Seek, Help, Defend, Plead | Proper 14

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

1 The vision about Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw in the days of Judah’s kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.

10 Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!

11 What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the LORD.

I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.

12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts?

13 Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me.

New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!

14 I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.

15 When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you.

Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen.

Your hands are stained with blood.

16 Wash! Be clean!

Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; 17 learn to do good.

Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.

18 Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD.

Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.

If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool.

19 If you agree and obey, you will eat the best food of the land.

20 But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.

The LORD has said this. (CEB)

Seek, Help, Defend, Plead

There is some irony in reading a text that describes how God hates our worship while we’re among worshipers in the middle of a worship service. Isaiah spoke these words from outside the sanctuary, but we read them from inside the sanctuary. It’s almost a little embarrassing. But maybe that’s an appropriate response.

To put it mildly, this is not an easy text. Whenever Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned, you know judgment is right around the corner. So, when we read, “Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!” we know it’s bad news, (Isaiah 1:10 CEB). This is not an easy text for me to expound in a sermon, and it’s not an easy text for you to hear.

Yet, “Hear” is exactly what Isaiah encourages us to do. It would be a shame if the accusatory tone and difficulty of this text were to cause us to turn our attention elsewhere so we don’t hear the Lord’s word.

First, I should say that the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is probably not what you think. I know one part of our culture has turned Sodom into an anti-gay rallying cry, and they use demonizing words like Sodomite, but the true crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah—the real wickedness—were greed and injustice. The prophet Ezekiel, when writing to the people of Judah about their own wickedness and how they had outstripped Sodom in it, wrote: “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy,” (Ezekiel 16:49 CEB).

“She didn’t help the poor and needy.” That was the sin of Sodom, and that was the sin of both Israel and of Judah.

Israel, and Judah failed to make the connection between their worship inside the sanctuary and their life outside the sanctuary walls. If we examine ourselves honestly, how well do we make the connection, ourselves?

Our congregation is doing and has done some really good things to care for poor and needy people recently. We support Thrive in order to support and care for kids who need help with their education. We made hundreds upon hundreds of lunches to feed kids through the summer so they wouldn’t go hungry. We’ve prepared meals for needy people during the holidays so they could have something a little more special than their everyday fare. We have an amazing nursery school program to give kids a start on their education. We have a fair trade store on campus. I know some members of our congregation volunteer at the Mission here in town. We’ve raised and donated thousands of dollars for relief and recovery efforts after natural disasters. We do, and we have done, some good things to meet immediate needs. At the same time, we could probably do more.

If we were to examine our complicity in systemic practices that negatively affect the poor and needy, however, we might not do so well on our grade card. Do we buy certified fairly traded goods, or do we get whatever’s cheapest regardless of how the poor might have been swindled or exploited so we could have inexpensive goods?

Do we shop at companies that pay their employees a fair and livable wage, or do we go to Walmart because what we want is cheaper there? A 2014 study showed that, because Walmart doesn’t pay their employees a livable wage, Walmart employees cost taxpayers 6.2 billion dollars in public assistance each year. This is America’s biggest employer, and it’s owned by America’s richest family. One Walmart in Ohio was found to be receiving donations of food for its employees because their employees couldn’t afford a Thanksgiving meal.

There are other systemic issues, too, regarding healthcare for the poor, education for the poor, incarceration rates for the poor, burdensome immigration processes for refugees and asylum-seekers, mistreatment of undocumented immigrants, and the list would go on.

We’re in the first chapter of the first book of the Prophets, and the first order of business is a blistering assault on our worship as it relates to everything outside of the sanctuary walls. It turns out that the first and most furious critic of religion is God.

I want us to hear what God is saying through Isaiah. There is a disconnect when any people worship a God who states over and over and over how deeply God cares for the most vulnerable people in society when we, ourselves, are complicit or outright neglectful in showing care for those Vulnerable-Beloved-of-God. God declares that it’s not merely a disconnect, it actually turns our worship into an abomination. Our worship, itself, becomes false. Worship that is not concerned with justice and mercy for the vulnerable of our society is obscene and perverse.

Part of the disconnect might actually be worship, itself. When we come to this place to worship, what do we expect? What do we want? If we worship so we can get something out of it, or so we can feel good, or like some kind of catharsis has occurred now that the benediction has been offered, we might need to reevaluate. If, after worship, we feel like we’ve accomplished something, like we’ve met an obligation, or satisfied a commitment, we might need to reevaluate. Even if we discuss matters of justice and God’s love for everyone, if we feel a sense of closure at the end of worship, we may need to reevaluate.

We’re probably here in this sanctuary because we recognize that worship is essential for us. How else can we have a serious engagement with God that gives us life, that transforms our community, that changes the world? We need to give God our worship. We need to experience God’s transformative love through worship. We need the strength of God’s grace, which we receive in worship, so that we can go outside these walls and serve the world. We know that we need worship.

It might also be ironic that worship is what allowed us to hear this text.

So, the idea that God hates our worship… well… verses 10 through 14 are pretty tough to hear. They’re a withering indictment of our worship. The intent of our worship is many-fold, but its primary purpose is not self-serving. We don’t worship God so that we can feel good about ourselves. In worship, we bring to God all that we have and all that we are, and we offer the whole of it to God for God’s purposes alone.

The prayer after communion, which we pray every Sundaym is a plea to God to send us into the word in the strength of the Holy Spirit so that we can give ourselves to others. Do we really want to give ourselves for others? Do we really want to serve God and work for God’s dominion by living out and fighting for the values of God’s dominion? Do we really want to represent that?

