Isaiah 56. 1, 6-8.
David was an unusual character at the theological college where I trained- Westcott House- in Cambridge. He told us his father was a Nigerian Prince, and his mother a Polish Poet.
I have never forgotten bumping into him after a lecture on the Bible. His face was the picture of concern and he stroked his beard as he said.
‘ Ian, when I came here I thought there was a book called Isaiah, by the prophet Isaiah. I have now just been told, firstly that there actually two Isaiahs, and then at least 3- is this true?’
I explained sympathetically that it probably was and David continued to his room to recover from the shock.
The section we just heard is from the part that scholars have labelled Trito- Isaiah, because it marks the third obvious division in the text.
Broadly speaking the book of Isaiah is divided into a beginning bit written long before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BC, over a century earlier when Judaea’s main enemies were the ferocious Assyrians, a central bit written when there was hope that those in exile in Babylon would soon return home, and the end bit written when the first exiles had just returned home and were setting about rebuilding their country. This last bit is about the events of 535 BC, when the Persians has destroyed the Babylonian Empire.
This is why it discusses the inclusion of foreigners in the religious life of the newly founded country. Those returning from exile had found strangers living in their city and Isaiah insists they are welcome to stay as long as they adopt the customs of the Jewish people, with particular emphasis on the sabbath.
One of the convictions that runs through the almost 200 year long tradition that is found in the book of Isaiah is that the whole world is God’s domain and business. Religion is often conflated with national boundaries and with or in rigid codes of behaviour and conformity. The Isaiahs constantly look for the bigger picture. God is the sovereign of all creation and all humanity. The challenges the people of Jerusalem faced then were parallel to those facing the people of Beirut today- how to rebuilt a home for all the peoples who inhabit it.
Two other features of Isaiah stand out to me as having particular relevance. Firstly that the marker Isaiah gives for being welcome is not adherence for every aspect of Jewish traditions- it says foreigners will be able to attend religious worship, not that they must, but above all they need to honour the sabbath.
Rest is almost a taboo in our society. We must always be industrious and achieving something. Sabbath then was to let lives, like the land lie fallow, to allow for regeneration. I am not the only person to think that there is great wisdom in modelling lives on a God to rested and a saviour who walked – who took time, not used or saved it.
And the final one is that Isaiah , like many of the most compelling bits of Scripture is poetry.
I deliberately didn’t say poetic, because that is too readily interpreted as a style or a form of flowery and decorative speech. Biblical poetry is rugged and in your face. This morning’s extract is one of the rare occasions when one of the Isaiahs lectures. But as there is currently controversy over schools no longer having to teach poetry to senior students it seems important to rejoice that the Bible too uses language not to impart useful or marketable information but life changing insights.
As we shall be reminded in a moment, Jesus used stories and real human encounters to contrast our exhausted conventional ways of being with what God constantly invites us to.
This is what Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote:
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.