Change is coming (May 9, 2021)

Uniform Lesson for May 9, 2021
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Isaiah 29:13-24

Oh, how we love the prophet Isaiah! We stand in awe at the scene of his calling: “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). We thrill to the opening lines of his exilic version: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (40:1). But most of us are less familiar with the words and actions of the pre-exilic career of this prophet as he confronted kings and courts regarding issues of war and wages of widows. Here, Jerusalem is threatened with destruction, and the king and his court are going about business as usual: plotting secret schemes, attending perfunctory services and living their Monday through Saturday lives as if no God exists. This is the setting within which the prophet Isaiah thunders his courageous words demanding change — of hearts, of habits and of hierarchies.

A change of hearts

Isaiah leads off with a call for a cardiogram. Yes, on the surface, everything looks fine in the kingdom. The leaders make speeches with all the right policies. The preachers preach sermons with all the correct theology. The people not only sing the right hymns, but know them “by heart” — no hymnbooks required! But the prophet peers beneath the surface and finds a disease worse than hardening of the arteries. This community’s hearts have hardened in the worst possible way — they are far from God.

It would be wrong to interpret this “heart” language as a call for more emotional policies and preaching and worshipping. The heart for the Hebrews is more than an organ for feelings (that honor is better lodged in the bowels). No, the heart is the place where thoughts and feelings unite in action. It’s the locus of the will. If you have someone’s heart, you have the whole person. If you are close to a community’s heart, you have the whole village. God wants not just a piece of our hearts or a perfunctory place in our calendars. God wants us to love God with all our hearts (Deuteronomy 6:5). God wants us “all in.”

It’s not accidental that the root prophetic message is a call for change at the core of our beings. “Repent” is the fundamental cry of the prophets from Joel to John. Things may look OK on the surface, but the basic prophetic question is a call to cardio-conversion: a change of heart, shifting from far to near.

A change of habits

You have to go further in our passage to see that God’s people’s problem goes beyond superficial worship. The problem with trivial liturgy is that it leads to trifling behaviors. Just like Amos, Isaiah wants there to be a link between what we say about God in worship and how we embody God’s reign in the marketplace (cf. Amos 5). Evil, for Isaiah, does not appear with horns and flashes of fire. It’s much more mundane and deadly. Causing a person to lose a lawsuit, when she shouldn’t. Setting a trap for the judges or arbiters in the gate — that is, “rigging the system.” Denying justice to those who are in the right, especially when this is done without supplying any justification for such violations. Key to the courage of the prophets is their willingness to press their charges down to the level of traffic stops and credit card charges and manipulations of the market. Change needs to come — in our wallets as well as our worship.

A change of hierarchies

Perhaps what seems most contemporary about Isaiah’s prophetic speech is his charge of turning things upside down. Rather than God’s reign and God’s plans being foremost in this community’s minds, it’s their own wisdom that calls forth their true worship. They live and act as if God has gone blind. They who are the clay see themselves as the potter
(cf. Jeremiah 18). These creatures who have been formed by the love and wisdom of their Maker, now question this Maker’s understanding and put more trust in their own. Now Isaiah gets us down to the basics. A profound change in hearts and habits and hierarchies is needed. It may require God to do some amazing and shocking things at the front end — like the exile. And it may lead to some miraculous changes at the back end — like the meek obtaining joy and the neediest exulting (cf. Matthew 5 and Luke 1). But change is coming. We better get on board!

For discussion: How do we move from verse 15 to 24 in our lives? How does God in Christ move us?

RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.

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