Isaiah 08-The Bible as a Stumbling Block

Keeping our hearts open to God’s light.

The Lord said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”

The Lord spoke to me again:

“Because this people has rejected
    the gently flowing waters of Shiloah
and rejoices over Rezin
    and the son of Remaliah,
therefore the Lord is about to bring against them
    the mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates—
    the king of Assyria with all his pomp.
It will overflow all its channels,
    run over all its banks
and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it,
    passing through it and reaching up to the neck.
Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land,
    Immanuel!”

Raise the war cry, you nations, and be shattered!
    Listen, all you distant lands.
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
    Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
10 Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted;
    propose your plan, but it will not stand,
    for God is with us.

11 This is what the Lord says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people:

12 “Do not call conspiracy
    everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
    and do not dread it.
13 The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
    he is the one you are to fear,
    he is the one you are to dread.
14 He will be a holy place;
    for both Israel and Judah he will be
a stone that causes people to stumble
    and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
    a trap and a snare.
15 Many of them will stumble;
    they will fall and be broken,
    they will be snared and captured.”

16 Bind up this testimony of warning
    and seal up God’s instruction among my disciples.
17 I will wait for the Lord,
    who is hiding his face from the descendants of Jacob.
I will put my trust in him.

18 Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.

19 When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? 20 Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. 21 Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. 22 Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.

Since this is our first dealing with Isaiah, here’s a very brief background before we dive into the text: Isaiah was a prophet writing during the decline of Israel and expansion of Assyria around 700 BC.  He took a wife (the prophetess), and had two sons, the second of whom is named here.  (His son’s name means “quick to plunder,” and is part of Isaiah’s prophecies.  How’s that for some family-name baggage?) The chunk of text this chapter comes from specifically is warning the King against certain alliances, and the wrath of God if Israel doesn’t listen.  But, the beauty of all these OT prophets is that their words transcend their time, hence they’re included in our Bible.  Yes, Isaiah was warning against the Assyrians, but he was also talking about the coming Messiah, and many of his messages (my favorite being for “complacent women” in another chapter) still have wisdom to share with us today, so let’s talk about it.

Here, God is calling Isaiah to stand apart, to not be like the people of Judah or Jerusalem who have placed their trust in the wrong things. This distresses God.  These nations have “rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah” (8:6), a stream in Jerusalem and also a metaphor for God’s love and gentle commandments.  As a punishment, God is allowing the King of Assyria, characterized as the “mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates,” (8:7) to attack Israel.  Isaiah allows for a ray of hope – not all will be lost because God is with us (also the meaning of Immanuel, another name for Jesus, and why I chose to read this chapter).

What I find most interesting is that God will cause not only opposing nations but his own people to stumble.  In 8:14 he says: “For both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.  And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare.”  But isn’t God also our hope and salvation? 8:13 just affirmed “the Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy.” So why would our holy God make his own people stumble?

Here’s my take on it: I don’t think he’s causing us to stumble at all, I think it’s our own fault.  God’s commandments are based in love. Yes, even the Old Testament ones, and when we wield them like a weapon we misuse his gifts to us, and end up harming ourselves even more than those we set out to harm.  This gets back a little bit to reading the Bible holistically and in context.  It’s important to read the Bible for the greater truths of love and acceptance, practices that will bring us together, rather than getting hung up, or, if you will, stumbling upon, the passages that divide.  When a Christian says “I hate Muslims” or “Gays can’t be Christians” or “Women are less than men” because the Bible says so, they are stumbling.  The word of God has become a trap and a snare for them, because their heart isn’t open to His light.

Now, before anyone calls me a hypocrite for hating on conservative Christians with that last paragraph let me just state that I don’t hate them.  Also, I believe in their belief in God.  I just think they have a lot of spiritual maturing to do.  The reason I call them out so much is because their actions are leading to the harm of others.  Intolerant attitudes lead to inequitable societies, and this often leads to violence.  That is unacceptable.  Here’s another parenting metaphor for you. Let’s just assume I’ll have one per blog-post, shall we? You expect a small child to misbehave sometimes.  Maybe a lot of times.  That small child still loves you and you still love them.  But if that child starts hurting someone else, you’re going to step in and stop it, right?  I can’t go around putting conservative Christians in time-out until they’ve thought about what they’ve done, but my earnest hope is that all of us will become a little more thoughtful about our actions, and how they impact others.

