11 Pentecost Yr C, 8/08/2010
Isa 1:1, 10-20
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Prophetic words of indictment and hope”
The African Lion Safari is a wildlife park near Hamilton, Ontario. Lions, tigers, giraffes, baboons and monkeys are all allowed to roam freely within their own fenced in sections of the park. Visitors to the park drive along trails throughout the various wildlife sections either in their own vehicles or in the Safari buses. Posted at the entrance to the Safari is a notice that warns visitors about the danger of driving their own vehicles on the trails. The monkeys can scratch the paint on the cars as they jump from one to the other and the baboons are quite fond of tearing off the chrome stripping. Larger animals have even been known to overturn cars.
Despite the warning, visitors are often lulled into thinking that nothing bad will happen to their car. All those who have watched from the sanctuary of the bus know differently. They have watched thousands of dollars of damage being done to visitors’ vehicles. They know that there is a price to pay when the warnings are ignored.1
What about you and me? What about the Church as a whole and the citizens and politicians of our nation? Do we pay heed to warnings all around us or, like the many visitors to the African Lion Safari park, do we ignore the warnings? If we do ignore the warnings, then are we prepared to pay the price, and accept the consequences of our negligence?
In our first lesson today, the prophet Isaiah—whose name in Hebrew means “The LORD gives salvation”—delivers a message of indictment against his people. Isaiah speaks a sharp word of judgement, which contains a glimmer of hope and promise—albeit conditional. I’m sure Isaiah must have struggled with the LORD and agonised internally over this prophetic vision. After all, who wants to be a bearer of bad news? I’m sure too, that Isaiah most likely knew what the outcome of his proclamation would be—the message would go over like a lead balloon. Isaiah would not win any popularity contests. Rather, he would win first prize for being the most despised and unpopular prophet in Jerusalem. Yet, did that prevent Isaiah from proclaiming his prophetic oracles? No way! God had chosen him to be a prophet and there was no escape. He was destined to proclaim the word of the LORD no matter what the consequences—even if it meant much ridicule, rejection and suffering, which it most certainly did.
In classic eighth century prophetic fashion, Isaiah delivers a burning indictment against his people. The overall tone of Isaiah’s message is that of a heart-wrenching lamentation spoken out of love and the words are cast in lawsuit language. Isaiah speaking the LORD’s words places the people of Judah and Jerusalem on trial; God through Isaiah is both the Prosecuting Lawyer and the Judge. Evidence for the indictment is overwhelming—it is obvious that God’s people are “guilty as charged.” Notice too that by addressing the people and their leaders as Sodom and Gomorrah, what follows is most surely going to be a message of gloom and doom.
The LORD does not value his peoples’ multitude of sacrifices. He has had enough of their burnt animal offerings and takes no delight in animal blood sacrifices. The peoples’ offerings are futile; incense is an abomination to God. God cannot endure their festivals and Sabbaths—his soul hates them; they have become a burden to the LORD and he is weary of bearing them. When the people turn to God in prayer, he will hide his eyes and fail to listen to them because their hands are full of blood. In short, just because they claim to be worshipping the LORD doesn’t mean they are going to curry his favour. Quite the contrary, God is not pleased with them and their worship.
So where does that leave God and the people of Jerusalem and Judah? Well, there is a loving plea from the LORD, although it is conditional—depending on their willingness to listen to God and his prophet by repenting from their sins and responding with acts of obedience. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” In seeking justice for society’s weakest and most vulnerable citizens; Judah and Jerusalem shall be given an opportunity to receive forgiveness from the LORD and their covenant relationship shall be restored. If Judah and Jerusalem do repent, and obey the LORD they shall reap the blessings of their land. However they are warned that if they fail to repent and obey, then their enemies shall overtake and destroy them.
This prophetic oracle of Isaiah reminds me of a similar situation a few years ago in Zimbabwe. Like Isaiah, there was a man who had the fire of a prophet and was not afraid to speak truth to power in his country. Pius Ncube, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe openly criticized President Robert Mugabe while visiting Alberta a few years ago. Pius Ncube said he was not going to be intimidated by President Robert Mugabe. Rather, he was speaking out against the poverty and political violence in his country.
“Half the population of Zimbabwe is short of food,” Ncube told the media while in Edmonton. He went on to say that President Mugabe did not let the United Nation’s World Food Programme send aid, “because he wants to use food as a political tool to arm-twist people to vote for him.” At the same time as Ncube brought this indictment against Mugabe the Zimbabwe government dismissed reports of dozens of deaths in Bulawayo linked to malnutrition as lies peddled by detractors.
The archbishop said food shortages began after the government began seizing thousands of white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks in 2000. “He gave these commission farms to his friends,” Ncube said of Mugabe.
“Those friends of his know nothing about farming. They just sit around, enjoying that they have a farm, but they don’t do proper farming, and this is what really has brought about the food crisis in Zimbabwe.”
“Inflation is at 500 per cent, doubling every second month,” Ncube said. “Three million Zimbabweans have left the country. Life has become a real nightmare, and people are harassed by the political forces all the time.” While in Canada, Ncube appealed to our Prime Minister to appoint a special envoy to Zimbabwe to monitor the situation.2
So the prophetic tradition continues among God’s faithful people today. Thank God for the Pius Ncubes in our Church today! Long may they live and flourish!
As William Sloane Coffin once said: To know God is to do justice. To recognize this implacable moral imperative of the faith represents the kind of good religion that mixes well with politics.
There can be no truth that passes over injustice in silence; nor can there be any moral virtue that condones it. The moral order may not exhaust the beauty of holiness, but it is an essential part of it; for in the grandeur of the prophets’ vision the whole world swings on an ethical hinge. Mess with that hinge and history and even nature will feel the shock.
God is not mocked: what is grossly immoral can never in the long run be politically expedient.3 Today Isaiah calls us to respond to God’s grace by caring for the needs and interests of society’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. For as Jesus says, what we do to them, we do to Jesus himself. Amen.
1 Cited from: Emphasis: A Preaching Journal for the Parish Pastor, Vol. 25, No. 2, July-August 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 45.
2 Modified from a CBC repost on Sunday, 26 September 2004, “Archbishop speaks out against Zimbabwe’s president.”
3 Cited from: Wm. Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), pp. 51, 72, & 100.