Welcome to our continuing Spring/Summer Chapel series. I’m Leah Vetro and I work in the Library here at Tyndale. It’s a pleasure to be back with you again this summer, and I thank Tyndale and Dean Sweetman for the opportunity. Today, I will be talking about Isaiah 56:1-8. In the Fall semester, I took Dr. Rebecca Idestrom’s course on Isaiah and wrote my final paper on this passage. It is a passage I had read many times, but it inspired me in new ways, which I would like to share with you today. I think it’s a passage that can inspire us towards openness, humility, and a deeper exploration of God’s heart for his creation.
First, let me open in prayer. Dear God. Thank you for your goodness and the ways in which you have richly blessed this community. You have given us honorable leaders, excellent colleagues, and a place to work where we are valued and are able to serve your Kingdom. As we talk about community today, move our hearts to embrace the ways that you are calling us to take your love to places we may not have considered and reveal the heart of Christ to everyone. In Jesus’ name.
New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
The Covenant Extended to All Who Obey
56 Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come
and my deliverance be revealed.
2 Happy is the mortal who does this,
the one who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
and refrains from doing any evil.
3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people,”
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath and do not profane it
and hold fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar,
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
8 Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel:
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
In many cases, standards are good and necessary. They are put in place to ensure a certain level of quality. I absolutely want standards when it comes to the car I ride in and the house I live in and the food I eat. Often, we ignore standards at our peril. We witnessed this this week in the catastrophe that befell the men who ventured out on an expedition to view the Titanic wreckage. In the case of OceanGate, who built the ill-fated submersible, the CEO felt that the generally accepted standards in his industry were too prohibitive and prevented growth and development. This tragic situation illustrates the tension of standards. They are important but can also be very subjective. Who gets to set the standards? Standards can just as easily be used to keep people out, prevent necessary change, and preserve harmful status quos.
When it came to temple service, Judah had standards by which someone could be considered righteous, and therefore, be included in the community. Inclusion meant participation in all the benefits of being part of that community. In the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the boundaries were clear. Israelites only, with very strict purity laws that excluded certain people from participation. In this passage in Isaiah, God is calling his people to something new by asking them to broaden their understanding and appreciation of God’s righteousness. He prompts them to reconsider what makes another person righteous and welcome amongst His people.
The eunuch, who was considered impure by ritual standards and doomed to remain childless, was assured that God had not forgotten him. One’s name and family were incredibly important at that time. The eunuch would not only see his line end, but his name disappear completely. God promises the eunuch that he has a place in the community and would not be forgotten. God sees the outcasts and gives them an eternal place amongst his people.
Foreigners also struggled to find belonging since they were not part of Israel’s bloodlines. Here, they are welcomed into God’s temple, his house of prayer, where their offerings will be accepted. They too were welcomed by God, where there had previously been exclusion.
Why the change? This is because, as the passage outlines, true righteousness isn’t achieved by ritual or bloodline, but comes from a heart turned towards God to obey his commands. Inclusion now was not based on the strict limits of old, limits that excluded many with a heart to serve God but was now based on a voluntary commitment to love God and hold fast to his covenant.
At this point, I will admit to you that this passage leaves me with as many questions as answers. It seems to create some ambiguity for the reader when read in conjunction with other passages. It can be challenging for those of us seeking how to apply this word today. The Hebrew scriptures don’t shy away from ambiguity though, and while we might long for hard and fast rules and boundaries, that’s not always what we get from the Bible. And maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. In response to God’s commands in this passage and the ambiguity it creates around the notion of inclusion, I think that we are left not with guidelines per se, but with a picture of how our hearts must be postured when we consider inclusion and exclusion.
First of all, I was struck by the reminder that we can fall into the trap of fostering exclusion without realizing it. Communities can set boundaries and create rules that become gates to keep people out until they meet our standards. This can even happen in churches. It can become more important to protect the community culture than make room for those with a heart for God. We can run the risk of becoming communities where it is more important to jump through all the right hoops while neglecting the righteousness that God is looking for. It seems that this righteousness may be more inclusive than we are sometimes comfortable with.
Secondly, it reminded me of the need for humility about our own judgment and an openness to change in our communities. Sometimes we’re not great at letting God be God. As human beings, one of our greatest desires is for control and we often seek that control through knowledge. If we can claim to know something, how it operates, eliminate all mystery and ambiguity, then we feel in control. But we don’t know the mind of God.
My final reflection revolves around a term that I encountered in class recently. I didn’t set out to turn this podcast into an ad for Tyndale Seminary, I promise. But I’m currently taking Dr. Bill Webb’s course on wrestling with troubling texts and the idea of God being lopsided has come up a few times, and I love the concept. The Bible may talk about God’s wrath and his anger, but God’s character is lopsided in favour of his loving and merciful nature. I think this passage demonstrates this beautifully. God is showing his heart for the outcasts in this passage, those traditionally beyond the boundaries, left out from belonging. He is saying that he has a place for them with all the acceptance and love they may have been denied.
Psalm 103:8 reminds us “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This passage is a beautiful and needed reminder that God’s heart is for everyone, and that God isn’t bound to honor the boundaries that we create. His Kingdom is a banquet set for everyone and he longs to see all his creation reconciled to himself. Our hearts can also be oriented to seeing everyone on a path towards God. That path may not look the way we expect it to. It may not be neat and tidy. And it may not happen as quickly as we feel it should. But people are not neat and tidy! As we live in the tension of the importance of standards and the gracious and merciful love of God, may we persevere with humility, discernment, and a posture of openness towards those God is calling us to love.