Leaders would rather lead change and preach repentance and mercy. But what happens when time has run out?
Standing in the Lord's presence, the prophet Isaiah cries, "Woe is me! I am undone!" and charged with a confounding message of coming judgment and destruction. Fr. Timothy Lowe, in a study of Isaiah 6, suggests it's time to sober up in the midst of utter devastation. Our only hope is in the seed of the Lord that might sprout from the burned and fallen stump.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And with me today is our co host, Father Timothy Lowe, former Rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. Hello there, Father Timothy,
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:29
Greetings, Hollie. Nice to see you again.
Hollie Benton 0:31
You as well. So Father, when we think of leaders, even servant leaders, we think of the people who can read the room, those who can understand a problem and clearly articulate a solution. Our best leaders are problem solvers. Right? And not just by providing a technical solution, but by leading a diverse group of people charging into a future that is more hopeful and healthy and prosperous than the situation before. But with the prophet Isaiah, like many other prophetic voices throughout Scripture, he's not delivering a message of the Lord to provide an immediate solution to the problem that the people face. It's a message that on the surface confounds us. It certainly confounds me at first. Hear, but do not understand, see, but do not see. It's as though the message is meant to drive home the fact that we lack understanding, that we don't have a solution. I mean, what parent, what boss, what leader says, I want you to listen to me. And I don't expect you to understand a word I'm saying, because your ears are plugged?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 1:37
Well, certainly, there's a problem here. As you'll see, when we're reading Isaiah chapter six, it's classically called the call of the Prophet. Let's just say he's given a task. And as you say, we will see it is a most extraordinary task, a task that confuses and confounds and actually bewilder, especially if we don't like its message, or even the image it gives of God, but we'll discuss that in a second.
Hollie Benton 2:01
So Isaiah six is a fairly short text, but is packed with incredible imagery and confounding, bewildering news. Here's the first half. "In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim, each had six wings, with two he covered his face. and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew, and one called to another and said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory. And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called and the house was filled with smoke. And I said, Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, Behold, this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven." So here we have, the king is dead and rather than hearing the proclamation of the king's successor, we have the Lord Himself stepping in with a message. And Isaiah the prophet is presented the same really as anyone among the people, a man of unclean lips in the midst of a people of unclean lips. There doesn't seem to be anything about Isaiah, his character, his education, his experience, that makes him stand out as a prophet. The Lord acts, declares that his guilt is taken away, and his sins forgiven. This way, I think we can be sure it's not Isaiah's message, the words of a man, but a message directly coming from the Lord Himself. We've talked on this podcast before about characters in the Bible, who in many ways function as anti-heroes, the ones we least expect to receive God's favor. So how is the prophet Isaiah functioning here? Has he in some way earned his prophetic role in any way?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 4:12
Well, we know that that can't happen. But I like how you started off with the idea that the king is dead. Uzziah was a particularly notorious king actually, idolatrous king. And as you said, usually when the king dies, the issue of succession and who's going to take place and stability and all of that comes into question. And so what I want to see as we go back and forth here in Isaiah chapter six is the beginning contrasts. Okay, desperation, the king is dead, as you said, there's no "long live the king" with replacement. But all of a sudden you have a vision of the true king, God in the temple, Yahweh and His temple. And so you need to contrast with the state of one and then the revelation of the true king, which is the Lord of hosts. In the vision that Isaiah somehow is privy to, okay, epiphany, He sees God. And immediately he makes a declaration. And this is the first point I want us to just catch. Because so often, we talk about wanting to see God and have a vision of God. And if you read Isaiah six, you do not want this at all, because all of a sudden, he exclaims, "Woe is me, for I am being undone." I'm being unmade. I am being cut off. In other words, he's a dead man, let's use jargon. I remember visiting Mar Saba, a monastery, by myself, I just actually went as a pilgrim, knocked on the door, and monasteries are supposed to open the door. I was a priest and I had my authentic papers from the Greek patriarchy in Jerusalem, so they were gladly willing to receive me. And there were two monks there out of about six or seven, and they were English speaking monks, one from Canada, one from America, and they were dying for someone to speak English with, because you know, the language in the monastery is