The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
-From Isaiah 11
For the last two weeks, as we’re telling the whole story of the Bible, we’ve been focusing on the Northern Tribes of Israel. We’ve focused on two prophets sent to Israel: Elijah and Hosea:
– Elijah was pitted against the evil King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, in a fight for the people’s hearts, and then had to hear the voice of God for himself in the still small voice on the mountainside.
– Hosea reminded us that all of this, from beginning to end, is a love story- the story of a God for whom anger is always overruled by love- who can not offer judgment without also offering the hope of restoration.
If you’re familiar with how the Old Testament goes, though, then you know how that part of the bigger story ends. In 722 BC, Sargon II and the Assyrian army defeated the kingdom of Israel and deported its citizens, and as a country they were no more. That’s the end of their story.
This Sunday and next, we’ll be backtracking a bit to tell the story of the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem is. I’m going to give you a quick refresher, here, to reorient you to the particulars of the story- but keep in mind, as we go through this, that it’s not just another story about kings and prophets from long ago. These stories can speak as strongly to citizens of the Information Age as they did to citizens of the Iron Age.
Technology changes, but the ways of the human heart are timeless.
So. You remember Saul, the first king of Hebrew people. He wasn’t very good at being a king, for all sorts of reasons, and when he died the kingdom passed to a charismatic shepherd and warrior named David. David was also, to be honest, not terribly good at being a king- but when he messed things up, he came back to God and asked for forgiveness, which was a big enough deal that God promised that a descendant of David would always being on the throne in Jerusalem.
David died, and his son Solomon inherited the kingdom. Solomon was extraordinary in two areas – wisdom and wife-gathering – and his second talent led to the questioning of his first and the loss of his kingdom. He married the daughters of powerful neighbors, cementing both political alliances and the eventual move of his own heart toward the gods that his wives brought with them.
Solomon died, and most of the kingdom rebelled. The northern tribes broke away to become the nation of Israel, leaving Solomon’s son Rehoboam with only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin that were close to the capital city of Jerusalem.
When Rehoboam died, the kingdom passed to his son, and to his son, and so on. While the Northern Kingdom of Israel went through regime change after regime change, every king that sat on the throne of Judah was a direct descendent of David, just as God had promised.
That doesn’t mean that they were great, though! Being better than terrible doesn’t make you good.
Isaiah was one of the most famous of the prophets sent to the nation of Judah to try to draw their hearts back toward God, to try to convince the people to be grateful toward their Creator and kind toward one another. Of all the prophetic books in the Old Testament, this is the one that’s quoted most often by the writers of the New Testament.
Isaiah had a lot to say to his contemporaries, and lot to say to the people of Jesus’ time, and a lot to say to us, too.
Here’s a piece of his story. Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.
That’ll get your attention, even before they’ve said a word.
One seraphim called out to another and said,
“Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts,
The whole earth is full of His glory.”
The sound of the seraphim’s singing along caused the temple to lurch on its foundation. Isaiah, as the temple was filling with smoke, said,
“Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
and I live among a people of unclean lips,
for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to Isaiah, holding a burning coal taken from the temple altar. He touched Isaiah’s mouth with the coal, saying “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.”
You remember, back in Exodus, when God called Moses to go take a message of hope and liberation to the Hebrew people, and then they proceed to spend the next eleventy billion pages fighting about whether or not Moses is going to do what he’s told? God seems to be getting more efficient about this.
Worried about your lips? Here, let me have my flying buddy grab this coal and burn them. Okay? Worried about anything else? Great. Let’s go.
It works! God says, Whom shall I send, and Isaiah says, Here am I, Lord. Send me! and that’s that. No arguments.
But really, though, why the thing with the lips?
I think this question matters because Isaiah isn’t the only one living in a time when it feels like the foundations are shaking. Isaiah, over the course of his career as a prophet, had to figure out over and over what to say when the room was filling up with smoke.
Which is to say: I think we have a lot to learn, from Isaiah.
So, look: Isaiah was called to say an awful lot of difficult things to people that he really cared about, to his country that he loved. He had to call out everyone from powerful and corrupt kings to average Joes and Janes taking advantage of one another. These aren’t the kinds of words you share, when you want to make a lot of friends.
But for every judgment that Isaiah proclaimed, he also offered hope upon hope upon hope. It’s in this book that we get the famous lines that we pull out around Christmastime: The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine upon them.
He tells us about a coming king whose rule will be like streams of water in a dry country, like the shade of a huge rock in a parched land. He says that God’s deliverance is coming, and when it gets here, then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy.
