Today’s Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9
Israel is in a time out.
At least that’s where my mind goes when I read this passage, because I am the mother of two toddler children. We are in the season of frequent time outs; this very moment we are likely either administering one or threatening one.
So when I read this passage, I imagine a whole nation in a time out.
A little refresher on our Bible history might help you make the connection with me. This passage comes from the end of Isaiah, which is written during the Babylonian exile. That period begins with the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 586 BC and lasts until the Persians come to power in 537 BC. A common practice at the time was for a conquering people to prevent revolt by deporting a significant portion of the indigenous population. Long story short: many Israelites lived outside of Israel from 586 BC until 537 BC.*
Isaiah – and many of our Old Testament prophets – viewed this exile as a punishment. After Solomon many of the kings had worshipped other gods. Israel had become increasingly disobedient. Eventually God stopped protecting them and allowed empires like Babylon to overpower the small but once-mighty nation.
“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” Isaiah writes. “Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD; do not remember our sins forever.”
We have a time out chair in our house. When some infraction is committed – biting, hitting, lying – the guilty toddler is removed from our toy-filled living room and placed on this wooden chair in our dining room. A timer is set: 1 minute for every year they are old. Then we step just out of the room, close enough to keep an eye on our child but far enough away that they are forced to sit and think, alone.
I could imagine one of them saying these lines from Isaiah 64 in their own toddler-speak: “Come back, Mommy! Don’t be mad at me, Daddy! Don’t let the time out last forever!”
Can you see how this exile time would feel like a time out to prophets like Isaiah? God has stepped back and left them alone.
Honestly, material like this from the Old Testament is challenging for me. I haven’t experienced God to withdraw like this. More the opposite: God seems amazingly consistent. I might have seasons of distraction where my devotion wanes, but every time I get my priorities straight and turn back to God… there he is, just waiting.
But if Israel is being punished by isolation, then I can understand Isaiah’s perspective. Sin often has an isolating effect.
I just finished reading Nightwoods, the most recent novel by Charles Frazier (of Cold Mountain fame), set in the 1960s. I hadn’t noticed it before my studying this week, but much of the book is about the isolation that sin can cause.
The main character is a woman named Luce who was neglected as a child and raped while working her first job out of high school. Luce tried to report it, but was discouraged – who would believe her accusation of the high school science teacher? So she takes a live-in job outside of town with little human interaction, becoming somewhat of a hermit.
Throughout the novel Luce is threatened by her brother-in-law, Bud. Bud’s obsession with a large sum of found money leads him down a path of bad decisions where everyone fool enough to get close to him ends up dead – including his wife, Luce’s sister. His sins create a world of social isolation.
Delores and Frank are Luce’s niece and nephew. They come to live with Luce at her remote lodge after their mother’s murder. Because of what they’ve seen and the abuse they took at Bud’s hands, they’ve stopped speaking. Even when they are around other people, they are alone.
We who live in Andrews can appreciate the isolation in Nightwoods better than most, because we know the real-life location that the novel is based on. Luce’s job is as caretaker of Wayah Lodge, which strongly resembles Choga Lodge, a beautiful historic old building remotely located outside of town. When the folks in a place described as “two hours from anywhere” say something is remote – well, that’s remote. That’s isolated.
That’s sin. Sin is isolating.
Nightwoods is a fictional story, and an extreme one, but here in reality sin can be just as isolating. Drug abuse breaks off good friendships. Being judgmental of others breeds suspicion of others. Self-centeredness leads to choices that are good for us but bad for our loved ones.
Isaiah isn’t talking about isolation between human beings, though. He’s talking about our isolation from God. Isaiah says that “sin makes God angry,” so God has withdrawn. I may not know God to withdraw like that, but our sin certainly causes us to withdraw from God. If we are greedy, we resent the God who asks us to give away what we have. If we are narcissistic, we want to avoid this God who calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we are angry, then it’s hard to be around this God who says, “love your enemies.”
Sin isolates us.
I remember getting time outs when I was a kid – I’m sure that’s why I use it with my own children. I also remember outgrowing them at a certain point. I’d get grounded, or have the car taken away instead of being forced to sit in a chair alone and think about what I’d done.
Oddly enough, I still remember being alone in my room when I was in big trouble. My parents didn’t make me go there; I went in and closed the door on myself. I was angry and/or ashamed and/or guilty. I didn’t want to face my parents with any of those emotions. So I stayed in my room, wanting to go out and reconcile, but held prisoner by my own fear and pride.
From this perspective, isn’t it amazing that Isaiah is calling God down? It’s as if he’s saying: “You might judge us, or punish us, or be mad at us, or any other awful thing – but God, just don’t leave us. Don’t leave us alone.” And I can feel the truth in that. In my teenage room, eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t care what my parents might do or how I might feel – I just wanted to come out and be with them again.
Some of you, reading this, are nodding along comfortably because you and God are close friends, hanging out often.
But some of you are isolated by sin – yours, or someone else’s.
If that’s you, then today is a great day to open the door and peek your head out.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which means we read this Scripture with an eye on Christmas Day. We read this cry for God to come down, knowing that God did come down.
And when God comes – in the form of a little baby boy – here’s what’s on the other side of isolation: grace, and love, and forgiveness. Jesus told us: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
Every time I came out of my room as a kid, whatever I was afraid of, it wasn’t there. Every time I was met with grace and love and forgiveness. Because of Jesus Christ, we know that God will do the same for us.
Come on out.
* The Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC, making the period of exile even longer for those Israelites.