The Public Square as Sacred Space

A Sermon on Isaiah 59:1-4, 9-16, 21

By the Rev. Shannon Daley-Harris
Rev. Daley-Harris preached the following sermon at Maryville College Chapel, tracing the progress in Isaiah 59 from complaint to confession to calling. The public square—flyered with eviction notices and photos of children gunned down—is, she argues, precisely the kind of place the church belongs. In fact, it is the kind of place where we might encounter God—a sacred space.
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Photo by Ibon San Martin

The pollsters in Third Isaiah’s day reported that God’s favorability rating was way down; a majority of the populace rated God’s job performance as “not good.” Frankly, they were feeling let down, snookered. They had endured Babylonian exile, they had returned to Judah with great hope… And what did they get? What did they find in what was supposed to be this wonderful new chapter? More economic woes. Continued oppression that hit the children, the poor, and the stranger the hardest. Violence, more war, bloodshed. A judicial system that still got it wrong much of the time, where the vulnerable could not secure justice. People who rushed to spread lies and sow discord. Sound familiar?

Economic woes, with children, the poor, and the stranger bearing the brunt: today, one out of every five children is living in poverty. The younger they are the more likely they are to be poor. One in twelve children lives in extreme poverty, in which a family of four struggles to survive on less than $11,000 a year. A child is killed by guns every 3 hours, and a child is abused or neglected every 41 seconds. The public discourse has turned more bitter and rancorous than ever before, and the fact-checking site “Snopes” can’t keep up with the proliferation of misinformation and lies. Yep, our day doesn’t seem so different than Isaiah’s.


“Sometimes I would like to ask God why God allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when God could do something about it.” Her friend responds, “Well, why don’t you ask God?” And she replies, “Because I’m afraid God would ask me the same question.”

In dismay the people in Third Isaiah’s day turned the full force of their complaints to God: whatsamatter, God? Can’t you save us? Can’t you even hear us? What’s wrong with you?

In fact complaint, or lament, is important. Complaint is a recognition and declaration that all is not right, that the way things are, the status quo, is wrong, that something needs to change. And when we look at the public square, at our common life, and the way we order life together, and when it is not right or just, complaint is a place to start. But it is not where we are supposed to stop.

Confession of Sin
In a familiar cartoon, one person is talking to another, and the first person says, “Sometimes I would like to ask God why God allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when God could do something about it.” Her friend responds, “Well, why don’t you ask God?” And the first speaker replies, “Because I’m afraid God would ask me the same question.”

In our passage today, Third Isaiah responds to the implied complaint of the people by saying, “See the Lord’s hand is not too short to save, nor God’s ear too dull to hear. Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden God’s face from you so that God does not hear.” It is not God’s shortcomings but our own that have us in this predicament. And so the people are led from complaint to confession. 

In fact, the prophet begins to use “we” language—standing with the people in their confession of shortcoming: “Our transgressions indeed are with us and we know our iniquities: transgressing, and denying the Lord, and turning away from following our God, talking oppression and revolt, conceiving lying words and uttering them from the heart.”

The conditions haven’t changed—economic anxiety, oppression, violence, lies, injustice. But instead of blaming God or pointing the finger at others, they are confessing their own communal responsibility for society’s injustice.


And so the people are led from complaint to confession…
“These facts aren’t acts of God; they are our choices.”


Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, after sharing the troubling statistics on the state of children in America, like the high rate of child poverty in our rich nation, often notes, “These facts aren’t acts of God; they are our choices.”

Dr. Fred Craddock, Biblical scholar and retired professor of preaching, was speaking at the Children’s Defense Fund’s Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry several years ago, and shared this experience. He said, “I was in a bad mood one night when I was saying my prayers. I said to God ‘I think you have too many children, God.’ God said “What did you say, Fred?’ Craddock responded, ‘I just think you have too many children. I read the report. Millions go to bed hungry every night… And what is it, a child in the U.S.A. shot dead every [3 hours]? If you can’t feed and clothe and keep safe the children you have, well, then you just have too many.”

“God didn’t say anything right away,” Dr. Craddock told us, “But then God said, ‘Well, you came from a pretty big family Fred. How did you all do it?’… ‘Well,’ I said, ‘there was never any question. The older took care of the younger. Those who were able took care of those who weren’t able.’ God said, ‘That’s right. You got it. That’s the plan.’”

Affirmation of God’s Saving Grace and Power
Confessing our communal responsibility for the absence of justice and truth in the public square, however, doesn’t mean any one of us can single-handedly turn everything around. Our passage from Isaiah goes on to suggest that God saw the sorry state of the public square, the failures of their common life, and “it displeased God that there was no justice. God saw that there was no one and was appalled that there was no one to intervene, so God’s own arm” brought about the victory of restoring justice. We are reminded that we are dependent, ultimately, on God’s saving action, and not one of us, by dint of our own efforts alone, can restore justice apart from God’s grace and power.

And so we have to strike a vital balance: affirming our reliance on God’s grace and power… while not using that affirmation as an excuse to sit on our hands and wait for God to set our society, our nation, and world aright. When we accept that we cannot USE God, then we become open to ways that God will use us.

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