As bad as those verse are, it actually gets worse. “When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood” (Isaiah 1:15 CEB). When there is a disconnect between what happens inside the sanctuary and what happens outside the sanctuary, God will not even listen to our pleas. We shouldn’t expect our confessions and prayers in the sanctuary to cover our willful neglect of justice. Repentance actually requires us to change.

On Sunday mornings, we worship a poor, wandering, homeless, brown-skinned, Middle Eastern, Jewish, asylum-seeking refugee named Jesus, who was birthed by an unwed mother. How, then, can we think or speak negatively about any person in any of those categories Monday through Saturday? How can we speak about denying basic necessities, God-given human dignity and value, or a chance at a better life to any person in any of these categories?

[[Or, do we even wait beyond Sunday afternoon?]]

“Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow. Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow. If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool” (Isaiah 1:16-18 CEB).

True worship—authentic worship—is how we live our lives before God. What we do in this or any other sanctuary is only a start to the worship we do on the outside. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow.

I really don’t have a way to give any of you, or even myself, closure at the end of this sermon. There will be differences in how this looks for each of us. So, maybe a loose end is what we need. In fact, this sermon is a little shorter than what I usually preach. Maybe that’s not a bad thing either.

This part of God’s word might not be pleasing to our ears, our heart, or any of our sensibilities, but this is a word we need to keep chewing on. This is a word we need to hear in the sanctuary, and a word we need to consider while we’re outside of it.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Economy | 3rd in Lent

Isaiah 55:1-9

1 All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! 2 Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. 3 Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful loyalty to David. 4 Look, I made him a witness to the peoples, a prince and commander of peoples. 5 Look, you will call a nation you don’t know, a nation you don’t know will run to you because of the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, who has glorified you. 6 Seek the LORD when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near. 7 Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the LORD so that he may have mercy on them, to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness. 8 My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 9 Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans. (CEB)

Economy

If we’ve been paying attention to and participating in the Season of Lent, this text from Second Isaiah seems almost jarring. Isn’t Lent about less, not more? Isn’t Lent about giving up our excesses, not filling ourselves with them? Isn’t Lent about fasting, not feasting? In fact, in most liturgical traditions, we avoid using the word Alleluia in Lent because it’s a joyous, celebratory word. So, what’s with this invitation to feast; and not only feast, but feast for free!? Isaiah beckons us to bask in God’s abundance: to eat, drink, and be satisfied beyond measure. It feels odd for a text in Lent. Yet, what makes this text very Lenten is that the invitation is for us to feast on the abundance that God provides rather than relying wholly on ourselves.

I remember seeing a Reader’s Digest @Work piece that told of a woman who got out of her car to go into work and she saw one of her coworkers heading toward the entrance. She was about to say “Hi” to her colleague when she heard her coworker muttering under her breath, “It pays the bills. It pays the bills. It pays the bills.” She realized her coworker was steeling herself for the day ahead: a day of work she clearly loathed.

At some points in our lives, don’t we all experience the daily grind of work, work, work as grueling and unfulfilling? Even if you’re one of those lucky few who absolutely loves what you do to earn a living, you still might have days when you feel as unfulfilled as this woman in the @Work piece obviously was. Sometimes we have to psych ourselves up just to get out of bed.

If we live in the midst of unfulfillment, it can quickly lead to depression. I wasn’t surprised when, several years ago, a psychologist colleague of mine said that most of the people he encounters every day are living in some stage of depression, whether an early stage or more advanced. “Most people” is a lot of people. I might have even been included in his quantification of “most people,” because ministry—like many other professions—is stressful work. Believe it or not, it isn’t all rainbows and Easter Lilies.

Our culture has many suggestions for overcoming this sense of unfulfilling drudgery. Some of you may have heard of Retail or Mall Therapy. It’s where you go shopping to make yourself feel better. Lots of people do it. But the problem with retail therapy is that by the time the therapy session is over, you’ve only exacerbated the problem. You’ve either added more bills to your credit card statement that have to be paid off, or you’ve blown a hole in your bank account. We kill ourselves in endless circles—not of work and PLAY—but of work and PAY.

This cycle of work and pay causes our worldview to skew toward an assumption of scarcity rather than abundance. We can never feel content when all we see is what we don’t have; when all we feel is that there isn’t enough. And scarcity is scary. It’s frightening to think that we might not have enough. And that fear piles even more stress on us.

But God has something to say about how we live. God offers us an invitation to feast, to fully sate our hunger and thirst. God offers this invitation without a hitch because money is no object. The rich and poor alike can feast on abundance. You can’t buy what’s given for free. God implores us to listen and to eat what is good.

And therein lies another problem. We don’t always want to listen to others. I know this because I don’t always want to listen to others. My kids don’t always want to listen to me. A lot of people think that if the world would just listen to them, then the world would be in a lot better shape than it is. We—Christians included—don’t always want to listen to God. We’re willfully disobedient in more than one way. We can be as hard-headed and willfully deaf to God’s revelation as the rest of humanity.

But God again calls us to listen—incline your ear—and come to God so that we can live—truly live. Those who come to God are party to an everlasting covenant which is represented by God’s steadfast and sure love, as exemplified by God’s love for David. David is set before us as an example of God’s faithfulness. God was with David throughout his life, and God made promises to David that were kept. But, this invitation to participate in God’s providential delight suggests that God’s covenant is no longer a covenant just for David and David’s line. It’s a covenant that extends to all the people.

