March 4, 2015 Text: Isaiah 44:1-5
Dear Friends in Christ,
Shelly Jackson is not only an author, she’s a walking piece of literature. She has a tattoo on her right wrist that reads, “S-k-i-n” yes, Skin. It is actually the title of Jackson’s latest project, which she calls “A Mortal Work of Art.” The plan is that her 2095-word story would be published exclusively in tattoos, one word at a time, on the skin of volunteers. Once a volunteer is accepted into the project, they are known only by the word they bear on their skin.
At last count, Shelly Jackson was still looking for people to bear her final three hundred words. Just think, we could contact her after church, offer our human hides, and be a part of a counter-cultural narrative.
Isaiah also wants people to be marked with one word and be part of a counter-cultural narrative. He writes in our text, “another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s.’” This Lenten truth tonight, we are . . .
One of the ancient Near East’s most dominant narratives in the sixth century BC was the Babylonian creation epic called the Enuma Elish. The Enuma Elish narrates Marduk’s defeat over Tiamat. He cut her in two and built the universe out of her remains. Read during the annual Akitu festival the pinnacle was the acclimation – in the Akkadian language – “Marduka ma surru,” which translated means, “Marduk is King.”
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. You may know their VeggieTale names, “Shach, Rach, and Benny.” In Daniel 1:7 the chief of the eunuchs changes their names to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The goal? Mark the Judeans with a new name that will entice them into worshipping Marduk.
But Judean exiles in Babylon didn’t line up. They weren’t interested in being marked by their Maker. Because, you see, there was another text in town.
The dominant story of our day is peddled by the young and 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 impress people we don’t even like.
Their story is hammered into our heads at an alarming rate. From the moment you open the morning paper, or flip on your phone or computer until we fall asleep to another rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond, we will encounter more than 2,000 advertising images. And they portray the same thing over and over – “You can buy lasting happiness!”
In league with this American consumerism is the enemy’s program of changing our names. His goal? Mark us with a new name that will entice us into seeking fulfillment in things. Deemed beloved through water and the Word, Satan renames us cheap, dirty, and worthless. Deemed washed and cleaned in the name of Jesus, he whispers to us, “Guilty as charged.”
Put together, the dominant narrative and the dominant devil create in us a slowness to be part of the counter-text. We convince ourselves, “I can sell my soul to the American dream and claim its promises of prosperity while, at the same time, professing the name of Jesus.”
We’ve all tried the dominant narrative. We are all worn out from believing the dominant American story. Lord, we need an alternative narrative.
Enter Isaiah 40-55, where the prophet takes aim at the empire. Babylon is a drop in the bucket. Babylonian leaders are nothing. Babylonian gods are an empty wind. Marduk is a fantasy, a fake, a fraud, and a huge phony.
The alternative narrative in Isaiah 40-55 is just getting revved up. “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God” (40:1). “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, God is doing a new thing” (43:18-19). God is stirring Cyrus to get Israel out of Babylon. He is raising up the Suffering Servant to get Babylon out of Israel. The Lord promises that His story does what it says. Isaiah 55:11, “so shall My word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to Me empty.” We are the subject of God’s story, so much so that we line up, each one, and “write on our hand” not “belonging to Babylon,” but “belonging to the Lord.”
God has always told His story on people’s bodies; call it Skin! In Genesis 4:15, the Lord marks Cain. In Genesis 17, the Lord gives Abraham and his offspring the covenant mark of circumcision. Deuteronomy 6:8 describes people tying God’s words on their hands and binding them on their foreheads.
It all points to the greatest story told on human skin. Isaiah describes this body, “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 the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 52:14; 53:3,6). One spear, three nails, and a crown of thorns left their marks on Jesus.
But first the Ten, and then climatically Thomas, saw Jesus alive; and what shall we call that story? Call it Skin. Our Savior showed His skin. He is forever marked with scars announcing for you, right here, right now, His loyal love and His free forgiveness and His everlasting grace. And so people began lining up to be marked.
Eyes marked with tenderness and kindness; a smile marked with delight and friendship; a mind marked by toughness and truth; hands marked with helpfulness and humility; and a mouth marked with Jesus and joy.
To be part of this counter-cultural narrative, all we need is one word: leyahweh – in English, “belonging to the Lord.” How does that happen? Recall the water, remember the Word, and forever cherish the liturgical rite when you were baptized. “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.”
Just because we live in Babylon does not mean we will live like the Babylonians. My life and your life tell another story. We are consumed with another narrative. And what is that called? Jesus . . . with skin.