The Sin of Isaiah, And a Word for All of Us Preachers at Advent and Christmas

We are now in the season of Advent and Christmas.  Of course, at this time of year, a few passages from the book of Isaiah (a book which evidently lies dormant the rest of the year, except for a brief appearance on Good Friday), all of a sudden come to prominence, passages in Isaiah 7, 9, and 11:

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isa 7:14)

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6-7)

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. (Isa 11:1)

[If you don’t recognize this last verse as a Christmas passage, note that it is this verse which stands behind that Christmas carol, my favorite one in fact, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”]

To get a bit of perspective on these passages, I would like to take a look at an earlier, well-known passage in chapter 6, where Isaiah has a vision of God in his throne room, complete with angels crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory,” and doorposts and thresholds shaking, and the heavenly temple filling up with smoke.  Upon being presented with this multi-media presentation of the glory of God, Isaiah immediately cries out:

 Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty. (Isa 6:5)

Why does Isaiah confess his sin here in terms of uncleanness of lips, and why does he also connect it with the fact that the people among whom he lives are also guilty of having unclean lips?  I am going to make the argument in this post that the sin which Isaiah confesses here is specifically that of saying the same things as the rest of the people of Israel have been saying.  And what the people have been saying are things that are misrepresentative of the character and purposes of God.  In other words, Isaiah is confessing that, at least to a certain extent, he has been a false prophet, and that he has been saying things that were more in accord with what the people of Israel wanted him to say, rather than with those things that God had actually commissioned him to say.

Now, only somewhat affecting my argument is the question as to whether Isaiah was already a prophet, and this chapter narrates a kind of recommissioning, or if this chapter is an account of Isaiah’s initial call to be a prophet.  I tend toward the position that this is a recommissioning.  But, regardless, my argument is that, either way, Isaiah’s sin is that of saying the same false words about God’s character, plan, and purpose as that of his countrymen.

Interestingly, if I am correct, Isaiah is not the only biblical prophet of whom this is the case.  The other two major writing prophets have similar struggles, and there are stories in Samuel and Kings, as well as various statements in the minor prophets, where we also see other prophetic figures having similar struggles.  For this post, I am going to focus on the three major writing prophets: first, Jeremiah; second, Ezekiel, and then back to Isaiah.

Jeremiah 15 records a dialogue between the prophet and God.  At one point, God says this to Jeremiah:

“If you repent, I will restore you
that you may serve me;
if you utter worthy, not worthless, words,
you will be my spokesman.
Let this people turn to you,
but you must not turn to them.” (Jer 15:19)

In the dialogue recorded in this chapter, Jeremiah has been complaining about the task God has assigned him, the task of bringing a very unpopular message to the people, a message of judgment and doom and gloom.  Just prior to the words I cited above, Jeremiah actually accuses God of having lied to him, perhaps of misleading him as to what kind of treatment he could expect to receive at the hands of his fellow Israelites.  But, now, God rebukes the prophet, telling him that he must repent.  If Jeremiah does repent, then he can go on being God’s prophet.  But to be God’s prophet, he must utter worthy, not worthless words.  He must indeed be a true spokesman for God.  If Jeremiah does represent God faithfully, the people may hear and turn to Jeremiah for a true word from God.  But Jeremiah must not, under any circumstances, turn to them—he must not merely be a sounding board for the sentiments of the people.  He must speak words that are counter to societal expectations.

In Ezekiel 2, God gives Ezekiel a prophetic commission, a charge to speak God’s words to a rebellious, stubborn, obstinate generation.  Here is part of what God says to the prophet:

“The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious people. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious people.” (Ezek 2:4-8)

Notice that not only is Ezekiel told that he must speak God’s words to the people, but he is also told, “Do not rebel like that rebellious people.”  I think we have to assume that God says this to the prophet, precisely because there is the very real possibility that Ezekiel will be tempted to water down the message that God has given him, and that would be an act of rebellion against God.  Indeed, later in chapter 3, we come to the famous “watchman” passage, in which God tells Ezekiel that if he does not give the people the warning he has been charged to give them, he will be held to account for their blood.  And there are good indications in chapter 3, that the very reason why God has to give Ezekiel this warning is that Ezekiel has, in fact, failed to carry out his prophetic commission.

Coming back to Isaiah, we have this very interesting passage in chapter 8.

11 This is what the LORD says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people:
12 “Do not call conspiracy
everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
and do not dread it.
13 The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread.
14 He will be a holy place;
for both Israel and Judah he will be
a stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare.
15 Many of them will stumble;
they will fall and be broken,
they will be snared and captured.” (Isa 8:11-15)

Now, this is a somewhat enigmatic passage.  There are several theories as to what the “conspiracy” is in v. 12.  But my argument is not really affected by the resolution of this question.  Isaiah is strongly warned by the Lord “not to follow the way of this people.”  In contrast to what the people are concerned about and what they fear, Isaiah is to fear the Lord, and if he fails to do what God has told him to do, then the Lord will be the one whom Isaiah must dread.

So, there you have it.  The three major writing prophets in the Old Testament were all strongly warned by God to make sure that their message was one that did not conform to societal expectations.  Their message must not resemble what everyone else is saying.  Indeed, the prophets’ message must be one that is in sharp contrast to what the people are saying, or what they want to hear.