What is it that we eat? Some would suggest that we feast on the word of God which is nothing short of grace to all who listen to it. I have a Biblical commentary series titled Feasting on the Word. Others would suggest that this invitation is an invitation to change our worldview from one of scarcity to one of abundance and contentment, trusting more fully in God’s gifts.

The prophet tells us to seek the Lord while there is still time, to recognize our sin and turn away from it. We’re invited to return to the Lord and are assured that God will have mercy and will abundantly pardon us from our sins. Fear of God’s wrath has no place here as a way of keeping us from coming to God, because God invites us to come and experience the fullness of God’s grace.

Closely related to humanity’s belief that we don’t need salvation is the fact that most people in firmly believe that our thoughts are like God’s thoughts, and that our ways are like God’s ways. I guess it’s easier to believe in an anthropomorphic God than a sovereign God who reigns above us. One of our favorite things to do is to put God in our box. After all, if God doesn’t think the way we think about what’s good and right, then God’s not a very good God.

It’s easier to try and make God conform to our image rather than recognize that we are created in God’s image. We want God to conform to our way of thinking about life and goodness rather than conform to God’s way of thinking about these things. We want to be the final authority in determining what is good and what merits salvation and eternal life rather than allow God to have God’s say regarding these things. We want God to be our obedient child, while at the same time we fail to recognize that we are God’s disobedient children.

For the people of Israel who were in exile, Isaiah points to the subtle spiritual threat that a life in exile poses for any people who live in exile. They’re invited to conform, to be integrated into Babylonian society and find their security within the confines of that society. They’re ushered into exile with open arms to become captives of transaction and materialism that are foreign to the ways of God, and the Jubilee-style economy of God. They’re enticed to participate in a culture that binds them, even as it appears to free them with an invitation to be a part of this life in exile.

For us, the state of exile isn’t so much a physical dislocation and separation from the Promised Land as it is the dislocation of our lives from reliance upon God. When the principalities and powers lure God’s people away from God’s service by false-promises of wealth, power, fame, authority, accumulation, whatever worldly thing it might be: then, we are in exile. For us, exile is a metaphor for a people of God who have accepted or resigned themselves to their full citizenship and participation in a materialistic world and do not live the life of faith.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts, a much as we thought differently. God’s ways and Gods thoughts are much higher than our feeble brains can reach in the greatest height of our imagination. God is infinitely bigger than we are, yet small enough to care deeply about every single one of us: more deeply than even we can imagine.

That’s why we have Isaiah’s invitation in Lent. While Lent is a season in which we ought to practice spiritual disciplines, those disciplines are not ends. Fasting, penitence, prayer, abstinence, Bible study, sacraments, worship, these are pathways through which we move toward and experience the abundance of God and focus ardently on God’s grace.

Every Sunday, I stand before a people who are in exile, and I have to admit I’m right there in the middle of it with you. The difficult part is that we either forget or refuse to accept that we’re in exile. The enticements and lures of the principalities and powers that would draw us away are strong. They’re called “powers” for a reason: they can have power over us if we aren’t careful. If we want to be honest with ourselves during the season of Lent, we need to consider the possibility that we might be more deeply entrenched in exile than is comfortable to admit.

Yet, we have this beautiful invitation where God simply says, Come… Listen… Live…. And we are invited to feast on all the goodness of God. That’s why we gather together for worship in a spirit of confession and forgiveness. And that’s why the prophet’s words should be heard by our ears as a promise—even if it’s a promise we don’t fully understand. We are invited to “Seek the LORD when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near. Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes. Let them return to the LORD so that he may have mercy on them, to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness. My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (Isaiah 55:6-8 CEB).

Even when we find ourselves in exile, surrounded by all the things the world offers, it’s still true that confession, repentance, and prayer lead to God’s mercy, God’s pardon, and God’s sure, steadfast love. The unending grace of God stands in contrast to society’s unquenchable thirst for accumulation. True abundance is God’s immeasurable and abundant grace.

So, even though it’s Lent, and we’re kind of supposed to avoid being too joyful with words like Alleluia, how can our response be otherwise? Even as we live in a society full of people who are tragically captive as exiles, how can our response to this invitation to God’s abundance, how can the response of anyone who has heard the invitation to turn from exile and receive God’s abundance and grace be anything less than a thankful, joyous, Alleluia!?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen! And Alleluia!

Send Me | 5th after Epiphany

Isaiah 6:1-13

1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. 2 Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. 3 They shouted to each other, saying:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”

4 The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.

5 I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the LORD of heavenly forces!”

6 Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”

8 Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”

I said, “I’m here; send me.”

9 God said, “Go and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend. 10 Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed.”

11 I said, “How long, Lord?”

And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.” 12 The LORD will send the people far away, and the land will be completely abandoned. 13 Even if one-tenth remain there, they will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, which when it is cut down leaves a stump. Its stump is a holy seed.

Send Me

Last week, we looked at the call and commissioning of Jeremiah. Today, we get the more familiar account of Isaiah’s call. It ought to be familiar because we recite part of this every Sunday in our Communion liturgy.

Isaiah’s call story is different from Jeremiah’s in some ways. First, it’s much more visual than Jeremiah’s, which is more auditory. Isaiah’s calls story is a powerful and vividly described vision-event where he’s transported, apparently, from the temple in Jerusalem to God’s temple in heaven. We can see the event in our mind’s eye as it’s described to us. Or, at least, our minds will do their best to construct in our imaginations something that is, to our feeble human minds, unimaginable.

