There’s a passage from the Mishnah, the written collection of oral teaching from the early Jewish rabbis—there’s a passage about the Torah, about how to read the Bible. It goes like this: “Turn it and turn it over again, for everything is in it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22). I first heard this bit of wisdom from Ellen Davis, one of my professors in seminary.
We find ourselves in this book, this Bible, these texts, every week—and we turn these words over and over again, reading them again and again, from every angle, bringing all of our experiences as new glasses to see what we might have missed before—turning to the old words, this ancient text, looking for wisdom for our lives, looking for insight, to get a sense for what God might be up to.
This week, we turn to this passage for Isaiah, and we turn it over and over again, because we want to find something, some good news—that’s what I want, some truth from these verses to sustain me, to sustain us, something for my life, something for yours, because the evil in this world is heavy, another weight stacked on our shoulders with every revelation of people suffering at the hands of this government, like the people taken from their workplace in Mississippi, almost 700 people, the most of any ICE raid so far. And Rosa, here, living on church property, buying her time, protected from deportation, waiting for judges to decide whether she can stay in this country, to return to her home with her children in Greensboro.
This stuff weights me down—for you it could be the situation in Kashmir or all the ice melting in Alaska’s seas, or all of this and more. I feel it in my shoulders, the tightness in my neck. Each body carries weight that pulls at us in different ways. I’ve named public trauma here, but I know each of us, each of you, have very personal traumas and heartaches, intimate anxieties that mess with your head, that affect your day to day life.
I don’t know if things are especially bad right now, if we compare this era with the broad sweep of history. Maybe what it means to be human is to be a little narcissistic, to think that our moment in time is unlike are the rest, that the fulcrum of history presses into our time, into these short years, that these are the decisive generations unlike the ones that have come before. Or maybe it’s that, throughout history, in every epoch, things are especially bad somewhere, even if people somewhere else are having a decent life—like there’s some kind of zero-sum game to human existence on a grand scale, a worldwide balance sheet.
There’s a second line to that passage from the Mishnah that I started with: “Turn it over and over again, for everything is in it,” then it says, “Grow old and gray with it.” I like to think about ourselves as growing old with Isaiah, that these words have been with us, as people of faith, through the ages—Jews, Christians, and Muslims, growing up together in every generation with Isaiah, turning these words over and over again, listening for what might be a good word for us, now, here, for us, in this land, among these people, when history has converged again upon us in what feels like another decisive moment, a hinge.
The book of Isaiah is a vision—that’s how the book opens, as we heard in the first verse: “The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (Isaiah 1:1). These words are a way of seeing, a line of sight, an angle on the familiar. Isaiah has been confronted with a truth about the world, God’s truth, and offers a clear-sighted vision of the world, of the people’s situation.
There’s a difference between the situation of Isaiah and ourselves. He is living in an era when people are doing all right, everything is quite comfortable, with decent leaders and such. This first part of the book was written during last half of the eighth century BCE, before his people were conquered and sent into exile. But Isaiah confronts them with an inconvenient truth, to borrow the title of Al Gore’s documentary from over a decade ago.
At the time, the kingdom of Judah had a good king, the economy was good, there was a thriving religious culture. There was no reason to think that anything would change, that this decade would be any different than the last one. Then comes Isaiah, with a word of judgment, and a warning, a vision of what looms on the horizon: exile as the consequences of their injustice. “When you stretch out your hands,” God says to the people, “I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:15).
Obviously some people took these words to heart, because they wrote them down on scrolls and handed them to the next generation, to keep on listening to Isaiah’s truth, to treasure his words. But it sounds like most didn’t listen, because apparently nothing changed, the culture of oppression didn’t change; they were on the threshold of a decisive moment, their own historical hinge, and they kept on going down the same path, toward self-destruction as a society, a crumbling of their institutions.
Our situation seems different. It doesn’t take much to convince people that things are bad, that oppression is the name of the game at this point, as the divide grows between the super-rich power brokers and the disempowered masses. The truth is not in short supply. There’s nothing shocking about the act of truth-telling. Prophets are everywhere, at protests with a megaphone or on the news being interviewed. The truth about our world is not rare.
Every week I hear the truth in your prayers, the concerns we carry with us, offering them up to God—worship as our collective truth-telling before God and each other. Maybe we should think about our prayers here as prophetic, because they invite us to see the world at a different angle, the same familiar world, but cast in a different light, another vision of the truth about our situation—the world I thought I knew, but my angle shifting a little, revealing hidden sides, because of what God has put on your heart, as a prayer, as a concern, as gratitude, words for all of us to hear, for us to join your world. Every prayer is an invitation to solidarity, to turn our attention to the world as you experience it—an invitation to hope with you for God’s redemption.
I don’t know what you need right now, in terms of good news to sustain your spirit, but I do know what I need—and it happens in the prayers that flows through our worship, prayer as the undercurrent of all the rest of what happens here, even in the songs and scriptures, all of it as a communal prayer, and all of feels like the Spirit of God, whispering a reminders that we are not alone, that the same God who inspired justice through the ages, in Jewish and Muslim and Christian communities, as they opened up to these same passage of Isaiah, turning them over and over again, communities where people told the truth when no one wanted to hear it, people who have embodied God’s peace—that this same God of Isaiah has come to us, here, bringing the witness of all who have gone before, their strength, their spirit. The same Spirit who has given them life now gives us life.
Isaiah does warn us against hypocritical prayers, because it’s so easy for us to think that we can says some words to God, to offer words we think we’re supposed to say in public, but then go on with lives as if nothing has changed, to walk out of here and go about our business as if none of this has made a difference for our day to day lives. “When you stretch out your hands,” God says, “I will hide my eyes; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen, because your hands are full of blood” (1:15). But the solution is not to give up on prayers. Instead, the call in this passage is to live a life consistent with our prayers, a life that matches our worship—to let the prayers we hear change us, reform our desires, and renew our vision.
What we do here, together, week after week, has to do with that verse toward the end of our passage, verse 18. “Come now,” God says, “let us argue it out.” Another translation puts it this way: “Let us debate our case.” We turn and turn these scriptures, over and over again, as part of a lively discussion with God—our prayers as part of a debate, an argument, taking God at God’s word, reminding God that we’ve heard about hope that has been offered, we’ve heard the promise of redemption, and we will keep on showing up here until redemption comes.