Coming Full Circle
I began this blog last December (2020) as an exercise extended from my personal devotions, which were going to be an exploration of Messianic passages starting in Isaiah. Instead, I was struck with Isaiah's strong words for ancient Israel and noted the commonalities with present-day Christianity (see the first full post: https://www.isaiahfortoday.com/post/this-one-hits-close-to-home).
The further along I got in Isaiah, the more I became convinced that these words were for us today. Isaiah reminds us of what true belief and practice is in Judaism and Christianity, practices that often seem very distant from current religious behavior in many cases. But I was perhaps misguided in trying to appeal to others to see these original commands and apply them to the present. Those who are so far gone as to be participating in riots at the U.S. capital, celebrating violence from afar, spending significant time meditating on the "haves" and the "have nots" and how to become one of the "haves," spreading distrust and hatred, or oppressing (physically, emotionally, or sexually) vulnerable people in congregations are participating in a faith that is completely unrecognizable from what we read in Isaiah as well as the rest of Scripture. My simple words on a screen or page can do very little. I pray, and I prayed this morning, for the Holy Spirit to come, come, come. And to begin with me, because the further I got in Isaiah, the more I personally felt convicted regarding my attitudes and thoughts.
Isaiah 66 brings us full circle from where we started. Just like my surprise at re-reading Isaiah 1 (i.e. it's not all happy prophetic passages....well, they're prophetic, just not the happy sort. It's prophesy as in speaking out against wrong behavior), I was surprised at this re-read of Isaiah 66. The book does not end well!! I remember Isaiah 66 as a triumphant section on the new heavens and the new earth. And, to be sure, it is there near the end. But rather than having the final sentence conclude with beauty and peace (like we see in chapter 55), it ends rather gruesomely, clearly presenting the fate of those who rebel against the Lord. It's a bit of a downer.
And yet, perhaps it's a perfect book-end for Isaiah 1, where the prophet tells them to just stop already with their meaningless worship. He doesn't even want it. In that blog post, I quote The Message's translation of this section of Isaiah 1:
You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings.
As a perfect parallel, here's The Message's translation of the relevant section of Isaiah 66, where Isaiah is still on-point here:
Heaven’s my throne, earth is my footstool. What sort of house could you build for me? What holiday spot reserve for me? I made all this! I own all this!” God’s Decree. “But there is something I’m looking for: a person simple and plain, reverently responsive to what I say. “Your acts of worship are acts of sin...You choose self-serving worship, you delight in self-centered worship—disgusting! Well, I choose to expose your nonsense and let you realize your worst fears, because when I invited you, you ignored me; when I spoke to you, you brushed me off. You did the very things I exposed as evil, you chose what I hate.”
The book of Isaiah takes place over such an enormous period of time that scholars believe that multiple authors must have been involved. For ease, I keep calling the author, "Isaiah," for consistency. But these final chapters are written to the exiles who have now returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple. You'd think that they'd be doing a pretty good job of following God--what else do they have? And, they should be rejoicing that what they asked for was granted--return to their homeland. And yet, they are actually worshipping their own religiosity instead of God. As commentators have written regarding these verses:
"Ritual conformity without moral obedience only extends sin into another area of life. It is possible to be religiously meticulous and at worst incur guilt, at best achieve nothing. The word of God is the key to everything " --Motyer
This passage refers to ecclesiasticism, "the spirit that would build human walls around God" --Kidner
It's an "ugly distortion of true religion which inevitably reasserts itself where there is no recognition of the greatness of God or heartfelt contrition before him"--Webb
Going through the motions and then getting really puffed up over one's self-righteousness and then sneaking in some vices on the side. It's the universal temptation of the religiously-observant.
I still hold to this message being an important one for our time. Christianity has been around long enough to cycle into another spiritual drought. We seem to not be able to go for very long without a revival needed, and the last one in the Western world was arguably the Jesus Movement in the 70s and 80s. Like all movements, this one brought great good with some unintended consequences. The yuppies of the 80s who became Christian fundamentalists brought us a prosperity-gospel agenda that is strongly with us today, albeit in hidden ways sometimes (basic premise: God wants you to be happy. He'll reward good people with good things and bad people with bad things. Ask Him for good things and seek the #blessed life). This agenda has brought me to tears throughout this year in the midst of our family's suffering. Thankfully, no one has said to my face that cancer is an affliction for family sin or that if we have enough faith, we can pray it away. Yet, there was an undercurrent of helplessness in the face of suffering, of having nothing to say or even being willing to sit with a family undergoing suffering---the bare minimum, which even Job's friends did. It's a common predicament with cancer diagnoses--so common as to have a name: "cancer ghosting" (see a great article on it here: https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2020/02/9407894/cancer-and-friendship). Yet, Christians should do better--we of all people should have a theology of suffering--we supposedly worship the Suffering Servant (from Isaiah's prophesies!). Yet Protestants have lost or have intentionally avoided this, perhaps out of a sorely misguided effort to distance themselves from Catholic and Orthodox belief where suffering is very much part of the theological tradition.
