Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Today’s scripture reading is from the 55th chapter of Isaiah, verses 6-11. Before we turn to that passage, I want to spend a little time talking about Isaiah. The Book of Isaiah is one of the more studied books of the Old Testament. It is filled with passages that Christians interpret as prophecies regarding the coming of Christ into the world. And at first glance it appears to have been written by a single prophet named Isaiah. But the reason scholars love this book so much is because it is actually a composite work, written by three different authors at three specific times over the course of Israel’s history.
There certainly was a Judean prophet named Isaiah. He lived in one of Israel’s most exciting and eventful eras—the 8th century B.C. We learn a great deal about Israel’s history from Isaiah, because he prophesied in Jerusalem during the reign of four kings—Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.
A lot happened over the course of those years. You may recall that in the year 922 B.C., after the death of King Solomon, Israel divided into two nations. The northern kingdom was called Israel, and was composed of ten of the original twelve tribes of Israel; and the southern kingdom was called Judea, and consisted of two of the original tribes—the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
Two hundred years later, when Isaiah lived, things got really crazy. Israel—the northern kingdom—joined forces with Syria in 735 B.C. and attacked Judah—the southern kingdom. But Israel got its payback. In the year 722 B.C., the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and that was the end of that nation. The Assyrians dispersed the people of Israel, and to this day those people are referred to as the ten lost tribes of Israel. To make matters really confusing, most people started referring to the southern kingdom of Judea as “Israel” after that.
Okay, that may be more than you wanted to know about the history of 8th century B.C. Israel, but here’s the thing that makes the book of Isaiah so intriguing. It is a long book—66 chapters. But the writings of the original prophet Isaiah are found only in chapters 1 thru 39! There is no indication in the book itself that the author changes, but it clearly does, because starting with chapter 40 the whole setting of the book changes. We are no longer in 8th century B.C. Israel. We are suddenly in Babylon, sometime near the end of the Babylonian exile.
This period is perhaps the most significant era in Jewish history. Early in the 6th century B.C.—the date is usually named as 587 B.C.—King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Israel, or Judah, and took into captivity the Jewish people. Some Jews who were considered insignificant and powerless were left behind in Israel, but most Jews—and all the Jews with positions of power—were exiled to Babylon. About fifty years later, King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish people to return to Israel.
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The reason the Babylonian exile is so important is this: prior to that time, the Jews had always associated their God, Yahweh, as somehow being tied to the land of Israel, and to the Temple in Jerusalem. Israel, the Promised Land, belonged to the Jewish God Yahweh. Yahweh’s home was in the Jerusalem Temple. But Nebuchadnezzar not only removed the Jews from their land, he destroyed the Temple—turned it into a pile of broken stones.
How could this be? How could an earthly king destroy God’s house and exile God’s people from their promised land? Some scholars say that true monotheism was born during the Babylonian exile, because it was then that the Hebrew theologians truly conceived of a God who was the God of all creation, of all people, and who was not bound to a particular piece of land. It was also then that the early writings of the Jewish people, later collected as a part of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, took on their present significance. The Jews were no longer a people tied to a piece of land. They were people of the book. Where the Torah was—where the law and word of God was—the Jewish faith was also.
As I mentioned, the Book of Isaiah is 66 chapters long. Chapters 40 thru 55 were written by somebody toward the end of the Babylonian exile. Scholars call this author Second Isaiah, or Deutero-Isaiah, even though the Bible does not indicate any change in authorship. So we have two of Israel’s most significant historical periods found in this single book—the Book of Isaiah—written by two different authors.
That would be enough to have any Bible scholar salivating, but there’s more! After King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Israel, another amazing period of Hebrew history came about. For one thing, the temple was rebuilt. This is what is called the Second Temple. This is the temple at which Jesus would turn over the money-changers’ tables over 500 years later, and which Rome would destroy in the year 70 A.D. The Western Wall of that temple is all that remains. It is the wall you see on television today with devout Jews sticking their written prayers into the cracks in the walls.
This was an exciting and promising time in Israel’s history. Many of the Jews did not return from Babylon. They had become a part of that culture. The Jews who did return were obsessed with purity—with keeping the Jewish nation and the Jewish race alive. Intermarrying with non-Jews was considered a horrible crime. But guess what these returning Jews discovered when they returned to Israel. Those Jews who had been left behind—the ones who had not been taken into exile in Babylon—had intermarried with the native people of that region. Many were worshipping the gods of the ancient Middle East. They had made the Jewish race, and the Jewish faith, impure.
If this interests you the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story in detail, but the bottom line is this: The Jews who had intermarried were ordered to leave their wives and disown their children. Needless to say this was an interesting period in the history of Israel. And chapters 56 thru 66 of the Book of Isaiah were written during this period—probably around 520 B.C., by an unknown author scholars refer to as Third Isaiah.