Greek, everything else was Greek and all the services in Greek, so they were so hungry to speak English. I was actually overwhelmed. So we sat and had coffee and, and I listened to them. And the one young monk, he was an American, so you know, doesn't surprise me that all he could talk about was the Transfiguration and seeing the divine energies and seeing the uncreated light. I dismissed it because he was young and zealous. And I'm more of the Isaiah chapter six, you see, God? You're immediately undone. We just had the Feast of Transfiguration, right? The image sends them head over heels on their face, okay, it's not a good moment. Let's just say that for all the Orthodox who might think otherwise, he is undone, he is going to be unmade, I want to say uncreated in a certain sense, unless something happens, unless God chooses not to bring him into judgment. And so you have the image of forgiveness, but the image of forgiveness what it is, it's the coal that touches the lips. And that's functional, because he is going to have to speak not His words, not his words. But if he is to speak, it will be from a man of clean lips. In other words, the words coming straight from God, we see this background to prepare Isaiah for the task. Now, we haven't really gotten to that yet, because that's in the next section. But my point is that God has chosen to be merciful, not willy nilly, because he's a merciful God, but merciful for a reason, for a purpose. In other words, God owns the lips of Isaiah. That's what I want us to understand. When we think of baptism and chrismation, God owns us, we are no longer our own says St. Paul, you see, and then he goes on to elaborate what that means functionally in our lives, which means we're serving a new master. And we're not free to willy nilly go about. Why? Because we've been shown mercy, okay, instead of judgment. Because we'll see, we'll find out what judgment is in a second.
Hollie Benton 8:00
So let's continue with the rest of the chapter. "And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send? And who will go for us? Then I said, Here am I send me and he said, Go and say to this people, Hear and hear, but do not understand, see and see, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes less they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. Then I said, How long Oh, Lord. And he said, Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men and the land is utterly desolate, and the Lord removes men far away and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump." Well, it sounds like people are really in for it. I don't really hear a call for repentance, here, a call for change, it seems that people will be subjected to their own blindness, to their own deafness and fatness of their hearts. Their city will be destroyed, they're going to be exiled, and even this little tiny bit that remains will be burned again. And all that's left is a stump. And the message is the holy seed is its stump. And I think, Wait, what? What is this holy seed? How can this utter destruction bear a holy seed?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 9:33
So let's start with the beginning. And the Lord says, Who shall I send and who will go for us? Now this is a warning to us all. Never volunteer. It's like Christ going and calling Peter and Andrew James and John to come and follow. They have no idea, okay? They volunteer okay, Here, Here am I. Send me. Without knowing what's going to happen, not knowing what the message is. A little bit of joking here to begin with because so much of life for those that somehow feel called by God or think they have a mission from God, watch out, okay? Because it may not be what you imagine. We always imagine something that is glorious and fulfilling and satisfying. Then we read, okay, go and say to this people, right?
Hollie Benton 10:18
I find it interesting though that the sequence is his lips are touched with the coal, and he's declared forgiven and free from guilt. He's not asking for a volunteer first and then the volunteer gets his lips touched by a coal. The coal comes first. So in a way aren't the words that he's speaking, Here I am, Send me, not his own words. It's nothing about Isaiah's character that establishes him as a prophet. It's the Lord declares him. He owns his lips.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 10:48
It is the content of the message that is the most onerous task. He's volunteering to go be an emissary, sometimes the word prophet we have all kinds of things attached to that, he is willing to deliver a message. The problem, of course, is the difficult task. Hear, but do not understand, see, but do not perceive, make this heart of this people fat, lest, this, for me was always the difficult part, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and turn and be healed. In other words, the only way to explain this is that the time for repentance is done. The time for repentance is done. There is no possibility. You're bringing the message of judgment and the coming destruction. That is the singular message, which to us means, where's the mercy? Isaiah got mercy. But no one else is getting mercy for whatever reason. It's like Matthew 25. In the last judgement, there's gonna come a time where mercy and repentance is no longer, you're being accountable for your actions. And this is what I want people to understand. There is a time when there is no other possibility, it is judgment and destruction. And so he has to deliver this horrible message of not a possibility of repentance. Jonah, go and say, you know, Ninveh is going to be