Isaiah 28.9-19, Matthew 13.13-16
In verse 9, the Prophet ponders how God is going to get across his message to the heedless people of Israel, North and South. Without Sir Lynton Crosby to help him distill his message into a few telling one liners, it will be like trying to explain the subtleties of Brexit to toddlers newly weaned from the breast who are just starting to speak a few words.
Imagine me reading a book to my two grandsons, both aged two. If it has plenty of pictures, and I set about it at a brisk pace and with plenty of animation, there’s a good chance we’ll get to the end of the story before they lose interest - but only if it’s well written, punchy and absolutely engages them.
The problem for God is that his message may be gripping and punchy, but it’s not a message that people really want to hear. When the Prophet Amos called for justice and fairness to roll down like a river in spate, that never runs dry, there was something delightfully vague about it. He was appealing to the people of the Northern Kingdom to mend their ways and include social justice in their definition of how to do the right kind of religion. But when Isaiah renews the challenge, perhaps 40 years later, Amos’s appeal has been turned into a very specific threat.
The Lord is going to send someone mighty and strong - the Emperor Sargon II of Assyria - who will come like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest, or an overwhelming flood. God’s hand will hurl Sargon down to the earth, where he will trample the heedless people of Israel underfoot like an avenging angel. It’s gripping stuff, but it’s not necessarily what you want to hear if you’re looking for hope and comfort in difficult times.
Is it surprising, then, that this rather bleak message doesn’t really engage people? They prefer to switch channels. Isaiah’s dilemma is quite a modern one really. Just as today we surf the Internet looking for the sort of news we want to hear, and ignoring unwelcome or unpalatable opinions, so the people of Israel and Judah tune out whenever God tries to tell them how disaster might still be averted. The message comes across as, ‘Blah, blah, blah… Precept, upon precept, upon precept, line upon line, upon line.’ Boring or what? And as for the impending disaster, what disaster?
When Isaiah tries to communicate God’s message it’s as if he can’t get the words out right or is speaking a foreign language. People just don’t respond, and he wonders whether God even expects them to hear. After all, even when God had offered rest to the weary they wouldn’t listen. It still seemed like precept upon precept, line upon line. So why should they listen now? Perhaps God has been laying a trap for them all along, gradually hardening their hearts to his uncompromising message so that they will focus only on the news they want to hear.
Jesus takes up the same idea in some of his teaching. He’s fond of saying, ‘Let anyone with ears listen,’ as if some people are bound to be on a different wavelength. And in Matthew chapter 13 he complains, borrowing words from Isaiah himself, that people’s ears are stopped up and their eyes are covered. They don’t seem able to see, or hear, or understand, because if they could they would surely turn to him and he would heal them.
But here Isaiah takes the idea in an intriguing direction. He’s convinced that some of the scoffers, who are rubbishing his message and encouraging others to ignore it, are actually peddling false news, an alternative narrative that makes sense of the world in a way they would like to be true.
So the rulers of the southern kingdom, based in Jerusalem, accept that the overwhelming scourge of the Assyrians is going to pass through Palestine, threatening both North and South, but they’re convinced ‘it will not come to us.’ It’s as if they think they can have their cake and eat it. They can disobey God, and ignore his precepts, yet still come out on top.
But the really intriguing thing is that Isaiah is convinced they know their narrative is false. It’s not as though they really believe they can make a covenant with death and the underworld to stay away from their land. They know it’s a ridiculous idea. They fully accept that they’re taking refuge in lies and sheltering behind falsehoods. But if it keeps the people happy, and stops them from taking to the streets, it will have served its purpose.
The story that Pope Francis had made a covenant with Donald Trump was exactly the same kind of cynical deception. The perpetrators knew it was false, but if they could only get enough people to believe it then they could soften Trump’s image, at least at the margins.
And we could say the same about some of the Leave narratives in the Brexit campaign, not least the bold claim that leaving the EU would be good for the NHS. My brother was in a lift with two hospital cleaners at Pinderfields Hospital just before the referendum. ‘Which way are you going to vote?’ one asked the other. ‘Well I’m going to vote for Brexit because we’ve got to save the NHS,’ the other replied.
The BBC has responded to its lamentable failure to call out false news by appointing a fact checking correspondent to weigh the competing claims of the party manifestos in the general election. And Facebook has published guidance about how to recognise false news, although one suspects that the people who are most drawn to the eye-catching headlines of false news stories won’t find the guidelines a riveting read. They certainly haven’t stopped the endless stream of false news stories about the sudden death of celebrities like Graham Norton, who has died a number of times recently on my Facebook page.
Isaiah says that God has his own answer to false news. ‘See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation. I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet.’ Or, to put it another way, ‘Justice and fairness will be the measuring lines’ for calling out the lies of false news. Isaiah concludes, somewhat optimistically, that the false news ‘will be swept away.’
It’s optimistic because of course the uncompromisingly stark narrative of the real news remains, and people still don’t want to hear it, even when the out and out falseness of the false news has been exposed. The scourge of Sargon II will still pass through. The false leaders and all their followers, North and South, will be beaten down by it and as often as the Assyrian army passes through the land it will claim fresh victims. Even Isaiah admits that it will be ‘sheer terror to understand [his] message.’ Who can blame people for continuing to click on the false news they prefer to hear even when they know, in their heart of hearts, that it’s highly problematic, to say the least?
Is that what continues to feed the popularity of climate change denial, and the false hopes that house prices can continue to rise without deepening the housing crisis, or that immigration can be reduced without affecting the availability of goods and services, or that good health and social care can be provided without raising taxes, or that pensions can be sustained without a radical rethink of what retirement means and how it’s going to be paid for?
All we can do is encourage our people to use justice and righteousness as the measuring lines for distinguishing truth from falsehood, right from wrong, and perhaps put out some narratives of our own, or at least give some likes and endorsements to the stories which seem to be most true, as a tiny corrective to the deluge of false news in the social media.