At the beginning of the year I recommended reading through the whole Bible in a year and suggested the Robert Murray McCheyne Bible-reading plan: (https://bibleplan.org/plans/mcheyne/). If you started it, I hope you’re persevering; if you haven’t, well, it’s not too late to start. Daily Bible-reading is extraordinarily helpful. Killy and I have kept to the plan and are now in Numbers, Psalms, Isaiah and Hebrews. We have enjoyed the challenge and look forward to it every morning and every evening.
Yet reading through the whole Bible does inevitably bring you face-to-face with tough bits, especially in the Old Testament. Quite frequently you can find yourself struggling to get any spiritual nutrition out of some seemingly indigestible passage. Let me give you an example that I recently found myself pondering in chapter 20 of Isaiah as I was preparing a sermon. In the NIV it reads like this.
In the year that the supreme commander, sent by Sargon king of Assyria, came to Ashdod and attacked and captured it – at that time the Lord spoke through Isaiah son of Amoz. He said to him, ‘Take off the sackcloth from your body and the sandals from your feet.’ And he did so, going around stripped and barefoot.
Then the Lord said:
‘Just as my servant Isaiah has gone stripped and barefoot for three years, as a sign and portent against Egypt and Cush, so the king of Assyria will lead away stripped and barefoot the Egyptian captives and Cushite exiles, young and old, with buttocks bared – to Egypt’s shame. Those who trusted in Cush and boasted in Egypt will be dismayed and put to shame. In that day the people who live on this coast will say, “See what has happened to those we relied on, those we fled to for help and deliverance from the king of Assyria! How then can we escape?”’
I found this strange to the point of being bizarre: what on earth was the great prophet Isaiah doing naked and barefoot for three years? I also found it unhelpful: I couldn’t immediately see any application from it. Nevertheless, I felt there was a challenge here so, rather than simply moving on, I spent some time prayerfully reflecting on it.
The background helps a little. It is around 712 bc and the Assyrians dominate the Near East, including Judah, the remaining part of God’s people. Egypt, the only other regional superpower, is encouraging those nations under Assyria’s control to rebel against it. Rebellion is an attractive temptation, but it would have been disastrous. Had Judah tried to rebel the results would have been a brutal exile in Assyria, something that had destroyed Israel, the northern kingdom, beyond recovery a decade earlier. So, this is a time of a serious threat to God’s people and in order to make the point as strongly as possible God orders Isaiah to adopt the clothing of a slave. While he may not have been completely naked, he would probably have been reduced to his underwear. It’s a striking warning: rebel against Assyria, it says, and this fate awaits you – you will end up being dragged away as slaves.
Fascinating, we may respond, but how does that apply to me today? I found myself struck by three things.
First, I was struck by the importance of symbolic actions. In the Old Testament a number of prophets use symbols: Hosea marries a prostitute, Jeremiah smashes a pot and Ezekiel makes a model of Jerusalem. In the New Testament many of Jesus’ miracles (his ‘signs’ as John calls them) point to deeper realities. Both the Lord’s Supper, or communion, and baptism are richly symbolic. We have a record of one specific symbolic act by a New Testament prophet when Agabus binds Paul with a belt to warn him he is going to be arrested (Acts 21:10–12). Sometimes images and actions do speak louder than words. In fact there are many symbolic actions in our very visual culture. In the last month or so in London we have seen marches against Brexit and climate change that seem to have been more effective in raising issues than any amount of words. Maybe – just maybe – we should be more open for God to ask us to perform symbolic actions.
Second, I was struck by Isaiah’s courage. You can imagine the humiliation and ridicule that Isaiah must have endured, but he did it and that challenges me. Would I do anything God asked me to do? Would you? Do we stand up as courageously for God as we should do? Don’t we all prefer to be low-key rather than high-profile? To be considered cool rather than crazy? If God did ask us to do something bold and daring, would we have the courage to do it? Arthur Blessitt has walked around the world bearing a cross. Far less high-profile but no less courageous is the way that many church workers and missionaries have given up everything to reach people, often in difficult areas, with the good news of Jesus. Do we have courage? Do we talk about Jesus or are we reluctant to let others know that we are his followers?
Thirdly, I was struck by the related matter of Isaiah’s obedience. Three years of nudity in Jerusalem is an unattractive option. I suspect most of us would either have gone to God and tried to negotiate better terms and conditions or simply ignored the command. But Isaiah just did it. Do we have that obedience? I am reminded of Mark Twain’s insightful quote: ‘Some people are troubled by the things in the Bible they can’t understand. The things that trouble me are the things I can understand.’ Are we willing to believe what God says in the Bible when it comes to belief and behaviour? Or are we diluting his holy Word, adjusting it to fit our choices and preferences? Remember, it is the only book we will ever read along with the author.
I would rather stand with God and be judged by the world, than stand with the world and be judged by God.
All too frequently in life we only hear what we want to hear. Instead, let’s read, reflect and respond to God’s Word!
Revd Canon J.John