destroyed unless you heed and they repent, delivering a different message. This is a message of judgment of their sins. That's imminent, and destruction and there's no other option. And this is why it's nasty beyond our imagination. Because we always think that there's an escape hatch, we always think, oh, there's two thieves on the cross. And in Luke, one of them gets repentance, not in Matthew and the other ones. They're not quite so merciful, as the Lukan gospel message. That's it. It's final. They're being held accountable. So that's the message. But then as you say, the question moves on to Well, how long? And then he gives explicit information, Until cities lie waste, until things are utterly desolate, it's going to happen again in case there's anything left. Then the odd punch line, which comes out of nowhere. Father Tarazi used to talk about Isaiah and the judgment, after the lion has devoured the lamb. The only thing that remains is a piece of the Lamb, he would joke and say, maybe his ear, but that's is something still remaining, upon which then God will start again, the renewal comes after the destruction. After the judgment, that there is again, the holy seed or the stump, there is still some remnant. We need to clarify, it is not a holy remnant. In other words, a few righteous that remain, you know the story of Abraham, negotiating with God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, well, if there's 50, will you? If there's 40, if there's 30, blah, blah, blah, you know, righteous men, will you spare them, okay? It's not the sense of someone was righteous and therefore spared. No, everybody has gone through judgment, and whatever is left will be the bits. The stump, the seed, and the seed is a very powerful image, as you know, from Genesis it is the source of life, it is the sperm that gets implanted and goes again. And it is the tragedy of the story of ancient Israel, which is sinfulness, judgment, starting again. And we see that in Genesis so often, in the biblical story so often, and we dare say, we know it's true in our own life, if we survive judgment. Of course, the fact that you and I are here and we're still breathing means there is a tomorrow. We're not going through this in that sense. But we believe as Christians, at some point, there will be a point where things are being consummated. The hour of our death, for example, where there is no option. It's just the loss of life through the end of the breath in our lungs, and then there is nothing else. So anyway, the holy seed is the stuff that is the stray, that is that ray of hope that Isaiah gives to Israel at some point. But tell that to Ukraine, or any other country that is suffering through climate, revolutions, or bombings. I think of Gaza, again, being bombed by Israel in that part of the world it's personal to me in a way that others may not because having lived there, but again, you have to start again. Start again. So the task is judgment. accountability. The prophet is simply the mouthpiece delivering the message, don't kill the messenger. Don't kill the priest if he preaches the coming judgment of God instead of repentance because there's no repentance being preached here. It's not repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. In other words, we've already been through a huge cycle. And now it's chapter five and Noah, again, okay, well, we'll start again with Noah. It doesn't go too good five chapters later.
Oh, the Bible, what are we going to do with it, Hollie? It's not a very good point of Americana, self righteousness and national pride and Christian countries and all the other Orthodox countries that imagine themselves as God's chosen. What can we do? Except read Isaiah.
Hollie Benton 16:09
Yeah, knowing that we hear but don't understand, that we see but don't perceive. To reckon with the difficulty of the message, to recognize in ourselves the resistance that we have for this message of judgment.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 16:21
We don't imagine that it's come to that dire point. That's all. I think we're waking up to the fact that the world seems to be at a dire point, climate change, all the craziness going on there. But all the craziness going on in countries and the polarization and the desperation for food and I think we're seeing a dire point. The young people, what do they think these days about the world and the future, their own future, and we can't give them just false hope, optimism, because it makes us feel good for five minutes until the next stringing up of . . . did you read today, someone was strung up in Los Angeles? Body burned on fire, stuff that is not even comprehensible. So you can see what it means to have a hardness of heart, ears that, don't see, you lost your humanity, which means your ability to function as a human to hear and to see and to act. And therefore, God says enough. God says enough. And I don't say that without tears. So not a happy message. So why did I pick Isaiah chapter six?
Hollie Benton 17:26
It's not all pink roses. Is it?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 17:28
Sober up, okay? Let's sober up.
Hollie Benton 17:32
Fr. Timothy Lowe 17:33
With the real scriptural God and not the one we want him to be like, which basically means we want our cake and eat it too. We do want to eat, drink and be merry and then also go to heaven.
Hollie Benton 17:46
God forgive us.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 17:46
God forgive us, truly.
Hollie Benton 17:47
Thank you, Father Timothy.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai