Before the Downfall
Scriptures: Isaiah 2:5-17, II Chronicles 26:1, 6-16
This week I saw an interesting poster. It shows a bicyclist doing a wheelie on the edge of a cliff. You can probably see the main title under the poster. It says, “Confidence.” What you may not be able to read is the subtitle: “The feeling you have before you understand the situation.”
That could be the title over today’s scripture from Isaiah. Early in Isaiah’s time the people of Judah and Jerusalem were riding high. In our first scripture, Nanci read about the reign of King Uzziah in Jerusalem, who was king at the time Isaiah began his ministry. Here are some of the things it said about Uzziah’s reign:
- Verse 8: “The Ammonites paid tribute to Uzziah, and his fame spread even to the border of Egypt, for he became very strong.”
- Verse 10: “He built towers in the wilderness and hewed out many cisterns, for he had large herds, and he had farmers and vinedressers in the hills and in the fertile lands.”
This picture of power and prosperity is echoed in the scripture I just read from Isaiah. Chapter 2, verse 7: “Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots.”
At this point the people of Judah and Jerusalem are comparatively powerful and prosperous. But a crash is coming—verses 11: “The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled; and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.”
Of all the problems Isaiah identifies in the people of Judah and Jerusalem, the most dangerous is pride—not drugs, not stealing, not lying, not sex, but pride.
Isaiah brings this up even when he is not talking to the Israelites. In Isaiah 47:10-11 God says to the Babylonians,
You felt secure in your wickedness; you said, “No one sees me.” Your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me.” But evil shall come upon you, which you cannot charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to ward off; and ruin shall come on you suddenly, of which you know nothing.
Here God is talking to the enemies of Israel—the Babylonians. God is an equal opportunity humilater. According to the Bible, God works at humbling people, cutting down arrogance wherever it is found—whether it’s the pride of Israelites or Babylonians, Americans or Russians, Republicans or Democrats, criminals or church goers. Why? Because pride, if left unchecked, is a deadly cancer. Arrogance is inevitably destructive. It not only damages our relationships to each other, it makes virtually impossible a relationship to God.
A while back I read a novel by Michael Malone called Handling Sin. I picked it up because I thought it was about theology, which in a way it is. But it also turned out to be one of the funniest novels I have ever read. The main character, “our hero” as the narrator calls him, is Raleigh W. Hayes, an insurance salesman, who sets off out to fulfill certain conditions set by his father for inheriting a large sum of money.
Raleigh, I should say, had always been the good child in his family: doing his homework, obeying his parents, never skipping school or getting in trouble, becoming a responsible citizen and family man in the hometown where he grew up. His father, on the other hand, had run off with a young pregnant woman while Raleigh was still a boy, leaving Raleigh and his brother to care for their shattered mother. And now years later this same father, well into his 80s and hospitalized with heart blockages, had discharged himself from the hospital, withdrawn all his money from a bank, and driven away in a convertible yellow Cadillac with a young female mental patient, leaving word for Raleigh to meet them in New Orleans. Along the way Raleigh was to pick up certain items and people that he was to bring with him to meet his father. If he did so, he would receive a large inheritance.
So Raleigh sets out on this journey to collect certain items and people and bring them to his father in New Orleans. And that’s when this story becomes a quest, a sort of pilgrimage about handling sin and pride.
Raleigh, of course, does not think of himself as a sinner, nor as particularly prideful. He sometimes attends church with his family, because that is what good people do, but the church service does not really speak to him, especially the prayer of confession. The narrator says,
Now, in its common usage, the word confession did not at all appeal to our hero. … Try as he might during church services, he honestly could not think of any manifold sins and wickednesses that he needed to repent. He honestly did not see why, in all fairness, he should have provoked God’s wrath and indignation when there were so many really provoking people (like his father…) out there getting off scot-free; nor did he see why he should feel guilty and responsible and worried and all the things he had to confess he did feel, when the truly guilty appeared not to have a care in the world (pp. 230-231).
I have talked to people in our church and in other churches who felt the same way as Raleigh. They wonder why we have a prayer of confession every Sunday. Isn’t that rather negative? Shouldn’t church make people feel better about themselves rather than making them feel guilty and unworthy? Even today’s scripture reading from Isaiah seems excessively negative. Doesn’t it?
Yes, it does. But it is also like an immunization. The scripture reading from Isaiah, like the prayer of confession we say every Sunday in our church service, is an inoculation against pride. It is a reminder that we are not as righteous and self-sufficient as we might like to think. We are all of us people who need grace—people who need the tender mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
Raleigh discovers this on his way to New Orleans. On the journey Raleigh, our upstanding citizen who could think of nothing he needed to confess, becomes a fugitive from the law, ends up in a nunnery, goes on a boat ride with his brother, who it turns out is running drugs, impersonates an FBI agent to escape the Ku Klux Klan, and chases two mafia hit men through a state park in a stolen van. When he finally gets to New Orleans, he meets his father, and before his father dies Raleigh learns much that he had never understood about his father’s life and in the process receives an inheritance far more important than money.
The story ends with Raleigh back in his hometown attending church on Easter. Around him are many of the people whom he previously despised. In the choir was his huge child-like neighbor Mingo Sheffield, who went on the trip with Raleigh, frustrating Raleigh with his bumbling incompetence, but saving him more than once. The narrator says, “[Mingo] sang out beaming as if he’d just heard the news, ‘Jesus Christ is risen today! Alleluia!’” Beside Mingo was Pierce Jimson, another person Raleigh had despised at the beginning of the story. He was singing, “Sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia!” Down from him was Raleigh’s teenage daughter Caroline, with whom Raleigh had fought countless battles over clothes, school, boyfriends, and cars. She had a green streak painted across her blond hair but she was singing in a beautiful soprano voice, “Where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!”
The narrator says, “And next to the organist, at his own request, by special arrangement with the choir, to the delight of his family (some of whom cried as they sang), to the astonishment of his neighbors (some of whom lost their places in their hymnals), stiffly stood Raleigh W. Hayes … accompanying the organ and choir on [his father’s] trumpet so highly polished that it glistened like gold. “The strife is o’er, the battle done. The victory of life is won. The song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!” (p. 592).
I guess we could send all of you on a quest to discover humility, but instead we do it with a prayer of confession and a reading from Isaiah.