God appeared to Isaiah in regal brilliance: giving us a truer sense of what the word awesome actually means. God was seated on a high and lofty throne. The edges of God’s robe filled the temple. Imagine if the temple was filled with only the edges of God’s robe, how much more of God’s mightiness remained unseen by Isaiah? Yet, even the edges were this potent, brimming with power and majesty.

The doorframe shook when the Seraphs spoke of God’s holiness and glory, and the house was filled with smoke. It’s a scene that would have made most of us wet our pants, and it seems clear that Isaiah had a reaction that filled him with dread. Isaiah probably assumed he was about to die. After all, God told Moses that no one could see God’s face and live (c.f. Exodus 33:20), and Isaiah was confronted with the sight of God seated on a throne. Maybe the hem of God’s robe blocked Isaiah’s view of God’s face, but the prophet was clearly undone by this encounter.

We should note that it wasn’t a sense of inadequacy on his part that caused Isaiah to cry out, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5 CEB), it was Isaiah’s sense of guilt. He knew that he was guilty of sin, and his people were guilty of sin. There are both individual and social sins of which we are guilty and, when confronted with God’s holiness, Isaiah felt the guilt of his personal and his people’s sin profoundly. We, too, are lost and unclean, no matter how pleasant we think ourselves to be. We are all guilty of individual and corporate sin. In that sense, Isaiah’s dismay could be ours, too.

A Seraph reacted to Isaiah’s cries as if recognizing that a mortal had suddenly appeared in God’s throne room and quickly took action to save Isaiah’s life. The winged creature took a burning coal from the altar and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, apparently cauterizing and burning away Isaiah’s sin.

People often wonder about the coal and what it meant. To me, there’s something sacramental about the coal: a visible sign of invisible grace. That’s what sacraments are: outward and visible signs of God’s inward and invisible grace, and a means by which we receive grace. How God can use physical objects of creation to bear and convey grace is a mystery, but since God has created and is creating all that is, God can use anything as a sacramental means of grace.

The incarnation of Jesus Christ, when God became a human being, is the fullness of this kind of divine action in which something physical bears and conveys what is holy. The incarnation is, itself, a kind of sacrament that conveys God’s merciful grace to us. This cleansing of Isaiah’s sin allowed him to hear the voice of God deliberating, either with God’s self or with the heavenly court, saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8b CEB).

Isaiah, in one of the rarer displays of willing volunteerism to serve as God’s prophet, immediately responds, “I’m here; send me” (Isaiah 6:8 CEB). For Isaiah, forgiveness came from being touched with a burning coal, which enabled him to hear God’s voice. For us, forgiveness comes through the blood of Jesus Christ which washes our sin away. In an odd description, when John the Seer of Revelation asked about the people he saw who were wearing white robes, he was told, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood” (Revelation 7:14 CEB).

Because we have been forgiven of our sins, we are enabled to hear the voice of God calling us to serve. God moves alongside and within us all our lives long. Sometimes God’s calling is gentle, and sometimes it’s like a professional wrestling smackdown, but God is always moving, always prompting, always nudging us with sacramental grace so that we can respond to God’s call with our own raised hand and offering of self.

Sometimes we imagine God as separate and out there somewhere in a so-distant heavenly realm that God must be out of touch and unable or unwilling to show care for humanity or individual humans. Yet, as separated and vastly other as God appears in Isaiah’s vision of glory, the topic of God’s discussion reveals God’s concern for us, the Lord’s creatures whom God crafted in God’s own image. The docket of God’s court-business for the day was—and I would imagine always is—about us. God’s love, care, and concern for us runs deeper than we can possibly imagine. Even the conversations of heaven are about taking care of us.

At the same time, God’s call isn’t always what we expect. It isn’t always simple or easy. When I read the rest of this story, I kind of get the feeling that Isaiah was the eager kid in class who often raised his hand to volunteer before he knew what the job was but, by the time he figures that part out, it’s too late. He’s the one.

The mission to which God calls Isaiah seems confusing to our modern ears. “Go and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend. Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10 CEB). Shouldn’t a prophet’s words open our eyes to God’s will, and help us find new and different paths that lead to faithfulness? Should a prophet help us to hear God’s word so we can understand with our minds and be renewed by God’s grace through repentance? Shouldn’t a prophet’s word—which is God’s word—guide us to comprehend new insights into God’s intention for us and how we can live faithful lives?

Why would God tell Isaiah to make people’s minds dull, our ears deaf, and our eyes blind so we can’t see, hear, or understand and turn away from sin for healing from God? It almost sounds cruel of God.

Yet, God isn’t cruel. For the answer to this strange commission, we need to look deeper into the context of Isaiah’s world. Isaiah tells us that he saw this vision of the Lord in the year of King Uzziah’s death. We know that Uzziah lived, reigned, and died in the 8th century B.C. He died in 742. And, within ten years, the Kingdom of Judah became a tributary state of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under King Tiglath-Pileser III. Although Uzziah’s son, Jotham, inherited a strong government, the Kingdoms of Israel and Aram to Judah’s north began to attack Judah. The Philistines, to Judah’s west, began to raid the Judean countryside. The Kings of Israel and Aram tried to coerce Judah into joining their rebellion against Assyria. Things became a mess very quickly.

There’s a not-so-subtle hint of a deeper spiritual issue in Isaiah’s words. King Uzziah has died, but Isaiah declares that he has seen “the king, the LORD of heavenly forces” (Isaiah 6:5 CEB). This hearkens back to the days of the prophet Samuel, before Israel had a king. The elders of the people gathered before Samuel and said, “‘Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.’ It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us,’ so he prayed to the LORD. The LORD answered Samuel, ‘Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them’” (1 Samuel 8:5-9 CEB).

