Over the months of September and October, I worked my way through the book of Isaiah. I must say, a study in Isaiah is quite the undertaking. Quite a lot to take in over such a short amount of time. While pushing through, I no doubt made use of some resource material to help shape a context and formulate a posture from which to head out into a daunting landscape. I have listed that material down below as I did find it helpful. Perhaps you will too. That said, the short piece I have here is not so much a study summary as it is a venture. A detour away from the familiar if only to find no real answers in the end yet still every bit as much intrigue.
Isaiah 40:3-4 Behold, a voice of one crying out: Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness; make straight the way of our God in the desert. Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain shall be leveled; the uneven ground made even, the rough places made smooth.
Matthew 10:34 Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
Mark 11:22-23 Then Jesus said to them, “Have faith in God. For assure you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.
The bible is like an attic with dark corners. If we hang out by the crawl space door where all the light gathers around what’s familiar, we can never be in danger of finding hid treasure. Devotional studies are important for feeding our soul, and likewise, good christian ethics for the care of our brothers and sisters in Christ. But who’s to say? Perhaps no more important than following some ancient prophet (whatever his name) into the city square soon to be under siege if only to hear him preach to the wind.
Well maybe Isaiah isn’t speaking to the wind. Maybe he’s speaking to the mountains. Maybe even the same mountains that Jesus speaks to in gospels, and calls us to speak to when we are so full of doubt. We know for sure that Isaiah spoke against Mt Zion in his day, that high place of unrepentant arrogance—“be ye leveled!” We know Jesus spoke against Herod’s Temple Mt in his day, the high place of unyielding power—“be ye thrown into the sea!” The question here is are we speaking mountains?
Perhaps the mountains that corral all our desperate dreams are the unrelenting systems, structures, injustices, or power-dynamics that stop up the life of God in the people we know and love. Maybe they’re the fierce hindrances shutting us up behind fear and doubt and silent lament. Whatever the case, we have something to say: “Woe to you mountain! Woe to you!”
Isaiah is a book full of both hills and valleys, compassionate viewpoints and complicated divides. Kingdom divides, geo-political divides, socio-economic divides, ethnic-religious divides; even the prophetic ministry of Isaiah is divided—the foretelling of future glory through the lens of the present while reconciling the tatters of the present through the promise of the past. More importantly, however, Isaiah himself is a man divided, a crying voice coming apart at the seams, “a veil torn from top to bottom.” (Mt 27, Heb 10). Whatever pronouncements Isaiah would make against his own beloved country only further cut him off from his own people, his own home, his own family. Yet it is the valley of obedience he chooses to die in. No more was he a city set on a hill as he was a city under siege “having never received what was promised him.” (Heb 11)
If every obstacle or hindrance or high place must come down; if every deep pit of despair or deficit or weakness must be raised up; if all that is uneven shall be made even again, than something has to go, something has to be torn away or cut off, divided up, discarded and thrown into the sea. It may be any one thing or it may be everything. If it be my hand, than have it. If it be my leg, take that as well. If it be my ignorant, insecure, unrelenting selfishness, than cut that to pieces and cast it into fire. Better to yield fruit from one limb than to be cursed and wither away whole. (Mk 11)
I like to imagine Jesus feeling the full force of his “elder brother” Isaiah as he stands in the same exact place where Isaiah stood some 500 years before. There on the ridge above Jerusalem looking across the valley at the temple we hear him say, “Ever since the beginning I have been sending into your midst prophets and wise men. All of them you rejected. Most of them you persecuted. Some of them you killed.”(Mt 23) “Woe to you mountain. Woe to you hindrance. Woe to you obstacle. Woe to you fear and doubt and lament.”
Or maybe not. Maybe it’s the other way around. Isaiah winding his way up the dusty sheep tracks from where passover lambs would be herded into the city during the week of our salvation. He now standing where Jesus someday will, crying aloud “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the children whom God has given me; You a bruised reed He will not break, You a smoldering wick He will not snuff out, until He has established justice in you and upon the earth, for in His name the nations do hope.” (Is 42, Mt 12).
So now what? What becomes of this? What is there to do about it? Well I don’t really know. I am only wandering away from the crawl space door of the attic. I think there is something to be found. I have faith for that. All of us must have faith for that. We must understand with our head as much as our heart that faith exercised is not a magic trick. The effect of a mountain tumbling into the sea may render applause from the crowd, but it will not bring God any closer. God is already close. He is walking the sheep tracks just ahead of you, calling for followers.
Dan Behrens, Co Pastor, Evergreen Church