The best way to change minds is to lead by example.  “Here am I,” Isaiah declares in 8:18, “and the children the Lord has given to me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty.” In these last few days of Advent, as we prepare for Jesus’ return, let us think about how we can be signs and symbols from the Lord Almighty.  I want to prepare a world for Him that is kind, and equitable, and worthy of returning to.  That starts with acceptance and love.  Big actions, like charity work, are great.  But kind words for a trying neighbor or coworker, holding the door for the woman in a headscarf, not staring condescendingly at the non-binary person in line…all of these seemingly little actions also add up and make the world a better place.  Through these mindful little actions,  the stone upon which we once stumbled can become the foundation for our Faith, and a platform from which we can be an example to all the world.

Psalm 126 – Faith in Times of Doubt

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

 

Isn’t this a beautiful psalm?  I think it sounds like Shakespeare.  He used dreams and dreaming in so much of his own writing.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is basically one giant dream.  The first half, especially, sounds like something a triumphant heroine would say in closing.  So now I’m wondering if Shakespeare had any favorite psalms.  If I had to take a guess, I would think this to be one of them.

But why would this psalm be suggested reading for Advent? My beloved NIV footnotes actually came up short (gasp!) on any clues.  But I found a clue when reading different versions of this psalm online.  And I’m so sorry I cannot remember which version or where exactly I found this note, because I really appreciated the insight and wanted to link it.  126:6 says “those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy.”  The whole reason they’re going out weeping is because they are using what grain they have left, the grain that they also eat, to plant.  Of course, you need to plant in order to have food in the long run, but if you don’t have enough grain to get you through the short run, what good is it?  So, as these farmers go out to their field, using up most of what’s left of their food supply, they have many troubles on their mind.  Can I make it to harvest? Will it be a good harvest? Will it rain enough? What if it rains too much, and there is a blight? What if there are locusts this year? A whole myriad of things can effect a harvest.

Planting becomes an act of Faith in a time of doubt.  These farmers may be weeping, but they do it anyway, and God rewards them with the joys of harvest.  Same with the streams of Negev, mentioned in 126:4.  This time my NIV footnotes came through for me.  Negev was a desert region (surprise, surprise) that had seasonal springs.  In the summer months they dried up, but in the winter months the waters returned.  So again, they require Faith through hardship of those who rely upon them.

What does this have to do with Advent?  Advent is a time of preparation, of waiting.  I for one can get anxious over preparations and waiting. This psalm is a reminder that on the other side of that anxiety is joy untold, we just have to have Faith.  Now this isn’t to say that Faith will cure life’s hardships.  One of my favorite church signs of all time said “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  But if you go through life’s hardships knowing God is with you, believing in a joy that is so great you’ll think it can’t be real, you must be dreaming, then those hardships will be easier to bear.  It may feel like the world is against you.  Hell, maybe the world IS against you.  And it is okay to feel sad or overwhelmed or anxious or whatever.  Look at those farmers, they were weeping. But don’t stop planting that seed, building that tower, persevering through your act of Faith, because that is what lays the foundation for an outcome of joy.

***

Next week I’ll be reading about John the Baptist according to Matthew.  There’s three chapters where he is mentioned, so it’s perfect to round out the last full week of Advent.  These chapters are Matthew 3, 11, and 14, if you want to read along.

Malachi 04 – Privilege? White Privilege?

Turning our hearts to others and examining ourselves.

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Arrogant. Evildoer. Wicked.  This whole chapter is a warning to “those people.” But who are these people, exactly? I thought that perhaps knowing the original Hebrew words might help me gain a fuller understanding of what these undesirable traits might actually be, and how to avoid them.  I don’t know a lick of Hebrew, fortunately, I have Google and a plethora of results came back when I searched “Classical Hebrew Arrogant” and so forth.  My favorite new reference is a Hebrew word study site.  The layout is a little dated, but it had some great information on it. If you’re reading the Bible and wonder about a word, it’s a great place to check.

I’ll sum up my half hour of internet digging in a few sentences.  Arrogant pretty much means what we think of as arrogant. Wicked most directly refers to cheating, as in, a merchant who uses false balances. “Evil” has many translations in the Bible, and many of them mean “harm” more so than “bad.”  The example I liked best comes from a particularly long essay on the subject. It talked at length about the giving and receiving of “evil” names.  Basically it refers to slander, or a person trying to harm another’s reputation, not cast a spell upon them that would turn them evil.  Likewise an evil report can just mean bad tidings, not malicious misinformation. So what it boils down to is the arrogant, the wicked, and the evildoer are those who bring harm to others, either through false dealings, slander, or just plain bad behavior.

