12 September 2009

"Go and tell this People:" Thoughts on Isaiah 6

I was raised to see the Call of God as something majestic, phenomenal, awesome.

My dad was a pastor. He got no job offers in his line of work; he got "calls." And when the calls dried up, he didn't look for new preaching jobs; he simply moved on to a new profession. God had called; no, He had not. I never questioned it. I looked forward to a call of my own.

Throughout high school and into college, I searched scripture to find and to follow this certain Call. Sometimes I thought it looked like me teaching kids in a public school classroom. At other times, it looked like I was a missionary or an administrator. Whatever it was, it seemed glorious, impressive, noteworthy.

Looking back, it's pretty clear that I was reading the Bible with my eyes closed, filtering out the reality--the deeply serious and unpopular nature of any given Call of God.

Consider the call of Isaiah in the 6th chapter of his (their?) book. It's one of the coolest "calls" in the Bible. An angel takes a coal out of the fire, touches Isaiah's lips, and takes away his sin. A voice calls, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" (verses 7 & 8).

Isaiah answers, "Here am I, send me!" I can imagine him raising his hand like an eager student, wriggling in his desk and preceding his answer with the words, "Ooh, ooh, over here!"

Now that's a capital-c Call! How does it compare with other calls?
  • It's not quite as cool as the Call of Elisha, who is plowing a field when Elijah throws his cloak around his shoulders. Elisha immediately slaughters his oxen and burns them as an offering on the remains of the plow. Awesome!
  • It's better than the small voice in the darkness that awakens Samuel.
  • It tops David's return from the hills to be anointed with oil by that same Samuel.
  • Yes, it tops "follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" and "I saw you while you were under the fig tree," the calls that Christ made to his disciples.
  • I think it comes close the Call of Paul: a bright light from heaven and the words, "why are you persecuting me?"
  • (If you can think of others, leave them in the comments.)
But what comes after a call? That's something that isn't so glorious. For every miracle, a prophet faces hundreds of cases of rejection. For every vision, there are many nightmares.

For Isaiah--and for my country today--there are these words: "Go and tell this people: Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving" (verse 9).

Isn't this a politically correct way to say, "You're doomed!"

Isaiah is called, he has a ticket to the palace of Hezekiah, AND he gets to tell the king that he has it all wrong--that Judah doesn't "get it" anymore, and they won't "get it" ever again. It's over.

God continues:
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears, understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed (verse 10).
When I spotted this passage in church last weekend, it really hit me. It wasn't so much the "call of God" thing that did it--that was what Bishop Morris was speaking about--it was this warning. It struck me because the Call of God hit me at that moment, and it said, This is your country I'm talking about.

It hurt like a flaming coal. I love my country. I see it with red-white-and-blue-tinted lenses. The idea of words like "calloused" describing America is as surprising as dull ears and closed eyes. Surely this is some other country, Lord. Let it be Nazi Germany you're describing or some abominably socialized nation. I know that's the great hope of many Americans today, at least.

But it is my country. Consider the following issues if you don't believe me: income inequality, climate change, national defense, immigration and access to health care. These are the most important issues facing the world today--and issues about which far too many of my fellow citizens are calloused, deaf and blind.

Just look at the 9/11 anniversary and how quickly our nation closed its eyes to the causes of the real crime, slaking our vengeance with war and outrage. Eight years of war later, according to a TIME magazine poll last week, people don't feel safer, even though the tragedy could have been averted with some basic, inexpensive law enforcement cooperation.

A better illustration of these verses is climate change--a high priority around the world, except in the United States, where vast numbers of people believe it's a myth. Incontrovertible scientific evidence, you say? We keep our eyes firmly closed, thank you, with help from alternative scientific studies sponsored by oil and gas groups.

Or look at the Iraq War. Alarms were raised long before we blundered into that trillion-dollar quagmire. Intelligence had been fixed, we heard, there were no WMDs, no reasons to invade and occupy that country. Our ears were dull. Look what happened.

It almost makes me believe two new things about my country: Americans will believe any lie as long as it leads to destruction elsewhere, and Americans will believe any lie as long as it sustains suffering here.

Look at the same approaches popping up in current debates about health care, stimulus and debt. Americans don't see with our eyes anymore; we don't listen with our ears; we do not understand with our hearts...no, understanding is what is most lacking.

I guess that's the redeeming factor here, if any. It's not that Americans are bad or amoral. Maybe we're just cursed. Maybe God is looking down and saying, "I've given you unprecedented prosperity and security, and what have you done with it? I see billion-dollar football stadiums, skies full of airplanes jetting to and fro, and roads filled with cabin-sized cars. But I also see terrible suffering and incomprehensible waste. Your time is up."

"For how long, O Lord?" I ask in reply (Isaiah 6.11)

He answers:
Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged,
until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken (11-12)
Is this what the capital-c Call of God is like? Is this what it takes to be a prophet? Don't tell Isaiah, but the prudent answer might be, "Send someone else."

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