The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Dare I Shoot Isaiah’s Arrows?

by Jennifer Johnson

Old Testament Reading Isaiah 49: 1-7

For Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011:Year A - Epiphany 2

As a seminary student, I lapped up the call stories in Scripture as milk to the hungry kitten. I knew the story of the first Isaiah who lamented over having unclean lips, of Jeremiah who expressed concerns over being too young, and the various apostles who were interrupted in their jobs by Jesus to “Follow me.”

Why Are There No Plumbing Classes In Seminary?

What an idiot I was. Back then I pictured myself in all the warm fuzzy moments of people’s lives. I’d preach inspiring sermons and my flock would sit in rapt attention until my benediction when they’d go charging out the door to work tirelessly for the Kingdom. They’d tell me how my service and leadership had changed their lives. Instead, I got “Nice sermon. Umm. Did you know the basement’s flooded?”

Oh, it hasn’t all been building issues. I’ve had my share of holy moments. I’ve wept at the bedsides of the dying. I’ve endured the middle of the night calls when tragedy struck. I’ve held startled babies at their baptisms and taught pre-schoolers “Seek Ye First.” I’ve also been tempted to wrench my hair out in handfuls at the stiff-necked propensity of people not to “do right.” However, unlike the words of Isaiah in this servant song, I’ve never had to convince a people to return to a homeland some of them have never even seen, especially when that homeland was in ruins. I’ve never publicly spewed judgment on them because of their lack of obedience or faith.

Pastor Vs. Prophet

I’ve always considered that I was more pastor than prophet − more comfortable among the throng of sinners rather than standing apart shaking a righteous fist and preaching God’s wrath to them. And besides, prophets don’t tend to be long term ministers. They either get booted out of town or get their heads cut off after one too many incidents of fire and brimstone preaching.

My earliest memory in church is the red-faced preacher who screamed at me and the rest of the pew-sitters during worship. I remember thinking, “What’s his problem?” Then outside of that same white-washed little church, I got stung on the leg by a wasp. Neither memory is pleasant, yet both are forever linked in my psyche.

Shooting Polished Arrows

Still. If a people find themselves in the wrong place and God thinks it’s time they move, then sometimes it takes some pointed jabs and cutting stabs to get them off their duffs and moving. Maybe the real problem of the screaming preacher of my childhood, should be laid in the laps of us warming the pews. After enough complaints about the basement, he decided to pull out the arrows and shoot those jerks who hadn’t heard a word he’d proclaimed from the pulpit.

“Oh, you people, You’re Going Down!” That screaming preacher nicked my heart. I won’t forget him. And now I’m on his side of the pulpit. But I’ve determined never be the shoot ‘em up, shoot ‘em down kind of prophet. I was going to be the pastor who slogged through the crap with the sinners as I grasped their hands proclaiming, “Man, this sucks. It’s a good thing God’s right here with us.”

But maybe I should have a screaming fit once in a while. If I hollered to the coastlands and called my folks “despicable,” could I shake them out of the rut of their lives?

The Hardest Question

Isaiah’s tongue is a “polished arrow” and his mouth “like a sharpened sword.” [The LORD] says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” I struggle with that line between local pastor and global prophet. How do we walk that line of our righteous calling without getting cut to pieces by the angry responses of the flock? Dare I shoot Isaiah’s arrows? Dare I swing Isaiah’s sword? Is there really salvation in that?

Jennifer Johnson is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA). She is the associate pastor for family and children’s ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Ashland, Kentucky. Her alter ego of the same name writes romance novels, and she has had four novels published since 2008 with two more books due out in 2011. She thinks God is pretty awesome for blessing her with a wonderful community of faith, a loving family, a smart dog, and the passion for writing sermons and stories.


  1. Jeff says:

    Oh how you know those of us in ministry. All the things we learn in seminary that are never taught. There is a fine line as a pastor when to show pastoral care and when to be a prophet. I find your look into Isaiah one that is needed. Too many pastors are just like their flock, they sit in the pew, give a pat on the back and then complain about the color of the carpet. Maybe its time that we actually preach on sin and how ugly it really is and how desperate we are for a God who wants to bring us back to life.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I wonder what my ministry would look like–even my very life–if I did everything without fear. If I preached without fear of losing my job or driving people away, if I spoke to people at the grocery without fear of offending someone, if I stopped the guy at the park and invited him to my house for supper and a warm place to sleep without fear of him stealing from me or hurting me or my family.

    Maybe we live/act/speak the way we do because we perceive we have so much to lose. If we lost everything, would we then feel free enough to live fearlessly?

  3. Mark Daniels says:

    You raise some very tough questions, Jennifer.

    This may be the toughest one: Do I refrain from being prophetic when the text leads me there because of “them” or because of my fear of offending “them”?

    There may be good reasons to withhold our arrows, depending on what our particular flock is going through at the time. One of my professors said that a pastor must exegete the congregation as well as the text.

    As long as that doesn’t become a cop-out, I think it’s OK to save those polished arrows for more opportune times.

    But when it’s time, we have no excuse for not letting them fly. Bummer!

  4. Jennifer says:

    Point well made, Mark.

    And what a wise comment from your professor.

    So many of our folks in the pews suffer privately, tragically, and intuitively I’ve known not to kick them when they were down. One of my preaching profs would say, “It’s called the Gospel for a reason. Always end with Good News.”

    Maybe discernment is one of the most important gifts we have–to know when to shoot the arrow and when to keep it in the quiver.

    Thanks for the insight.

