The book of the prophet Isaiah is one of the more popular of the Old Testament books. In an age in which even church-goers don’t know Bible stories that every Sunday School child once knew, passages from Isaiah are still vaguely familiar to us. This is thanks to passages from Isaiah being read at Christmas and Easter especially. These are passages which contain verses such Isaiah chapter 7 verse 14 about the virgin conceiving and bearing a son (although many in the church don’t now think she was actually a virgin) and Isaiah chapter 53 which describes the suffering servant whose life was made an offering for sin (although many in the church now reject the idea of sacrifice as barbaric).
Isaiah is quoted frequently in the New Testament, and concepts from it were used by the early church to understand and explain the death of Christ. It is for this reason that early church fathers such as St Jerome and St Augustine regarded Isaiah as the ‘fifth Gospel’. It is a description that has stuck. Given this description, it is no wonder that Isaiah is seen as the ‘good news’ prophet. It is an impression that is reinforced by our selective use of some passages and verses, while quietly ignoring others.
This selective approach is to be seen in today’s set reading. Isaiah chapter 26 celebrates Judah’s victory over her enemies. In selecting which verses we should read today, a deliberate decision has been made in the lectionary to leave out verses 10-15. Why would that be? Well of the verses we have read, verses 7-9 are about waiting on the Lord and verses 16-19 are about how the Lord hears and answers the prayer of those who do. This is what we can describe as ‘nice Isaiah’. But what about verses 10-15? What is it about these verses that meant they got left out of our reading today? Verses 10-15 are about God’s judgement on the wicked. This, perhaps, is ‘nasty Isaiah’. You won’t see these verses being quoted on social media or printed on posters.
This censorship of Isaiah could be forgiven if it were just a one-off to stress a positive message for today; it is, however, typical of a trend in the church. We are rather embarrassed by passages that talk of God destroying his enemies, punishing the wicked, and judging sinners. It is one reason why we don’t bother too much with the Old Testament. We believe the lie that the God of the Old Testament is hateful and judgemental whereas the God of the New Testament is loving and kind.
Of course, there is, then, the troubling matter that the New Testament also talks of God destroying his enemies, punishing the wicked, and judging sinners. The New Testament actually closes with a book that is full of descriptions of God doing just that. So, that book has to be heavily censored as well. But judgement and wrath are also there in St Paul, so it’s no surprise that we have problems with him too.
One Anglican priest told me that to get round the problem of how the Scriptures all seem to talk about the judgement of God, he only preached on the Gospels. But then, there’s all those times when Jesus talks about people being cast into outer darkness or being burnt in the fires of Gehenna, and when Jesus pronounces God’s judgement on all those cities that have not believed in him. Does this mean our Lord has to be censored too?
The truth is that once we do what we have done today and exclude those passages that talk about judgement, we have to cut out quite a lot. ‘This is not the word of the Lord’ - apparently.
Today in the Church of England lectionary, John Keble is remembered. John Keble was a priest, scholar, and poet. We still sing some of his hymns. Keble College in Oxford is named after him. Today, however, is neither the anniversary of his birth or of his death, so why then is he remembered on this day? It is because July 14 is the anniversary of a sermon Keble preached in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford on this day in 1833. St John Henry Newman saw it as the start of the Oxford movement in the Church of England. It was a movement that was to have a significant impact on the Church.
In the sermon, Keble denounced what he saw as a turning away from God in national life, something he described as ‘national apostasy’. Keble criticized those who, in the name of liberalism, turned from any suggestion that God was a God who could exclude people as well as include them.
If Keble were alive today, what would he say about how we in the name of a similar liberalism have turned away from the God described in those passages such as the one we have refused to read today. Would he describe it as ecclesial apostasy?
I think he might.