The reason Israel had a king at all was due to the sin of envy. The people of Israel saw how other nations had kings to rule over them, and Israel wanted to be like them, to look like them, to have that same kind of representative power that a king and organized government conveys. Israel rejected God as their king in favor of a human king.

So, the deeper context of God’s mission for Isaiah to speak is, why would the people listen to the words of a prophet who was sent by the true King of Israel whose kingship they had already rejected? Isaiah would speak the true King’s truth and criticize with the true King’s judgment. But truth and criticism are difficult to accept.

Jesus Christ came as God’s living Word and he quotes God’s word to Isaiah, saying: “This is why I speak to the crowds in parables: although they see, they don’t really see; and although they hear, they don’t really hear or understand. What Isaiah prophesied has become completely true for them: You will hear, to be sure, but never understand; and you will certainly see but never recognize what you are seeing. For this people’s senses have become calloused, and they’ve become hard of hearing, and they’ve shut their eyes so that they won’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears or understand with their minds, and change their hearts and lives that I may heal them. Happy are your eyes because they see. Happy are your ears because they hear” (Matthew 13:13-16 CEB).

We have to wonder whether we are more capable of seeing, hearing, and understanding than the people of Judah were in the days of Isaiah. I would say that we are not—except by the power of God’s grace. Grace opens us up to the possibilities of changing our hearts and minds. God’s merciful grace gives us power to amend our lives. God’s grace enables us to see, to hear, and to begin to comprehend the unimaginable depth of God’s love and care for us. The grace of God offered to us through Jesus Christ, and the grace conveyed to us in and through the sacraments and other means of grace, enable us to turn to God and offer ourselves to God. It is by Gods grace alone that we are able to say with the prophet, “I’m here; send me.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Everlasting God | 5th after Epiphany

Isaiah 40:21-31

21 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded? 22 God inhabits the earth’s horizon– its inhabitants are like locusts– stretches out the skies like a curtain and spreads it out like a tent for dwelling. 23 God makes dignitaries useless and the earth’s judges into nothing. 24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely is their shoot rooted in the earth when God breathes on them, and they dry up; the windstorm carries them off like straw. 25 So to whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? says the holy one.

26 Look up at the sky and consider: Who created these? The one who brings out their attendants one by one, summoning each of them by name. Because of God’s great strength and mighty power, not one is missing. 27 Why do you say, Jacob, and declare, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD my God ignores my predicament”? 28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding is beyond human reach, 29 giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. 30 Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary. (CEB)

Everlasting God

You’ve probably heard this text before. This section of Isaiah 40 is commonly used at funerals. It’s depiction of God’s power over all things is meant to offer comfort to those of us who’ve lost a loved one. Its poetry beautifully balances God’s transcendence with God’s immanence—God’s powerful otherness and God’s intimate nearness. But it isn’t an easy text. While the imagery of God’s power and tirelessness can give hope to some, it can generate skepticism in those who either live in the midst of violence, poverty, hopelessness, or exploitation, or in those who witness such things. After all, if God is so powerful, why does God allow all this horrible stuff to happen? At the same time, if God is so loving and close to us, how can God allow all this horrible stuff to happen?

Those very questions were likely on the minds of the original hearers of Isaiah’s poem. Isaiah chapters 40-55 is called Second Isaiah because it was likely written in the 6th century B.C.E. toward the end of Babylonian control and the rise of the Persian Empire. The first 39 chapters mostly deal with 8th century life before the exile when Assyria was the power broker in the region. Those earlier chapters foreshadowed the exile to Babylon. These chapters, beginning with Isaiah 40, tell of the end of the power that carried Judah’s elite into exile over the course of at least three separate deportations.

Verse 27 gives us the thoughts of the people: My way is hidden from the LORD; my God ignores my predicament” (CEB). The people were in exile for fifty to sixty years, depending on when they had been deported. Their children and grandchildren grew up in Babylon. The people tried to maintain their Jewish identity, but it wasn’t always easy. They had suffered captivity for a long time and they probably wondered if God cared or, even if God did care, could God do anything about it? Was the God of Israel powerful enough to help?

Isaiah’s answer is a sweeping poem of monotheistic faith. There is only one God, Isaiah insists, and that is Israel’s God who made all of creation. The prophet begins with rhetorical questions that point to the beginnings of both creation and the human race. “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Wasn’t it announced to you from the beginning? Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded?” (Isaiah 40:21 CEB).

These questions sound similar in tone to God’s questioning of Job, when the Lord said, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you know. Who set its measurements? Surely you know. Who stretched a measuring tape on it? On what were its footings sunk; who laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in unison and all the divine beings shouted? Who enclosed the Sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap, when I imposed my limit for it, put on a bar and doors and said, ‘You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop?’” (Job 38:4-11 CEB).

The questions Isaiah asks act like a gentle reprimand for those captives who have forgotten who their God is. They’re for those whose skepticism or cynicism has grown to the point that they no longer trust that God cares about them or is able to act. These amnesiacs who’ve forgotten God’s identity and the skeptics who’ve dismissed the Lord’s power and care should have known! They had surely heard the stories of Israel’s past. God rescued the people from slavery in Egypt and set them in a new land. God established prophets, priests, judges, and kings to order the lives of the people. God had taken care of them in the past when they were no people, and the Lord built them into a community and a kingdom who were God’s people.

