In case you were out of town, watching Olympic Tennis finals or just care to read, here’s this weekend’s sermon on Isaiah 20, the prophet’s 3 year nudist witness. It’s part of our ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ Jason Gottshall and Andreas Barrett complemented the text with a reworked rendition of the Sinatra classic, ‘My Way,’ entitled, yes, ‘Yahweh.’
Up Next Week: We’ll be in the Book of Samuel where David discovers that his love’s hand in marriage comes at a hefty price…100 foreskins.
Become a Barer You
For part of a summer during college I took a job soliciting door-to-door for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. I found the job advertised in a men’s room stall at UVA, scotch-taped above the toilet paper dispenser.
The job posting got my attention. Because I was now in college and had intellectual pretensions, I assumed my previous summer job as a lifeguard was now beneath me.
That I expected a job advertised in a public restroom to be more glamorous than lifeguarding illustrates how my intellectual pretensions were just that.
Every afternoon me and a dozen other chumps would load into a van and, like strangers with candy, we would creep into some unsuspecting community in Virginia to get petitions signed and to hit people like you up for money.
I interrupted dinner hours. I interrupted bath-time and bedtime routines. I even interrupted a number of conjugal activities, which I can say made me a big believer in putting curtains on your front bay windows.
Though the Foundation’s goal was to mobilize political engagement, I can tell you that going door-to-door introduces you to the kind of random sampling of humanity that makes you question the wisdom of universal suffrage.
For instance, there was the family of Jehovah Witnesses in Chesterfield who didn’t seem to appreciate the irony that I was now on their doorstep with pamphlets.
There was the born again Christian in Lynchburg who had guns lining every inch of his foyer walls and who explained passionately that he didn’t believe in caring for the environment because the apocalypse was coming any day now.
There was the 40-something woman in Portsmouth who answered the door wearing suggestive unmentionables and invited me inside with a solicitation of her own.
And there was the older, well-off widower in Ablemarle who signed my petition and offered me a $1,000 donation if I joined him for dinner. And he seemed nice enough but, because I’d seen Silence of the Lambs, I begged off.
But of all those ‘characters’ one is forever seared into my memory, and I think of him whenever I’m in the locker room at the Mt Vernon Rec Center.
I was knocking on doors in Palmyra. It was already dusk. I was starving, and I wasn’t anywhere near my fundraising quota.
It was a deceptively ordinary ranch-style home.
To be fair, I was warned. On the front door, just beneath a wreath that said ‘World’s Greatest Grandparents Live Here,’ was a sign that ‘No Solicitation.’
But I’d been job-trained to ignore such signs. They were the sign of an easy mark- people who didn’t have what it takes to say no to your face.
And in my defense, the sign certainly couldn’t have prepared me for what lay on the other side of the beveled glass door.
I rang the doorbell until I heard footsteps.
He opened the door and stood there in front of me.
And just like that, I wasn’t hungry anymore.
He looked like Cliff from Cheers, from the neck up at least.
His wife was sitting on the sofa in the family room behind him, watching Jeopardy. She too was nude and, lacking any female accoutrements, she looked a little like Norm, Cliff’s co-star.
I stood there speechless, vaguely thinking that he should be the one blushing not me.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked nonchalantly.
He knocked on his own door to get my attention.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked again.
‘No…no, I don’t think so.’ I stammered.
‘Then why’d you ring?’ he asked.
‘Excuse me? I tried to say but my voice sounded to me like the last thing you hear before you drift off to anesthesia.
‘Why’d you ring?’
I could’t get the words out so I thrust my clipboard at him.
‘Is this a bad time?’ I gurgled.
‘No, not at all,’ he said politely.
‘But…you’re…umm…not wearing any clothes’ I whispered like you do when you’re pointing out that someone has lettuce between their teeth.
‘Oh, we always are’ he said, ‘it’s our philosophy.’
And with that, he took my clipboard and began reading every word with interest. While he read, I pondered just how far that statement ‘we always are’ went.
For example…I saw they had a badmitton net set up in their side yard.
