Hearing Isaiah

Dan Johnson

I did something last Sunday I had never done before in all my 40 years of ministry. For my sermon I put on my “prophetic” robes and did a dramatic character presentation of the prophet Isaiah, beard, mantle, and all. Why I waited so long, I don’t know, because I have spent a good chunk of my life with this noble messenger of God.

My PhD dissertation at Princeton was on the “Little Apocalypse” of Isa 24-27, where I sought to identify the unknown city, and in the process discovered two wonderful phrases: mesos ha’aretz (“joy of  the earth”) and beqerev ha’aretz (“center of the earth”), both descriptive of Jerusalem, and indicative of the Hebrew people’s view of this holy city. I also for two summers was privileged to participate as “recording secretary” for Bruce Metzger’s team working on the NRSV, and part of our task was Isa 28-35. In preparation for that task, my major professor, J.J.M. Roberts had me and his other graduate students translate those chapters. We worked with the Syriac, LXX, other ancient mss., and mostly with the Dead Sea Scrolls. What an amazing experience to read those scrolls and witness firsthand the care that was taken by the ancient scribes in transcribing the Scriptures. When friends and acquaintances say things that suggest the unreliability of the Scriptures, I happily point out that the correspondence between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the eighth century masoretic scrolls that we have is strikingly close. On a recent trip to Israel, while at Masada, we saw again this ancient art being carried out, this time by a modern day scribe who was copying the Hebrew Bible, again, with extraordinary care. I’m also happy to report that a few of my translations made it into the NRSV.

One of the things I noticed this time in Isaiah, after these many years of ministry, is the truth of something Isaiah said, or rather, that God said to Isaiah, whose meaning in my younger years only eluded me and gave me great pause as to why God would say such a thing. I’m referring to Isaiah’s call in ch. 6, and more specifically to God’s response to Isaiah’s willingness to go. God says, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing but never understanding; be ever
seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused, make their ears dull and close their eyes” (vv. 9-10). How strange, I used to think, and yet, when I look out on our world, and bring the bright light of history to bear, it seems clear to me that so many “hear but don’t understand, see, but don’t perceive, due to the callousness of their hearts.” Our penchant for going to war, our acceptance of the gulf between the rich and the poor, our comfort with inequities and injustices.

On our way to our visit this summer with our daughter and her family in Blacksburg, VA, we stopped for a visit in Charleston, SC. What a magnificent city, and yet, one can’t help but be struck by the odd juxtaposition of grand churches built during and alongside the horrific slave trading places of this community. Except for a few exceptions, there seemed to be no disconnect for these Christians. It all seems so obvious to us now, but it does cause me to wonder: What will they say about our “blindnesses” 50 years from now!

I ended by sermon soliloquy by quoting Isa 61: “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion” (vv. 1-3). And then I took off my prophet’s mantle and placed it on the processional cross in our chancel area, as a sign of my placing this mantle on Jesus (or Jesus taking it on himself in his inaugural sermon in Luke 4:18-19), and of Jesus’ ministry to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the prisoners. Then I held out the mantle, sweeping it across one section, then another, of the congregation asking, “Will you take up this mantle?” And thus I ended.

And while this blog isn’t a sermon, it is, nevertheless, a good question for all of us, isn’t it?

Posted Jul 28, 2014

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