  5. Jeff says:

    There is a time and place for everything. And you said it right the Gospel is “Good News”. We need to be able to decern when we really need the “arrows” or give a kind word. Our main goal as minister is to be the Christlike example for our congragations and “gently” lead them to the cross.

  6. Rev`d. S. Jean Holyhead says:

    I don`t find any of your questions challenging or hard. Your ministry has only been the same as mine and that of all ministers and pastors. Every minister, (indeed every preacher), should be prophetic. We are all “real” prophets. Most of my ministry has taken place outside the church, (deliberately), in prisons, homeless, alcoholics,universities, colleges, hospitals, etc. Jesus did not stay in the synagogue or in the Temple – He walked and talked with the people.

  7. Jennifer says:

    Blessings in your ministries, Reverend. Glad somebody is using those arrows.

  8. Isn’t it usually the prophet the one who’s pointing out that the basement is flooded when everyone else is going about business as usual?Including thinking important and beautiful God-thoughts…

    You imagined of the screaming preacher, “After enough complaints about the basement, he decided to pull out the arrows and shoot those jerks who hadn’t heard a word he’d proclaimed from the pulpit.”

    Wouldn’t it be better to fix the basement? That’s in Amos, I think, and Isaiah.

  9. Bob Gilston says:

    “They’d tell me how my service and leadership had changed their lives.”

    Rev’d. Jennifer: You will know that you may not have changed a life in one act of worship. Over time you will have got to know your flock, their needs, strengths and weaknesses. Over time you will know if your ministry is making a difference.

    As a vestry steward in one of my previous churches I banned any discussion with our minister about property matters (unless of course the basement really was flooding).

    I think at times our fellowship needs to learn that when at worship we need to engage with God, and forget for a moment things that can wait for another day.

    As long as you’re not shooting to kill, keep shooting those arrows.

  10. In response to the Rev`d. S. Jean Holyhead we want to say: “Thank You!” Midrashic analysis, debate, even good hearted and playful one-ups-man-ship is the goal of THQ.

    But that begs a question of you – what is the your hardest question in relaton to this text? In that arrows and swords are “outside toys,” it seems that you’re suggesting – like pent up kids on a snow day – that the church needs to expend more energy outward than inward, creative energy vs. self-destructrive energy. Is a church that has to bother with carpets and flooding even capable of loosing polished arrows? Is that what I’m hearing?

  11. Amigo Cowboy says:

    Interesting take on verse 6, “It is too light a thing….” I read this in a positive light where God promises that a grand vision will unfold beyond the expectations of the hearers. Raising up tribes and to restore the survivors of Israel? No way, dude. It’s bigger than that. No, you’re gonna be a light to the nations…a message of salvation (life changing, soul-satisfyin’, amazing, colorful, creative, breath of life, eternal buzz, merciful celebration without ceasing salvation)! Like God saying, “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.” And, I can almost hear the summons of angels as the servant says, yeah, let’s go!

    But there is a negative that can’t be ignored. The negative comes in the tired, worn out, lethargy that comes with any day on planet earth, and it’s no different for some transplants from the Promised Land. They are tired, they don’t want any monkey business about being moved, much less to hear “Thank God almighty, I’m free at last.” They want to know if there will be enough to eat. They want to know if they will have a job when and if the economy collapses. Etc.

    So the clash comes when Mr. Servant shows up, all juiced on Divine Mojo, and then tries to share that with the transplants. Can the servant bear the message? Will he preach it even if he encounters the legion of dismissal, indifference and apathy?

    So…as I type this out, I hear a tension. The reluctant prophet who doubted his/her own effectiveness just a few verses before (vs. 4) and the daunting task of delivering a “yee haw” message to a group with a sad-sack disease (and had every right to have it, given their humanity).

    But…I think verse 6 can’t be ignored. It’s like disregarding the beautiful image of a mountain simply because it’s too big and grand to look at. We gotta preach it! It’s just too exciting not too! Throw caution to the wind! Let’s join the Grand Vision Maker and see what happens next! But, my fingers are already slowing down in the lethargy of the smaller, more comfortable view of life. After all, there is a potluck after our morning worship. Can’t we just enjoy the meal and go home and watch football? No need to monkey around with some lofty mountaintop imagery.

    What will win out? Of course the Divine Vision Maker will. It’s just a real pain in the *** to stay the course with God. God has this habit of being really infuriating and unreasonable.

  12. Rev. Russell says:

    vaquero friend, God has this habit of being really infuriating and unreasonable. It is true. Thank you for getting at the heart of it.

  13. Jennifer says:

    Hi Bob,

    You’ve gotten to the heart of one of my weaknesses. I keep forgetting that the flooded basement is the building and grounds committee’s problem not mine though I think preaching when water is up to my knees makes it difficult for folks to pay attention. I am better than I used to be at trying not to micromanage is all I can say.

    Amigo, wow. I also really liked that “too light a thing”. This passage is so rich with imagery. Preaching on it is great for those of us who love playing with the pictures in it.

  14. earlybird says:

    Wow, I feel like a fly on the wall, sneaking into the room to hear how the pros deal with this scripture. As a lay teacher I often struggle with the meaning of scripture and how to relate it to our role as today’s Servant. On most Sundays, I stand before a small class of older men who have lived, suffered through the great wars and the first real financial collapse of this nation, yet have survived, and show up to give thanks to God. They may not get the meaning of “Divine Mojo,” But when I shoot “Isiah’s arrows,” they will respond by reaching out to those in real need of a meal and a warm coat. They truly understand the mission! Your comments are great!


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