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Isaiah 56: A House of Prayer for All Peoples
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and this morning we are in chapter 56.
Last week I told you, we’re coming to the end of this sermon series through Isaiah, and we made one last shift in the topics of our sermons and small groups: talking about the person and nature of God, himself.
Last week, we saw that God is satisfying and good, like bread and wine and milk to the hungry, Isaiah says. And far from being angry, standoffish, or withholding, God is eager to forgive. He’s waiting for us to turn and come home, so we can be a family again. And in Isaiah’s day, in our world, he’s still speaking, words that cause us to grow and change and be alive.
I love that Isaiah ends his book here, considering the character and nature of God, himself. Too little of our time is spent thinking about, praying about the character and nature of our God. We get distracted with the world around us—it seems so real and consequential, this world, and everything that happens here. But God, himself, is more real than we are. He wrote this world like an author. In him we find the foundation of our reality. And he rules sovereignly over this world. His nature and will is more consequential than anything that’s happened to us, any situation we’re in.
The will of God is for hope and joy, peace on earth, and righteousness and unity among all of the peoples. His kingdom come, his will done on earth as it is in heaven. Because God is who he is, our future is life everlasting in the world he is creating even now, among us.
Read with me, Isaiah 56, and we’re reading through v.8. [Isaiah 56:1-8]. Pray with me, briefly.
One of the last papers I ever wrote for seminary was about the effect of the internet on churches, theology, and doctrine. I was in a class studying Martin Luther and the reformation of the church that by most accounts, began today, October 31, in the year 1517. On this day in history, Martin Luther, who was a local church pastor at the time in Germany, posted a list of his upcoming sermon and lecture topics on the door of his church, which was common, like how I’ve been plugging our upcoming sermons about marriage and proverbs. Luther, being Luther, posted 95 of them. Please do not expect that much organization and forward planning from me.
At most times, and in most places, that would probably have been the end of the story, but there was a new technology that had just arrived in his town in Germany—the printing press. A local artist named Cranach had purchased one to print and sell books. But Cranach thought Luther’s list of sermon topics was interesting enough that other people outside of their town might want to read it, so he began printing copies of the 95 theses, and as Luther wrote and preached through this list, Cranach began printing those materials as well, and Luther’s sermons went out all over Europe.
A lot of people point to Luther as the reason the reformation occurred, and he was a great scholar to be sure, but really, in my mind, the catalyst for the reformation, the reason Luther’s and others’ teachings were so consequential, was the press. Without the printing press, the reformation probably would have been localized to Luther’s town, and Calvin’s, and each church where the gospel of grace was being preached in defiance of the legalistic, exchange-driven spirit of that age, but the printing press spread these ideas through the whole of Europe and caused a massive societal shift, for good and for bad.
The press allowed for the printing of Bibles, too, so for the first time many families were able to purchase Bibles and read them for themselves. Imagine trying to live as a Christian and never being able to read the Bible for yourself. What would you do? Many people were dependent upon their pastors to even read the word of God—that’s why most churches read from the old and new testaments and from the Psalms in those days, as we still do in our church today, why they would paint biblical scenes in churches—it was because those readings and paintings were the only experience of Scripture people had outside of what they were able to memorize.
At this same time, for the first time, people began translating the Bible from the original text into common languages—before that it had mostly been in Latin. So not only were more people able to read the Bible for themselves, they could read it and understand it, and they began questioning what they had been taught for so long, now that they had the word of God for themselves. They read the passages their pastor didn’t like to read, heard interpretations of texts their pastor didn’t adhere to.
I’m of the last generation of Americans who will remember the church without the internet. In my paper, I argued the internet has done almost exactly what the press did to the church so many years ago, but to a further degree. Now instead of going through gatekeepers like publishers and book sellers, people can just post ideas to blogs, and anyone in the world can log on and read them. Credentials matter less than fame, because we gauge truthfulness by societal approval. Truth is that which aligns with the spirit of our age; shame is that which contradicts it.
Community, as a concept, shifted from being the people around you to the people who agree with you online, even if they are miles away. Skilled people are able to gain massive audiences, quickly, and influence society as a whole. As I’m talking, without leaving your chair, you’re able to pull up on your phone teachings that would disagree with me, from speakers who are more interesting than I am, amen? Sermons completely different in content and tone than mine. That’s good and bad.
If I teach something false, it’s good to weigh my words for yourself and be able to correct me. But oftentimes, I’ve noticed, people disregard wise teachings, too, and seek out a pastor or writer who will agree with them and tell them what they had wanted to hear from me. Sometimes, people become so fortified with teachings that agree with them, they become what the Bible calls “right in their own eyes,” or self-righteous, which always ends in tragedy both for the self-righteous person and the community around them. Their relationships begin to fracture left and right, everyone willing to challenge them—all of their healthiest relationships—leaving them with just those people in their lives who are willing to pander, exchange agreement for acceptance—so, all of their least healthy relationships. It’s a fascinating time we live in, fascinating and dangerous.
