Nationalism and religious conceit grow naturally in our hearts. One of the central themes of the Bible prophets was a vigorous challenge to both. We would do well to hear their challenge in our super-charged partisan world.
A couple of weeks ago, Karin was at work. Her protege, a high school student, was out back taking care of barn chores. It was time for me to head to the church so I called the dogs and went to find Raena to tell her I was leaving and to make sure the dogs knew they weren’t being left home alone.
She made way over to the dogs while I headed to my car. I closed the gate behind me, headed down the street, and turned onto the main road. A couple hundred yards down the road I noticed the cars coming toward me braking sharply. I glanced in the mirror and saw cars swerving and slowing and what looked like a dog racing up the street toward me. It took a second before it dawned on me.
My dog was chasing me to Seattle.
I pulled over, holding my breath, hoping she wouldn’t get hit. I got out and opened the back door about the time she caught up with me. She hopped in the car. I drove her back home and shut her in the house, shaking my head. Crazy dog! Trying to get herself killed.
But, of course, it’s precisely this craziness that enabled her to worm herself into my heart and become my dog in spite of my best efforts to resist getting attached. Everywhere I go, she wants to go. If I’m sitting in the kitchen, she’s at my feet. If I go upstairs to take a shower, she’s lying outside the door when I come out. If I go to my workshop in the garage, she supervises. When we are hiking in the mountains, I leave her off leash and never worry about where she is. She is never far away.
The worst dog we ever had was a Sheltie. Everyone loved her. Except for me. What was not to love? She was sweet and pretty. She was the prettiest Sheltie I’ve ever seen. And I’m admitting that even though I did not like her!
When she died and the kids required me to perform a funeral, all of my tears were crocodile tears. I was not sorry to be rid of that dog!
Why? Why would I not like a sweet, cute, adorable, beautiful, friendly dog?
Because she would run off. She would get out of the yard and go searching for kids to play with and never come back. It appeared to me she loved everyone equally. She loved the new house just as much as our house. The greatest strain on our marriage in those years was this dog. Especially, if she got out because I forgot to close the gate.
There are many attributes of a good dog, but for me the number one, indispensable trait of a good dog is this: the dog comes home!
So Rexie is a good dog. She comes home. That is, she does her best to stay with me, even if that means chasing me all the way to Seattle!
In our Old Testament reading this morning, the prophet uses a similar animal analogy as the foundation of his argument.
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth.
For the LORD has spoken,
I have nourished and reared children, and they have rebelled against me.
How can this be? The prophet wonders.
An ox knows his owner. A donkey comes home to his master’s feed box,
but my people Israel—they are oblivious. They are astonishingly unaware.
You feed a cow and after awhile it recognizes you. If my daughters cows are hungry, all I have to do is drive up to the gate and they all start heading toward me. I look like food to them. My wife feeds her horses grain every evening. So now, if they are out in the pasture, toward the end of the day, all she has to do is open the gate. They will run from the pasture to their own stalls. They know she will give them a treat.
Through the prophet, God laments: I gave birth to you. I fed you. Why have you forgotten me? Why do you ignore me? Don’t you know what’s good for you? Can’t you be at least as loyal as a cow or horse . . . or, if the prophet were writing in our day . . . can’t you be as loyal as a good dog?
Things were going badly for the nation at the time the prophet was speaking. The Jewish people were being battered by attacks by Assyria and other nations. The prophet insisted these misfortunes came as a result of the wicked of the nation.
Do you really want more beatings?
Why do you keep on rebelling?
The whole head is hurt,
The whole head is hurt,
and the whole heart is sick.
You are battered from head to foot—
covered with bruises, welts, and infected wounds—
without any soothing ointments or bandages.
Your country lies in ruins,
and your towns are burned.
Foreigners plunder your fields before your eyes
and destroy everything they see.
Beautiful Jerusalem stands abandoned
like a watchman’s shelter in a vineyard,
like a lean-to in a cucumber field after the harvest,
like a helpless city under siege.
Unless the LORD of hosts
Had left to us a very small remnant,
We would have become like Sodom,
We would have been made like Gomorrah.
If we reduce this poetry to simple prose, it would go something like this. You are the children of God. As children of God you can expect to enjoy the bounty of God. But you are misbehaving. You are acting like the children of a different family. You are cutting yourself off from the family treasure. Your very life is a gift of God. And even the meager blessings that keep you barely alive are gifts from God. Can’t you see this? God wants to give you full access to the wealth of the family but that access only comes to those who embrace the character, the culture, the lifestyle of the heavenly Father.
The prophets confront us over and over with this call: Remember who you are. The apple is not supposed to fall far from the tree. We demonstrate our family connection by living out the family values. And those values flow from the character, the essential identity of the divine Father and Mother.
When we act like jerks, we are distancing ourselves from our identity in God. God is not a jerk.
