In the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke we hear of an encounter where Jesus summarizes the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures into two commandments: Love God, love your neighbor (Matthew 22:535-40, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28). John’s gospel, in this sixteenth verse of the third chapter, summarizes the Greek Scriptures. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Or, for those of you who grew up with the King James, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Our passage from Isaiah ends with a similarly memorable verse, “Here I am. Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8) This verse calls to mind, and even inspired, Dan Schutte’s famous hymn, “Here I am, Lord,” perhaps better known by its first line, “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky.” I am sorry we cannot sing it today. We are easing our covid restrictions, but are not yet prepared for congregational singing, and, even if we were, this particular hymn is not covered under our standing copyright licensing.
Dan Schutte wrote that chorus echoing the words of Isaiah and Samuel (1 Samuel 3:4) so that when people sing the hymn, they tranquilly and humbly offer themselves to God. I think, though, that this is remembering the text while forgetting the reason it is memorable. Isaiah’s offer of surrender is memorable because it is so unusual.
I have said before that our image of peaceful angels who look like pretty humans dressed in white, carrying harps as they fly about on white-feathered wings is shockingly unbiblical. Our passage from Isaiah tells us: “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.” Most translations treat seraph as a proper noun, and following a tradition set by the King James translators, leave it untranslated. It does not have a perfect analog in English, but the essence of the Hebrew speaks to “fiery-things.” We do not have to take just Isaiah’s account, or even various Biblical descriptions of angels. In nearly every other place where scripture describes an encounter between a human and an angel, the angel begins by telling the human not to be afraid.
In the wider context of scripture, it is bizarre that Isaiah is so calm. Isaiah’s response is not a typical response, even for those who become mighty figures in the scripture. Moses argues with the God at the Burning Bush for most of two chapters (Exodus 3-4). Jonah sets sail in the opposite direction (Jonah1:3) and volunteers himself to be hurled into the sea (Jonah 1:12). Ezekiel was so stunned by his encounter with God that he sat in silence for a week (Ezekiel 3:15). Jeremiah declares that he is too young (Jeremiah 1:6). Even Jesus asks “take this cup away.” (Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42)
Why is Isaiah so quick to accept when so many others were not?
Why, also, is this story, that talks about the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry, in the sixth chapter of the book that bears his name?
Perhaps both these questions have the same answer: because the first five chapters of Isaiah are largely a list of grievances. Yes, we like to read from the second chapter of Isaiah during Advent, where God talks about all the nations coming to Zion to study and turning swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:1-4), but we usually stop before God declares that first, before the people will come to Zion, God will tear everything down (Isaiah 2:11-21). The bulk of the first five chapters of Isaiah is divine condemnation. Isaiah has lived in the mess, has lived in the society that takes pride in the wealth the powerful extract from the labor and bodies of the powerless, a society that live bribes and gifts and abandons widows and orphans (Isaiah 1:23) A society that comes into the Temple to make sacrifices and perform all the correct rituals of faith without any meaning, causing God to declare, “Your new moons and appointed festivals, my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them…I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean, remove the evil of your doings before my eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do good. Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:14-17)
Isaiah knows the sins of his society. When Isaiah first sees God, Isaiah thinks that he is lost, because he is “a man of unclean lips, and [he lives] among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah knows God’s condemnation is deserved, and before God even asks Isaiah to go, one of the seraphim, one of the fiery-things, touches Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal to cauterize Isaiah’s and the society’s sins. Only after this has happened does God ask who will go. Only after this cauterization does Isaiah volunteer.
And what does Isaiah get for his courage? What does Isaiah get for his service to God? Rejection by the society he has been sent to save. Isaiah asks God “How long, O Lord?” will the people refuse to listen? God answers “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. 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.”
All of Isaiah’s condemnation, all of God’s condemnation of the greed and sin of Judah, will not save the people. All of Isaiah’s condemnation, all of God’s condemnation of the greed and sin of Judah, will not change the culture. All of Isaiah’s condemnation, all of God’s condemnation of the greed and sin of Judah, will not even be heard. Isaiah is not sent to prophesy, is not sent to warn Judah so that Judah will stop. Isaiah is sent to make sure that there is a record for the future. Isaiah is not sent to prevent the fall of Judah and the exile, but to make sure that those in exile can understand what happened and where they went wrong after the fact. Isaiah’s efforts are not to prevent the coming of the Babylonians. Isaiah condemns Judah not in the hope that Judah will listen, but in the hope that the returning exiles will remember and will do better.
We should remember this when we jump to judge people, when we jump to condemn people. Condemnation does not work. Condemnation is the end of a conversation. Condemnation is the end of faith. Condemnation is the declaration that you are no longer worth my effort, but let your failure be a lesson to the next person.
This is the lesson we should learn from John 3:16, that most famous verse from the Greek scriptures. We all know it well, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” How many people remember what comes next? How many of us remember John 3:17. I read it not too long ago, today’s lection from John ended with verse 17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Most of the earlier prophets, Jonah is the exception that comes to my mind, were sent to condemn. Isaiah was sent to condemn. Jeremiah was so full of condemnation that we have turned his name into a list of grievances or an extended condemnation—a jeremiad.
Jesus was sent to save, not condemn. Yes, the gospels are filled with instances of Jesus identifying and calling out bad behavior, but Jesus, with one notable exception, does not follow the identification of sin with destruction.
No, Jesus comes to change the pattern, to flip the script and we, we are all too happy to oblige, too happy to seize the opportunity to condemn God rather than to receive condemnation from God. Someone recently asked me if, instead of condemning the Jews for killing Christ we should thank them for giving the opportunity for the resurrection. I should not have been surprised. The Church has spent millennia inflicting all sorts of harm on our Jewish siblings through bad theology. I answered by pointing to the fact that the Jewish means of execution of the time was stoning—we even have a gospel account of Jesus interrupting such an execution, and that crucifixion was an execution method expressly and only used by the Romans for a very specific crime—what we now would call sedition. What I should have said, what needs to be said and heard and understood is this: efforts to identify and blame, or even efforts to thank, a specific group of people for the crucifixion are missing the point. The point is not that one group or another crucified Jesus. The point is that people did. Humans did. We did.
We have had thousands of years filled with people who missed the point, thousands of years filled with fine, church going people just like the people of Judah in Isaiah’s time, thousands of years filled with people who, because they read the Bible, come to church, and pay their tithe, they can then leave church and work in the ways of the world, seek wealth over compassion, status instead of humility, practice judgment and condemnation instead of love, people who, just like in Isaiah’s time, think that the message is for someone else and so continue to miss the point.
The point is that Jesus was sent to save us, not condemn us, and we responded by condemning Jesus, because condemnation is meant to end the conversation. Through the incarnation, through Jesus, God invited us into a new and deeper conversation. This is the very meaning of Immanuel: God is with us, not God is on our side as opposed to their side, but God is present, here, with us, all of us, even including them, whoever “they” are. Jesus tells us that we need to love God and our neighbor, and that we do not get to choose our neighbor and we did not, still do not, want to hear it. Through the crucifixion, we tried to condemn God, tried to end that conversation, but through the resurrection God declared an end to condemnation. Through the resurrection, God refused to allow our condemnation to have the final word. Through the resurrection, God declared that the time for condemnation is over. Through the resurrection, God declares, still, to this day, that we do not get the comfort of giving up on anyone else because God does not give up on us. Thanks be to God.