In the 8th century BCE, a young man named Isaiah was living in Jerusalem. He lived during the reign of four different kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. These were not the glory days of the kingdom of Israel. These were not the days of the triumphs of David, or the wisdom of Solomon. By this time, that once great kingdom had divided into two, the kingdom of Israel in the north, and in the south, the kingdom of Judah, home to Jerusalem. Each had its own king, and conflicts had arisen between them, weakening both kingdoms. In the meantime, the Assyrian Empire was on the rise, growing dramatically to the East. For the kings of Judah, the big political question was one of loyalties. Would they realign themselves with their fellow Israelites to the north; would they put their faith in the God of Moses? Or would they continue their petty struggle for local power, and bargain with the Assyrians against their sisters and brothers.
The kings chose the Assyrians, for they had succumbed to an age of greed. There was little principled leadership left in the kingdom, and the people in power chose to selfishly preserve what little they had rather than act together for the common good. Many of the common people followed one or another of these inferior leaders, feeling as if they had no choice.
It was in these times that the young man Isaiah had a dream. For some strange reason, God put it on his heart that there was a different way to go, that in the midst of the culture that was crumbling around him, a person of faith and hope could still find something to live for. But the message of the dream was hard; it suggested that when he spoke, most people would not listen, and that dark days were ahead.
Take a closer look with me at the language of this story, as it comes to us in Isaiah 6. If you’re familiar with the hymn and youth group song, Here I am, Lord, this is where it comes from. “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart…” The words and the song are beautiful; it’s a story about hearing God’s call and following the voice of God. But as the historical background suggests, this was not an easy time to follow God’s call, and the verses that come next bring home the point:
9 And [the Lord] said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’
11 Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 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.’[c]
The holy seed is its stump.” (Isaiah 6:9-13)
These words do not suggest that Isaiah can go before the king or the people, preach a few nice sermons, and expect to fix things. Quite to the contrary, the dream suggests that things are about to fall apart…that things will be broken…for a long time. Because of this, Isaiah should commit himself to God, and encourage any who will listen to deepen their commitments to God, because the strength of God is what it will take to weather the storm that was coming.
And the storm came indeed. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians, and the Southern Kingdom was weakened considerably, and after the Assyrians fell away, the Babylonians would take their place—they completed the work of destroying the southern kingdom and its capital at Jerusalem, ushering in the darkest of times in the history of Israel.
Some people see echoes of this story going on around us today. Some see it all around in western culture. It’s hard not to see it in the church. The church in the west is experiencing a time of dramatic decline—I’ve spoken about this many times. Plenty of observers, liberals and conservatives each in their own way, have cited the ways in which the church has forgotten its way and lost its soul and is bound to decline further before rebirth can begin. It is as if, like an addict, there needs to be an experience of hitting bottom in order for new life to begin.
The core message of this troubling passage is actually one of new life. The final verse of the text speaks of a holy seed being planted in the days when Isaiah heard the call. There will be destruction, yes, the people will be dispersed, their homes will be lost and fields will be burned. This is what it would have looked like to be a conquered people. But the harsh words go on to say that the burning, the destruction, is the harrowing, the breaking up of soil that will be needed in order for that holy seed to take root and grow again. Again, to explain some of this harsh language with the analogy of addiction: what a blessing it is when a person is finally able to recognize and name their need for help, and to begin to turn their life around. Taking that step requires strength from beyond oneself. When a higher power is finally called upon, new life can come. The change does not happen overnight, but the seed is finally planted in ground where it can grow.
