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"All People?”

The truth is: we don’t keep the laws of Deuteronomy much anymore. We don’t care whether a person cannot reproduce, and we do not check birth certificates at the door. We do not know any Ammonites or Moabites because those nations don’t exist anymore. But if they did, we’d probably welcome them.

 “Charleston Steeples Moonrise” by Jesse Thornton
“Charleston Steeples Moonrise” by Jesse Thornton

Isaiah 56:1-8

August 20, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright


I have been aware of the punchline of this somewhat obscure passage for more than 45 years because the phrase “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” – Isaiah 56:7 is inscribed on the wall behind the pulpit at my home church in Fairfax, VA.


It is a lovely sentiment in the cosmopolitan suburbs of our nation’s capital, and it’s reflected on their current statistical report with over 60 members who identify as Asian or Black or multiracial.


But the phrase takes on a little more bite when you consider that the church was founded in 1953 – about the same time as this one – and, by the end of the decade, they offered a racially integrated preschool program. They really meant “all people” and lived it out, even when it was hard.


Over the years that conviction has extended to their staffing choices and their stances on volatile issues. And it is echoed in their mission statement which says they are “an uncommon Christian community, embracing all people with God’s love and grace.”[2]

 

I mention all this because what appears on the surface to be an unremarkable phrase, was actually deeply challenging to Isaiah’s original audience and remains challenging.


By the time the prophet spoke these words to Israel, the people of God had seen the Temple destroyed and the people exiled to Babylon. A generation has passed and those who have returned to rebuild are deeply damaged – battered and scarred, body and soul. They trace their suffering back to their failure to keep the covenant God made with them. It had not been enough that YHWH was their God and they were God’s people. Instead, as a variety of prophets made plain, they chased after every foreign god like lost sheep or an adulterous spouse.


So it is no surprise that these traumatized people decide that the only way to prove that they are faithful and worthy of God’s love and protection is to reject all things foreign – to abandon foreign wives and steer clear of outsiders.


They are like the alcoholic who has seen the way drinking has cost them everything they care about – their marriage, their job, their kids, their friendships, their home, their self-respect – and left them on the streets. So, trying to claw their way back onto the wagon, they swear off drinking entirely and cling to 12 step meetings like a lifeline.

 

So imagine their shock when Isaiah reports that God is now saying that foreigners and eunuchs are welcome, their sacrifices acceptable, on God’s holy mountain and in God’s house of prayer!


“It cannot be true!” they shout!


Deuteronomy says no eunuch shall be admitted, ever. No one born of an illicit union shall be admitted, not even to the tenth generation of their descendants. No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted, even to the tenth generation because they refused Israel food and water on their way escaping Egypt. You shall never promote their welfare, it warns.


Edomites get a pass because they are kin going back to Esau. Surprisingly Egyptians do too, because the people of Israel found refuge there long ago. They are to be admitted.[3]


Has God forgotten the law? Has God gone soft?


Did Isaiah mishear? Is he a false prophet?


What were they to make of this passage? What are we to make of this passage?


The truth is: we don’t keep the laws of Deuteronomy much anymore. We don’t care whether a person cannot reproduce, and we do not check birth certificates at the door. We do not know any Ammonites or Moabites because those nations don’t exist anymore. But if they did, we’d probably welcome them.


Which isn’t to say we don’t hold old grudges or fail to make some people feel welcome.


We are also just as prone as our ancestors of trying to earn God’s love.


So I ask again, what are we to make of this passage … and God’s boast that the Lord’s house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples?

 

Three observations may help:


First, it might have helped Israel to remember that this is not the first time God has talked about welcoming other nations. God told Abraham multiple times that he would be a blessing to the nations.[4] That was the plan from the beginning!


Second, read the fine print – those who God welcomes may be eunuchs and foreigners, but they keep Sabbath, they choose the things that please God, they hold fast to God’s covenant. In short, they do the same things that God calls God’s people to do.


And finally, the welcome God is offering is not a right but a gift.


It is not a right earned by Israel and a gift to others. It is a gift to everyone.


Israel did not earn it. They never managed to keep faithful for very long.


And casting out foreigners and barring the door to eunuchs would not change that.


In fact, it would hurt their cause, because they would be failing to show the hospitality God offers, the love God is known for, the grace that is the foundation of every relationship God enters.

 

So when God says, “my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples”, it is a challenge.


It challenged Israel to welcome those who they had thought they needed to exclude to keep the law; it forced them to look deeper into their history for who God intended to welcome; it forced them to wrestle with the very nature of God.


It is a challenge for us too. It invites us to learn from their example; to avoid the same pitfalls; to marvel at the same grace … and extend it to others … even when it is hard to do.


Professor Ingid Lilly reminds us that this is not like Lion King “when all the adorable and colorful animals converge for the lion’s birth.” No, the scene is more uncomfortable than any technicolor movie and lacks a catchy soundtrack! Instead, she says, “Imagine illegal immigrants, nations at odds, and refugees crossing strict military borders on pilgrimage towards prayer.”[5]


Imagine praying next to people who are your enemies, folks who vote for people who make your blood boil, people who do not value what you value or who you value.


Imagine not just praying next to them – perhaps trying to pray louder or longer – but praying with them and for them. Imagine praying together as those who God has called to be in relationship with, as those who need God, as those who love God.


Imagine being a house of prayer for all peoples – not just as our slogan – but in truth!

 

For Israel, listening to Isaiah, it was almost more than they could imagine.


Bringing it to pass would require more change than they could stomach – more soul searching, more relearning what they held dear, more forgiveness, more vulnerability, more trust.


And yet, if God was leading the way, maybe they could follow. Maybe we can too. Amen

[1] “Charleston Steeples Moonrise” by Jesse Thornton
[2] See https://fairfaxpresbyterian.org/fpc/what-we-believe
[3] See Deuteronomy 23:1-6
[4] See Genesis 18:8 for one example
[5] From her reflection on the text for workingpreacher.org, 8/14/11
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