Isaiah reminds the captives that God inhabits earth’s horizon—God encompasses everything—the Lord is the one who stretched out the skies for us to live under. God is that big! God is that powerful! Everything belongs to the Lord who made everything! Isaiah reminds the people that they know this. They’ve heard the stories of their people.

Then again, maybe it was those very stories that made the people a little cynical. Maybe the Jewish captives had grown impatient and frustrated. After all, their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt for four-hundred years before God acted. Maybe they didn’t want to wait that long. Maybe they thought God had given up on their generation. Maybe they thought God wouldn’t do anything for the people who were alive now. What’s the point of staying faithful and standing firm in their beliefs about God if God won’t bother acting for another few hundred years? Sure, the day of liberation would be great for their progeny, but not so great for them. If God waited a long time, their bodies would already be in the ground in a foreign land. So, maybe we can understand why some of them wondered about the point of faithfulness.

Isaiah seems to suggest that the point is both God’s transcendence, immanence, and the people’s identity as God’s people.

If we were to examine the text closely as a piece of literature, we’d notice that all the verbs belong to the Lord, and everything else are objects of the Lord’s verbs. When the verbs are positive, they point to objects that are features of creation. When the verbs are negative, they point to objects that are nullified. Isaiah reminds the people that God is greater than the so-called powers among the nations. Princes and kings come and go, but the Lord outlasts them all. More than that, God has the power to make dignitaries useless and judges into nothing. They’re present for a short time, but God can unmake the most powerful king on earth in a breath.

With the Persian-Achaemenid King Cyrus threatening the power of the Babylonian Empire, it seemed as though God was about to bring the empire that had carried off God’s people to its knees. Isaiah offers hope to the exiles who may well have lost a good deal of it, if not all. Indeed, by chapter 45, the prophet identifies King Cyrus as the Lord’s messiah, not anyone among the Jews. The prophet insists that a reversal is coming.

The poetry of verses 21-24 echoes the power reversals of Hannah’s Song, which was the thanksgiving prayer of a once-barren woman who had been mercilessly mocked by the other wife of her husband who had many sons and daughters. After Hannah had weaned her son, Samuel, she presented him to the priest, Eli, to live as a nazirite to God. When she gave her son up, she prayed a song of victory and reversal:

“The bows of mighty warriors are shattered, but those who were stumbling now dress themselves in power! Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread, but the ones who were starving are now fat from food! The woman who was barren has birthed seven children, but the mother with many sons has lost them all! The LORD! He brings death, gives life, takes down to the grave, and raises up! The LORD! He makes poor, gives wealth, brings low, but also lifts up high! God raises the poor from the dust, lifts up the needy from the garbage pile. God sits them with officials, gives them the seat of honor! The pillars of the earth belong to the LORD; he set the world on top of them!” (1 Sam. 2:4-8 CEB).

Isaiah insists the people should have known that God’s power overwhelms everything else. The monotheism of verses 25-26 brings God’s transcendence and immanence together. There is no comparison to the Holy One of Israel. God can bring out the whole host of heaven, yet God knows each one of them by name. God’s power makes God’s nearness possible.

So, when the people imagine that their way is hidden from the Lord, and that God is ignoring their predicament, Isaiah asks his questions again, “Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?” (Isaiah 40:28a-b, CEB). And he reminds the exiles who their God is: a tireless creator whose work of creation is not a once-and-done deal. God refreshes and revives, lifts up and makes the flightless soar the skies.

Still, understanding God’s ways won’t likely happen in an instant. (Be wary of those who say otherwise). Whatever hardship we’re facing, it won’t likely be resolved instantaneously either. Finding the gumption to persist through hardship is tough when we’re relying on our own strength. It wears us out.

Isaiah essentially leaves us with an either-or. Either we’ll be tired, weary, and stumbling—yes, even the young who are so full of energy!—or we’ll wait for the Lord, who will renew our strength so that we can run without weariness, and walk without tiring.

The difference has to do with who we are and how we bear the trouble we face. If we turn away from the Lord in times of trouble, we aren’t going to last very long. The years in exile had caused some of the exiles to forget, and they were tired. Understandably so. They’d live in the hardship of captivity for decades. I’d probably get tired, too. But Isaiah reminds us that there’s another way: a way of reliance upon the God who made heaven and earth, and who knows each of us by name.

Hannah prayed for years and endured incessant ridicule before she finally got the child she wanted. But I think it was her faithfulness, her prayers, and her reliance upon God that saw her through those years of barrenness. Whatever exile we’re facing, whatever hardship in life, or trial of faith, we need to remember that God hasn’t left us alone. God is transcendent and powerful beyond imagination, but God is also small enough, close enough, near enough to know us, to love us, to feel each beat of our heart and shuddered breath, and to hear each prayer that falls from our lips. When we remember that the God of the universe is sitting right beside us, surrounding us, and filling us, that’s when we fly.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Good News | 3rd Advent

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

1 The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement. They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the LORD to glorify himself. 4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past.

8 I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and dishonesty. I will faithfully give them their wage, and make with them an enduring covenant. 9 Their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the LORD.

10 I surely rejoice in the LORD; my heart is joyful because of my God, because he has clothed me with clothes of victory, wrapped me in a robe of righteousness like a bridegroom in a priestly crown, and like a bride adorned in jewelry. 11 As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the LORD God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations. (CEB)

Good News

 These verses from Isaiah express themes of mission, righteousness, and salvation. Of course, my first questions are about what those words mean and how we, as the church, are to apply them. Sometimes, the definitions we assume don’t quite jive with what the Scriptures say. We like to narrow things, pare them down to Cliff’s Notes, so we can get the gist without having to dig deep or think too much. Honestly, it’s easier that way. It’s simpler not to have to wrestle with hard truths. If we can get the basics figured out, then we can assume we’re all set.

