Ted Grimsrud

2. False worship, authentic worship (Isa 29:9-16; 65:17-25)

Mennonite World Review—June 10, 2013

Ted Grimsrud

Isaiah 29 gives the prophetic message of the Bible in just a few verses. First, we have the indictment. God’s people have become unable to respond to God’s message of wholeness, signified by the blindness of their prophets (29:10).

Then, maybe the key point, the people cannot break free from this blindness because their worship is false. They enter into public worship with words that “honor” God—but “hearts that are far from [God]” (29:13).

The consequences of empty worship

The sense of worship here is public gatherings with well-learned litanies of praise and petition. This is what people growing up in faith communities have “learned by rote” (29:13).

It is fascinating to see the consequences here. Because of the blindness, the worship with false hearts, the inability to speak authentic words, the community will face a “shocking and amazing” situation: “the wisdom of their wise shall perish and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden” (29:14).

This is a spiral toward religion as source of confusion and closed-mindedness, rather than enlightenment and creativity. Worship may turn us toward God when expressed with hearts that seek to follow God’s commands. On the other hand, when hearts turn toward idols (in our day, wealth and nationalism stand out), worship actually accelerates movement away from God.

However, the passage continues with a big surprise (and hope). Out of the deadness of the cold hearts and lack of wisdom, transformation springs. The “deaf,” the “blind,” the “meek,” the “neediest people” find healing—“the tyrant shall be no more” (29:18-20). Sounds like Jesus!

Isaiah 65:17-25 makes us think even more of Jesus. This passage comes much later in Israel’s story. The blindness and heartlessness of Isaiah 29 led to the end of ancient Judah’s statehood. God remains faithful, though. The sense of peoplehood remains alive. God brings the community back together, as recounted beginning in Isaiah 40.

The remainder of the book of Isaiah, as with the short passage in chapter 29:9-20, swings back and forth between continuing problems of cold-heartedness and the continuing presence of God’s healing and empowering Spirit.

Isaiah’s message of hope

In the end, we have a message of hope, a message Christians see fulfilled in Jesus. The “former things” (injustice, cold heartedness, lack of wisdom, oppression of the neediest people) will be no more (65:17). God makes all things new.

This vision of healing serves to challenge God’s people to authentic worship in the present. Such worship is empowered by our trust in God’s healing love, leading us to embody that love in the present. The promise of ultimate healing encourages work for healing now—as a foretaste of and in continuity with what will be.

Such worship provides sight and wisdom. And leads to practices that reduce weeping and distress (65:19), take away the conditions that lead to infant mortality and shortened life spans (65:20), protect the social stability where people build their own houses and eat the food they produce rather than having their labor exploited to enrich the already rich (65:21-22).

A final promise points back to the story of divine/human alienation in Genesis three. The divine/human alienation when Adam and Eve usurped God and trusted in their own autonomy led to other kinds of alienation—humans in conflict with other humans, humans alienated from creation itself. The work of God, God’s Spirit, and ultimately God’s Son brings restoration, reconciliation, and end to alienation.

This whole-making work is symbolized here by the disempowering of the serpent (65:25). No more will the serpent’s deception cause spiritual blindness and undermine wisdom. The “wolf and lamb” eat together, an image for the work God’s people will be empowered to undertake, the work of restoring broken relationships.

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