A little while ago, I preached on Isaiah chapter 1, and it challenged me to think through how we proclaim bad news in our preaching. I have generally observed a striking divide between theological traditions in relation to whether the gospel is in fact ‘good news’ (as the word ‘gospel’ tells us—a ‘good spell’ or word), or whether we need to start with the ‘bad news’ of sin and judgement before we can say anything good. The NT gives a somewhat mixed picture; when Jesus proclaims that the ‘time has come and the kingdom of God is at hand’ then that could have been very bad news indeed—in the OT the ‘Day of the Lord’ is as likely to bring judgement as it is liberation (just glance at Is 13.6, 13.9, Joel 1.15, 1.22, Amos 5.18 and numerous mentions). Not surprising, then, that first summons is to ‘repent’ before it is to ‘believe’. And John’s message (which Matthew in particular links with Jesus’) elicits anxious questions about how to prepare for this day of reckoning (Matt 3.1–10, Luke 3.7–14).
But the giving of bad news is in fact an important part of life. If you have been given bad news in a bad way, you will remember it forever—as I am sure will the relatives of those who perished in the Malaysian Airlines flight three years ago, hearing from the government of their loss by text message. I have written elsewhere about how to give feedback well—but, whether it is a good friend giving us honest feedback, someone breaking news of bereavement, or a medical professional giving a diagnosis of disease, we need to know how to give and receive bad news well.
The fascinating things is that Is 1.1–18 gives us a worked example of God’s delivery of bad news. The book is a key one for us to understand, since it is quoted more than any other prophet in the NT, and is one of four books (along with Genesis, Deuteronomy and Psalms) that were extensively drawn on by Jesus and his first followers to understand who Jesus was and the meaning of his ministry. The book falls into two main halves, and the chapter numbers (39 + 27 = 66) match the shape of the whole Bible (39 OT books + 27 NT books = 66). (Hence our sermon series was entitled ‘The Gospel in Isaiah’). The first half of the book (up to chapter 39) are set in a political period (Is 1.1) of looming threat; following 70 years or so of peace and prosperity, when the northern power of Assyria was in abeyance, a time is coming when the threat of war and conquest present the pressing question of who the nation should trust.
Of all the books in the OT, Isaiah is perhaps the richest. Its literary grandeur is unequalled. Its scope is unparalleled. The breadth of its view of God is unmatched. In so many ways it is a book of superlatives. It is no wonder that Isaiah is the most quoted prophet in the NT and, along with Psalms and Deuteronomy, one of the most frequently cited of all the OT books. Study of it is an opportunity for unending inspiration and challenge. (John Oswalt, NICNT commentary)
Isaiah’s presentation of God’s bad news falls into four parts:
God’s Dilemma (Is 1.2–4)
It is striking that the charge God has against his people is presented in the context of God as father to the nation who are his children. The dilemma God has is the same dilemma you can see on the faces of parents whose children have run off down another aisle of the supermarket: should I be cross they have run off, or pleased that I have found them again?
We have recently acquired a dog—an endearing ‘cavapoo’ called Barney. He is very trainable, and knows exactly who is in charge and who feeds him (answer: me)! God is amazed that the people he created don’t recognise the one who gave them life.
God’s Plea (Is 1.5–9)
God’s earnest concern here is that the people are harming themselves by turning from him. Ever since I first read this passage as a teenager, I was taken with and intrigued by the idea of a ‘hut in a melon field.’ Since melons take a long time to ripen, you cannot stay with them the whole time. But for the last part of that process, you need to keep an eye on them to make sure they are not damaged or stolen. So people would build lean-to shacks to function as temporary shelters in the fields. God’s word here is that, if we do not take refuge in him, then we will not be protected when the tough times come.
God’s Charge (Is 1.10–17)
Having rooted his speech in God’s concern as a parent, and made the plea to see sense, Isaiah does not hold back on the reality which God sees. He holds up a mirror to the reality of our easily exhausted compassion, our complacency in the face of injustice, and our hypocrisy in disconnecting worship from life. Like a master architect inspecting the house of our lives, he puts his spirit level next to us and shows how far out of true we have become. Like a just judge, he has put our lives in the dock and we are found wanting. It is so much easier to turn up at church and sing a few songs than it is to live a life of integrity and justice!
God’s Invitation (Is 1.18–20)
Having putting us on trial and found us guilty, God then steps down from the bench and offers an out of court settlement. To dye something scarlet, you need to give time and energy to the process and immerse the garments not once but twice in the vat. The problem of sin and compromise we face is not just a splash of paint on our otherwise unblemished character—it stains every part of who we are. But the great good news is that Jesus immersed himself in all the reality of human sin on the cross, and through the power of his resurrection allows us to be immersed in his goodness. ‘Who are these, robed in white?’ ‘They have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb’ (Rev 7.14).
Isaiah’s message comes to us as a word from God, a revelation of the inevitable conflict between divine glory and human pride, of the self-destruction which that pride must bring, and of the grace of God is restoring that destroyed humanity to himself. To read the book with the open eyes of the spirit is to see oneself, at times all too clearly, but also to see a God whose holiness is made irresistible by his love. (John Oswalt)
We need to hear God’s bad news proclaimed. But this bad news is always rooted in his love for us as his children, his creation. It always comes with an appeal to discover what is best for us. And it is always wrapped in his invitation to be transformed by his costly, holy love.
(First published in May 2014).
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