What God Wants

Isaiah 1:10-20

Frederick Buechner, a novelist and minister, said that a prophet is the sort of person who gets invited to dinner only once. That was his colorful way of saying that prophets tend to be unpopular because they tell people things they’d rather not hear.

A prophet is the opposite of a demagogue. A demagogue tells people whatever they want to hear, in order to get what the demagogue wants: power, money, votes, etc. Typically this means that a demagogue has only loose ties to the truth. He tells the truth when it’s convenient, but more often he cherry picks facts to please his audience; and when the facts don’t suit either of their interests, he makes things up. Demagogues are more or less impervious to uncomfortable truths, and they teach their audiences to be the same. The demagogue gives people a leader to legitimate their own biases.

A prophet is just the opposite. He tells the truth, even when the truth makes people squirm. A prophet has the people’s best interests at heart, and sometimes that makes prophets the leaders of important movements—especially when one group of people has treated another group badly. In that case, it’s mostly those who benefit from the way things have been that find prophets annoying and dangerous. But the prophet is committed to telling the truth, even if no one really wants to hear it.

The real prophets in the Bible, like Isaiah, are committed to the truth because they work for God, and God is committed to the truth. God is the ground of being, the source of all truth, so lies are especially offensive to God. That’s why false prophets—the ones who tell people only what they want to hear—come in for such withering criticism in the Bible.

You can see, then, why the first chapter of Isaiah’s book begins with a warning about piety that papers over lies and false dealings. “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity,” God says through the prophet. God is not impressed with worship that lets people off the hook for practicing or condoning all sorts of wrongs the rest of the week.

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes,” God says. “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” When the people and their leaders do those things, their worship will ring true to God. Until then, their songs of praise are just ungodly noise.

What does all this have to do with Advent? Well, Advent is about getting ready for the coming of Christ, the one who claims to be “the way, the truth, and the life.” The way that leads to life is guided by the truth. And the truth is, Christ wants us to do what’s right for all God’s people.

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