Text: Isaiah 51
The children among us can probably relate to the fact that when a parent says, “Listen,” they rarely mean just “hear the words I’m about to say.” In my house, words of instruction or correction are usually followed by, “do you understand?” which is parent code for “I’ve explained this ten times already and you still haven’t listened—are you going to SHOW me this time that you get it, or am I going to have to SHOW you how you’re gonna’ get it?!”
When parents know that we have something important to say but are likely to be ignored, we start out with a warning, with just the right edge in our voice—just enough, we think, to raise the hair on the back of the neck, enough to convey a healthy sense of impending disaster if what is about to be said is not heard, understood, and put immediately into practice. And we say, “You’d better listen…”
But of course they often don’t, and our bluff is called. We have to resort to sterner means to get their attention, and then we speak our words of correction and end up back at “do you understand?”
Of course none of this is a problem for the children with us this morning—is it kids? I said, is it kids?Are you listening?
Some children (present company excepted), have perfected the art of not listening so well that they can listen to anything you say and give every indication that they’ve heard you, and yet with great skill and obvious flare, they ignore everything you’ve just said.
If you press the issue, they can repeat all that you said—even in the same tone of voice. But they continue to do what you told them not to…or fail to do what you told them to do. The technical term, of course, is ‘practiced indifference’.
Closely related is ‘cultivated tolerance’ with which words of warning or instruction are met with some form of partial obedience—often grudging and only enough to appease the raving lunatic who will obviously suffer an aneurism if they don’t do something. But the next time the situation arises, even when they know exactly what you’re going to say—even when they know what they’ll end up doing. It takes the raving lunatic again to move them to a minimal compliance laced with a carefully cultivated expression of scorn and displeasure.
Then there is what I consider to be the most insidious form of not listening there is, technically known as ‘passive disobedience’ (AKA ‘the Ghandi complex’, and popularly known as ‘the blank stare’). No matter what is said at any volume, no matter how many blood vessels rupture, no matter how many times your head spins around, everything you say (or scream) is quietly absorbed by the completely un-reactive, entirely unaffected, unflinching, unwavering, unresponsive, un-anything stare of the little angel who has no intention of doing anything at all.
While it may seem from these and many other listening disorders that our children never listen (I call them disorders, others might consider them artful avoidances), we know that they do sometimes. We even begin to experience what we hope for from the beginning as their indifference turns to attentiveness and effort. Their tolerance, or even outright defiance, becomes understanding and an eagerness to do what is right, and the blank stares soften into warm smiles.
Our words change too, as we have less to correct and more to encourage. We can instruct less and share more. “Listen” can and does become less a warning and more a prelude to wisdom or comfort, and “do you understand” ceases to be a code for “you better hear and obey” as it becomes an honest invitation to question further, share more, and admit to new levels of insight and appreciation.
From the very first time we sternly begin with “Listen, you’d better…,” we yearn for the day when we can softly say “Listen, I’m happy that you have… .” Even to the one we have punished many times, to the one who has tried every form of artful avoidance known to humankind, and to the one who has tried our patience and tested the resolve of our love, we yearn speak words of comfort and restoration. We yearn to share our wisdom and have it heard, appreciated, and practiced. All those years of correction and instruction, all of the difficult times of ranting and raving, cajoling and punishing, of trying to get our children to listen, are justified in those moments when they finally do listen.
The difference has nothing to do with their hearing, for they’ve heard what we’ve said all along. The difference, is that they have changed the way they listen. They have changed themselves. And their relationship with us has changed. Slowly their hearing becomes doing, and they begin to listen not to the words you say over and over again but to the character you’ve formed in them, the one you’ve molded through careful correction and instruction—through all those times of “You’d better listen,” and “Do you understand?” They begin to show that they have and are listening by the way they behave—by the way they respond to new situations and by the way they apply the wisdom and the patterns of behavior you’ve worked so hard to instill in them.
Where they were once passive, tolerating, and disobedient, they become active listeners, able to think and behave obediently and with good judgment. They are able to receive words of wisdom with thoughtfulness and understanding.
The way God deals with his people, and the ways his people respond, with artful avoidance or active and obedient listening is much the same. In Isaiah we have what amounts to a showcase of this whole pattern of listening (or not).
The book of Isaiah spans a period of nearly 250 years, from the time the northern kingdom, Israel, fell to the Assyrians and the southern kingdom, Judah, lived between rival superpowers through the time when Judah was taken by Babylon and many exiled to that distant land, to the time when the Persians took Babylon and allowed Israel and Judah to return home.
