Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come!…and every person’s heart will melt, and they will be dismayed…Behold, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation…Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts…
When people tell me why they don’t like reading the Old Testament, usually what they have in mind are passages like today’s lesson from Isaiah 13:6-13. The idea of God as a wrathful, destroying power runs counter to our desire for a kinder, gentler deity. We much prefer a god of our own construction — an ever-patient, if lifeless idol — a mostly benign, constantly affirming (if somewhat impotent) deity that meets us “where we are”, asks little of us in the way of repentance, and never, ever suggests anything that might diminish our fragile self-esteem. This god is one-dimensional — easily predicted, easily controlled and easily confused with the human ego. Such a god, created in our image, is little more than a reflection of our own wants and needs.
I can’t imagine Isaiah’s preaching gathered much of a following. Times may have changed, but people haven’t. Who honestly wants to hear more about desolation and destruction? Who honestly wants to confront a God who exists in absolute freedom and will not be constrained by the fickleness of the human will?
A steady diet of judgment oracles won’t do much to gather a big crowd or fill the coffers with a significant cash infusion. If we learn anything from the prophets, it is that the straight talk from people of this ilk usually only succeed in inciting the people in power to work to kill the messengers.
I don’t know how to reconcile texts like today’s with the so-called “god” worshipped by so many of us in the ghetto of upper middle class privilege. This god, who seems to be little more than a dispenser of favors to the faithful, is constantly petitioned to “bless America” (which seems to mean making sure that this nation gets what it wants when it wants it). This god is invoked time and time again whenever we need an intervention to save us from our own ignorance or fear. Like the people in Isaiah’s time, we want our god to function as an amulet against the difficulties of our existence. There’s only one problem with such a god. It does not bear any resemblance to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Isaiah and Jesus.
Perhaps that’s the point of lessons like today’s. Perhaps it’s not our role to justify texts like these. It’s not our job to smooth out the rough edges or soften the language so that we are more comfortable. Maybe our job as faithful readers is to sit — quietly and reverently with our discomfort and questions — in front of these texts and listen for Good News.
God’s Good News will prevail. God’s gracious favor will flood the world on that Day of the Lord Isaiah sees in his visions. Good News wrapped in Judgment and tempered by mercy.