Scripture: Isaiah 36:4–14
Have you ever seen a chicken coop when a predator shows up? A hawk or a raccoon or a fox? As soon as one notices the predator, there is an explosion of clucking and fluttering and flapping and more or less unbridled panic!
This is a good metaphor for the Divided Kingdom of Israel and Judah. Around 1000 years before Jesus was born, King David and Solomon ruled a united monarchy. It might not have felt like it at the time, but it was an era of relative peace and prosperity. And then the fox showed up at the door of the chicken coop! From basically 900 to 600 years before Jesus was born, Assyria was the biggest predator in the neighborhood. Assyria began their military conquest from the north, and the nations lined were up like chickens in the coop. First was Aram (sometimes called Aram-Damascus, in current-day Syria) in the far north—this is the country where Naaman was general from last week’s sermon. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was next. And finally the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
When the Assyrian army drew up to full power, the chickens knew that the fox was at the door. They spent a ton of energy flapping and fighting and banging around for 300 years. Kings built armies (Naaman was one of the generals). Nations jostled for power, fighting about who should join up with whom, and who should be in charge. In the Bible, we read about these Northern and Southern kings, and it isn’t very flattering. Like panicked chickens, they all flapped and fluttered around, wondering how to respond to the fox at the door. Should the North and the South join ranks? Should they both join with Aram-Damascus? Should they all throw in their lot with Egypt way down south? For 300 years, we read about this flapping and crashing around, and most of them were a total mess.
As we have been reading these stories, the Two-Way [Sermon Discussion Group] has made an observation. They have noticed how so many of these kings, and regal ambassadors, and generals, and courtiers, spend so much of their time tearing their clothes! It seems like in every story, someone is tearing their clothes. When Naaman came down to Israel looking for Elisha, the king stood in public and tore his clothes. This was an ancient ritual, a practice often associated with grief and trauma. Families would tear their clothes when a loved one died. Or a beloved spouse. But there was also this public and political practice of the rich and powerful tearing their clothes. Kings and ambassadors—people who could generally afford to buy new clothes anyway—would tear their clothes to show their people how anxious and angry they were. How committed to their plight they were. How afraid that they—and everyone else—needed to be of those people out there. All of these kings, flapping around in chaos, tore their clothes as a symbol of the danger at their door.
The connection that the Two-Way [Sermon Discussion Group] made, rather brilliantly I would suggest, was that this tearing of the clothes, and public displays of angst, sure looks a lot like cable news! Sure looks a lot like our never-ending news cycle. Sure looks a lot like political ads the last several months! Anyone enjoy watching these political ads these last few months? I admit a certain perverse pleasure in laughing at how ridiculous and over-the-top they are.
But before long, after I laugh out loud at a handful of them, I get sad and a little angry. I think about how much money is spent on political advertising—about $9 billion for the midterms—and wonder what else that money could be spent on. But then I also get sad and pretty mad when I think about how many people are actually persuaded by that garbage. It’s like a 24/7 barrage of fear and anger: the messages of the politicians themselves, the political ads that PACs pay for, and then the propaganda that cable news and social media continues day in and day out. It’s like every minute of every day, the rich and powerful are on some screen, tearing their clothes in carefully-cultivated anger. Politicians, PACs, propagandists in the media, all bemoan how terrified you need to be, and how much more horrible it will be if their opponent wins. It’s like 24/7 chickens, flapping around, chaos feeding on chaos.
It’s no wonder that anxiety in our society is at an all-time high. Violence against minorities is at an all-time high. Feelings of anger and terror and rage abound…especially at those people out there. This was true before the pandemic, but clearly COVID didn’t make things better! How many of us, and those who we love, are dealing with a base level of anxiety and fear that they aren’t sure what to do with? Of course they are, when all they see is chickens running and flapping and squawking 24/7. While the foxes laugh, all the way to the bank.
In today’s Scripture passage, the fox has a name: Rabshekah. Assyria has defeated Aram-Damascus. It has defeated the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Its armies have destroyed every single city and town in the Southern Kingdom of Judah…except for Jerusalem. The capitol of Jerusalem is the last to fall, because it is the biggest and strongest and most fortified. It is Judah’s last stand. Assyria’s king Sennacherib and his generals know that the only way to defeat Jerusalem will be a long and costly siege. They will have to starve them out, and eventually storm the walls, losing a lot of their army in the process.
So they sent a fox. The title for this certain kind of political leader in Assyria was Rabshekah, and he was basically the king’s ambassador and propagandist. The Rabshekah marched up to the edge of the walls of Jerusalem with a message: “Why don’t you all just give up and make your life easier (it won’t)? We promise we’ll be merciful to you (we won’t). And you’ll get to live in peace and prosperity in your own city (you won’t).” And the Rabshekah delivered this message to the ambassadors of the king of Judah, a man named Hezekiah.
