Messages from Isaiah

Continuing through our dual readings of Crazy Love and Evolving in Monkey Town, my wife and I have been struck by how often Francis Chan and Rachel Held Evans are traveling down parallel pathways, tackling the same themes at the same time, but each looking at them from a different vantage point.

Chan uses his podium to express certainty, Evans to (thus far) express doubt, yet they agree on the conclusion: To love Jesus and truly practice Christianity means caring for the people he cared for – the poor, the needy, the neglected, the outcast.

But one significant disagreement is on the subject of hell. Chan does a lot in the early chapters of Crazy Love to cement the evangelical obsession with in-or-out, saved-or-unsaved, while Evans in the middle chapters of her book is breaking down those beliefs (out in front of Rob Bell, by the way), pointing out the Bible’s surprising ambiguity about what happens after we die.

Last night, the chapters we read from their books each featured a lengthy passage from Isaiah. Evans chose Isaiah 55 to illustrate the incomprehensible heights of God’s mercy, while Chan goes with Isaiah 58 to drive home the importance of responding to God’s love by passing it along to the least of these.

It strikes me that within three chapters, Isaiah essentially captures everything we should need to know about God:

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.

“Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live.

“I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David. See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a ruler and commander of the peoples. Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.”

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.

“This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.”

Rather than an angry polemic warning the damned to repent before a wrathful God damns them to hell – which is how Evans and I both heard the “my ways are higher than your ways” line, seemingly brought out only when the justice or fairness of hell is questioned (in fact, Chan apparently does this very thing in Erasing Hell) – the chapter paints a beautiful picture of a merciful God, calling all to come to him so he can restore the perfection he intended for them. Why would he do this despite all we’ve done to hurt him? We can never understand, he tells us, because his ways are higher – better – than ours.

And, once accepting this miraculous gift, how should we respond? With an ostentatious show of religiosity? Well, no:

“Day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

“Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.  Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: ‘Here am I.’

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. 

“The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”

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