Are we ok with Isaiah 6?

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God’s word is like a seed we are told: a seed that gets planted, watered and eventually grows and produces fruit. That’s just what seeds do. When someone hears God’s word and takes it in, they will be transformed, and this transformation will be evident in the fruit of their lives – their good works and changed character. Jesus himself spoke in this way (Mark 4:15).

The job of followers of Jesus is to preach the word about Jesus, and this is exactly what the early church set about doing, preaching the word – the good news – and planting churches as they went. The fruit.

Every preacher of the bible – of God’s word – wants this kind of result, this rich harvest of transformed lives through the gospel. But what if we were to receive the commission of the prophet Isaiah? What if we were told to preach that message?

The job no one wants

Isaiah, don’t forget, received his commission to be a prophet following a fearsome vision of the glory of God. Isaiah was instantly aware of his own moral imperfections in the presence of God. ‘Woe is me!’ he shouted, ‘I am a man of unclean lips.’ However, his sin was purged by a hot coal, lifted from the altar and placed on his mouth. Now he was ready to speak.

‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ asked God. God was looking for a spokesman to declare his word to his people. Isaiah volunteered himself. He probably had no idea what he was letting himself in for:

And [God] said, “Go, and say to this people:

“‘Keep on 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 6:9-10)

Surely there must be some mistake? Isn’t the word of God meant to produce a harvest of transformed lives? Fruit of good works to fellow humankind? Thriving, growing churches? Clearly God (whose word it is of course) had a different intention. Maybe it was just for a short time and then Isaiah would start to see a turnaround?

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. (Isaiah 6:11-12)

Not only does God intend that the people will hear his word and refuse to listen, but this must continue until the downfall of their cities. Indeed, their failure to listen is directly tied to their eventual destruction by foreign armies and exile to a strange land.

What about me?

So how would I feel if God told me to preach a message that no one would accept, that would only harden their hearts, blind their eyes and lead to their eventual demise? I wouldn’t take that job offer! No thanks God. I’m all about the fruit. Give me the growth.

That would be to misunderstand the point of the word of God though. We all want the growth, the fruit. Amen to that. That’s what motivated the early church, spreading the word of God, the gospel of Jesus, to the ends of the earth, seeing thousands accept the word and turning the world upside down as they went.

But we can’t forget that it is God who gets to choose how his word does its work. God makes clear to Isaiah later that his word always achieves what he wants from it (Isaiah 55:11). However, that may not always be what we want from it. We don’t get to pick and choose what God will do with that seed. It is the same seed, the word of God, but can have very different results. For some people, God’s word will transform them from the inside out, making them start (and continue) to resemble Jesus – the word made flesh as St. John put it (John 1:1-3, 14). For others God’s word will cause them to reject him. They’ll harden themselves and stop their ears.

We must preach and lead with the expectation that God’s word makes a profound change on all who hear it! The pages of the Book of Acts are full of accounts of the word stirring up whole cities and leading to riots. There is no such thing to a passive response to the word. But in some cases or certain seasons, God’s word results in hard hearts, blocked ears and blind eyes. It brings judgment as well as salvation, death as well as life. And sometimes both in different people at the same time.

Despite the incredibly difficult calling that Isaiah received and accepted (he dedicated his life to preaching exactly the message God wanted, no matter how much hurt it caused him), God ended Isaiah’s job description with a note of hope.

And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:13)

Isaiah’s generation would reject God’s word, his passionate plea for his people to return to him in their hearts, but this didn’t mean that God would go back on his promises to his people, established centuries earlier. Despite the stubborn rejection of this generation and the results this would produce, there will still be a remnant. A ‘holy seed’. A part of Israel that would remain true to God, faithfully obey his word, even to death on a cross.

What God hints at here, St. Paul makes scandalously clear (Phil 2:8). The gospel of Jesus means there is always hope. Preach him with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Celebrate the fruit but remember it’s his seed.