Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and this morning we’re going to be reading from chapters 19 and 20 as we continue our series through the book of Isaiah.
Also, I’ll go ahead and just admit that this sermon is going to be sponsored by C.S. Lewis. I’ve been listening to some of his lectures to the Oxford Socratic Club, and at the same time rereading the Chronicles of Narnia with AJ; so, given my usual enthusiasm for whatever it is I’m reading at the time, mixed with my general obsession with all things Lewis and Tolkien, my stoke level about these lectures, which I didn’t know existed, is unreasonably high. Rather than saying over and over again, “According to C.S. Lewis,” I decided just to bring in this drawing Meg gave me of Lewis and Tolkien talking together at one of their Inklings club meetings as a sort of asterisk mark on the whole sermon today, so we’ll just leave that right here.
Like I said, we’ve been in a series through Isaiah. Isaiah is a book about the fall of the nation of Judah. It’s a story of humanity’s sin, the distance between who we are and who we are meant to be, and in spite of all we’ve done wrong, God’s redemption, and the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. We talked about how God is reversing sin, bringing what the Bible calls peace, shalom, the distance closed, so that we, and all of creation will be restored back to our original purpose; everything will be made whole and right. We need to learn both to hope for the world as it will be and to live as citizens of the coming kingdom of God.
The past several weeks, I’ve been talking about the tools God is using to bring about his kingdom, in contrast with the tools the enemy uses to do his work in the world. God doesn’t use the same tools the enemy uses to do his work. The enemy uses death, violence, shame, accusation, social and economic oppression. God isn’t going to establish his kingdom that way. He isn’t going to use death against us, or violence, or oppression to establish his rule and reign.
The Lord uses things like natural consequence, time, and memory to reverse the effects of sin on the world. We talked about how he uses hospitality, a word literally meaning stranger-love, bringing people into his kingdom and giving them shelter when they are still enemies of the kingdom.
Last week we talked about the judgement of God, and we deeply misunderstand the judgement of God in our society. We think God the judge has condemned us to death for small crimes—but as I’ve already said, God doesn’t use death in forging his kingdom. Death is not our sentence in judgement, but our crime. We brought death into the world, and apart from God we die slowly in this life, until death consumes us. God’s judgement is a refusal to allow us to bring death through his gates, into his kingdom. We have to leave our weapons at his gates if we are to follow him and enter his kingdom. His judgement, then, is more akin to hospitality and truth-telling than it is to condemnation. Because of the righteous judgement of God, we have a means of entering his kingdom and ridding our lives of sin and death.
This week, I’m going to focus, again, on a single weapon of the Lord, a single tool he is using to forge his kingdom: truth-telling, which I’ve already said is closely related to God’s judgement. We need to see the ways in which God uses truth and truth-telling to forge his kingdom here, in the midst of the earth.
Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 19, starting in v.18, and I’m going to read through Chapter 20, v.2. [Isaiah 19:18-20:2]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Lord, please show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free.
Our society has begun to despair that truth-telling is even possible. But, in truth, telling the truth, just like hospitality and righteous judgement, is not impossible—but it is extraordinarily difficult. We try to teach truth-telling to young kids, not because it’s an easy skill to acquire, but because, like language, it’s so difficult and so necessary to life, you have to start teaching it as soon as a person is able to start learning—even before they’re able to learn it, really.
Truth-telling is hardest when the truth reveals something common or shameful about yourself—which, truth be told, is most of the time. I remember, when I was a child, the anxiety of coming clean to my parents about some piece of glass I’d broken because I was throwing things in the house, or some rule I’d broken—things like that. I think there was a small part of me that always questioned whether this or that wrong thing would mean my parents would love me the less, or whether the trust I had broken would be able to be repaired, whether these wrong things I’d done could possibly be made right.
That anxiety never goes away, but as an adult you’re able to do much more significant damage. Way beyond breaking glass, I’m capable now as adult of breaking marriages and families, childhoods and congregations. Now, as an adult, I know that I’m able to use falsehood to control situations and people. I can hide my own sin, for example, as a pastor, and make sure that my congregation still respects me, will still listen to me and take my opinions seriously. Truth, though, like God himself, is completely out of control. Lies are whatever we make them. Truth, though, will be what it will be. To tell the truth is to lose control. Thus the difficulty.
And then, of course, the consequences of telling the truth can be unpleasant. I was talking with Mr. Joshua on Wednesday at Bible study about how when I was a kid, I was always expected to tell the truth if I had done something wrong, and sometimes the response would be, “Alex, thank you for telling me the truth. I forgive you.” And that would be the end of it. And other times, it would be, “Alex, thank you for telling me the truth; I forgive you. Now go to your room while I decide what your punishment will be.” Sometimes there were still consequences for my actions even after I had told the truth.