Isaiah uses words of judgment, when he needs to. Judgment gets a bad wrap, but it’s a necessary part of life. Say you go to the doctor and your cholesterol is high. You need someone to judge those numbers and tell you what to do about it, right? That judgment isn’t the end, though- if you come back in three months and you’ve taken your meds and stopped adding bacon to your breakfast smoothies, maybe the doctor’s judgment will change.
Likewise, Isaiah’s words of judgment are important, but they’re not the end of the story. His words about hope, on the other hand, are absolutely uncompromising.
Have you read George Orwell’s 1984? I stole this idea from someone and can’t remember who, so apologies if you’ve heard it before. You’ve got Winston Smith, though, the protagonist who harbors dreams of rebelling against the totalitarian empire, and his lover, Julia. Then there’s O’Brien, Winston’s ticket into the revolutionary Brotherhood who turns out to have been working for Big Brother all along.
O’Brien, in a later conversation once the secret is out and Winston and Julia have been arrested, offers this bleak picture of the future of humanity: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
The prophet is the one who hears those words and says, “No, not forever.” The prophet is the one who insists that this is not how the story ends.
The prophet is the one who stands and reminds the people that it’s possible to live, as George Fox did, “in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.” The prophet is the one who reminds us that there is a better way of being.
And, just to be clear: when I say prophet, I mean you.
So, let me go back to Isaiah’s story. The seraphim flies toward him with a burning coal in his hand, plucked off the altar. Isaiah has lamented that his lips are unclean, and the seraphim fixes that problem with one neat singe.
The point here isn’t that Isaiah is horribly burned, even though obviously that’s what you’d expect. Isaiah talks just fine, though, ten or so lines down- he hasn’t been maimed by the coal.
But look. The coal is taken from the altar, on which sacrifices were made to God, through which people gained access to God’s saving grace. Isaiah is frozen in this vision amid the glory and the angels and the smoke, seeing God on the throne and unable to do anything but be aware of his own failings, so the seraphim brings the grace of the altar to him.
Isaiah is concerned about his lips being unclean. Very well- the seraphim allows Isaiah to offer his lips on the altar by bringing him a coal from the altar of God.
That’s why, when God says Whom shall I send, Isaiah says Send me! Who could say that, without their lips being given over to God?
So. The prophet Isaiah offers up his lips to the Lord Almighty, and what he’s given to say through his sanctified lips is that the tree of Jesse, king David’s father, is going to bear fruit. A shoot will spring up, and the Spirit of the Lord will rest on it.
Isaiah tells us, through these sanctified lips, that the poor are going to be treated fairly, and that the wild predators are all going to go vegetarian and eat straw like domesticated farm animals. How wild is that vision?
And tell me, you prophets, how wild is your vision?
I’ve heard folks say that it doesn’t make sense to expect this world to become a peaceful place. Maybe that’s true. You know what else doesn’t make sense, though? Expecting that a lion will eat straw like an ox, or that a little child will lead a lion around on a leash.
That’s why it’s called hope, Friends, rather than certainty. We feel safer when we stick with the paths that we already know, the rut that’s well worn, even when we know it’s not path to which we’re being called. We can’t get out of that rut, though, until we can dare to hope for something better.
That hope- that’s what Isaiah calls us toward. And, if we’re to be like Isaiah, hope is what we’re called to speak.
The world needs you to prophesy, Friends. You remember, I hope, that to prophesy isn’t to tell the future like a fortune teller, but rather to accurately tell the present as part of God’s story. The world needs that story. The world needs you to place your lips on the altar and speak words of necessary judgment and uncompromising hope.
Because we believe in a mountain on which no one will hurt or destroy! We believe in a place where all children will play in safety! We believe in a world where bear cubs and calves just learning to walk will play together!
Friends, I don’t want to downplay the deepness of the darkness that surrounds us. It gathers in deep purple clouds around the globe, in waves of terrorist attacks. The storms rage in our nation, in our state, in our own community. Many of us, in our own families, see despair trying to paint its story in black.
Times are dark. They’ve been dark before. Even so, the shoots still rise from the stumps. Even so, the light still shines in the darkness, the light that cannot be overcome.
So this is the challenge for you, Friends and prophets: in the darkness that you see in this world, in this community, in your own life, how can you speak words of hope? How can you let your lips be redeemed for God’s work? How can you speak of the wild and uncompromising hope that the light of Christ brings us?