Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8
The book of Isaiah depicts God’s judgment for injustice and idolatry, but also God’s restoration and redemption, announced and enacted by God’s chosen servant. For this reason, Isaiah has been called “the fifth Gospel.” There is much for Christian preachers to proclaim here. Indeed, Isaiah has traditionally been featured prominently in church readings, especially around Advent. But because readings from Isaiah only show up once or twice each year in the Narrative Lectionary readings, we propose this four-week preaching series to focus on this gem of Scripture.
The opportunity to spend a month on preaching Isaiah presents the chance to reflect on the book not just as a source for passages that Christians have applied to Jesus. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear—which invites honest self-reflection from Isaiah—we can see that Isaiah is the story of a community way too content with itself, that is confronted with God’s negative evaluation. What follows in Isaiah is a story of coming to grips with spiritual and communal decay, and God’s people’s experience of judgment, with the eventual promise of redemption. God’s presence during the national suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Zion is the overarching message of this work.
One month is much too short a time to plumb the depths of Isaiah. But these four Sundays offer the chance to describe broad movements of the text. My hope for you as you are preaching is that you will connect the national experience of Zion with the life of Jesus, but also to your community of faith. Every community over time will experience (and hopefully correctly identify) problems that may lead to a sort of death of the community. God has always been a God of resurrection, whether or not we acknowledge it. And God delights in restoring what has been damaged and lost. That is the promise of Isaiah.
Week 1: June 4, 2023
Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]; (Luke 5:8-10)
The first step is admitting we have a problem
Isaiah 6 is the real beginning of the prophetic book. Everything prior is prologue or overview. In chapter 6, Isaiah is given an overwhelming view of God in the heavenly throne room. The fiery, winged serpents that we last encountered in Numbers 21 are here, covering their feet (which they still have, unlike terrestrial snakes … ) and their faces, perhaps out of fear of God’s devastating majesty. Indeed, the throne room itself is almost overcome, as the foundations shake with the eternal praise of God. The room fills with smoke, and we get the sense that even heaven is being ripped apart by God’s awe-inspiring presence. God is simply too much. The angels cannot bear it. Heavenly courts cannot bear it. And Isaiah certainly cannot bear it.
Isaiah knows that he is a man of unclean lips amidst an unclean-lipped people. Interpreters will differ here, but there is no reason to limit the implications of Isaiah’s confession. The people have been consuming things that violate their covenant with God, and they have been saying things that violate their covenant with each other. Isaiah is not mentioning something that God had not previously noticed, however. One of the fiery beings took coal from the heavenly altar and touched Isaiah’s lips. After this fiery cure for his uncleanliness, Isaiah volunteered to be God’s mouthpiece.
We must notice the framing of Isaiah’s mission: he was to make the people insensitive to God’s words, so that they could be driven to judgment, rather than repentance. Isaiah and God are on the same page—there is a national problem that will require national-level repentance to solve. However, it seems to be too late. Punishment is coming. Healing is still possible, but it would mean that the community would have to wake up to exactly how bad the problems are.
A discerning preacher could reference Luke 5 and Jesus’ calling of the disciples. They, too, recognized the danger of imperfection when the Lord calls. Nevertheless, God—and Jesus—are less reluctant to use imperfect humans as partners than the imperfect humans are to imagine that God would collaborate with them.
Week 2: June 11, 2023
Reading: Isaiah 9:1-7; (John 8:12)
Light amongst shadows
After admitting that the community was deeply complicit in injustice and idolatry, the prophet acknowledges the consequences. The community enters a prolonged period of regional gloom. Where once they experienced pride and safety, now their lands are conquered. People walk in darkness and they live in the shadow of death. This is the reality. But it is not the end.
For those in the gloomy shadows of despair after a communal tragedy and the death of so many dreams, Isaiah promises a light. A leader will come to dispense justice, peace and hope for those beaten down by failure and loss.
Isaiah is probably referring to Hezekiah here, who led a campaign of religious, economic, and cultural reform. Christian preachers may want to skip straight to Jesus, but I would like for us to sit with one of the great reformers of the Bible to consider the communal impacts of national restoration. Understanding Hezekiah better helps us see Jesus more clearly. God’s anointed leader was raised up specifically to show the people the ways of righteousness and to incorporate those who had been cut off and misled, particularly and specifically those in Galilee. In a time when wars raged around them, God’s anointed practiced righteousness peacefully. The light that dawned in the gloom was peace, righteousness, and inclusion of those who had been separated (or separated themselves) from the community. Seeing Hezekiah’s ministry in his day should put Jesus’ work in a clearer focus.
The preacher may wish to reference Jesus’ frequent assertion in John’s Gospel that he is the light of the world. God did not wait over seven-hundred years to shine a light in Galilee, however. Jesus should be seen as the most important part of God’s ongoing salvific work, not an anomaly unconnected to God’s enduring mission.
Week 3: June 18, 2023
Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11; (Mark 1:1-4)
Almost out of suffering
The worst has come. The community has died. Whereas previously God has warned and confronted the people with the consequences of their injustice and idolatry, now God provides comfort and care in the midst of those consequences. The image of the highway in the wilderness is potent, and often repeated. I hope that when preaching on this passage, we will remember whom this highway is for! Often we talk about the exiles returning, coming back to the Holy Land. Certainly, this is part of what is going on here, I think. But we must remember the highway is for God to travel on! God comes to the people, rather than requiring the people to come to God first (see especially verses 9-11). God, ever the shepherd, mounts a rescue mission, and comes to where the sheep have wandered/been driven, to carry them in the divine arms to safety.
God here, and in much of the rest of Scripture, functions as a divine go’el or kinsman-redeemer, whose job it is to rescue, no matter who was at fault. Even when bad choices lead to debt and slavery, the kinsman-redeemer is to pay whatever the cost to free the relative, rather than permit them to live in bondage. The highway in the wilderness is the path that God will take to come and rescue God’s people. The references to this passage in the Gospels should be read similarly. The highway is not for the people to come out to the wilderness to behold the messiah or start the process to work out their own salvation. Instead, the way in the wilderness is for Jesus to begin his work as kinsman-redeemer, to free his siblings from our sins and debt to death.
We must note that the Good News of God’s Salvation is announced and heard in community in Isaiah. All flesh sees God’s glory together. Members of the community call out to one another to announce God’s salvation. How can we cultivate, with our preaching, a community of Good News?
Week 4: June 25, 2023
Reading: Isaiah 61:1-11; (Luke 4:16-21)
From wounded to healing to ministry
The Lord’s anointed one brings good news to the humble, care for the broken-hearted, proclamations of release to the captives, and comfort to those who mourn. But that is not the end of the action; indeed, it is just the beginning. Then the humble, broken-hearted, former captives and mourners will rebuild, restore and raise up. Indeed, those who were lowly will ascend to the positions of priests and ministers of the Most High. They will be ministers for the God who loves justice. The lowly will be recognized as God’s own people who are adorned with the righteousness God inspires them to perform. This is the ministry that Jesus announces for himself, and challenges those who follow him to undertake.
In this four-week journey through Isaiah, we have seen a community that suffers in its own sinfulness. And we have seen how God accompanies that community through death and resurrection. Finally, God raises up that community collaboratively to do the work of God. I hope we see echoes of Jesus, and inspiration for our own communities as well.
June 4, 2023