It opens at a time when the worlds greatest parent—God almighty—by whose word heaven and earth, even we ourselves came to be. The God of Israel and of all nations by whose word Abraham was called, and Moses was sent. The God whose word delivered his people and gave them a land, kings, and riches and who, with the patience that only God could have, had parented his children through prophet after prophet with many a “Listen,” a “Hear what I, the Lord, have to say.” God who, with the love of the parent of parents, punished and restored, corrected and forgave. Isaiah opens with THE parent…who reached the end of his rope.
And so God sends Isaiah of Amoz, the prophet for whom the book was named and perhaps the most important prophet in Israel’s history. Isaiah appears on the scene just as one recalcitrant child has been severely punished and put under the yolk of the aggressive Assyrian empire and the other cowers in fear before the world’s superpowers. And the first words from Isaiah, from God’s mouthpiece, the lips that were purified with fire in his famous vision in the temple, are these:
Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand. (Isaiah 1.2–3, NRSV)
Almighty God speaks the frustration of a long-suffering parent and cries to whomever will listen, “I’ve screamed and yelled until I’m blue in the face and they still don’t understand!” Then with the passion of the ages, God the Father turns to his children and meets their practiced indifference, their cultivated tolerance, and their passive disobedience with some of the harshest judgment in scripture. “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of your God, you people of Gomorrah!” he rages, comparing them to the worst sinners in their collective memory.
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord;
I have had enough…
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil… . (Is. 1.10–11, 13–16)
“I’ve told you a thousand times what I desire of you, and still you won’t obey. I’ve had it this time—get it straight, or else!”
We know he wasn’t kidding, for the Chaldeans came from Babylon a little over a hundred years later, and the temple was destroyed. The princes of Judah were taken into captivity, and for several generations, Israel and Judah were no more.
But even in the midst of his anger, God loved his people. He saw through the unfortunate and difficult punishment he was about to deliver to a time when they would be restored. He looked forward to a time when they would listen and understand, and make his wisdom their own. “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you;” he says in chapter 30,
…therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him. Truly, O people in Zion, inhabitants of Jerusalem, you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you. Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes will see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you saying, This is the way; walk in it. Then you will defile your silver-covered idols and your gold-plated images. You will scatter them like filthy rags; you will say no to them, “Away with you!” (Is. 30.18–22)
Our reading from Isaiah, this morning, comes directly from that moment when, in the heat of punishment, the people are crying and the Lord hears and prepares for their restoration. Isaiah of Babylon, sometimes known as second or deutero-Isaiah, was most likely a prophet in the tradition of the original Isaiah of Amoz who took his name, as was common practice. Beginning with chapter 40, Isaiah of Babylon spoke the word of the Lord to people who were in the midst of their punishment, their exile, only a short time before Babylon would fall and the conquering Persian king, Cyrus, would allow the scattered people to return to their homeland.
Isaiah’s words at this time were of hope and confidence spoken to a very demoralized people. In fact, the very famous servant songs that look forward to the messiah were part of the promise of God through this prophet.
Where Isaiah of Amoz was burdened with judgment against people going the wrong way, who were failing to listen to God, Isaiah of Babylon was blessed with encouragement for a people who hungered for any word God would speak to them. Nearly 200 years before Isaiah of Babylon could speak the “Listen” of comfort and wisdom, Isaiah of Amoz spoke the “Listen” of warning that was not heard by the ears of indifference, by people who thought they knew better and who continued to go their own way and do their own thing.
Only a century later, Jeremiah would speak the same word of the Lord in desperation to stubborn people who thought they were on the right track—people who would yet again ignore the raving lunatic who threatened punishment with blank stares and hardened hearts. We know that their indifference to the warnings, their minimal compliance, and their blank stares when they were corrected was their doom—and Jerusalem fell.
The “Listen” of warning that Isaiah of Amoz spoke and Jeremiah cried went unheeded, and the Lord exercised judgment. The people of Judah, like the Northern Kingdom before them, went into what was essentially an extended and very difficult grounding.
Finally, they were ready to listen, to hear God’s words of wisdom and comfort. Their indifference had changed to desire. Their tolerance became a hunger for righteousness. Their blank stares softened to longing expressions, seeking God’s word and deliverance.