It is important to remember that the core message in this passage is new life and hope. It is also important to remember that this is only chapter 6 of one of the longest books in the Bible. Isaiah is 66 chapters long, it is the product of not one but at least 3 prophets and it spans 300 years of history in the land of Israel. The Book of Isaiah will see the first kingdoms destroyed and the people sent into exile, but they will also witness God’s mercy and care for the faithful in the midst of their darkest time, and they will see the return of the people to their home, and hear of the hopes God has for their future. As you turn the pages of the Book of Isaiah, many more familiar words and phrases come. We will hear words like: “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9) We will hear Isaiah cry, “Comfort, O Comfort my people… In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…” (Isa. 40) We will hear that “the mountains and the hills shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands…” (Isa. 55) “I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, but the serpent, it’s food shall be dust. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord…” (Isa. 65)
A message of hope is on the way, but what now, what has to happen first? What are faithful people to do in times where we perceive the threats of misplaced loyalties, crumbling of leadership, and only shallow spirituality? One example comes from another important time in history when the church was in an age of collapse.
I wonder how many of you know what the church looked like during the Roman Empire? In the time of Jesus’ ministry and the first couple of centuries after, the Roman Empire was largely hostile and oppressive to the church. But then, the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. The Empire was already weakening by that time, and almost immediately after Constantine, the real collapse began. The Empire split, with an Eastern capital in Constantinople, battles and lands were lost, and the Visigoths sacked Rome. There are echoes here of Israel and the Assyrians. There are also echoes today. The relationship between Christianity empire never yields much good for followers of Jesus; it mostly just introduces opportunities for corruption, and the church loses much of its vigor when in the quest for power.
But it is during this time of decline that the monastic movement is born. In the sixth century, a man named Benedict from the Italian town of Nursia gathers some of his friends and goes as far as he can to get away from the influence of the Empire. They start a Christian community dedicated to a life of prayer, service, community and education. It’s a monastery, and for almost 1,000 years, much of the sustaining faith in Jesus was preserved in these small communities apart from the kings and popes and the trappings of wealth and power.
Often the life of the monastery is portrayed in ways that are mostly legalistic and joyless, but people who have studied these communities know that is far from the truth. These were regular people, living in desperate times, and they found something to live for in community with one another. The records we have of their life together show that they worshipped and sang together and knew how to share what they had; they raised crops, and brewed beer, and showed generous hospitality to strangers. In those times, life was precarious in ways we can hardly imagine, but in the face of it, they knew their lives belonged to God and that come what may they were on their way to meet their Redeemer. They were not clinging tightly to things of the world that would never save them; they were being held by a God who could. It wouldn’t be a bad way to live.
Christian life can still be sculpted by these values. We can work harder to return to the core identity of our faith and place our trust in God. We can live generously, refusing to hold our possessions too tightly. We can serve the church by serving Christ and others, rather than by simply preserving an institution. We can pay close attention to what we are teaching our children about Jesus. We can show hospitality to our neighbors. And we can live joyfully together, singing and praying, eating and drinking together, learning God’s stories and loving one another. If these things are our priorities, we are living the Gospel.
Many of us may feel like Isaiah felt in chapter 6. Surrounded by a sometimes threatening, frightening, and alienating secular world, we see ourselves as too caught up in its trappings. In Isaiah’s words, we are people of unclean lips, not holy enough to carry the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world. But perhaps instead of worrying so much about our own inadequacies or the shortcomings of the world around us, we can be inspired, as Benedict was, to gather with a group of fellow believers and do the best we can to remember what matters about Jesus, and to live a life shaped by those things.
If it seems as if this task is too great and we are not enough, perhaps this will help: One member of a modern Christian community says it this way: “In Italy, we have a saying: ‘When there is no horse, a donkey can do good work.’ I consider myself a little donkey, he said. “There are so many purebred horses that run nowhere, but this old donkey is getting the job done. You and me, let’s go on doing this job like little donkeys. Don’t forget, it was a donkey that brought Jesus Christ to Jerusalem.” (from Dreher, The Benedict Option, 241)
We cannot do it on our own, and the beginnings might sometimes seem frightening, but God has promised to be faithful if we will only allow ourselves to be swept up in the story of Jesus. We can be holy seeds ready to grow in the love of God, and we can say, with a hopeful heart, the words of Isaiah: “Here I am. Send me.” Amen.