Okay, that’s a lot to absorb, but I think you can see why scholars are so enamored of this book. Add to its interesting history the fact that it has some of the most memorable passages in the whole Bible, and you have a book worth examining. Consider just a few of the famous passages from Isaiah: The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the kid… They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea… All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all… he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors, yet he bore the sin of many…
And then there is today’s passage, from the 55th chapter of Isaiah. This are the final words from Second Isaiah, probably written just before Israel’s return from the Babylonian exile. You heard part of the passage read from the lectern this morning. I’ll read all six verses:
Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
That is a great, rich passage, and it gains more meaning when you consider when it was written—just as the exiled Hebrew people were about to return to their native land. It is filled with hope, and humility; with faith and with awe.
But it is most important because of the way it speaks to us across the ages. There are two parts of that short passage that really speak to us today. First, Isaiah’s (actually Second Isaiah’s) words, speaking for God: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
We can turn that around and make it more personal, speaking for ourselves instead of for God. Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, even on our best days. We all need to remember this, and nobody needs to accept this fact—that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts—more than preachers.
We preachers feel that we are called to do what we do. We feel that there is something beyond ourselves that drives us to do what we do and say what we say. Or course, the things I say are the opposite, in many ways, of what the people in the pews down the road are hearing week after week. And the one thing that the fundamentalist preachers and I have in common is that we are both pretty darn sure we are saying what God wants us to say!
I know I have to be careful about this. How can I really know what God wants me to say from this pulpit? I have this nightmare that I arrive at the pearly gates and Saint Peter says to me, “Gary, remember that sermon you delivered in July of 2005? God is really hacked off about that one. What were you thinking?”
So preachers, and I am no exception, need to always remember that however inspired we may think we are, and however called to the ministry we may think we are, the will of God is being filtered through our very human minds. And in spite of our best intentions, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, even on our best days.
The second insight of Isaiah in this little passage is also very important. Speaking of the word that comes from his mouth, he says, “it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Now, Isaiah is talking about the word of God as he speaks to the people of Israel. But there is a lesson here for all of us: our words do not come back empty. Robin Meyers, my dear friend and the person who encouraged me as I was entering the ministry, used to say that to me: our words do not come back empty.
It would be years before I really understood what he meant. But the fact is, one of the greatest joys of the ministry is having somebody reveal some positive aspect of their lives, and say they were influenced by something I said in a sermon. Sometimes I can barely remember having said it. It says a lot about the power of words. I have also become aware of how words, especially those spoken from the pulpit, can do damage and cause pain. We send our words out over the congregation, but they do not come back empty. They return to us, having had an effect on people.
But it is not just preachers who have the power of language. We all have the amazing power of language, and none of our words come back empty. We should have a clue about how powerful words are by the way the Bible begins. God speaks the universe into being. God says, “Let there be light, and there was light.” In Christian theology, “the word” is the logic, the truth that holds all of creation together. And we say “the word” became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is the “word of God.” I like to think that each and every one of us is a word of God, a unique, special, once-in-the-universe spoken word of God.
Words. Those are powerful things. The biggest lie we teach our children is the little saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Nonsense! Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words…words can absolutely devastate me. Words can destroy something much more important than my bones—they can poison my soul, my spirit. Words can make me wish I had never been born.
Poets have often compared the tongue to a sword, and with good reason. We can cut a person to pieces with the right—or wrong—words. A parent casually and thoughtlessly says something they think will motivate their child who is perhaps struggling with math. “Maybe you’re not smart enough to figure this out.”
It’s a throw-away remark. The parent forgets it five seconds after it is spoken. But those words do not come back empty. Twenty years later they still echo in the recesses of that child’s mind, who is now trying to learn some aspect of a new job. “Maybe you’re not smart enough.” At least a physical scar would have healed in that time. But the scars left by words—those are the worst kind of scars—the scars that are hidden beneath the surface, which are never acknowledged and thus never heal.
It’s strange. We need a license to carry a deadly weapon, but we can shoot our mouth off anytime and anywhere we want. We all have these horrible weapons—these tongue-shaped swords—we carry through life, and we never acknowledge how dangerous they are. We wave them around without a care in the world, seldom realizing the damage we are doing.
Of course, there is the other side of the equation. We can use our words for wonderful purposes. After all, that’s what God did, according to our beautiful creation myths. God spoke this amazing and wondrous creation into being. God brought forth everything that is, and it was good. That same creation story tells us that we are created in the image of God. I wonder if that is because we too have the power of words?
And in so many ways, we really do create our own worlds with the way we use words. We all know people who are chronically negative. They will find something to complain about in every situation. They seem to go through life with this little cloud over their heads, and they leave a little piece of that cloud with everybody they talk to. But we also know people who seem to carry sunshine with them everywhere they go. They light up the room when they enter. And you can bet that when they speak, it will not be to find fault, or to create division, or to share the latest gossip about some mutual acquaintance.
Perhaps Swami Vivekananda said it best, when he said, “Our thoughts, words and deeds are the threads of the reality we sew around ourselves.” “Our thoughts, words and deeds are the threads of the reality we sew around ourselves.” How true! But then again, Isaiah said it pretty well too, when he said, “…my word shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
May we always send our words forth with the best of intentions, so the world we weave around ourselves is filled with peace, and faith, and love. Amen.