Crooked sticks

Background Scripture:
Isaiah 48.
Devotional Reading:
1 Kings 8:33-40.

On Thanksgiving Day there was a TV dramatization of the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims and neighboring Indians. Although it was simply a repeat of images with which I have been familiar since childhood, I found the drama disturbing. I remembered Nathan Philbrick’s book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War and some historic facts that the simplistic stories omit.

Without help from the Native Americans, the Pilgrim colony probably would not have survived its first winter in Massachusetts. Generally, the local Indians were generous and accommodated the new arrivals. In time, however, the multiplying colony would push the Indians out of their traditional homes. Philbrick says: “By doing their best to destroy the Native people who had welcomed and sustained their forefathers, New Englanders had destroyed their forefathers’ way of life.” When the Indians finally rebelled, a barbaric and atrocious conflict, “King Philip’s War” (named after the Indian leader), ensued and the defeated Indians, including those who had converted to Christianity, were pushed out of their villages or sold into slavery. GOD’S PEOPLE

I don’t mean to unfairly stigmatize the Mayflower colonists. They were, after all, people of the 17th century. Still, I am not aware that anyone has proposed that we offer repentance for what happened there and probably in all the other colonies and territories where they were driven out, mostly by people identified as “Christians.”

So, what does that have to do with Isaiah and the Jewish exiles in the 6th century BC? Like many of us, the exiles had a hard time understanding why God was severe with them. Before the exile, they had maintained worship in the temple at Jerusalem. They offered sacrifices to God and kept the holy days of Israel. They thought of themselves as Yahweh’s people and Yahweh as exclusively their God.

So Isaiah proclaimed: “Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name Israel;… who swear by the name of the Lord, and confess the God of Israel, but not in truth or right. For they call themselves after the holy city, and stay themselves on the God of Israel. Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass…You have heard; now see all this” (48:1-6). Might not God come to us with the same question: “Will you not declare it?” MIGHTY BLOWS

When I was a teenager, the church I attended and joined was loud and frequent in condemning dancing, playing cards, attending movies, smoking, and drinking. I don’t recall that anyone denounced failure to help the poor, racial, religious, and class prejudice, corporate corruption, or vicious propaganda. Like the Israelite exiles of the 6th century BC, we would have been shocked if a guest preacher had challenged us to repent of our societal and national sins. We probably wouldn’t have committed violence to that prophet, but he would have certainly known it would not be safe for him to return.

The people of Israel had deserved the consequences of their sins. But now, through Isaiah, God was telling them: “From this time forth I make you hear new things, hidden things which you have not known. They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them…For I knew that you would deal very treacherously, and that from birth you were called a rebel” Us? Rebels? There must be some mistake!

While God cannot be indifferent to the sins of Israel, he curbs his anger: “For my own sake, I do it” (48:11). The exiles will be able to leave Babylon (Chaldea), not because their sin was not great, but because God’s purpose is more important than their sins. The people of Israel were the proverbial “crooked stick,” but God can strike a mighty blow with a crooked stick!