Listen to what God says to them through Isaiah in chapter 51. “Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord” (51.1). What a change! They seek the Lord, they are ready to listen!
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to thew quarry from which you were dug.
look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
but I blessed him and made him many. (1-2)
Remember where you came from and what I did for you. And know what I will do for you even now.
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song. (3)
What a picture of restoration!
Listen to me, my people,
and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
and my justice for a light to the peoples. (4)
My people again! Under my care and protection! And now I will share my wisdom that you are ready to hear and understand.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and those who live on it will die like gnats;
but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended. (5-6)
I will deliver you for my purpose—and remember who it is who saves you now, for everything else is temporary compared to my salvation. “Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my teaching in your hearts” (51.7). Again, what a change—they get it, and he is is ready to encourage them
Do not fear the reproach of others,
and do not be dismayed when they revile you.
For the moth will eat them up like a garment,
and the worm will eat them like wool;
but my deliverance will be forever,
and my salvation to all generations. (7-8)
And then a reminder of just who it is that is speaking to them and how he will deliver them,
Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord!
Awake as in the days of old, the generations of long ago!
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?
Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep;
who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to cross over?
So the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (9-11)
And then words of comfort and restoration,
I, I am he who comforts you;
why then are you afraid of a mere mortal who must die,
a human being who fades like grass?
you have forgotten the Lord your Maker,
who stretched out the heavens
and laid the foundations of the earth.
You fear continually all day long
because of the fury of the oppressor,
who is bent on destruction.
But where is the fury of the oppressor?
The oppressed shall speedily be released;
they shall not die and go down to the Pit,
nor shall they lack bread.
For I am the Lord your God,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord of hosts is his name.
I have put my words in your mouth,
and hidden you in the shadow of my hand,
stretching out the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, “You are my people.” (12-16)
And then a call to action to all who are still reeling from the punishment, still wounded,
Rouse yourself, rouse yourself!
Stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath,
Who have drunk to the dregs the bowl of staggering.
There is no one to guide her among all the children she has borne;
there is no one to take her by the hand among the children she has brought up.
These two things have befallen you—
who will grieve with you?—
devastation and destruction, famine and sword—
who will comfort you?
Your children have fainted,
they lie at the head of every street like an antelope in a net;
they are full of the wrath of the Lord,
the rebuke of your God.
Therefore hear this, you who are wounded,
who are drunk, but not with wine:
Thus says your Sovereign, the Lord,
your God who pleads the cause of his people:
See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
you shall drink no more from the bowl of my wrath.
And I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
who have said to you, “Bow down, that we may walk on you;”
and you have made your back like the ground
and like the street for them to walk on. (17-23)
I will restore you!
“Great story, pastor,” some of you might be thinking. We know what God did for Israel and the lessons they had to learn. We even know what he went on to do when he sent Jesus and opened the way to everlasting salvation that went far beyond restoring Jerusalem.
If we identify with God’s people in this case, perhaps we think of ourselves most like those to whom God was speaking words of comfort. We may consider ourselves those pursuing righteousness. In fact, the exile is over, Christ has come, and we enjoy the salvation and fellowship of God in ways they could only hope for.
But perhaps there are some of us here this morning who are willing to look a little deeper at the truth of our situation and the appropriateness of both the message of Isaiah of Amoz and Isaiah of Babylon for us even now.
The truth starts with the recognition that we are children of God, his people. Isaiah’s message is addressed to the people of God who aren’t listening, not to outsiders who don’t yet know that they should listen. In other words, rather than reason to pat ourselves on the back or puff up our chests because we’re not nearly as dense as those Israelites, we should ask ourselves how much we are like them and in need of Isaiah’s warning.
We are most in danger of needing to hear the warning of “listen” when we are too comfortable with who we are. What we think we hear of God’s word, even in comfort, is never stagnant or settling. God’s word always carries the “do you understand?” that expects response and transformation. And all too many of us are not really listening.
We come week after week, sit in our seats, hear the word of God, and walk away unaffected and unchanged—except perhaps more disgruntled with the pastor than when we came. We might even read our bibles and pray through the week—always asking for guidance and help, always seeking peace and comfort, and not once hearing when God says, “yes, but first YOU must listen.”
We are exposed to the truth of Almighty God that should shake us to our very foundation. We can even repeat the words in a pious tone of voice, perhaps even quoting chapter and verse, but we fail to understand and apply. Or we take and use only what we like, and fail to be confronted and changed by the word that surprises us, offends us, and puts us off-kilter.