The problem with this kind of faith—I’ll call it lazy faith—is that we miss out on the life-giving richness the Scriptures offer to us, and the way it can shape and reshape our lives and our community.

Let’s take the idea of salvation as an example. What is salvation? Most people think it’s getting into heaven. It’s about making the cut. I think most of us are fairly comfortable with our level of commitment and aren’t too concerned about not making it in to heaven. I mean, if there’s any question on judgment day, we’ll just plead “Jesus” and God will let us in.

Yet, we conveniently overlook the words of Jesus in Matthew 7, “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit. Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter. On the Judgment Day, many people will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and expel demons in your name and do lots of miracles in your name?’ Then I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you people who do wrong,’” (7:18-23 CEB), and Luke 6:46, where Jesus asks a simple question, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say?” (CEB).

There is, undoubtedly, an ethical component to salvation. That ethical component is found throughout the Scriptures. Every place where judgment is mentioned in the New Testament, we’re told that we’ll be judged according to what we’ve done, said, or failed to do. Not once do the Scriptures say that we’ll be judged according to what we believed. There is a tension between belief and action. Our belief in God had better inform our behavior and, more importantly, result in behavior that’s consistent with God’s understanding of right and wrong.

Revelation 14:13 tells us that our “deeds follow” us when we die. Yet, the prevailing notion among Protestant Christians since Martin Luther is that works, deeds, actions, words we speak—however we may want to describe the ethics of how we live—don’t have any bearing on whether we’re saved or not. That’s why Luther wanted to throw the book of James out of the Bible. Luther preached salvation by faith alone. But the only place the phrase “faith alone” is found in the entire Bible is James 2:24, where James tells us, “So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone,” (CEB). One of my professors used to say, “Faith alone and fifty-cents will get you a cup of coffee in the coffee shop of you-know-where.”

I think the price of coffee has gone up a bit since then.

It is God’s grace that saves us—God’s extension of love, mercy, and forgiveness to us, God’s incredible desire to be with us—but how we live, our ethics, matter to God. To think otherwise is to ignore what God tells us over and again. Verse 8 of our text tells us that God loves justice and hates robbery and dishonesty. What God loves and despises about our behavior matters.

To tack in another direction, the word salvation is something that’s difficult to nail down. It’s one of those churchy-religious words that we use but don’t quite get. We struggle with what it means. It may be helpful to know that saved also means healed. The forms of the Greek word σώζω (sodzo) which are often translated in our Bibles as “save” and “saved” are, in different places, also translated as “heal” and “healed.” The Greek word for salvation, σωτηρία (soteria), can mean deliverance or preservation from impending physical death, as well as salvation in the sense of a mystical future reality (which is that whole Heaven and Hell thing).

So, the essence of salvation, or being saved, is healing. The disease from which we are healed, so to speak, is sin and sinfulness: our penchant for choosing and doing things God doesn’t like. Salvation means that our “bent to sinning,” as Charles Wesley called it (c.f. Love Divine, All Loves Excelling) will be healed because of what God has done—and is doing—for us. While salvation is ultimately something God accomplishes, and wants to accomplish for us, we have a part to play. That’s why Paul told us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (c.f. Philippians 2:12).

Another aspect of salvation that we Christians often overlook is that it’s meant to be, in part, a quality of life that we experience here, now, which reflects God’s desires for our community. In Isaiah 61, salvation is good news. It’s justice instead of oppression, healing of the brokenhearted, liberty for the captives, release of the prisoners, and a proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor and vindication. It’s comfort and providence for those who mourn. Garlands instead of ashes. Praise instead of discouragement.

This all points to community as God desires. The year of the Lord’s favor is a reference to the year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, which was every fiftieth year. It’s when slaves and indentured servants were set free. Property sold had to be returned to the ancestral owners, and everyone had to return home to their family property. It was supposed to be a complete reset of the Israelite economy, and it was meant to prevent the rich from exploiting the poor in ways that led to injustice and disparity. The word liberty here means more than freedom. In the context of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, it’s a complete socioeconomic reconfiguration. It was God’s reset button on the kind of wealth accumulation that led to oppression and injustice in Israelite society which led to a destruction of God-intended community.

Salvation is described as a restored city and an abundant garden. This isn’t a vision of pie in the sky after we die. While Christian theology does speak of a future reality of salvation, the Christian community is supposed to look like a reflection of that future reality in the present. We’re invited to participate in salvation-style living right now. Jubilee is what Jesus came to proclaim. That was his mission, and it’s the mission of those who follow him.

Remember when Jesus visited his hometown synagogue in Nazareth? “The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it,’” (Luke 4:17-21 CEB).

Jesus came to make every year a year of the Lord’s favor. His good news is that we can live out salvation even in a world that’s still broken. We can. And we do it by living our mission in our community.

That brings us to another term we need to re-examine. What is mission? First, it might help to dispel a common incorrect understanding of mission. Mission isn’t only something that goes out from the church, whether it’s money or people sent as missionaries for the sake of the poor, oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners. Mission is also something that defines the church, in that we exist for the sake of the poor, oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners.

