Reflections on Isaiah 56:9-57:21

What a change in these passages from the message of invitation, hope and blessing we read in the previous sections!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words on ‘Cheap Grace’ seem particularly relevant for understanding the message of this part of Isaiah:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

The exiles have returned, have begun rebuilding, it’s been generations since the events we read of at the beginning of Isaiah.  And yet…old habits die hard.

Those who are in position to care for the people of Israel; the sentinels, the shepherds, they are not suited for the task: they are blind, without knowledge or understanding, they are preoccupied with their own gain and satisfaction, and because of it, the people are left vulnerable.  Tellingly, they ‘have all turned to their own way’ — the destructive side of freedom and independence, when it is exercised apart from our dependence on God and apart from our responsibilities and relationships with one another.   When we look at our lives; whether leadership in ministry, in our communities, in marriages, friendships or even just day to day living; when we approach it from the angle of what we are going to get out of it, apart from understanding of what is required of us in the relationship, trouble is coming…

The picture painted in this section of Isaiah is of a people who have returned from exile, and who have likewise returned to the kinds of habits which led to their problems in the first place.  Evil is overlooked; the vulnerable, the righteous are taken advantage of, killed.  Jerusalem (the ‘you’ being referred to beginning in 57:4) has returned to the spiritual practices and habits which had crept in from the beginning.  Some of the sexual references are linked to fertility cults; practices seeking abundant rain, harvests, children, to be received as a blessing from the ‘gods’.  Even more disturbing is the reference to child sacrifice, of the kind practiced by Phoenecian worshippers of Molech.

To put it simply – the heart of the relationship between God and Israel is a commitment to knowing and worshiping the one (only) true God; the God who created all things, and from whom all things continue to have their life, and in whom our future rests.  It’s not a matter of religious diversity or intolerance, it’s an essential question of what’s actually real; where life comes from, and how we are to relate to our Creator.

As we’ve read before here in Isaiah, to relate to something that isn’t god as if it were, is not only to be placing our hope and trust in something that isn’t true, isn’t real, but it has consequences for our understanding and relationship with God who is real.

The wild side of this is that the people of Israel had a veneer of faith in the God of the covenant – they’d rebuilt the temple, they have ‘set up the symbol’ on the doorposts (the mezuzah, containing a scrap of scripture).

It reminds me of all the pious and beautiful wall art we can have in our homes, or post on facebook, citing nice Bible verses… and at the same time, have our hearts and attention preoccupied with false idols: possessions, political power, the pursuit of security at all costs, compromising our values for convenience’s sake – and doing it in the name of God.

God’s not fooled – these things reflect a religiosity of image without the genuine fear (recognition) of who God is, and as Bonhoeffer puts it, the costly grace that calls us to follow.

But those who will truly live ‘in the high and holy place’ are those who are contrite and humble.  It is God who will be their life and strength, reviving them – us – as we seek him.

There will be peace and comfort, grace to all of us who have rebelled, but who will turn / return to God.

Yet for those who are wicked, who keep stirring up violence and evil, who will neither be humbled or recognize that what they are doing is wrong, there can be no peace – not because God does not offer it to them, but because without this humility and repentance, they cannot receive it, and thus find themselves excluded from the peace and wholeness God desires to give.

What images in this passage did you find most challenging?  Encouraging?

What does it mean to you, to come to God with awe, with fear, with humility and contrition?