In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:1-13) The Orthodox Church reads these opening words of the Bible on the first day of Lent. But the Church also reads Isaiah 1:1-20. “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken…”
The Lord who created the heavens and the earth at the beginning now speaks to the heavens and the earth to bear witness to God’s accusation against the human race: “Sons have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand….What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord…When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:2-17)
These are rough words spoken by God to the people that were chosen to be God’s people! But can’t you hear Jesus saying the same to us every time he reminds us, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me”? Surely it is the same Word who spoke to God’s people in the ancient times through Isaiah and to us through the incarnate Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s the same voice speaking throughout the ages, because injustice is always aimed at the weak and the poor.
But the Lord Jesus always gives us hope of renewal and forgiveness. So also in Isaiah chapter 1, words of comfort follow immediately from the words of judgment: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land…” Words of threat follow even these words of hope, because God is not in the business of feel-good delusions. God is in the business of making us good, from the inside out.
“God saw that it was good.” And when God created human beings at the completion of creation, God saw that “indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). God created everything to be good, the heavens and the earth and all life in the universe. And it was very good! But human beings have a tendency to corrupt what is good, and so we need the words of the Bible. Even our worship can be rejected by God when it is not accompanied by actions of faith and love of neighbor and stranger. At the start of Lent, the Church gives us two messages: the message of created goodness and the message of how that created goodness witnesses against us and the way we live. Isaiah is telling us that God is not impressed with our worship and our prayers – or our fasting; just jump to chapter 58 of Isaiah to see the proof!
But there is a third book we read from during Lent, the Book of Proverbs. It’s no one’s favorite book of the Bible, and much of it consists of old-fashioned moralistic advice. And yet this Book of Proverbs contains some of the most poetic words of the Bible. Consider the first chapter that is read by the Orthodox Church on this first day of Lent. It announces that the purpose of Proverbs is so that the reader or listener will “acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.” But this is not esoteric understanding for the select few: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her voice.”
Yes, Wisdom cries out in the marketplace, where people buy and sell, in the streets where people meet. The Bible offers a mosaic of voices and messages – just as we see on this first day of Lent – because the world is a mosaic of voices and messages. But God is right there in the midst of it all, reminding us how good everything is and how we have a habit of messing things up. The Bible is very much in the marketplace of ideas and consumer goods. Lent invites us to look at our priorities and evaluate the importance of the ideas and goods in our lives.
(Also posted on the parish website that I manage.)