One of my kids insisted I watch a segment of the Daily Show a couple of weeks ago. Trevor Noah was interviewing former NSA and CIA Director, Michael Hayden. They were talking about lethal drone strikes. Hayden explained that Americans are always very careful to minimize civilian casualties. They go to great lengths to spare non-combatants.
This is the American way. We congratulate ourselves that we are not like other people. We are morally superior. We are virtuous.
But then Hayden went on to describe an incident. There was a really bad guy. He was sleeping outside. They could send a drone to kill him, but he was not sleeping alone. His grandson was with him. They decided to shoot anyway. They killed the bad guy . . . and the grandson.
Trevor pressed Hayden. “So when Middle Easterners kill innocent people, it’s terrorism. When we kill innocent people, it is collateral damage?” The audience—probably most young people—reacted, clearly agreeing with the thrust of Noah’s question.
One characteristic of young people is their ruthless critique of adult inconsistency and hypocrisy. We have become comfortable with the accommodations we have made with “reality.” Sometimes you just go with the lesser of two evils. Sometimes you just have to go with the system. That’s just the way things are. Then a teenager looks at what we are doing and says, “Whoa! How come?”
We need to hear those challenges.
I posted a brief description of today’s sermon on Facebook. One of my friends responded by insisting that America is the most righteous, the most generous nation ever. We are good. We are the best. If I were not preaching from the book of Isaiah, I would probably have agreed with her. I am constantly meeting good, generous people. I’m not a doomsayer. I work to avoid scolding and condemning.
But today, we are looking at the words of the prophet Isaiah. And the prophet issues a stern challenge:
Isaiah calls his own nation, the nation of Judah with its capital, Jerusalem, Sodom and Gomorrah. This would be like calling the United States North Korea or ISIS. In the Bible, Sodom and Gomorrah epitomize evil. They are the evil cities. They are the capitals of iniquity. They were so bad God blasted them into oblivion. Jerusalem imagines itself as the capital of righteousness. The Jewish nation was God’s nation.
Here in chapter one, Isaiah points the finger at the ruling elite of the Jewish people and calls them Sodomites. This is pretty racy language. This is inflammatory. It is the word of the prophet.
It is my job as a preacher to bring those ancient words into our world. Americans imagine ourselves as a special nation. We are the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the history of the world. Surely, this means we are God’s favorites. Referring to Isaiah, I challenge our moral self-confidence. We, too, are susceptible to being Sodom and Gomorrah.
Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. Your New Moons and annual convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. NLT: I want no more of your pious meetings. When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen.
Do you hear what the prophet is saying? He says to the Jewish people—the people of God, the people who are the central figures all through the Bible, the people whose religion could be traced back to the direct word of God from Mt. Sinai—the prophet says to these people: Your religion is worthless. In fact, your religion annoys God, offends God. God wishes you would just quit!
Wow! That’s pretty strong.
What was it that so annoyed God?
Many conservative Christians immediately imagine the prophet is making a sexual reference. After all, he mentions Sodom. And we all know about the sin of Sodom. But if that is where our minds go, we will completely misunderstand the prophet.
Isaiah is crystal clear. When he calls Israel, Sodom, he is talking about Israel’s disregard of justice and mercy.
Your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims.
Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves.
Remove your evil deeds from My sight.
Stop doing evil.
Learn to do good;
What is that good? What needs to change?
Defend the oppressed.
Go to court for the fatherless,
Plead for the widow.
This is the key to coming again into the richness of the family of God. This is the kind of behavior that shows we know our way to the Father’s house. This kind of activism demonstrates that we really are children of God. This is the authentic expression of the values of the kingdom of heaven.
Next comes the beautiful passage about forgiveness.
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.
God orders us to be merciful. To be generous rather than merely correct, to be gracious rather than exacting. We are ordered to act in these ways because this is the authentic expression of the family values of heaven. God says to Israel, You have screwed up. You have failed to be generous to the poor. You have failed to provide adequate legal defense for the defenseless. You have been willing to incarcerate people who cannot defend themselves. You have been damnably severe and “correct.” But I will forgive you. I have no interest in vengeance against you. Please rejoin the family. Please come back and participate in the overflowing generosity of your heavenly parents. And if you do, the bleak record of your past will be washed clean.
But, the prophet warns, if you refuse. If you reject the family values and continue to neglect and blame the poor, if you continue to allow people to receive only the justice money can buy, then be forewarned, you will be devoured. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken it.
In the current political season poor people, brown people, people with the wrong religion have been co-opted as tools of demagoguery. Candidates and movements have made crude, blunt denunciations of the vulnerable tools for attracting votes.
God calls us higher. God calls us to something richer and truer.
Let’s be like Rexie chasing me to Seattle. Let’s be like cows returning to their master’s stable. Let’s be children who remember and embody the highest values of their parents. Let’s leave the ways of Sodom—the place where the strong thrive and the weak were fair game—and embrace the character of God—the defender of the fatherless and widows, the friend of all in need.