During the deadly blizzards in Buffalo last December, one man whose life was in peril from the cold heroically broke into a school to shelter over twenty strangers after being turned away from ten different houses on his own search for warmth. I have been haunted by this story ever since I first read it, not because there is something anomalous about those ten households who refused him, but because that series of rejections is so predictable, so regular, so known. We human beings are programmed for self-preservation, and there is, of course, a profound risk in opening one’s home to a stranger. It is a risk that can seem too significant to overcome, even when the danger is far greater to the one who remains out in the cold.
To put someone else’s survival ahead of—or at least on par with—the survival of oneself and one’s family is perhaps more learned than innate. Even the birth of Jesus in a stable—the iconic tableau of the Christmas story—features the holy family’s being turned away from inn after inn for lack of room (a euphemism, I suspect, for lack of will to host the bloody and dangerous spectacle that is childbirth).
And yet, that is what the gospel calls Christians to do: to be the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), to do things that are counter-cultural, even counter-intuitive, for the sake of love of neighbor, even at risk to themselves. That mandate is neither new nor unique to Christianity. The law of Moses envisions a just society ruled by generosity rather than raw self-interest, including special protections for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.
Time and time again the Hebrew prophets call their listeners back to the law: back to “sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house” (Isaiah 58:7), back to “offering food to the hungry and help to the afflicted” (Isaiah 58:10), back to fair scales, fair wages, and sabbath rest. By delivering their oracles in poetry, the prophets do this calling-back not by making a coldly logical case, but by crafting a lyrical argument that startles their hearers with urgency and emotion. The prophets are songwriters.
The post-exilic portions of the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66), sometimes referred to as “Second Isaiah” or “Deutero-Isaiah,” contain some of the most soaring—and convicting—poetry the Bible has to offer. In this week’s Old Testament reading, this Persian-era prophet voices God’s frustration at the hypocrisy of people of faith who are meticulous in their religious practices but fail at righteousness. In other words, they make no connections between their life of faith and their everyday actions. Worship happens over here, “real life” happens over there, and neither has much bearing on the other, despite the fact that the Mosaic tradition weaves the two together like the threads of a rope.
The poem in Isaiah 58:1-14 reads like a piece of music. The opening lines are a sforzando, a loud jolt that grabs the attention not only of the reader, but also the prophet, who is addressed by God and told to shout, sound his voice like a trumpet, and announce the people’s rebellion (verse 1). The volume immediately diminishes to a mezzo-piano level: God is reflective, if also incredulous and a little sarcastic, about the hypocrisy of the people (verse 2). The poem crescendos as God’s voice rises in response to the people’s complaint, “Why do we fast, but you do not see”? (verse 2) The series of divine rhetorical questions in verses 3b-7 grows louder and more strident, until the call to do justice erupts into a series of positive consequences: your light shall break forth, your healing shall spring up, you will be flanked by God’s glory, and most, especially, God will answer your cries for help. Through poetry, the prophet makes the law sing with promise. Once you’ve heard it a couple of times, the tune sticks in your head.
The challenge of living a faithful, righteous life is just as acute today as it was in the ancient world; we can file this issue under Ecclesiastes’ observation that there is “nothing new under the sun.” That’s where you come in, Working Preacher. Your job is to help these Scriptures come alive for our era, to make a claim on the lives of those sitting in the pew or in front of the live stream. I will stop short of saying that preachers are necessarily today’s prophets; I have mentioned before that I prefer the analogy of the preacher as scribe. Nonetheless, preachers can take a cue from the prophets in their use of poetry: their appeal to the lyrical and the startling, the way that poems “show” rather than “tell.”
Is there a perfectly crafted three-point sermon out there that will make us all act with integrity, generosity, and justice? Anything is possible with the Holy Spirit. But the preacher’s goal need not be so lofty. The preacher gives us a tune that sticks in our brains, a few bars of a sermon that we will go home humming to ourselves without even noticing. It’s the one that will be on our hearts when a freezing stranger knocks on our door in a blizzard and prompts us to open the door. Through preaching, you can make the law sing with promise.