Reading the News

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.  Isaiah 6:1

Excerpt from lectionary text: Isa 6:1-13

for Sunday, February 10, 2019

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah ben Amoz went into the Temple.  Maybe he went for duty; maybe he went for solace.  Maybe he went for sense of presence that had sustained him in the past.  The presence that he felt not in but through the pillars of bronze capped with lily-work, the basins of bronze and carvings of cherubim, the lamp stands of pure gold, the altar … (1 Kings 7:15-50).

In the year of the new Congress, in the month after the government shutdown — the month in which it might happen again — in the week of a multitude of news stories about race and politicians and public figures, of fingers pointed and voices raised and all of it accusation and none of it dialogue, I opened the book of Isaiah.  Maybe I went for duty; maybe I went for solace; maybe I went in hopes of a new encounter with the presence that has sustained in the past.

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah went into the Temple.  He stretched out his arm and felt weight of the door shift as he pushed his hand against it.  And maybe, when he entered, he heard the priest say, ‘This week, worship will focus on the pomegranates.’ And maybe Isaiah thought ‘The pomegranates? Again?’  It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading this fruit nor appreciate its rich symbolism.  But I’ve made a study of it already, recently, have pored over so many scholarly scrolls.  I know how the pomegranate links Temple and the high priest’s robes (Exod 28:33-34) and the land itself (Deut 8:7-10).  I have studied the way this text links to the rest of the book — the reference to lips and mouth, the motifs of deafness and blindness — all themes which recur, with variations, from Isaiah 6 through Isaiah 29 to Isaiah 42 and on. But this is the year King Uzziah died. But this is the week that every time I open my laptop, there is a new ‘Breaking News’ scroll, and this text is too familiar, and I had hoped that we’d be set to something new, to stretch our study and pondering, to encounter sustaining presence amid this urgent and pervasive instability.

Isaiah set himself to read again the familiar fruit, in the familiar space, in the Temple, set above the capitals.  I set myself to read again the familiar text, in the familiar space, between the Song of the Vineyard of Isaiah 5 and the encounter at the Fuller’s Field of Isaiah 7.  Isaiah set himself to read again the familiar fruit in the new space of Uzziah’s death.  

And Isaiah saw the LORD and heard the singing and smelled the smoke and felt the shaking of his own heart pounding in sync with pivots on the thresholds.

‘How long, O LORD?’ Isaiah heard himself ask, presented as he was with God’s impossible command:  to prophesy with the expectation of being ignored, to persist in the face of stubborn rejection, to speak knowing that very speech would — surely, perversely — cause the audience to turn away, to add to the online comment field ‘How long do we have to discuss this?  How long are we going to go over this old ground?  He is the problem, not us.  He is reprehensible.  We never harbored those thoughts, participated in those practices, laughed at those photos.’ How long?

Reply comes that persistence is required.  Because the rejected word is not the last word.  Because the hardening, the closing-off, the people turned to stone is not the point but the path.  There will be planting where there was pulling up.  There will be new growth where there was only burned-over ground.  Because there cannot be new growth until the ground has been cleared.  Because the people cannot be healed until they realize they are sick.  Until we realize that we are sick unto death.

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the LORD in the Temple.  In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw himself.  Maybe Isaiah saw himself so devastatingly clearly because Isaiah saw the LORD, so high and lofty.  Maybe Isaiah saw the LORD high and lofty, because suddenly Isaiah saw himself as he never had done before.  

Stretch out your arm; put your hand up to the door; feel its weight shift in response to your push; enter into the text though you have done so countless times before.  Read the known text; read the news.  Whichever reading occasions the vision, may it come.  Overwhelming in its very reality.  Bringing into shocking conjunction the image of holiness, the conviction of sin.  Leading to the necessary cry:  ‘Woe is me, for I am a woman of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.’  Proclaim it.  For according to the promise, ‘Woe!’ is not the ending but the hope of its beginning.

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