The reformation in Germany eventually settled into bloody war, a literal war that began with a war of words. And in the midst of such times—and like I’ve said, I believe we are living in such times—it’s good to remember Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
In the traditional liturgy—liturgy meaning the work of the people, what we come together to do on Sundays as Christians, and what we are meant to take with us and do throughout our week—in the traditional liturgy, there is a moment, just before communion, called the passing of the peace. We don’t do this here at our church, but maybe we should. You’re meant to turn to the person next to you and speak a word of peace to them. The practice developed in response to Jesus’ teaching that if you have anything against your brother, before you take communion or offer a sacrifice to God, you should leave your gift at the altar and go and make peace with your brother.
So every Sunday, before you receive the truth, the word of God in sacrament and in the sermon, you’re meant to make peace with the person next to you. And peace is always made that way, with the person next to you. Peace in this way is like genuine truth: it’s personal, by which I mean truth and peace are bound up in the person and work of Christ. You can’t mass-produce peace or post it on the internet, make copies. Peace spreads from a single child of God to the people around her, words of peace, gestures of peace from us to the people sitting in the seats next to us. That truth and that peace are meant to come together in our lives, one cutting sharper than a two-edged sword, enabling needed change and reform, and the other as soft as a cup of water for the thirsty, enabling unity.
And the reason I’m talking about all of this is just because of v.7, what for me is a deeply beautiful verse, so beautiful that it brings the joy-like-mourning we’ve talked about in this series before, that sadness coming from a glimpse of what the world was made to be. Isaiah writes, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” And my first point this morning is basically just that: our God is a God of all peoples. Our God is a God of all peoples.
This passage is fascinating. In some ways it seems like a contradiction, because the laws of God surrounding worship in the temple specifically forbade eunuchs and foreigners from worshipping in the temple, and there’s reasons for that that I don’t have time to go into; we can talk about it in small group if you would like. They could be part of the society, but they were excluded from the temple, itself, yet here Isaiah calls specifically to the foreigners and the eunuchs, bidding them come into the house of the Lord to pray and offer sacrifices, saying this is part of God’s righteousness being revealed.
If you don’t know what a eunuch is, be careful googling that one. When Babylon would conquer a nation, they would usually kill the entire family of the king, and they would take the royal families, castrate them, and make them work as servants in the capital. It was one of the ways they assured no one would rebel against their rule—they cut off the family lineages of everyone who might be seen as a leader or rightful ruler. It was a cruel and terrible practice, taking away the future of a person’s lineage, their ability to have children. God calls the childless into his own house, says he will give them an everlasting name, a spiritual family and lineage.
Another fascinating aspect of this passage is that, for the people Isaiah’s writing to, the temple on Zion is destroyed. Yet still God calls his children to come into his house and offer sacrifices, worship, and praise. Because God never lived in the temple. He lives in and among his children. I know I say this every week, but it’s only because it’s true every week—this is a beautiful passage, so deep and meaningful. This passage shows us a God who loves broken things and people, and who’s able to restore them.
A God who doesn’t care if you’re Babylonian or Israeli, American or Mexican, black or white. His house—his real house, not the temple, but his divine presence, his family, the people he calls his children, that’s going to cross every line we draw. And that’s intentional on God’s part, because he’s not just the God of Israel, he’s the God of Babylon, too. And he’s not just the God of America, he’s the God of China, too. He’s the God of the reformed churches, and the God of the Armenian ones, the God of the gritty urban churches and the God of the sleek suburban churches. The God of people who sin in their greed and the God of people who sin in their anger. By grace through faith in Christ alone, God is able to restore any person to wholeness and rights.
Speaking of peoples and the lines we draw, I was thinking and writing recently about one way in which I think our church has begun to look very much like the world around us. As the apostle Paul writes to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” When I look at the world today, I see a world divided. There are a lot of factors at play—the impact of the internet on authority, institutions, leadership, and culture, a global resurgence of nationalism, growing wealth gaps, and the virus, of course, drastically effecting the way we’re living life right now. I see division, like on the globe I had when I was a kid, with the national lines drawn on it. I remember being surprised, when I first saw a satellite image of the earth, that the dividing lines weren’t actually there on the earth God created—we added those on our own.
