As I was reading Isaiah’s prophetic critique of the ways of the kingdom of Judah this week I thought of…Homer Simpson, the buffoonish father at the center of the longest-running animated TV series in history, The Simpsons. In one episode, Homer (the buffoonish father of the family) discovers that he’s finally made enough money to get out of debt. He rejoices in his success, resolving to quit the job he hates at the power plant and realize his life’s dream of working at a bowling alley. His wife Marge tries to stop him, saying she has something she needs to discuss with him. But he pushes past her and goes on to his first day at the bowling alley.
That night, he comes home overjoyed by his new job. Marge tries to talk to him again, saying it’s really important, but he brushes her off again: “Can’t talk now; praying,” he says. And he does: “Okay, God, here’s the deal,” he says. “Everything in my life right now is finally perfect. So if you keep everything the way it is, I won’t ever ask for anything else. If you agree, then give me no sign.” He waits a few moments, but God says nothing. “Great! As a sign of my thanks, I offer you these cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, then give me no sign.” He waits a few moments again, and again, God says nothing. “Thy will be done,” he exclaims, and devours the cookies. But, of course, God was giving him a sign all along. The next morning, he finally discovers what Marge had been trying to tell him: that she’s pregnant with their third child, and he has to go back and beg for his old job back to pay the increased bills.
According to Isaiah’s vision, God’s problem is that the people of Judah are practicing the same kind of religion that Homer Simpson was practicing, trying to strike deals with God to give them what they want, but to much more destructive ends. And God is not having it. Most of this passage is a scathing condemnation of the people of Judah, which concludes with a truly chilling promise: “when you stretch your hands out to me, I will look away, and when you pray I will not listen, because the hands you stretch out for help are covered in blood.” God is sick of their corruption and wrongdoing; sick of them celebrating how favored they are by God while ignoring how God has called them to live with each other and their neighbors; sick of them making up their own covenant with God while abandoning the covenant God has made with them.
And people actually do that. When I was in South Africa, I remember visiting the Church of the Vow, which stands in a town in the eastern part of the country. In the mid-19th century, the Afrikaners were busy fighting the Zulu for control of that land. The Afrikaners believed themselves to be a New Israel, fleeing the domination of the British on the west coast of South Africa in an exodus to the interior, and entering what they believed was God’s Promised Land for them.
However, there was one problem: the Promised Land was inconveniently full of millions of Zulus who very much considered it their land. The night before what promised to be a decisive battle, a few hundred Afrikaners were surrounded by thousands of Zulus. Knowing how badly they were outnumbered, they decided to pray. “Okay, God, here’s the deal,” they said. “You let us kill all the Zulus tomorrow, and then we’ll know that we are truly your covenant people. If that happens, then we vow to build you a special church commemorating this covenant and we will keep this date as a holy day sacred to you throughout the ages.”
When God said nothing, they decided God had accepted the deal and went to sleep. The next day they won the battle, killing several thousand Zulus and losing only a few of their own. Most observers would argue that their skillful use of modern rifles against Zulus wielding spears was the determining factor in the battle. But to the Afrikaners, that’s not what happened; to them, the victory was proof that God had chosen them. “God is on our side!” they rejoiced.
True to their word, they went on to build the church, the Church of the Vow, and they instituted a national holiday on December 16 called the Day of the Vow to annually give thanks to God for giving them victory and power over the Zulu. Of course, they should have known better. They should have known that people don’t make covenants with God; God gives covenants to people, and God hadn’t given them anything that night. It would take them more than 100 years before they would finally realize that God was not hearing their prayers for total control over the Zulus and the other African nations in that country, that there was an awful lot of blood on their hands, and that they should cease to do evil and learn to do good.
“God is on our side!” It is the favorite rallying cry of holy warriors throughout the ages right up to this very day, no matter which culture or era or continent or country they find themselves in, no matter which religion they corrupt, no matter which opponent they designate as the embodiment of evil. But it’s not true: God is on everybody’s side, because God loves this whole world: this broken, disobedient, self-serving, other-hating, death-loving world. God loves this world so much that God gave his only Son to die for it, so that the world might be saved through him. All of it. All of them, whoever “they” are; not just us, whoever “we” are. God is on everybody’s side.
Now, that obviously does not mean that God accepts or supports or equally values everybody’s agenda, everybody’s actions, everybody’s methods, everybody’s goals. It doesn’t mean that God considers everybody’s behavior equally good or equally bad. It simply means that God is on everybody’s side because God is concerned about everybody’s well-being. And that, in turn, means God calls everybody to cease doing evil, and learn to do good; to rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow. Especially if we’ve had a hand in creating them in the first place, directly or indirectly, as the people of Judah had.
God is so serious about this that this whole passage is actually written as if God is bringing the people of Judah into court. And in it, God makes a pretty devastating case against them, and the verdict of guilt is not surprising. What’s surprising is that God agrees to settle rather than proceed to sentencing. “Okay, here’s the deal,” God says; “you start doing what I’ve asked you to do, cease to do evil and learn to do good, and you’ll be blessed. But if you refuse, you’ll die by the same sword you’re using against others.”
The good news here is that this prophecy is not framed in criminal court; it is in family court. Family court is not primarily about punishing offenses, but focuses on resolving conflicts within families, bringing about reconciliation whenever possible, ensuring fairness when it is not, and imposing punishment only as a last resort. God has brought this case to family court, as he indicated in the charges near the beginning of the passage: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me,” God says. And in this court case, God is seeking reconciliation, not only with his children, but between them; God seeks reconciliation not only with us, but for us. “Come, let us argue it out,” God invites us; “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.” That is God’s plan for us; that is what God is up to in the world. And when we finally know and understand that, extraordinary things can happen.
In South Africa today, 25 years into the multicultural democracy that has often been called a “miracle” because it was established through negotiation rather than a final war, they still celebrate December 16 as a holiday. Once it was the Day of the Vow, but now it is celebrated as the Day of Reconciliation, a day for all to recognize that God was and is on everybody’s side despite themselves, calling them to wash the blood off their hands, to cease doing evil, and learn to do good, so that they may all have a share in the good of the land, living together as God’s children.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus will say hundreds of years after Isaiah’s prophecy, “for they shall be called children of God.” Not because peacemakers are especially good, or especially noble, or especially favored by God, but simply because they know and understand that they are God’s children and have done nothing to earn, claim, or demand that, and the same is true for everybody else. Because God is on everyone’s side in the end. That’s the deal, the only deal with God that there is. The only question, really, is whether we’re willing to take it.