Sermon on Isaiah 44:1-5, Lent 3 Midweek, "Marked!"
“This one will write upon his hand–‘Belonging to Yahweh.’” Isaiah 44:5.
Rob Poulos is a walking piece of literature. He has tattooed on his left wrist, “B-A-C-K – period.” Like it was lifted from the end of sentence. It was. A few years ago Poulos joined a worldwide effort to help author Shelley Jackson tell her story on people’s bodies. Appropriately titled Skin, the “book” has 2,095 words. Each person bears on their body just one word.
“It’s not that everything I do has to be tricked out with gimmicks and games,” she said. “I’m just interested in exploring the range of what a text can do.” Poulos heard about it in a literature class at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He said, “I always told myself that if I got a tattoo, it had better be important.”
At last count, Shelley Jackson was still looking for 400 people to bear her final 400 words. Just think, we could contact her after church, offer our human hides, and be part of an alternative publication! How many are ready to line up for her suggested one-word tattoo? That’s just what I thought. And, truth be told, I’m not all that eager get that tattoo, either. Especially not for someone else’s story.
Isaiah also wants people to be marked with words on their hand and be part of a counter-cultural story. An invitation to be a part of God’s story, where we play a meaningful part by His call and His good plan for our lives. The words He wants to write on our hand are these, from 44:5, “This one will write upon his hand– ‘Belonging to Yahweh.’” But Judean exiles in Babylon didn’t line up. They weren’t interested in being marked by their Maker. They didn’t want to return to Jerusalem. They weren’t interested in going home.
Because, you see, there was another text in town. One of the Ancient Near East’s most dominate stories in the sixth century BC was the Babylonian creation epic called the Enuma Elish. The Enuma Elish celebrates Marduk’s defeat over Tiamat. He cut her in two and built the universe out of her remains. Read during the annual religious holiday, the feast reached its pinnacle with a shout proclaiming their god was king! This story let them fit in with Babylon.
Connected to the pomp and pageantry of Babylonian religion was the empire’s program of changing people’s names. Just ask Hannaniah, Mishael, and Azariah. Or maybe you know them by their Veggie Tale names Rach, Shach, and Benny. But in Daniel 1:7 the empire changes their names to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The goal? Mark the Judeans with a new name that will entice them into worshiping Marduk. Faithfully, these three brave men didn’t cave to the cultural story to sell out their faith in the one true God. But many Judean exiles were slow to line up to be marked belonging to Yahweh – Babylon seemed to offer so much more!
What is the siren song, or the alluring story of our day? What worldly narrative entices us to seek conformity to our culture? We hear the story peddled by the young and the beautiful who guarantee we can be young and beautiful, just like them, if we buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to be surrounded with stuff we finally won’t even like. Materialism is the story and song.
Their text is hammered into our heads at an alarming rate. On a typical day in America, from the time we log on to our chosen online news page or TV channel, until we finally doze off in front of our phone screen, we may see six to ten thousand advertising images, depending on how “plugged in” we are to devices and the rest of the advertising world. The American Psychological Association says children are targeted with on average 40,000 advertisements in a year. We are bombarded, immersed in messages and images from society. They sell the dominant American narrative – “You can buy happiness!” Advertisers cleverly tempt us to project our hopes and dreams onto their products.
In league with the pomp and pageantry of American consumerism is the enemy’s program of changing our names. His goal? Mark us with a new name that will entice us to find fulfillment in things. Though we are beloved by God through water and the Word, Satan renames us cheap, dirty, and worthless. Though we are deemed washed and cleansed in the name of Jesus, the devil whispers to us, “Guilty as charged.” Designated by our Lord to be “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God,” the Liar brazenly boasts, “It’s fiction, fantasy, it’s all a figment of your imagination.”
Put together, the dominant narrative and the dominant devil, make us reluctant to be part of a counter cultural story. “Besides,” we reason, “to stand out in the crowd would be uncomfortable. And furthermore,” we convince ourselves, “I can sell my soul to the American dream and claim prosperity while still professing the name of Jesus.”
Oh God! We need an alternative story! We need to get home! Enter Isaiah 40-55 where the prophet takes dead aim at the empire and it’s story. In 40:12 he maintains that Babylon and all the nations are only a drop in a bucket, while in 40:23 Isaiah dares to write that the empire’s leaders are empty and their god Marduk is little more than dust in the wind. Then the clincher, his oracle against Babylon in Isaiah 47, includes these words: “Sit in silence, go into darkness, Daughter Babylon; no longer will you be called the queen of the kingdoms.”
And the counter narrative in Isaiah 40-55 is just getting revved up! “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her warfare has been completed … Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, Yahweh is doing a renewed event! … How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God is King!’” And, taking another shot against Babylon and every other seductive and satanic meta-narrative, Isaiah maintains, “The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God will stand forever."
We are the subject of God’s story, so much so that we line up, and “write upon our hand” not “belonging to Babylon,” but “Belonging to Yahweh.”
You see, our God has always told his story on people’s bodies, call it … Skin! In Genesis 4 he marks Cain and in Genesis 17 he gives Abraham and his offspring the covenant mark of circumcision. Deuteronomy 6 describes people tying Yahweh’s words on their hands and binding them on their foreheads, while in Ezekiel 9 God commands a man with a writing kit saying, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in this city.”
And it all points to the most awesome story ever told on human skin. Isaiah describes the body with these words. “His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness … Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not … We all, like sheep, have gone astray. And Yahweh has laid upon him the iniquity of our sin.” One spear, three nails, and a crown of thorns left their marks on Jesus. Did they ever!
But first the Ten disciples, and then climactically Thomas, saw Jesus alive and our Savior showed them his scarred skin. Jesus is forever marked with scars announcing for you, right here, right now, his loyal love and his free forgiveness and his grace gone wild! And so people began lining up to be marked. Paul puts it this way in Galatians 6:17, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” Eyes marked with tenderness and kindness, a mind marked with toughness and truth, a heart marked with confidence and steadfastness, and a mouth marked with Jesus and joy. Are you ready to tell that counter-cultural story on your skin?
To be a part of this counter-cultural narrative all we need are these words marked on our hand: belonging to Yahweh.” But just how does that happen? Recall the baptismal water, remember the Word, and forever cherish this liturgical rite. “Receive the sign of the holy cross, both upon your forehead and upon your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified…and I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”