My mind conjured the image, and it’s stubbornly there remained ever since.
I glanced at the grill on the front porch next to me and wondered did ‘we always are’ include that too? Or did he maybe wear an apron?
‘So, are you studying politics?’ he asked me.
‘No, I’m a religion major’ I said.
‘A religion major? Well, then, you understand!’ he said excitedly.
‘This’ he said and he kind of curtsied to indicate his Vetruvian form.
‘We believe in celebrating the bodies God gave us. We believe God’s called us to live like this. A religion major should understand that right?’
He seemed genuinely surprised when I informed him that my curriculum at UVA hadn’t yet included nudist philosophy.
He seemed even more surprised when I said: ‘Well, I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing God would do.’
When he gets to chapter 20, the prophet Isaiah takes these 3 years of his career and buries them as discretely as possible in just 6 verses, 6 verses of 3rd person prose not 1st person poetry.
It’s almost like Isaiah would rather not include this part of his call.
And who can blame him?
This scripture raises all kinds of questions.
How much sunscreen did that require?
And, did he have to do it in cold weather too?
And, if so, was that doubly humiliating?
But today’s text raises another, more basic, question.
A question that should have everything to do with us and our church:
Is this the kind of thing God would do?
You could just say yes and be done with it.
You could say ‘yes, this is what prophets do.’
After all, Jeremiah went around like a crazy person, smashing clay pots to signify how God’s promises were dashed beyond repair.
And Ezekiel- Ezekiel shaved his head bald and shaved off his beard with a battle sword to foreshadow the destruction of Jerusalem.
So when it comes to Isaiah baring his birthday suit, you could say ‘yes, it’s bizarre but this just what prophets do. This is the kind of thing God would do.
But you don’t have to say yes.
In fact, many red-faced biblical scholars have argued ‘No, this is not something God would do.’
It’s indecent. It’s immodest. It violates God’s own commandments.
Therefore, there must be something else going on in the text. There must be some other explanation. God must be calling Isaiah to something different than what appears to us on the surface of the text.
For example, you could argue, as one scholar argues, that God’s command for Isaiah to strip off his clothes is really a command for Isaiah to put on sackcloth and ash and mourn what’s to befall his people, just like Job did when he lost everything.
You could argue that.
Or you could say, as another scholar says, that Isaiah doesn’t take everything off. He just takes off his outer robe, leaving on his inner tunic.
Just like Jesus does when he washes his disciples’ feet. In that way, then, Isaiah is demonstrating how his people will soon be reduced to servanthood and slavery.
You could make that case.
Or you could jump the shark completely, as one evangelical scholar does, ad argue that Isaiah 20 is actually symbolic foreshadowing of the New Testament Book of Hebrews 2.3.
So Isaiah isn’t literally stripping off literal clothes, he’s stripping off the Old Covenant and putting on faith in Jesus Christ. Maybe.
Or maybe instead of a firm ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ you could split the difference and settle somewhere in between.
In fact, one biblical scholar argues that Isaiah strips off his ‘waist garment’ and shoes only. And so he’s not completely naked- not his chest or his arms or his legs.
Just Isaiah’s feet and rear end are exposed for 3 years.
But how such an image is less troubling escapes me.
The fact is when it comes to the history of interpretation there is no shortage of embarrassed scholars doing theological gymnastics to rework this text because there is so much embarrassment that this might be something God would do.
“I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing God would do.’ I speculated, trying to fix my gaze on the wall clock behind him rather than on his behind.
He slid the pen out from my clipboard and began to sign a petition about the Clean Air Act.
‘So, religion major, what religion are you?’ he asked, as he filled out his address.
‘Me? I’m a Christian. A United Methodist.’
He nodded approvingly and filled out his phone number.
‘I’m Jewish’ he said.
‘Yes, I can see that’ I said, glancing down.
He handed the clipboard back to me.
‘Care to make a donation?’ I said, giving new meaning to the term ‘pressing the flesh.’
‘Oh, sure’ he said, needing no convincing.
Then he turned his head to the side and shouted ‘Mother, can you bring me the checkbook.’