Despite my frustration over the American church at large this year, those who claim to be Christians and yet did unspeakable things in 2021, and my own personal frustrations, I'm starting off 2022 deeply self-reflective of my own faults, sins, and negligence. God is clear in Isaiah 66 what He is looking for, in contrast to all the nonsense and evil we just discussed. Here are various translations of the answer, given right off the bat in verse 2:
These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word (NIV).
But to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word (KJV).
But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word (NRSV).
I've had Psalm 51 in my head for weeks, initially to pray to the Lord to "let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice." Unsurprisingly, the trauma of what we experienced this year left us numb, and I literally began praying for help in feeling joy and for a "steadfast spirit" and that he would "restore" the "joy of [my] salvation."
But also present in this Psalm is this section:
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God will not despise.
Completely consistent and reflective of Isaiah 66. Yet I've never seen either chapter as one particularly relevant to me. I don't do sacrifices, either the ancient animal sort or the self-flagellating martyr complex sort. Rather, I arguably err to much in the protecting my time side of things. And yet...the horrible thought occurred to me this week. What if I am going through the motions of worship this year, in my numbed state, not out of love and obedience to God but to please others? How much of my words and behavior are appeasement rather than faith lived out? Have I fallen into the same empty religiosity that I've been writing against all year? When I prayed about having a contrite spirit, sins and errors that I wouldn't have thought before as sins and errors started appearing as spectres in my mind. What if you think you are serving God but are actually serving your own self-image as a religious person?
Both Isaiah and David know that God gave clear instructions to the Israelites regarding animal sacrifice. How can both writers then say that God doesn't delight in, or despises, sacrifice, respectively? The answer, I think, has to do with what the above commentators say about the real problems being ritual conformity, "building human walls around God," and no heartfelt contrition.
This is countercultural. We are taught to be confident and assertive in American culture. Cultivating contrition is pretty hard when I spend so much time defending myself in my mind. Looking into the Hebrew for "contrite" (daca) I see that the literal meaning has to do with being smitten, bruised, or crushed. There's no American Protestant tradition that I'm aware of that emphasizes this as a being a good thing. We want to live triumphant lives of wholeness, our "best life," in fact. And yet, what does wholeness look like in the Bible? Who are the triumphant characters in their most triumphant moments? Jacob, whose "full circle" involved him wrestling with God...and being permanently maimed from the encounter. Paul, for whom God refused to take away his thorn? Pretty much every Biblical female character, most of whom were either barren, prostitutes, demon-possessed, or in-the-family-way at some point. Lots of shame can be read between the lines on the page. So then why does it feel like suffering is not the normal Christian experience? Why does contrition feel like something to avoid rather than embrace?
These are not triumphant ideas for entering the new year. I'm amused by the social media memes advocating that none of us make any great pronouncements about 2022. Maybe if we don't speak of it, it will just enter in quietly and leave us alone for awhile. Maybe this reflection is completely consistent with this premise---we can just quietly look to our own issues and problems and take care of what we see there.
My father often liked to sing "Let There Be Peace on Earth" at Christmastime (here's Vince Gill performing it: https://youtu.be/5AH_BMw5axU . No offense to Vince, but I think anyone who's heard my dad's delivery would agree that he knocked it out of the park!). The climax line says, "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me." Amen. And yet equating keeping the peace with keeping the status quo is exactly how churches permitted racism, sexual predation, and violence to enter its walls this year. The change and the peace has to begin with us, but not through the lens of our own perspective. The part of Isaiah 66 that ends on a triumphant note is the beautifully global section of verses 19-21. Locations from the most distant regions of the known world at that point are mentioned by name--these are to be God's new leaders and priests in the New Heavens and the New Earth. This is quite a shake-up of what our rather homogenous churches look like today. The image in Isaiah is a multi-ethnic celebration with people from far-flung locales, rather than the smug religiously observant still engaging in animal sacrifice and thinking they are pleasing God. In the imagery in verse 20, the people themselves are the offering to the Lord, like Paul says in Romans 12:1
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Let's ferret out this year where we are conforming to the pattern of this world and let ourselves be transformed by the renewing of our minds, as we join in the multicultural throng as living sacrifices. We are neither beating ourselves up as a dead sacrifice nor are we seeking our own triumphant experience. We contritely embrace our role as living sacrifices. I'll end with a prayer from the new, beautiful leather-bound NIV Bible that my daughter bought me for Christmas, which appears on the concluding page of Isaiah:
Almighty God, kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of peace, and guide with your wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth, that in tranquility your dominion may increase until the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love; through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.