Isaiah 6:1-8 | Luke 5:8-10
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord
The year, in our accounting, was around 740BC. The Kingdom of Israel had divided into two separate nations some two hundred years before, on the death of Solomon, and there had little peace or prosperity ever since.
But the time of King Uzziah had been somewhat stable; he reigned for over fifty years, and thanks (at least in part) to his development of military technology, the Southern Kingdom, Judah, had known a time of relative peace.
But the last few years of his life foreshadowed the chaos that was to come; confined to his home for the last ten years of his life with a skin disease, he reigned in name, while his son Jotham ruled in practice.
Still, the respect in which Uzziah was held by the people kept the peace as long as he lived.
But this was the year that he died.
Jotham would reign for another four years, but they would be years of struggle and conflict, years in which the worship of God would be forgotten, the sanctity of the Temple defiled. The Northern Kingdom had fallen to the invading Assyrian army, and there were those within Judah who would welcome the embrace of the might of the Assyrians; happy to trade their freedom for the security of a powerful force that promised to keep them safe, give them security in an uncertain world.
And the pro-Assyrian movement within Judah finally overthrew Jotham, installing his son, Ahaz, as their puppet ruler.
It was a time of upheaval, a time of change, a time of uncertainty, of nations divided, of fear.
That was the year that Isaiah saw the Lord.
The message that Isaiah was given by God to deliver to the people was depressingly familiar. The second half of Isaiah chapter six describes a people floundering and thrashing about but never finding the answer.
Keep looking, but not understanding
Keep listening, but making no sense
Their minds are dull, their eyes blind, their ears stopped
For if they looked and listened and understood,
they would turn and be healed.
But they will not do so until the cities lie waste
and the land desolate.
It’s a pretty sad but terribly realistic description of humankind, really, isn’t it. The people would refuse to see what was right before their eyes; refuse to take notice of the evidence of their ears; refuse to think about what they were doing and where their decisions might lead them.
In fear, or uncertainty, or perhaps out of resentment towards a ruling elite who had forgotten them, they would choose to hand power to a despot, despite what they had seen and heard of his past actions.
If you’ve started to suspect by now that I’m drawing some parallels between this time in history and the affairs of the past week, you aren’t imagining it. When a very large number of fundamentally decent people can choose to elect as their leader a man who openly mocked the disabled, vilified entire nations and races, repeatedly committed adultery, and boasted of and defended sexually assault, it’s hard to read Isaiah’s prophecy and not feel at least a twinge of recognition.
But please don’t hear these words as words of contempt for, or condemnation of, those who so voted. For if you read the prophecies in the early chapters of Isaiah you do not find in God’s words a contemptuous condemnation of the people of God; even those who have turned their back on God. For their leaders, for those who lead them astray, who manipulate them to secure their own privilege, wealth and power, yes. But for the nation, for the people, the words of God spoken through the prophet are words of judgement, yes, and foretellings of tragedy (tragedy that they will bring upon themselves by the disastrous choices they are making), but tinged throughout with sadness, not with anger.
And when Isaiah sees the Lord? Well, that’s telling. He doesn’t say “At last! Now you will vindicate me! Now everyone will know that I was right!”. No, Isaiah’s first reaction was to identify himself with his people, and with their sinfulness. “I am a man of unclean lips,” he says, first; and only then “and I live amongst a people of unclean lips.”. Isaiah recognises the failings of the nation; but he does not claim himself to be any better. Instead, his first reaction when he has a vision of God is to know his own failures.
Just as Simon would, hundreds of years later, when he first realised who Jesus was: “Go from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”.
It almost seems to be a prerequisite for those who God will choose to call; that they start off by being first and foremost aware of their own shortcomings, not confident in their own power and righteousness.
So Isaiah, and Simon, begin in a recognition that they were part of the problem; that they, like everyone around them, had not lived according to the way of God; had not loved, listened, worshipped, given, forgiven, loved again.
But God called them, and sent them to be messengers.
Because while God’s words through Isaiah in the opening chapters seem so dark and depressing and all but without hope, remember this is the same book that gives us the promise of a messiah, the great words of “comfort, comfort”, the expectation that beyond the darkness of the present and the even greater darkness that is to come, there is light; there is hope; there will be new growth, spring after winter, life after death.
Isaiah chapters 6, 7 and 8 are full of woe; full of the collapse of nation and society, full of war and hardship; but then, those words we hear often in advent, in our carol services, by candlelight if we possibly can:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
Anne Frank, as a young girl facing the increasing power of Hitler throughout Europe wrote in her diaries
“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”
I believe the prophet would encourage in us the same spirit; for though we all seem so often to fit Isaiah’s description of not listening, not seeing, not understanding, we are all also made in the image of God. And perhaps the greatest thing we can do is to keep those ideals to which Christ calls us: to love even when all is hate; to forgive when the world demands revenge; to be reconciled when the voices of despots on all sides call us to arms; and to have faith in God, even when everything seems so dark.