To this day, if there’s one thing I’m certain of in all of God’s creation it’s that the words ‘Mother’ and ‘Nudist’ do not belong in the same conversation.
‘I don’t see it in here’ his wife shouted back over Alex Trebec announcing a Daily Double.
‘I know it’s on the sofa’ he said. ‘Maybe you’re sitting on it.’
I threw up a little in my mouth.
He offered to leave and go find it himself but I said:
‘Don’t worry. You can mail it in.’
I handed him a flyer and was about to leave when he said:
‘You know- if you really care about the environment then you should try going nudist.’
‘I mean- if you really care passionately about the issue, wouldn’t you want to do anything to get people’s attention?’
Despite my impressive physique, I had a hard time imagining that nudity would improve my fundraising numbers. In spite of that, I left his driveway thinking he may have had a point.
Is this the kind of thing God would do?
Maybe the better question is:
Does God so love the world that God would do ANYTHING.
To hit someone right between the eyes with GRACE?
Would God do anything to speak a Word to a heart that had long since grown hard of hearing?
Would God do anything to get the attention of someone who’s heard so many bad versions of the Gospel that they’re now inoculated against the real thing?
Before you answer, you should know that in Isaiah’s day, the Assyrian Empire had encroached upon its neighboring nations.
And who do God’s People turn to with their faith and trust? To Egypt and Ethiopia, who goad God’s People to take up arms. They offer God’s People empty promises of friendship and protection.
They turned to Egypt and Ethiopia for their salvation. Not to God.
No longer trusting God, they had to put that trust somewhere.
So they put it in their wealth and material comfort. They put their trust in their politics and government. They put their trust in their own strength and military might.
You see in Isaiah’s day it had been a long time since the days of King David. And for a longer time still they’d been living with the stories of Abraham and Moses.
And so in Isaiah’s day it wasn’t as if God’s People had rejected God outright, and it wasn’t that they didn’t know about God. In Isaiah’s day, it was more like the good news of God was old news to them.
They’d grown indifferent to it, apathetic about it, been-there-done-that bored with it.
God couldn’t get through.
So what does God do? God calls Isaiah, whom God had called before, but this time not with pretty words or poetry. This time God calls Isaiah to go all in, to strip down naked, to get the people’s attention by any means necessary.
Does God so love the world that anything is up for grabs for God to get our attention?
Before you answer you should know that part of scholars’ discomfort with today’s text isn’t just what God asked. It’s not just the nudity.
It’s who God asked. Who God called to do this.
I mean Jeremiah would be one thing. Jeremiah’s already kind of emotionally fragile and on the fringes of society.
It would be easier to swallow if God asked Hosea to bare it all. Hosea married a prostitute. The entire Book of Leviticus was already out the window for Hosea.
Isaiah’s not like those other wild-eyed prophets.
Isaiah’s a court prophet not an extreme radical.
Isaiah’s part of the urban elite: well-educated, well-off, well-respected.
Isaiah’s not some street-corner crazy.
Isaiah lives in the nation’s capital. He had the King’s ear.
He was part of the 1%.
He rubbed elbows with the haves and the movers and shakers.
Isaiah’s not out spray-painting sandwich boards and occupying Jerusalem.
Isaiah’s not like those other people.
Isaiah’s more like..
And let’s face it-
You’re United Methodists.
That means you’d much rather keep assuming that God’s call only applies to people like me.
Or, at best, maybe God’s call means you’re supposed to come and sit in places like this and listen to people like me.
But the question is: does God so love the world that God would do anything?
Before you answer you should know the risk.
Because if God’s willing to do anything, try anything, risk anything and everything.
If God’s willing to have Isaiah strip down
If God’s willing to strip off his own power and might just to surprise us by showing up as one of us,
If God’s willing to do anything, try anything, call anyone
Then, odds are, sooner or later
God’s going to run out of options
And then God’s very likely to call someone as unlikely as you.
To do something strange
or maybe even scary.
And I’d bet the clothes off my back that, for some of you, that call’s already come. And you’ve ignored it.
Is this something God would do?
You bet your a$%.