listening.
We know very little about Isaiah as a person. We know he hailed from the 8th century before the Common Era. We know that Isaiah was an urban prophet: born, bred, and married in Jerusalem. We know that Isaiah preaches to a nation that believes it is very special … a nation that thinks of itself as exceptional, chosen … a nation that feels especially blessed of God. And, we know that Isaiah is located right in the heart of the action … in the capital city … where the king lives and reigns, where the powerful live … where the laws are made, interpreted, and enforced, or bent … where the taxes are decided, and boundaries drawn … where the money is made and where the rich live … where the powerful decide when to wage war and who to send and where to send them. And we know this: Isaiah was angry. Angry with a righteous anger. A Godly anger.
He isn’t angry at everybody. He is angry at the corruption among those in power. He is angry at the use and influence of bribery. At the way gift-giving contorts the dynamics of power. He is angry that wealth and power are worshiped, adored, more than God. He is angry at leaders who are prideful and think they are better than others. He is angry at those who deprive the innocent of their rights and those who acquit the guilty for a bribe.
That’s a part of Isaiah: the Isaiah who can be fiercely, jaggedly, ferociously angry with corrupt leaders, as with those indifferent to the suffering of the vulnerable.
But Isaiah isn’t only angry. Isaiah suggests a remedy for corruption. He is instructive. Isaiah informs the corrupt and the indifferent that corruption and indifference to the plight of the poor is not their destiny. It is escapable. Reversible. He tell them that they can do better than that. That they have the capacity to break out of a system that makes corruption acceptable.
He explains how. Isaiah informs the leaders, the wealthy, the power brokers, that they can, they are capable, if they want to, of learning to do good. What does it mean to learn to do good? Isaiah spells it out. Doing good means seek and insist on justice. It means making it their business to rescue the oppressed and to defend the orphan and plead for the widow … take up the cause, the case, and advocate for the most vulnerable among us … to stand between the vulnerable and a world that can be, at best, utterly indifferent to their plight and, at worst, cruel and rapacious.
That’s another part of Isaiah. Isaiah can be righteously angry at corruption and indifference to the plight of the vulnerable, And, Isaiah can be instructive, offering a remedy: learn to do good. Insist on justice. Take up the case of the vulnerable.
But there’s a third side to Isaiah. Isaiah is also a dreamer, a visionary. Isaiah dreams dreams and sees visions of things that are not yet, but should be.
Isaiah dreams of a ruler, a prince among us, a king or sovereign, unlike anything that either human voting or military coups might produce.
Isaiah dreams of a ruler who comes from God … a prince who is enfolded, not in military uniform, not in royal robes … he possesses no mantle of crimson and ermine. Nor is he wrapped in secret security and presidential insignia and the black SUVS of a motorcade.
Isaiah, the dreamer, dreams, the visionary sees a prince attired in righteousness. Whose body is enfolded in faithfulness to God. The Spirit of the Lord rests upon him and he is imbued with a spirit of understanding and wisdom. And his delight is not in nations defeated, or territories occupied, or in the strength of his military, or the size of his treasury. No! His delight is in the fear, the awe of the Lord.
Moreover, he will not judge by what his eyes see. Because, we mortal ones, we judge, by what our eyes see. He will not. He will not judge by what his eyes see. But with righteousness he shall judge the poor. And it will be with equity, with fairness, that he will decide for the meek of the earth.
What Isaiah is saying, what he is preaching, why he matters so much—this large, lovely prophet, this prodigious, poetic prophet—what he is saying, and preaching is this: don’t expect such a one to come from your votes, or your electioneering, or from a political party, or from a military coup, or from an invasion.
Such a one as this … comes from God.
For Christians … this very one, this prince attired in righteousness, whose body and spirit are enfolded in faithfulness to God … who does not judge by what his eyes see, this one imbued with a spirit of understanding and wisdom … whose delight is not in his own prodigious powers … but in the fear, in the awe of God … this one is Jesus, a child sent from God.
As a God-fearer in the 21st century, a God-fearer living in a city, in Boston, Isaiah’s message is both instructive and freeing.
Instructive, in that it reminds me never to take my eye off of the plight of those for whom God has a special concern: the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed.
Instructive in that is reminds this church, Old South Church in Boston, to take up the cause of the most vulnerable among us, to have their backs, to plead and advocate for these. Such is our Godly charge, our righteous cause. No less than this.
And, Isaiah’s message is freeing. It frees me from placing undue faith in political systems and elected officials. It frees me to place all of my faith, all my adoration, all my hopes in God.
It was Isaiah—this large and lovely prophet, this prodigious and poetic prophet—to whom Jesus turned for his first sermon in a synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus opened the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah and, and sought for the place where it read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
It is this, church, this is our Godly charge, our righteous cause. This. And no less.