Fellow preachers, what does this have to do with us and how we preach at this time of year in this Advent and Christmas season?  To give one possible answer to this question, let me first go back to the passage in Isaiah 6.  Immediately after the prophet confesses the uncleanness of his lips, one of the seraphs takes a coal from the altar, touches Isaiah’s lips with it, and declares to him that his guilt has been taken away and his sin atoned for.  Then, Isaiah overhears the conversation in which the Lord calls out to his heavenly host, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”  Isaiah, like a keener in a school class, raises his hand and cries, “Here am I.  Send me!”  God takes him up on the offer and then gives him the message he has to deliver:

He said, “Go and tell this people:
‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.’” (Isa 6:9-10)

Upon hearing this, Isaiah is understandably puzzled and concerned, and asks how long he has to preach in such a way that he actually ends up hardening people’s hearts so that no one actually gets converted.  This is the Lord’s answer:

11 “Until the cities lie ruined
and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
and the fields ruined and ravaged,
12 until the LORD has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
13 And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” (Isa 6:11-13)

Isaiah is given a hard and a hardening message, a message that will turn off the eyes and ears of the people.  And it is a message of judgment and utter devastation.

It is very interesting that the three Christmas passages in Isaiah (7:14; 9:6-7; 11:1) come in close proximity to this passage in Isaiah 6, as well as the one we looked at earlier in Isaiah 8.  And it also interesting that all of these passages, the Christmas ones as well as the ones in chapters 6 and 8, have to do with divine violence, the wrath of God.

Isaiah 6:11-13—The Lord is about to ruin and utterly devastate the land.

Isaiah 7:14—Because of the failure of the people to believe and put their trust in the Lord and his “Immanuel,” the Lord is going to bring an onslaught from the Assyrian army, whose outspread flanks will cover the breadth of Immanuel’s land (Isa 8:9).

Isaiah 8:11-15—The Lord will be

14 a stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare.
15 Many of them will stumble;
they will fall and be broken,
they will be snared and captured. (Isa 8:14-15)

Isaiah 9:6-7—Despite his title, “The Prince of Peace,” this child who is born, this son who is given, will establish his peace by very violent means.  In order to establish his kingdom and to inherit David’s throne, this Messiah will first defeat and destroy the Assyrian army.

Isaiah 11:1—The shoot from the stump of Jesse, the branch from his roots, the rose of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” will indeed establish his kingdom.  And how will he do it?

4 With righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.  (Isa 11:4-5)

There are a number of contemporary preachers, not only mainline, but even among those who would call themselves evangelical to some extent, who would argue that in our preaching we must “domesticate” God.  We need to present a picture of a kinder, gentler God.  We need to “de-wrath” or “un-wrath” God.  But, as I have said before, when you attempt to extricate the divine violence thread from the tapestry of the biblical portrayal of God, you are indeed pulling on a thread, which, when pulled out, will only end up destroying the tapestry.  And to try to do this is nothing more than an attempt to make God look like what our society and culture want God to look like.  To try to do this is to be anti-God and anti-Christ.  It is the very thing God warns Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel about.

“If you utter worthy, not worthless, words,
you will be my spokesman.
Let this people turn to you,
but you must not turn to them.” (Jer 15:19)

“You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious people.” (Ezek 2:4-8)

“This is what the LORD says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people.” (Isa 8:11)

In our preaching this Advent and Christmas season, we must not allow the surrounding society and culture dictate what our messages consist of.  We dare not let the saccharine sentimentality of the department stores, card makers, ad agencies, TV shows, movies, and political establishments color our distinctive Christmas message.  Yes, our message must be one of hope, peace, and love.  But this hope, peace, and love must not be the one which the world envisions or tries to give, as it attempts to remake God in its own image.  Rather, it must be the one which only the real God, the biblical God, the Scriptural God, can give.

Yes, we have good news, but this good news is for “those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).

Yes, the first Advent of our Lord brings peace and love to those who trust in him.  But he will also scatter “those who are proud in their inmost thoughts” (Luke 1:51).

Yes, this is good news for the humble whom he will raise up.  But he will raise them up by bringing “down rulers from their thrones” (Luke 1:52).

Yes, he will feed the hungry.  But he will do so by sending “the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53).

Yes, he will bring salvation to his people.  But this salvation is precisely “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:71).

Yes, this child will cause many people to rise up from the dust.  But this child will also cause many to fall, and will cause many people to become his enemies (Luke 2:34).

We dare not preach about the first advent of our Lord without at the same time connecting it to the second advent.  At the first advent, Christ came to save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21), and to provide forgiveness for those sins (Luke 1:77).  But at the second advent, Christ will come to bring that redemption and salvation to its completion:

26 . . . He has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.  (Heb 9:26-28)

And at the second advent, Christ will indeed put down all opposition to his reign.  We dare not preach about the first advent as if that second advent was not going to occur.

This is just one example.  There are many more.  Contemporary society and culture hold to many false pictures and portrayals of our God and of his Christ.  Our preaching must be in distinct and direct contradiction to those false portrayals.  To fail in this responsibility would be to simply relapse into the position of being preachers of unclean lips dwelling in the midst of a people of unclean lips.  Indeed, recalling the words of Isa 8:12-13, we need to fear God more than we fear people.

This Advent and Christmas season, let us be sure to preach the true message of Christmas; that is, let us preach the message with which we have been entrusted, one which is very different from the one held by so many in our society, even religious society.  Let us not adapt our words to their words.  Let us not follow the way of this people.  Let us not preach for popularity, or evaluate the truth of our message by the latest opinion polls or public sentiments.  Instead, let us be sure to say what only the church has been entrusted to say.  Let us say what no one else is saying.  Let our words be God’s words.  Let us preach the gospel—the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the one who has appeared, and will appear again for our salvation.

Jerry Shepherd
Eve of the first Sunday of Advent
November 28, 2015