Friday, June 1, 2012

The Mystery of the Message

Isaiah 6, often thought of as the commission of Isaiah as a prophet of God, begins with a vision of God.  It is a majestic vision of God's glory; the Lord sits on his throne and just the train of his robe is enough to fill the Temple.  Above God stand the seraphim who declare God's holiness. The thresholds shake.  The Temple fills with smoke. 

This majestic vision in turn leads Isaiah to confess his sin.  The overwhelming holiness of God reveals his own lack of holiness.  He says "Woe is me!  For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!"

Isaiah's confession in turn leads to his cleansing.  One of the seraphim flies to Isaiah with a burning coal which is touched to his lips, cleansing them of impurity.  The seraphim declares "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for." 

Next Isaiah's cleansing leads to mission.  After his cleansing, he hears the voice of the Lord saying "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"  Isaiah answers "Here am I!  Send me."

A vision of God leading to confession leading to cleansing leading to mission.  If the passage just ended there or at least went on to tell of Isaiah's highly successful career as a prophet then we could box this up as the next great church growth strategy that will solve all the church's problems and I could retire and live off the proceeds of my book sales.  Alas, the passage does not end there.  Instead, Isaiah is told what his message will be.

"Go, and say to this people:  Keep hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing but do not perceive.  Make the heart of this people dull and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed." 

Isaiah is told to preach a message that no one can understand; a message for which God's plan is rejection rather than acceptance. 

And it is not only Isaiah who speaks of his message in this way.  Jesus quotes these very same words in the Gospel of Mark.  Right in the middle of telling the parable of the sower, a story about how only some will bear fruit while many will have the gospel snatched away, withered, or choked out of their lives, Jesus answers with the words of Isaiah when someone asks why he speaks in parables. 

Churches often place enormous emphasis on their methods of sowing and finding good soil.  Enormous amounts of time, money, and energy are spent trying to create and implement "effective" ministry plans which will reach those we think are most likely to respond to the gospel message.  But it seems the sower depicted in this passage is anything but "effective".  Wasteful and reckless seem to be more appropriate terms.  Jesus plainly says that the gospel is simply not something that will take root in everyone's life.  And yet that doesn't keep him from liberally casting the seed of the gospel wherever it might fall, three-fourths of it on soil where it has no chance to grow if the proportions of the parable are any indication.  Maybe this is because the sower knows that where the seed does take root it will produce a crop so extravagant that it will more than make up for the "wasted" seed. 

Perhaps the intersection of Isaiah's vision and its quotation in Mark is where we find our calling as the Church.  Like Isaiah, we have had a vision of God that has led to confession, cleansing, and mission.  However, the mission is never as simple as going out and finding good soil in which to sow more seed.  In fact, the parable of the sower suggests that if we view the mission that way then we are not bearing witness to the character of the sower who sows the seed liberally. The mission is bearing the fruit of the Spirit, a fruit which itself contains the seed of the good news.  It is living and proclaiming the message we have been given, not because we believe that we have the power to make this message take root but because it is our very nature by virtue of the seed God has sown in us. 

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