Reading: Isaiah 6
When I read the Sunday School curriculum, this was one of the passages that I looked at closely. Growing up, I head many sermons out of Isaiah 6. I heard sermons given by evangelists, seeking people to announce that they were called to ministry. When I attended Quaker Haven (in Kansas), this passage was quoted after getting us excited about the various work of missionaries. The call of Isaiah was used again and again as a recruitment passage.
When I went to Barclay, we read books about church growth that implied that if we were not increasing in numbers, we were failing to meet the great commission. There was a real message that God called people, equipped them, and brought success. The message we received was very optimistic. It seemed obvious that God called people into ministry to make them and their ministries successful.
When I graduated, I quickly learned that life isn’t as easy as it seemed from the sermons and books. Some of my friends went out to plant churches, and for the most part they had to leave church planting, and find secular jobs as the new churches they put so much work into failed.
For the most part, people didn’t see God blessing them with wild success; it was far more likely for them to question if God ever called them in the first place. These days, even people who felt successful are often second guessing themselves. Too many of these people who were absolutely excited to serve God found themselves disillusioned. Many of the deeply devoted Christians who were clearly called into ministry are no longer involved in any church. Eventually we all have to learn the lesson that we were too optimistic — even though it is a painful lesson to learn.
It is even more difficult in that even though almost everybody I know who feels called to a ministry is frustrated and struggling, we too often forget that we are all in this together. Too many of us don’t remember to encourage one another. We too often end up borrowing the standards of the culture we live in, and we compete with one another and forget to encourage one another. We too often feel discouraged, and alone — it is no surprise that many people who were called and devoted hit a point where they were ready to give up.
In all those sermons I heard as a kid, nobody really got into the part of the passage that said that the people Isaiah preached to would never listen, and never change. We never really talked about how one can be a faithful failure. We never asked ourselves what it means that a person can be called to a ministry that will be unsuccessful. What happens is that we apply the same standards that “the world” uses to the church. I desperately needed to ask this question. I wish I would have been wise enough to notice that God was up front with Isaiah, and told him nobody would listen.
Jewish commentators tell us that Isaiah was King Uzziah’s first cousin. He was, according to tradition part of the royal family, which explains why he was able to approach them and speak to them harshly. Three more generations of kings, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah put up with his messages of God’s judgment against their rule. Eventually, tradition tells us that Manasseh condemned Isaiah to death for claiming to see God, and speak for God, and he was sawed in half. The fact that he survived so many decades of unwanted prophesies addressed to royalty makes it very likely he was part of the royal family.
Whoever Isaiah was, he was somebody who really sacrificed for the ministry that he was called into. It is a true sign of obedience that he not only knew what he was getting into, but that he lived through 60 years of fruitless ministry. It is almost as if he suffered punishment for his obedience, even though we expect God to bless and reward us for our faithfulness.
One reason that I love the Bible so much is it challenges our assumptions. God often does not work the way that we expect. Isaiah, for example ministered for a long time, likely over 60 years. No matter how much he warned, people never changed. I am impressed with the tenacity to continue to prophecy for a whole lifetime, without success. Tradition tells us that he died by being sawed in half — and likely, this means that he was mentioned in Hebrews 11‘s list of faithful people.
I needed my assumptions challenged. If I did not have my challenges challenged, I would look down on the ministry of every pastor who is not ‘growing the church’ enough. We have always needed our assumptions challenged: For example, we all know the story of Job. He was righteous and just person, a person who God spoke well of. When he suffered, all his friends assumed that his suffering was a punishment for his sinfulness. They assumed that if a person was right with God, that person would enjoy God’s blessings in a material way. Actually, its perfectly natural to expect God to bless us — Job teaches us that God does not work that way, and that we cannot judge somebody’s relationship with God based on health or wealth.
When I read the prophets, I find that most of them are like Isaiah. Sometimes there is a King such as David who will hear a prophet such as Nathan, and repent of his bad behavior, but for the most part, the prophets were ignored and eventually killed. Prophets were so often killed by those in power that Jesus asked whether a prophet could die outside of Jerusalem. Here is what has truly challenged my assumptions: The one time that a prophet was truly successful, his name was Jonah, and he wanted nothing more than to see God wipe out the people he prophesied to — people who were enemies of Israel. They repented, and God forgave them — God further corrected Jonah, showing that God cared for everybody, even those God’s worshipers considered enemies. Again, the Bible challenges our assumptions.
Even the New Testament repeats this: Jesus promises the disciples that their ministry will be very difficult. The last weeks before the crucifixion are a time when the crowds start to leave, and even the disciples start to distance themselves from Jesus. While Jesus was alive, the disciples continued to place their own political ideologies onto Jesus’ ministry, failing to understand what Jesus really stood for. Our assumptions cannot be right, when our assumptions make the greatest figures, and even the author of our faith look like failures.
What does it mean that God called Isaiah called Isaiah and others to a ministry where they would never succeed? To me, it means that God does not ask so much for results, as God asks that we be faithful. We are asked to have faith that God knows what God is doing. Sometimes, its easy, these days it is often hard, but our lot is to do the work we are given faithfully, even when it seems fruitless. It also means that we are very short sighted. We don’t see as clearly as God does, and thus our judgement is as flawed as our perception is limited.
Everything we observe and assume is very short term. God is able to see in long term to the point that Isaiah’s 60 years were short term. Today, Isiah is one of the most quoted parts of the Old Testament. Whenever we read New Testament, we see Isaiah quoted. Isaiah’s vision of restoration is so tied to our idea of Jesus Christ that Isaiah has been called by early Christian commentators: “The fifth gospel.” God turned 60 years of failure into success. How long was it until people listened? “Until the cities lie waste without inhabitant, houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate,” but, when Israel was restored and the 2nd temple was built, Isaiah seems to have been the most popular prophet. Isaiah is now more wildly successful that anyone could have imagined — 60 years of failure, followed by 2500 years of unspeakable success.
When we are discouraged, let us continue to walk with Jesus, and trust that God knows what God is doing. We don’t see everything, God does. When we see somebody struggle, we need to be careful to remember that ultimately, God is their judge, not us. We cannot see the heart, God does. For me, my biggest false perception was that it was my responsibility to do great things for God. Isaiah and the prophets taught me that it is my responsibility to walk with Jesus, and have faith that as long as I do, Jesus will take care of the destination.