Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Incomprehensible Preaching


We were sorting through left-over Halloween candy the other day. Not much was left. All of the Reese’s peanut-butter cups and the fun-size Snickers had long ago been consumed. We really had to scour the bowl to find anything worth eating. Our five-year-old daughter picked up a small piece of candy with a purple wrapper. “What’s this?” she asked. I looked. It was a Mega Super-Sour Warhead—something I knew right away that she wouldn’t like. And, in that moment, I had a choice.

I could simply tell her that it wasn’t good to eat and ask her to throw it away, ignoring the fact that some people inexplicably do actually like Warheads before quickly moving on to another option. Or I could describe what it really was—a super-sour almost-inedible piece of candy that some people like but that she almost certainly wouldn’t. I chose the latter.

It took longer than I thought—three or four seconds—before her face shriveled up uncontrollably and far longer than I thought—ten or twelve seconds—before she spit it out. “That’s yucky!” she resolutely declared. And a week or so later, when we were looking through the bowl again, I asked her if she wanted another one, and she quickly said, “No thank you!” She had learned an important lesson—sometimes candy isn’t good.

There are lessons in life, it seems, that one must learn by screwing up royally. We all know some of them—bad girlfriends, bad haircuts, bad menu choices. Even though someone might tell us that we’re about to make a bad choice, sometimes our own experience is the only thing that will get through to us. Usually, we learn that lesson as individuals—one painful mistake at a time. But what happens when a whole nation needs to learn it through a painful experience that will last generations?

Today’s reading from Isaiah articulates what I like to call “a theology of obfuscation.” The Lord says to the prophet,

Go and say to this people: 'Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.' Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)

In all honesty, that’s one of the most difficult passages of scripture to interpret and explain that I know. Why would God send his messenger to prevent the people from hearing his message? Why would he keep their eyes and ears shut so that they would walk into apostate disaster? The only thing I can think of is that it’s because he knew they needed to learn the lesson the hard way.

What if they had heard the prophet’s call to repent? What if they had stopped their sin and said, “Dear God, we’re sorry. Please forgive us?” How long would that last? Until the next generation had a chance to screw it up all over again? Whether it’s as individuals or as an entire nation, sometimes we need the hard, sharp lessons of life to ensure that we won’t make the same mistake again—even for generations to come.

Looking at it from the other side—the historical-critical side—we might conclude that God didn’t actually want the people to ignore him. Instead, the prophet looked at the situation (repeated refusal to repent and impending disaster) and made sense of it by creating a theology of obfuscation. (As a prophet, you kind of need a back-up plan if the people won’t listen to you, and one way to keep your job is by claiming that God didn’t want the people to listen.) But the end result is the same—we are supposed to learn from our mistakes so we won’t repeat the same mistake over again.

But here’s the really tricky part for me—this is the Old Testament passage used at presbyteral ordinations in the Episcopal Church—at least the first half of it. We don’t get to the “do not comprehend part,” but it’s there—just verses past where we stop. What does that say about my role as preacher and teacher and, yes, even as prophet? Is my job also to stop up ears and harden hearts? No, I don’t think so. I think that’s just human nature. Instead, I think it’s my job to help us realize that we’re supposed to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. 

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