Throw Open The Doors

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Boise, ID

June 26, 2011

Isaiah 56:1-8

Thus says the LORD:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.

Happy is the mortal who does this,
the one who holds it fast,
who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it,
and refrains from doing any evil.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the LORD:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord GOD,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.

This is one of those texts that surprises me each time I come across it. While scriptures talk about welcoming foreigners and providing hospitality for foreigners, there also seem to be many verses in the Hebrew Bible instructing people not to marry foreigners, not to mix with them. Compare these two passages, for example.

Exodus 23:9 states: “You shall not oppress a resident alien (foreigner); you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” 


But Deuteronomy 7:1-6 says:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.
Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.  But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

Yes, it is a complicated message. Be hospitable. Treat people well because you should remember what it is like to be a resident alien. But there is a line between “welcoming” and “accepting”.
And once you cross that line, you’re headed for a heartache. Because, before you know it, they will have corrupted your children and led you to forget just who your God is.

Scripture’s instructions about eunuchs makes this passage from Isaiah even more startling.

There’s no real delicate way of saying this, but since I’m quoting the Bible, I’ll just go ahead and tell you the instructionfrom Deuteronomy 23:1.  “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”
I know. You didn’t want to hear it anymore than I wanted to say it out loud. But it is pretty clear for the author of Deuteronomy that men who are eunuchs are not really men and shouldn’t be a part of the faith community.

So listen again to the radical claims being made in Isaiah. Eunuchs who love and serve God:

  “I will give, in my house and within my walls,
        a monument and a name
        better than sons and daughters;
        I will give them an everlasting name
        that shall not be cut off.”

And foreigners who join themselves to God:
“these I will bring to my holy mountain,
        and make them joyful in my house of prayer;”
        Thus says the Lord GOD,
        who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
        I will gather others to them
        besides those already gathered.

At first glance, it seems God’s prophecy to Isaiah represents a policy change. But I wonder if it was less that the policy needed revision and more that the situation on the ground changed. Because it appears that the problem being addressed in Isaiah is that foreigners are wanting to abandon their gods and follow the One God. The foreigners aren’t trying to convert the Israelites—they want to join them.
How strange would that be, to change your paradigm as Isaiah is asking them to do? To be told—all of your life—to be wary of foreigners would certainly work its way into your understanding of the world. “Sure, honey, you should be nice to that boy down the street, and I guess we could invite him to your birthday party, but you cannot go to youth group at his church and your sister will most definitely NEVER marry him.

So you wonder how well received Isaiah’s message of welcome, inclusion, and of gathering the outcasts was to a community who had long been told that welcome only went so far. Did it take them a while to adjust? Did they embrace it immediately? Had there been people lobbying and campaigning for inclusion of foreigners for many years before this?

And no matter what they thought of welcoming foreigners as brothers and sisters, I’m hard pressed to imagine anyone in the ancient Middle East being excited about the idea of welcoming eunuchs. They at least had a tradition of hospitality to foreigners. The Hebrew people did not practice castration, so any eunuchs living among them were already foreign.

God told the patriarch Abraham, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” (Genesis 15:5) The Hebrew people had taken that command very seriously. Creating future generations that would be more numerous than the stars in the sky was a big job, especially for a people constantly at war, being carted off to exile, and dealing with famines. It required everyone to do their part.
You can imagine the pain for barren women to be reminded of the “stars in the sky” each month when pregnancy eluded them, yet again. And even if you consider that foreigners could help Israel in their quest to match the stars in the sky, eunuchs would have no place in that plan.
More than their inability to reproduce, to contribute to producing future generations, eunuchs also face that scriptural prohibition from being a part of the assembly of the people of God. And yet, Isaiah says that they, too, have a place in the family of God.
Eunuchs aren’t in the news so much these days. But you can fill in the blank for the group in our community and our culture today that would be least likely to be invited into the assembly of God. And it seems to me that God is saying that whoever you just decided was outside of God’s love, God’s family, and God’s mercy—you better reconsider your position.
“For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Even for foreigners.

Even for eunuchs.

Even for the people you’ve been fearing and avoiding your whole life. If they want to follow in the ways of God and join the family, the prophecy in Isaiah makes it clear that there is room for them too.

The great irony in all of this, of course, is that most of us are probably not eunuchs, but as far as the Hebrew people were concerned, we are all foreigners.

This expansion of the family of God in Isaiah’s prophecy is being lived out in this sanctuary. Today.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
        to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,
        and to be his servants,
        all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
        and hold fast my covenant—
        these I will bring to my holy mountain,
        and make them joyful in my house of prayer….
        for my house shall be called a house of prayer
        for all peoples.
         Thus says the Lord GOD,
        who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
        I will gather others to them
        besides those already gathered.

Isn’t it odd? We have gotten so accustomed to being on the “inside” of God’s family after 2,000 years of the church, that we forget we were once outsiders too. Perhaps so many years of Christendom, of being a dominant voice in the world has made us forget that we didn’t get our “insider” status through our own merits.
We look at the people on the outside, and somehow manage to forget that it used to be us out there.  We wave at them on the outside and think, “those poor saps. Thank God I’m not like them.

But Isaiah won’t let us forget about the Grace of God.

Thus says the LORD:
        Maintain justice, and do what is right,
        for soon my salvation will come,
        and my deliverance be revealed.

Isaiah reminds us that salvation is coming for us. God’s plan to redeem and deliver creation includes us. But we have to see that category of “us” as ever expanding. God’s family never gets smaller. It only gets bigger. This prophecy reminds us that God wants a large family.
And so we should look around the room and see our brothers and sisters.
But we should also look around the room and see which of our brothers and sisters are missing.

Who is still sitting outside the doors, waiting to be invited in?

Who is still outside because they think they wouldn’t be welcome?

Who is still outside because they’ve been told God doesn’t love them?

Who is still outside because they’ve been told Scripture is quite clear on the subject?

Who is still outside because we’re afraid of them?

Who is still outside only because they’ve never heard that God loves them and that they are welcome here?
Friends, the good news is that this story is for us. God has gathered us here. Friends the other good news is that this story is not only for us. God is calling us to open the doors and make this a house of prayer for ALL peoples.

Thanks be to God.  Amen

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