Rev. Teri Peterson
Great King v. The Lord
Isaiah 36.1-3, 13-20, 37.1-7, 2.1-4
16 November 2014, NL1-11
In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. The king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem, with a great army. He stood by the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field. And there came out to him Eliakim son of Hilkiah, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph, the recorder.
Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah, ‘Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: “Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on the Lord by saying, The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: “Make your peace with me and come out to me; then every one of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Do not let Hezekiah mislead you by saying, The Lord will save us. Has any of the gods of the nations saved their land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of these countries have saved their countries out of my hand, that the Lord should save Jerusalem out of my hand?” ’
When King Hezekiah heard it, he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the Lord. And he sent Eliakim, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz. They said to him, ‘Thus says Hezekiah, This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the Lord your God heard the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.’
When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, ‘Say to your master, “Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumour, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.” ’
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Okay, be honest: hands up if you know what just happened in this story.
Here are the basics: It’s the year 701 BC. For the past 20 years, the Assyrians have been taking over. They have won every battle, taken every city, and removed the people. The northern kingdom of Israel, made up of what we now sometimes call the “ten lost tribes of Israel,” is no more. Everyone in Jerusalem knows what has happened to their neighboring towns, and now the Assyrian army has them surrounded.
So the people of Jerusalem wake up to find themselves under siege, and they hear the recitation of the past 20 years, and an invitation to just give up now and make things easy for themselves. The general’s voice echoes off the stones of the city, bouncing around the corners of their minds, settling into their hearts: do not believe what your king tells you…look what my king has done. Do not believe what your god tells you…look at what my king has done. The great king will have his way, no matter what nice little stories you tell yourself. Come on now, we’ll be nice, you can be free of this siege and have your own fig trees and everything if you just surrender now!
These voices are so seductive. They tell us all kinds of things—that we can be prosperous and successful, that safety and security are within our reach, that a few more dollars and happiness will be ours, that we can trust them. And these voices are much easier to hear than the voice of God, so they become much easier to believe as well. It begins to seem silly to listen for a God whose voice is so elusive, and ridiculous to do things that seem so counter to our self-interest and culture. Look out for number one, the voices say. Don’t be led astray by your so-called God who asks you to be your brother’s keeper. Do whatever it takes, the voices say. No one else who tried taking care of God’s creation is succeeding, why would you? Get as much as you can, the voices say. Look where sharing and believing you have enough has gotten you. Fight now, ask questions later, the voices say. Your God’s story of peace is an illusion not worth pursuing, it’ll just get you killed.
They’re everywhere, these voices. They tug and pull and whisper and insinuate, worming their way into our subconscious until we believe them, until fear has taken root and we are willing to follow their call. The great king says this, so it must be true.
But again: the voices only work if we buy into their story. And their story is NOT our story. King Hezekiah goes straight to a real prophet, to Isaiah of Jerusalem, to be reminded of God’s story, God’s promise, the future that God intends. And that future begins with this:
Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid.
Not just “don’t feel afraid” but don’t BE afraid. Do not let your identity be consumed and changed into fearfulness. No matter what those other voices say, no matter what rumors swirl around, no matter what army camps against you: do not be afraid. Remember who you are: a child of God, not of the “great king of Assyria.” You are made in God’s image, chosen for God’s purpose, equipped for God’s work. Remember that your identity is wrapped up in who God is, and all the great kings of the earth cannot change that.
It can be hard to remember, especially when there are so many competing stories. But our actions, as we know, are determined by which story we think we are in. If we see ourselves as part of God’s future, then that future will shape our present, often in ways that make no sense to those who see themselves as part of a different future.
What does God’s future look like? Well, Isaiah shows us God’s promise:
*All nations will come together—not just some, not just the ones we like, not just the right ones, but all of them.
*We will turn our weapons of war into tools that nurture life. All those implements of pain and death—tools we have relied on, whose voices we have trusted—will turn their purpose toward nourishing the earth and its people. Rather than killing each other, we will be feeding each other.
*We will no longer learn the ways of war—the fear, the horror, the pain, the death, the anxiety. Instead we will teach one another ways of life and peace, of justice and mercy and kindness and humility, of serving one another and acting as if we are made in God’s image.
If this is the future God has promised, the story God is writing, then what does that mean for now?
For starters, we could try acting as if these things were true, as if God’s promise is more trustworthy than others. We could try doing these things and bringing the future into the present…even as we are ridiculed for believing a different way is possible. We could try spending more time listening for God’s voice and less listening to our own.
*If this story is true, and God is truly generous, then will we become more generous as we live toward God’s future?
*If God truly cares what happens to the creation, then will we take more care of what God has made?
*If God is building a kingdom where no one goes hungry or thirsty, will we work for a system that distributes food and clean water differently?
*If God is lifting up the lowly, sitting at table with the outcast, speaking to the stranger, and putting together a community that is truthful and real and loving and challenging, will we?
*If God is turning weapons away from the earth, using them to make something beautiful and something useful, will we turn our weapons—whether guns or words, bombs or policies—away from each other and use them to make peace?
*If everything is a gift from God, will we open our hands to share rather than insisting we earned it and it belongs to us?
For everyone sitting there thinking “those who turn their swords into plows will be killed by those who don’t”…remember that Jesus said those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Would we rather give in to a hopeless future like the one promised by the Assyrians—where we can supposedly enjoy our own fig trees until they take us away to their land, or try out God’s way even if it seems dangerous or impossible or unpopular? The way of faith has never been easy or obvious. It has never been profitable or politically successful. God’s call often rubs us the wrong way and seems silly in light of our apparent reality.
And yet it is our story. Will we allow God’s promised future to shape our present, even in unexpected ways?
May it be so. Amen.