We all have them—passages of Scripture that we’d rather weren’t there . . . little unalterable truths we wish would just disappear . . . . statements about God or humanity that we’d like to revise. But no matter how hard we try to re-translate or re-interpret them, those convicting verses just won’t budge. And by the very fact that they torment us, they demand our attention . . . and submission.
Here Am I!
The enthralling brilliance of God’s glory . . . the pungent aroma of incense wafting with each beat of the cherubs’ wings . . . the quaking foundations of the heavenly temple—in the midst of an unparalleled experience that made Moses’s barefooted brush with the burning bush pale in comparison, the prophet Isaiah received his call to ministry:
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” (Isaiah 6:8)
As a new believer I loved Isaiah 6:8. I’ve lost count of the number of sermons that used this passage to persuade men and women to go to the mission field or to support those who had already answered the call. Because all believers are called to “go into all the world” (Mark 16:15) and to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), I always got the impression that if we’d just answer the call like Isaiah—Here am I!—then the flames of revival would blaze across the land.
Or would they?
On Second Thought . . .
When Isaiah stepped forward without hesitation, God gave him his assignment:
“Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, lest they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9–10)
This probably wasn’t the mission Isaiah expected. Perhaps he had in mind a ministry like Moses, complete with signs and wonders, epoch-changing bursts of startling new revelations, and something akin to the first great exodus out of Egypt. Maybe images of the great judges of Hebrew lore ran through his mind—heroes like Ehud, Gideon, Samson, and Samuel. Maybe even an impossible mission against unreasonable odds like David against Goliath.
But this? What kind of mission was this? “Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim.”
Isaiah had already agreed to the task. There was no way out now. So he asked a reasonable question: “Lord, how long?” (Isaiah 6:11). How long would he have to preach a message that does nothing but increases the hardness of his hearers’ hearts? A week? A month?
“Until cities are devastated and without inhabitant, houses are without people, and the land is utterly desolate, the Lord has removed men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.” (Isaiah 6:11–12)
. . . Send Someone Else!
When I read it in light of the reality of Isaiah’s mission to his people, Isaiah 6:8 is a Scripture I could do without. Why? Because if God could call Isaiah to a ministry of hardness of heart in which people shrink away from God’s Word, the numbers dwindle, and God reduces the faithful to a mere remnant, He could call me to one, too.
You see, from God’s perspective the success of Isaiah’s mission was utter failure in the world’s eyes. Isaiah may have expected to be the Jonathan Edwards or Billy Graham of the ancient world, turning a sinful nation back to God, ushering in a golden age of justice and righteousness, spreading peace and prosperity to all people. After all, Isaiah’s was a ministry specially anointed by God.
The reality of Isaiah’s call into ministry was just the opposite: “Isaiah, preach to them. I’m going to harden their hearts so they won’t understand or listen to you. Keep preaching. Then I’ll send judgments on them for ignoring your message. A lot of people will die. Keep preaching. Your countrymen will curse you as they’re being dragged into exile. Keep preaching. Then they’ll kill you. But don’t worry. I’ll be with you to the end.”
It’s a wonder Isaiah didn’t respond to God’s call with the words of Moses: “O Lord, please send someone else!” (Exodus 4:13, NIV).
“Failing” for the Glory of God
Let’s just admit it. In our numbers-driven, bottom-line culture, intoxicated by the runner’s high of the rat race, an Isaiah-like ministry of purging and pruning looks like utter failure. Yet history is filled with periods in which the true Christian church, preaching the true gospel of Christ, encountered nothing but opposition, persecution, and unpopularity. In historical periods like those, “Christianity” could grow massively only by changing the unchangeable message, starving the gospel of its controversial claims, then dressing its emaciated body in the latest cultural fashions and parading it along the catwalk of the world. You see, the world will always ooh and ahh over a made-up gospel. But in a post-modern, post-Christian era like ours, the right preaching of the gospel will often lead to ridicule, rejection, and, ultimately, a dwindling congregation. Call me a cynic, but I believe the twenty-first century church is facing a decision—change the gospel and “thrive,” or stay true to the ancient faith and survive.
A calling like Isaiah’s is hard to swallow today. The temptation will always be to temper the message to the lukewarm world or tamper with its truths to match the transitory trends of society. But regardless of the outcome of our preaching, teaching, and evangelism, we are all still called to faithfully preach the message God has given us, even if it means preaching it to a culture deaf and blind to its truth . . . even if it means “failing” for the glory of God.