Or maybe we understand more than we let on, and we have an idea what God is trying to tell us, but we do only enough to get by. We fail open ourselves fully to the demand and the grace of the Holy Spirit, because it’s too hard. Listening well involves too much risk—it means too much change. We might have to give something up, change our job and do with less money, admit we’re wrong, or worship a little differently.
There are those of us with the blank stares—the defiance that won’t even acknowledge that God is speaking. We are unflinching, unfeeling, unteachable, unbending, and desperately in need of being UNDONE.
Which kind of child are you? Which am I? It’s a question we must all ask ourselves and one that only we can ask of ourselves.
And then there is the church—which kind of child are we? Have we as a people gone astray? Are we failing to listen as we should? Are we open to the risk of hearing and understanding the word of God? Are we failing to listen to our past and our prophets? Are we stubbornly worshiping, fellowshipping, evangelizing, and doing church the way we think we should while remaining unchanged, unaffected, and unteachable?
Are we heading into exile as we watch a nation wander away on our watch? Are we so easily absorbed into the ways and values of culture, as we willingly submit to the oppression of wealth and progress, of individualism and prosperity? Do we wonder why justice no longer prevails, why only a few serve while the rest take, why personal security means more than sacrifice and servanthood—even in the church?
These are big questions all, personal and corporate. They are the questions that Isaiah SHOULD raise for us. They are the questions that should drive us to our knees and make us hungry for God’s mercy, for his deliverance, for his word.
Are we listening?
Even now, the Lord desires to speak the words he did through Isaiah of Babylon to the people in exile. He longs for his ‘listen’ of warning to become the ‘listen’ of comfort and wisdom.
What must we do, then?
Listen to the word of warning, recognize the truth of who we are before the Lord, of our great need, for mercy and for abandonment to his will—his salvation.
Listen not to what we think we need to hear, not to what we desire to hear, but to what God is really saying to us. Seek to be challenged and changed. Become teachable and open to any possibility. Hunger for God to speak. Work to understand, and be eager to do what he says.
And rouse ourselves…
Be active listeners, dependent upon God for who we are and what we do. Don’t be slaves to achievement or progress. Don’t be slaves to worldly values, wealth, or security. Don’t be enamored with our models of success or driven by our own expectations. Be willing to face powers and superpowers as God’s people, trusting in his power, his will, and his reward.
The Lord will take us to this place—by persuasion or by punishment. If we listen not to his word of warning, he will take us to the brink of desperation.
Be persuaded, learn to listen even now. Look to your past, he said through Isaiah, to the truth of who you are and who your ancestors were and the way I blessed them. Open yourself to my wisdom, my teaching, he said, “give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and MY justice for a light to the peoples” (Isaiah 51.4).
Recognize the fullness of who God is and the futility of who we are, for the “heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats,” but HIS salvation will be forever (51.6).
To participate in HIS salvation, to be restored and used as his people, we must
– Live a life of confession and humility
– Hunger for his word and the food of his table in worship and fellowship
– Expect to be changed and transformed by his Spirit in worship and each and every day
– Actively listen—be prepared to live HIS justice, HIS wisdom, and the hope of HIS salvation in the midst of a world full of oppression and pressure, of competition and selfishness, of self promotion, of suffering, of violence, and of injustice.
Listen, understand, and do—it’s the only way.
This was a difficult sermon to prepare. Much was laid on my heart—much that is difficult to express. Much was made clear by the Spirit that would take us many more hours to explore as we try to plumb the breadth and depth of the word of the Lord and to do it justice. I can only hope that we will all listen, with open ears and contrite hearts. I can only pray that we will all hear what the Lord is saying, through his struggling minister, through songs and prayers, through our feast at his table, and through the Holy Spirit who even now is speaking to each and every one of us.
I invite you now to quiet your hearts and minds to hear and understand. You can do this where you stand, or you can join me on your knees. Either way, without ceremony, let us reflect quietly on what the Lord, our God, has said and is saying to us.
Holy Father, we are your people who call upon you as children through the name and blood of Jesus Christ. We are desperate for your word. We are hungry for your salvation. We are ready to be taught, challenged, and changed by your wisdom in the power of your Spirit.
Humble us before your grace and glory. Use us as your justice and mercy in and for the world. Teach us to listen, in listening to understand, and in understanding to act, on your word, by your will, and in your grace. Amen.