Angry Isaiah or, "Bad Prophet/Good Prophet"
To sum up today's readings:
Isaiah: "You all are bad, God is good...those don't mix. There is wrath coming."
Psalm: "Don't look at me, I'm the good one!"
I Thessalonians: "Boy, your proverbial grass sure is green!"
Last Lent, our church used a DVD/discussion series that explored the writings of the Hebrew prophets. Led by Walter Bruggeman, one of the world's finest living Hebrew Testament scholars, we learned about the role and nature of prophecy, and its importance to the national and cultural existence of Israel and Judah. One notion Bruggeman sought to impress upon us was to see the prophetic voice not so much as a sign of things that will come to pass sometime off in the future, a sort of Nostradums-like casting into the future; but rather, the true prophetic voice speaks directly to the hear and now of the common life of the people of God. Isaiah kicks us off in grand fashion, with an expulsive rant against the pervasive depravity of everyday in the world about him. What is coming? Soon? God. Pure and simple...in response to the iniquity and inequity being perpetrated at every level of society, God is going to set things right. No pretty prayers, no beautiful liturgy, no surface act will amend and fix the imbalance in life's equation. God's justice is coming, and that right soon!
Like many Christians, I am usually not ready to hear such fire and brimstone from Isaiah. Formed as we are by Handel's Messiah and countless poems and hymns penned by the gentle hands of our forebears, we assume Isaiah's later messages of consolation and hope, of restoration and return are his true voice. It isn't often we get his "here it is with both barrels" harangues in the weekly lection, and even more seldom in our hymnody.
The harsh poetry of the prophets should make us squirm, even today. The same injustice, the same disingenuous postures Isaiah describes "in those days" are present today. Religious and political leaders, and the general population, continue to fall short of the mindful practice of justice and faith the God has called us to, over and over again, throughout every human age. We don't even need to think about it...and we sleep and pray just fine, even when injustice rages around us. The prophets aren't there for anything less than to draw that muck up from where we have hidden it away, covered with our own conceits, so that it is exhibited for all to see. That way, when God shows up, we won't have any excuses..."when did we see you poor, or sick, or naked, or in prison?" Isaiah's first words to us set the stage: no one is innocent, and even the pious are under judgment. Not even pretty liturgy and large offerings are going to fix this one, folks.
How pale then, does Psalm 26 come off sounding? "It's not me," says the Psalmist, "It's them!" All well and good, but in light of Isaiah's rant, I don't think anyone is getting out of this able to claim that their hands are clean.
Well, maybe...according to Paul, the Thessalonians seem to have a handle on things. They are able to hold on to not only the tenets of the faith; it seems that they also are able to keep the practice in a goodly fashion. Reflecting on the laudatory tone Paul takes, particularly when he recounts the good news of the community that Timothy has been able to convey, we are getting a dose of what can go right when people of faith actually practice what they preach. Setting aside the "but I'm the good one" reflex and absorbing the sobering dressing down Isaiah hits us with in his offering, can our response be any less? The call to correct our attitudes and our practices is before us, along with a view to what will occur if we fail to pursue justice as ardently as we seem to pursue self-justification. What will be our response? How many more prophets will it take?
According to the Biblical record...at least a dozen more that we know of...that we know of....and we are still in the early days of the 8th century, BCE. This journey isn't even just getting started.