“Not Safe, But Good”
Do you ever find yourself reading the news, or listening to the news, or watching the news, and wanting to put your fingers in your ears, close your eyes, and declare “La, la, la, la, la – I can’t hear you! It’s not happening!” I so often find myself wanting to hide from the headlines. I do not want to deal with the world as it is; I want to imagine that the tides of populism sweeping the world are blips on the radar; I do not want to imagine what my future could be on a warming planet, surrounded by warming oceans.
How do we live faithfully into a time of uncertainty? This is the question faced by Isaiah’s people. It’s not enough to say that it’s all going to be okay: it frequently isn’t. It’s not enough for me to tell you: “Just have faith,” because the faithful suffer too. But we are not the first to be afraid of a chaotic world and uncertain future: The ancient Israelites and Judahites faced the same question many times.
The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were small bit players on the international stage: Israel was in the north and Judah in the south. They had been one kingdom for about eighty years, but after Solomon’s death they split into two kingdoms with two capitals. They were sandwiched between powerhouses: to the west was Egypt; and to the east were various kingdoms over the centuries: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians. When these neighbours were relatively weak and internally preoccupied, Israel and Judah could thrive. But when these kingdoms were strong enough to look outward, then the kingdoms of God’s people had very hard choices to make – and they often made the wrong ones.
In the passage from Isaiah we heard, King Uzziah of Israel has just died. This happened in about the year 740 BCE. He had reigned for 52 years, and his reign was a time of relative peace and prosperity. But with his death, uncertainty was now the name of the game, and the Assyrian kingdom to the east was on the rise.
Eighteen years later, in the year 722 BCE, the Assyrian army captured Israel’s capital of Samaria, burned it to the ground, and carried the inhabitants off into exile and slavery. Israelite refugees poured into the southern kingdom of Judah, and the kingdom of Israel ceased to exist.
For them, unlike Jerusalem two hundred years later, there would be no return from exile, no rebuilding. The kingdom of Judah escaped the same fate mostly because they were less wealthy and less desirable, and so were let off with just paying tribute to Assyria.
But in those eighteen years between the death of King Uzziah and the destruction of Samaria, the Israelites knew what was coming. The Assyrian army was marching through the ancient Near East, conquering minor kingdoms in the spring and summer, then settling down for the winter before venturing out further again the next spring. So Israel and Samaria had eighteen years of fear and dread, eighteen years in which Isaiah proclaimed to them that a mighty judgement was coming, because, the explanation went, God was fed up with their vain ritualism and hypocrisy.
I have a lot of trouble with this image of an angry God unleashing devastation upon His own covenanted people. It is an image of God that gets used a lot still today, and causes enormous harm. It is a limited, incomplete, and erroneous understanding of God. But this erroneous image of God has its roots in books like Isaiah, in which God punishes Her people.
I’m going to interrupt myself for a moment here: Christians often characterize the God of the Old Testament as harsh, wrathful, and punitive, while the God of the New Testament through Jesus is kind and loving. This is wrong, but also dangerous. It is wrong because God is described many, many times as loving, compassionate and faithful in the Old Testament, while there is plenty of harsh punishment in Matthew’s Gospel. It is dangerous because this idea is an innocuous root of anti-Semitism: it demonizes the God of the Hebrew teachings and so leads to demonization of Jews. That’s why it’s really, really important that we not make that mistake
End of interruption: back to the sermon and the erroneous understanding of an angry God.
Yes, God does get angry, but God is never onlyangry. The Book of Isaiah speaks of God’s anger and judgement, but also of God’s love and compassion, and that love and compassion always win out. When Samaria fell, its survivors asked the question we still ask today: “Where was God when my world ended?” And just like today, they struggled with their understanding of God.
One explanation they used was that God used the Assyrian empire to punish God’s people for failing to observe the ways of God, for failing to care for the poor, the foreigner, the widow and the orphan. But just because that explanation worked for them does not mean it is an explanation that endures.
Being in relationship with God is a dynamic process, not a static one. The job of a prophet is to challenge their people to rethink their understanding of God – not because new is better, but because we are changing, and our world changes, and because God is so much more than we can ever understand. God is complex and multi-faceted: the Book of Isaiah uses several contrasting images for God: a mother, a father, a midwife, a lion, a bird, a vinedresser, a potter.
We cannot hold all of God, and these particular readings today address a certain aspect of God: God is holy, and that holiness is an otherness. The God of these passages is neither comfortable nor tame: God is mighty and powerful, strong and terrible. To be in the presence of God, as Isaiah is in his dream, is to shake with fear, and given the vision described, fear is an appropriate response.
The seraphim, these otherworldly beings, are multiwinged and burning: “seraph” means burning one. Their mighty voices cause the temple to shake, proclaiming God’s glory. God is so huge that the temple is filled with just the hem of His robe. Being this close to God is like being close to a downed powerline: it means you no harm, but it is very powerful and lethal if you get too close.
But although this God and the God reigning over the thunderstorm are awe-inspiring and terrifying in their power, God is always trustworthy. God always returns to us, because God is faithful. The prophet Hosea uses the image of God as a she-bear defending her cubs, and we know how dangerous it is to get between a mama bear and her cubs.
It is God’s presence that enables us to face the chaos and fear of a turbulent world, and I always have to remind myself: the reported news is not the only news. Fear is often manufactured.
That said, the witness of the Bible is that there will always be reason to fear. But it does not, in the words of Frederick J. Gaiser, tame the terror of the world. Instead, the witness of the Bible is that God is with us through the terror and the chaos.
In Psalm 29, God is described in a thunderstorm. God is not the thunderstorm itself, but within it. It is a manifestation of God’s awesome power and majesty. In this scene of tremendous force, God is described as sitting enthroned over it. God might not control it, but God’s presence within it and over it allows peace within the storm.
God loves this world, and so I don’t get to give up on it. But I always have to remind myself that it is not all up to us. We are not called to be in control of the storm. It is God whose mighty voice shakes the cedars of Lebanon and the mountains of Syria. It is God who sits atop the chaos; we are not left alone in it.
My friends, in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
Gaiser, Frederick J. “Not Safe, but Good: Preaching a Holy God in a Time of Terror.” Word & World, Spring 2015, 35, no. 2, 186-93.