But the Rabshekah was smart. He didn’t deliver this message in the diplomatic and political language of Aramean, but instead he spoke in Hebrew, so that every solider standing on that wall could understand exactly what he is saying. His goal was psychological warfare: to defeat the enemy with despair, fear, and hopelessness. To get them to give up without a fight. To turn on their king and run out of the gate. He delivered his message of psychological warfare to the king’s ambassadors, and then he watched as they ran back to the king, his voice of terror and destruction ringing in their ears.
There is one more part of the metaphor. The violent and destructive fox. The panicked and chaotic chickens. But who is left? The farmer! What role does she play in the interaction between the fox and the chickens? Clearly, Farmer Jane understands that peaceful chickens are more productive chickens, and so her role is, rather simply, to create peace.
So what does Farmer Jane look like in the Old Testament? For 300 years, the carousel of kings and the people of God had been tearing their clothes in fear and anger and despair. But for 300 years, there were these other voices, with a very different message. In addition to the kings and generals, there were other voices weighing in: the prophets. In the North, prophets like Elijah, Elisha (again, from last week’s story), Amos, and Hosea, had a different message. In the South, prophets like Isaiah and Joel and Micah shared a different word. Instead of running around and panicking about the fox at the door, they were talking about things like justice. And peace. And community. Shalom. Caring for the poor. Caring for the immigrant. The widow. The orphan. They talked about worship of God, more than the worship of war. They talking about working for peace, and praying for peace. About working for justice, and praying for justice. About returning to covenant—the ways of God.
They didn’t ignore nor discount the fox, but they brought a message that stood over and against those of the kings and generals and warmongers. Listen, for example, to a message from early in the book of Isaiah. Instead of starting with a prophetic call story, Isaiah begins with a list of ways that the people have failed covenant. Failed to be what God had called them to be. In the midst of that failure, Isaiah called them to a different way:
1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
2 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.
3 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.
4 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.
So what will Hezekiah do next? You have the fox at the gate, the Rabshekah, smiling to himself as everyone panics. You have the chickens, the panickers-in-chief, Hezekiah’s messengers who come in and freak out. And behind the scenes, you have Isaiah, the prophet, quietly offering a different word of peace and justice.
Actually, Hezekiah does four things. The first thing is that he—perhaps unsurprisingly—tears his clothes. But it doesn’t look quite like his predecessors, publicly pleading for panic. Instead, it feels more like a moment of centering, of confession, of quiet meditation even. Next, the text says that he goes to the house of the Lord; he enters into the space for worship. Third, he finds Isaiah, the prophet, in order to seek his counsel. And finally, he offers a humble and heartfelt prayer to God:
14 Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it; then Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord and spread it before the Lord. 15And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord, saying: 16“O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. 17Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. 18Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands, 19and have hurled their gods into the fire, though they were no gods, but the work of human hands—wood and stone—and so they were destroyed. 20So now, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord.“
I think that Hezekiah has a word for us today. He could have let the fox and his violence rule his heart. He could have let the chickens and their chaos take over. But he chose the third way: he quieted his heart, he went to church, he found the preacher, and he prayed to God. Sounds like a good way for us to respond to the chaos and anger that surrounds us! Quieting our hearts. Returning to the power of worship. Seeking the wisdom of community. And humbly asking God to guide us. What if more of us followed Hezekiah’s simple rules?
This is an interesting season in the life of the Church, and our church. Coming out of the pandemic, we are asking questions of what our new normal looks like. Will we go back to everything that we did before, or will we join the work in different ways? What will the work of justice and peace look like in 2023? Family Promise is getting serious about a return to some version of the rotation model, though it will look different. Melisa and Cristina are working on offering nursery care. Nominating met last week to start asking who will join this work in 2023 and beyond. Finance is inviting us to consider our pledges for the coming year’s ministry plan. Perhaps the way we ought to move forward is akin to Hezekiah. To Isaiah and the prophets. Quiet our hearts. Invest in worship. Return to community. And humbly ask God for wisdom. Perhaps Isaiah and Hezekiah might teach us what it means to live a balanced, prayerful, humble, worshipful work.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to attend a Ministers’ Council retreat up in Schuyler, Nebraska. It was at a beautiful and holy space, at a Benedictine monastery in the middle of the prairie. The entire retreat center was filled with art: statues, and tapestries, and a beautifully illuminated Bible. Every corner of the center preached a sermon. Including the front door of the mission house, where the monks prayed the prayers of the hours. Several times a day, they entered into a space with the words over the door: “Ora et Labora.” Many of you know this phrase as the motto of the Benedictines, often attributed to Benedict himself. It means, in Latin, “Prayer and Work.” It is the goal of the Benedictine order, as participants gather for both throughout the course of the rhythm of their community. It is a goal that many of us fall short of. I would suggest that it is easy to live a life of “Ora et Ora,” offering prayers but failing to back them up with action. And it is easy to live a life of “Labora et Labora…et Labora, et Labora.” So often, we assume that our work and our actions are the only thing that will get anything done. But the message of the Benedictines, an echo of the relationship of Isaiah and Hezekiah, requires the holy union of both: Ora et Labora.