I started writing about how the evildoer and the wicked of the Bible are those who harm others, and how it is important to truly consider if someone is actually hurting others before condemning them (gay marriage critics, anyone? Sorry, couldn’t resist that jab).  But then I realized I need to take one more step back and examine how my actions might be harming someone, turning me into the arrogant, wicked evildoer.  One of the best, and hardest, pieces of Jesus’ teachings to follow is found in Matthew 7:5.  You’ve probably heard it: “You hypocrite! First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.” In other words, study your own actions before you start seeing the fault in others.

Being in an interracial marriage with a husband vocal in social justice, I have a lot of conversations about white privilege, institutional racism, and implicit bias – all of which can be harmful phenomena.  They are uncomfortable topics for a lot of white people, including some of those closest to me.  I get it.  We all want to believe that we are “good people;” and living in a society that is invisibly structured to exclude certain members of that society makes us complicit to a crime we didn’t even know we were committing.  It’s jarring to realize this, and can make people defensive.  I like to think I’m pretty sensitive to these things, again, being married to someone who is both Black and Native and now being a mother to two mixed-race children.  But even from that close-up vantage point I have had to step back from time to time and reevaluate how I was reacting to things, how I was being part of the problem and not the solution.

Verse 4:6 tells us a prophet will come to “turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents.” This means we’ll be truly thinking of others, in tune with each other’s needs.  This is empathy! We already know what that is, we don’t need a prophet to start doing that, we can start now.  Sometimes that is easy – comforting a friend through sorrow feels natural, and doesn’t require a lot of self-examination.  Sometimes, though, we need to recognize when what we are doing (or not doing), may be harmful to others, even by proxy, and then see what we can do to change that.

My plea today is for you to join me in identifying your positions of privilege.  I don’t want you to feel guilty about it, but I do want you to identify it.  Perhaps you are white.  Perhaps you are wealthy.  Hell, perhaps you’re just middle class, that’s a privilege.  Perhaps you are able-bodied, and have health insurance through work, and don’t deal with mental illness.  You get the idea.  Again, don’t feel guilty about any privileges you may have, but do see where they may make you blind to those that don’t have them.  Let’s use an example from recent headlines.  There were two men, both fathers, accused of murder in separate incidents.  The white man was humanized, with news sources using his name, calling him a father in the headlines, and showing pictures of him with his family.  The black man was simply called an “Arizona man,” and his mugshot instead of any photos of him with his family were used.  Just through subtle differences in reporting, the white man was made to seem sympathetic while the black man was made to look criminal.  Now, I hope you are never accused of murder, but there are many small instances of our society all working in similar ways against people of color, and just like a dripping faucet, those instances add up.

If you feel yourself getting angry, flustered, or defensive right now, try to examine why. If there’s anything marriage has taught me, it is that often the most important time to reach out a hand for understanding is when you are angry: don’t fight the person, fight the problem. One time I read a post on Pantsuit Nation one time after the Women’s March.  A black woman had been belittled on the metro on her way to the rally.  Not by any counter-protesters, but by her fellow marchers.  She was angry, and hurt, and the pain came through very raw in her writing.  My immediate reaction was to jump in and say “not all white people are like that” and basically defend myself, separate myself from the others, listing off all my shining non-racist characteristics.  Many others had already done that.  But that would only make me feel better, and wasn’t what this woman needed to hear.  She needed the space to tell her story and be heard.  Some others commented as much, I decided just to “love” the post.  Just holding space for her was the best I could do, even if it was hard.  So I did it, and vowed to keep examining my own actions, learning where I can make changes so as to not contribute to racism, institutional or overt, and help shine light on where it still exists.

We’re going to mess up, we’re going to make new, sometimes painful, discoveries.  But the important thing is to keep going, keep searching, and keep “turning your heart” to those around you, and you will see God turn his heart to you in return.

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Yay! A whole book down and Advent isn’t even over!  I’ll read Psalm 126 next and then find some passages on John the Baptist, since he was also sent to prepare the way for Jesus and seems like a fitting Advent figure.  I’m not sure which yet, I’ll let you know on Friday.