And friends, we can draw lines all we want over God’s creation, but the truth of what he’s created will always be this: he is a God of all peoples, and his house will be a house of prayer for all peoples. You may not like some of them. Some of the peoples smell. Others are stingy. Some say offensive things, and some quietly judge you. Contrary to the religious teachings of one Mr. Bridges, some of the peoples voted for Trump, and others voted for Biden. Their sins won’t be the same as yours, and that can be offensive. You can write against some of them, re-post videos and articles and they may get shared all over the world. You’ll probably find a lot of people who agree with you, and in the midst of all of that noise is a God who wants you to turn to the person next to you, speak truth, and make peace, together.
It’s hard to hold truth and peace together, sometimes when you speak truth, it causes a divide. Like earlier, when I said we’re saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, that may have felt like a cut, a line, and you can reasonably ask why that line is there, and hopefully the answer to that question sounds something like, “God told the oceans thus far and no further.” As we said earlier, truth cuts like a sword. But usually, I’ve noticed, when I actually lose a friendship or a relationship over something I’ve said, my truth carried some sin or falsehood with it. And I only see in retrospect, once emotions have cooled, my sin in the matter, how I was wrong.
I’m sinful enough to speak even the truth of our God of love in a tone of hatred. To be right, and use my being right in a certain situation as a means of insisting on my own way. I’m cowardly enough to know the truth and not say or do it when I know other people around me will be offended—even if it means others will suffer. I’m sinful enough to be well-informed and educated, and instead of using my knowledge to teach or preach, I use it to win arguments and admiration, have people defer to my positions.
Only rarely in my life can I look at some divide I’ve experienced where it was really, at the core of the person’s heart, the truth of God the person rejected, and not the way I said it, or the way I treated them, or something I got wrong, or their experiences with the church in the past. You, too, may have some people you need to apologize to before we take communion next week. Don’t get so caught up in reformation that it devolves into war. The peacemakers will be called the children of God, because our God is a God of all peoples.
Two, my second and last point this morning is this: Our God is a God of justice and righteousness, together. Our God is a God of justice and righteousness, together. This is just pulled from v.1: “Thus says the Lord: keep justice and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come and my righteousness be revealed.” Our God is a God of justice and righteousness, together.
We like to separate these two things, justice and righteousness, just like we separate truth and peacemaking. Separating them makes living as a Christian much easier. It’s definitely easier to do one or the other. The only problem is, separating justice from righteousness also makes living as a Christian less Christian.
I remember in youth group growing up, I received advice from our youth leaders and teachers, not to hang around with any of the kids doing drugs or drinking, having sex, that sort of thing, not to even associate with them. And at the same time, we had this huge emphasis on evangelism, and I remember thinking even as a high schooler, feeling the wrongness of that and thinking, if I’m not even associating with anyone who’s sinning, who am I supposed to evangelize?
It’s both, and it’s hard. We’re meant as Christians to admit we are sinners, and still pursue righteousness. We’re meant to associate with the people everyone thinks are sinners in our society, and also not join them in their sin. This kind of Christian life will damage your reputation. On one side, people will look at you and say because you associate with the sinners you must be like them. On the other side, people will look at you and say, you’re not one of us and you’ve rejected us because you don’t do the same things we do. And we as Christians are meant to reject both pressures, to raise up the lowly and invite the high people to come down, as Christ did, into the suffering, until the lowly brother is able to rejoice in his high position and the rich is able to boast in his humiliation, as the apostle James writes, knowing that if we’re guilty of breaking one point of the law, we’re guilty of breaking all of it.
Biblically speaking, justice and righteousness are not separate pursuits. You can’t be righteous if you don’t pursue justice, and if you’re not pursuing righteousness you’re not going to accomplish justice—that’s like saying you’re going to take the streetcar to Gentilly. How? It doesn’t go there.
Isaiah says, v.2 “blessed is the man who does this,” who “keeps justice and does righteousness,” who both “keeps the Sabbath” meaning here the law of God, and “keeps his hand from doing any evil,” justice.
We worship a God who became flesh among us, ate with rich people and prostitutes, sometimes at the same time, which was always fun. His closest friends included a child, a violent revolutionary, calloused fishermen, and a wealthy heiress. He forgave Samaritans and Romans, even while they were actively doing the things everyone hates Samaritans and Romans for doing. Sometimes he gathered thousands, and sometimes even his friends abandoned him. Sometimes he flipped tables and the revolutionaries cheered, and then sometimes he paid his taxes. He was called a drunkard and a glutton; he died among criminals and was buried among the wealthy. He rose again to save us all.
My hope this morning is that our church would be a house of prayer for all peoples, that anyone who comes here would hear truth that hurts, and stay because of the love they’ve experienced here. And toward that end, I would invite you to pursue justice and righteousness together. Not one or the other, both together. It will be hard. We’ll fail together, we’ll confess, and repent, and the whole time we will be beloved, called the sons and daughters of God. Pray with me.