Another part of the difficulty with truth is, in order to tell the truth, you have to know the truth, first, and truth is not always obvious. Sometimes you have to study and recover truths which have been forgotten. As Anne-Elise and I were reading through these two chapters this week, we were reading the oracles against Cush and Egypt, and she asked about Cush, and I told her Cush was an extraordinarily advanced black African empire that had conquered Egypt and ruled much of the known world at the time, and she goes, “So Cush is Wakanda.”
And I talked about how Tsippora, Moses’s wife, and her father, Jethro, who was Moses’s closest advisor, were both Cushites. How, later, the name of Cush changed to Ethiopia, and God sent Philip to bring the gospel specifically to them, and how Cush, which would have been located where today we find the nations of Sudan and Ethiopia, still contains some of the most ancient Christian communities in the world. And she told me, after studying the Bible her whole life and being in church, no one had ever told her anything about Cush, and I wasn’t surprised by that. If lies are told, instead of truth, for long enough, truth can be forgotten. Sometimes I worry about, to quote Tolkien, how many of the old truths have been forgotten. So telling the truth is extraordinarily difficult.
But we strive to tell the truth anyway. Frederick Beuchner summed up the whole task of the Christian and the pastor as being one of telling the truth. Why? Why do we need so badly to tell truth? In short, truth-telling is the means by which we give control of our lives over to God. Truth-telling is the means by which we give control of our lives over to God. And one of our deepest needs as followers of God is to lose control of our own lives. With falsehood and lies, we have control over our lives, our histories, the trajectory of our society. We can write our own stories and direct our own lives. Truth-telling is God’s means, the tool he uses, to reorient his people toward the story he is telling in our lives and in the world.
Some truths are harder to tell than others. I think about Isaiah with the truths God asked him to tell. If you remember chapter 6, he mourns his calling to preach the sins and downfall of his own nation, and here in chapter 20 the Lord has him walk around naked for three years to prophecy the destruction of their closest ally. That’s a hard truth to tell, especially since very few people appear to have believed him.
Sometimes the lies we’ve created are so thrilling, and are repeated so often by so many people, it’s hard to believe anything else about the world. You can see this effect in miniature on social media. Stephen Colbert called this effect Wikiality. Someone posts some lie, just thrilling enough to get reposted over and over again, and before you know it, people are having trouble differentiating between dream and reality, but social media is only the latest version of people attempting to create or control their own realities. Humanity has been telling lies to gain control for the whole history of humanity.
For example, in our society, probably one of the most ingrained lies we hear repeated over and over again until it’s hard not to believe it, is the lie about humanity’s progress. We’ve convinced ourselves that, alongside the progression of time, as well as progress in science, technology, and the like, humanity itself has progressed in some way. We’ve even programmed our technologies, with likes and shares—we made machines to tell us we’re doing well as humans. We believe ourselves to be better than our parents—certainly better than our grandparents, because we have progressed beyond them as people and as a society.
We look at ancient times and say, how backwards and violent. How much we’ve learned. How ignorant they were. We like to look down on them, because then we can believe our societies are better, more evolved. But our gods still live on the mountains, unreachable, we just call them celebrities. And we still tell stories about them, they’re still mythological beings, and we still strive our entire lives to be like them, with a thought that one day we might become one of them.
Yes, we’ve learned information about the world since antiquity, but information is not truth. It’s possible to amass a staggering amount of information and yet know nothing of importance. Think of the internet. If you type love into a search engine, you’d get thousands of results, and even if you were to read and memorize them all, every last one, I think you would know very little that’s true about love—or life, or God, or purpose, or wisdom.
The truth is, we are not on some upward slope of progress. We’re no better than our parents or grandparents, or even the ancients. Different, maybe. Not better. In thirty years our children will be denouncing us for our sins—not the ones we’ve fought against, but the ones we lied about. There’s a reason we can read an ancient book like Isaiah and see in it the same kinds of sins and hopes we find in the world today.
God does not lie. That may seem obvious to some, but I guarantee you not to everyone. Some of us have seen the church lie and control enough that we’ve lost faith in this, but it’s true: God does not lie. God tells the truth. Truth-telling is one of the tools of the Lord to accomplish his work of establishing his kingdom here on earth.
All through Isaiah, we’ve seen him speak hard truths, truths that hurt, and truths that build up. There are three truths told in our passage, specifically, I want to bring out, three hard truths that Isaiah was faithful enough to speak which we would be wise to hear.
One, the truth is, all humans are equal in worth and value. All humans are equal in worth and value. It’s not just that we were created equal, but we remain equal. If you look in v.24, Isaiah prophesies that in the day of the Lord Egypt and Assyria would be made equal with Judah. Egypt and Assyria, at this time, are the two largest powers on the earth, and Judah is small, unstable. Assyria is violently subjecting the people of Israel, and Israel, in desperation, turned to Egypt to save them. Egypt promised help, but then never showed, so Assyria demolished Israel.
It’s been said that death is the great leveler, because it is something we all experience, but that’s not true. Death has been used as a tool over and over again for people to Lord it over each other and establish kingdoms like Assyria, with violence, an empire forged at the tip of the sword. Death is not the great leveler. God is, and truth-telling is the tool he uses, not death. He tells truths like, no one is a self-made man, God made you in your mother’s womb. No one is good, God alone is good. If we are saved, we are saved by his grace and unmerited favor through the work of Jesus on the Cross. No one is born into the kingdom of God, we’re all refugees who were welcomed in while we were yet enemies. At the end of the day, we are all paid the same wages, no matter how hard we worked, or how long.
Truth that, in the end, there will only be one king, one Lord, one priest, one kingdom, one table, one church, one people. All humans are of equal worth and value.
Two, the truth is, humanity is not only equal, we are one. We are one. In v.25, God says, in the Day of the Lord, he will call Egypt his people, Assyria the work of his hands, and Israel his inheritance. Three enemy nations, at war with one another, and God says, in his day, there will be a highway between the three nations, so everyone will be able to gather in Jerusalem, praising God and worshipping together. National boundaries rendered meaningless, the earth restored to the way it was made to be. Humanity is not only equal, we are one.
When you look at a globe or map of the earth, you may see it covered in dark, thick lines denoting a national boundary, but in reality, those line’s aren’t there. The world God made is not divided, because humanity is not, in truth, divided. And our churches, we draw denominational lines, but in truth, all Christians have been adopted into one family with God our Father, and Christ our brother, the Holy Spirit in us, making us one.
When we split churches, when we wage wars, and hurl insults, use the weapons of the enemy to make sure the other doesn’t begin to believe he belongs, we’re telling lies. Falsehoods.
Three, the truth is, God will be God. Verse 18, Isaiah imagines the great Egyptian city of Heliopolis, one of the centers of worship of the gods of Egypt, and instead of the Egyptian sun God, Ra, there at its center, there is an altar to the Lord, and a pillar of remembrance of the God of Israel. And through the whole next section, the land of Egypt is shown to be worshipping the God of Israel. All over the earth in the day of the Lord, people from every nation will come to worship the Lord who will be who he will be. The truth is, God is God.
We can make idols, just like we tell lies, to control him, to create our own versions of who God is and what he will do in the world. We create gods in our minds who don’t hate our sins and ones who don’t really ask us to do anything very difficult or require anything of us. Gods who look like us and believe basically the same things we believe. We find teachers who are willing to teach us what we already believe so we never have to repent and change. That’s nice, we paint pictures of these false Jesus’s, hang them on our walls, around our necks and wrists—but truth is, God is God, and he, like truth, is uncontrollable.
And I want to close with v.22, this remarkable image of striking and healing. Isaiah writes, “and the Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and healing.” At first reading through this, I was really thrown off by this image, to the point of being offended. My mind immediately jumped to people in my life who have been emotionally abused, struck and then offered affection, over and over again.
But then I remembered how God is a truth-teller, and how much truth-telling hurts. I thought of surgeons who cut in order to heal. Some truths, the more difficult ones, the one’s we’ve forgotten altogether, when we first hear them, they can almost wound us. So, my invitation today is to allow the Lord to wound you.
Allow him to speak the truth to you, even the difficult truths, the ones you don’t want to hear, but then also allow him to heal you. Striking and healing. Truths like, you aren’t ok; you are sinful and broken. Truths like, God still loves you in your brokenness. There may be many things which offend you as we go through this book of Isaiah, things which cause pain, but we have to trust that God is good, and he tells the truth. He only causes pain to heal; he takes up his weapons, his tools, to restore the world, not conquer it. There’s a lot of truth in this book. A lot we’ve seen already, and we’re only a third of the way through. Some of it comforts us, some of it hurts, but all of it heals. I invite you to call upon the Lord to speak truths into you life that will heal you.