Mission isn’t just what we do, it’s who we are. It’s our identity. Throughout the Scriptures, God tells us over and over that God is deeply concerned for the least, the poor, the oppressed, the broken, the captive, the weak. Shouldn’t we reflect that concern, too? The church exists for mission. Church is not an end unto itself. If we think we’re here only for ourselves and what we can take away from the sermon to get us through the week, we’re severely missing the point of what Jesus came to do. We aren’t here to maintain a building, or run programs, or fellowship with like-minded individuals. We’re here to be the mission of the anointed one—the Messiah. Our building, our programs, and our fellowship should serve and support that mission.

But, when Christians only exist as people who are divided, who are judgmental, who fight amongst ourselves, who exclude others, we’ll fail to be the mission of Jesus Christ no matter how much money we throw at ministries, and no matter how many missionaries we send.

We’re here to live as Jesus Christ lived. Which means we’re here “to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn,” (Isaiah 61:1-2 CEB). The church exists so that we can be the kind of missional force that transforms the world here and now by being a reflection of the Kingdom of God that’s coming.

When we do that, when we are that, the world will take notice. And the result will be joy. Not some superficial happiness, but deep and abiding joy; like wedding-day level stuff with brides and grooms dressed and ready. Our mission is righteousness. When our community faithfully lives as the mission of God, God causes transformation to happen all over the place. When mission is authentically lived, this stuff spreads. Good news is worth sharing and, when others see it, they know it’s worth emulating.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

The Advent | 1st of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9

1 If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! Mountains would quake before you 2 like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies, the nations would tremble in your presence.

3 When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations; when you came down, mountains quaked before you. 4 From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him! 5 You look after those who gladly do right; they will praise you for your ways. But you were angry when we sinned; you hid yourself when we did wrong. 6 We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away. 7 No one calls on your name; no one bothers to hold on to you, for you have hidden yourself from us, and have handed us over to our sin.

8 But now, LORD, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are the work of your hand. 9 Don’t rage so fiercely, LORD; don’t hold our sins against us forever, but gaze now on your people, all of us. (CEB)

The Advent

When I go to the grocery store, I usually walk down the entire checkout row to find the shortest line. I don’t like to wait. It makes me wonder how I ever survived the days of rotary-phone dialing, and dial-up internet when it took ten minutes to load up a single webpage.

And I’m not the only one. Waiting isn’t something that any of us like to do. Oh, sure, there are people who don’t mind waiting so much, but I’m not one of them. And it’s not like any of us seek to wait. That’s why I think the Black Friday shoppers who camp out at store entrances are crazy. Seriously, think about what they’re doing. They’re waiting in line so they don’t have to wait in line when the store actually opens. Who thinks that’s a logical idea?

Right now I’m waiting for five books to be published so I can read them. They’re already pre-ordered, and they’ll be at my door the day they’re released. But they’re all sequels, and I want to read them now. I don’t want to wait. Waiting is not on my list of virtues.

I don’t know that it’s on anyone’s list, quite honestly. We are a people of hurried, if not instant, gratification. We don’t even want to wait for Christmas to get here. Ask any kid and they’ll tell you, “I can’t wait until Christmas!” and they mean it! I think some kids would rather hunt Santa Claus down than wait for him to show up at their house.

It’s no wonder that Advent is not a very popular season on the Christian calendar. Some of us would prefer to skip Advent and get right to Christmas. We want these four Sundays to get out of our way so we can get to the Christmas family gatherings, the food, the candy, and the presents!

What’s Advent about, anyway? Why does it feel like some ogre-saint of old put this season in the way to block our path to Christmas joy? What’s this inconvenient season even doing here? Can’t we just shove it aside? Why do we have to bother with Advent?

I don’t like to wait, and yet, Advent is one of my favorite seasons on the Christian calendar. I think it’s one of my favorites because, in part, Advent tries to teach us how to do the very thing I don’t like to do. Advent tells us to learn how to wait.

In Isaiah 64, the prophet laments this very thing. Terrible stuff was going on all around the people of Israel. Horrible things were happening to them. They were waiting for God to act, to intervene, to get involved. But God wasn’t appearing. For Isaiah, this became an active waiting. He cried out, he prayed, he looked, he searched. The people suffered in exile, their cities had been laid waste, their Temple where they once worshiped the Lord had been burned to the ground. And still they waited for God to appear. But waiting is hard.

He cried out for God to come down, to make God’s presence known and felt, to do awesome deeds of power like God did in ages past. Isaiah remembered what God had done and cried out for God to show up again. After all, no one has ever heard or seen any God besides the Lord. Isaiah confessed that God works for those who wait, and meets those who do what is right and who remember God’s ways.

But something had gone wrong.

Isaiah looked around him and saw abandonment. From his point of view, God had simply stopped showing up. His prayer turns in a direction that sounds surprising to us. Isaiah acknowledged Israel’s sin, but claimed that God, too, must share some of the blame. Isaiah said, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”

How can human beings not sin when God is absent? How can we possibly do what is right when God hides from us? God can’t brush these sinful people off for this very reason: God’s absence initiates sin in human community! We might be sinners, but when God disappears, we sin more!

Now, what we need to understand about Isaiah’s prayer is that Isaiah is not saying this in order to excuse the people’s sin. He’s not passing the buck by blaming God. Rather, Isaiah is trying to make the claim that God has a stake in them as a people. He’s trying to motivate God to act in a redemptive manner on behalf of the people whom God took for God’s own self and made God’s own inheritance.

It’s like marriage. When Joy and I got married, I knew that I was hers and she was mine: the good, the bad, and everything in-between.

Isaiah fully acknowledges the people’s sin. He admits that they’re unclean, that their righteousness is like a menstrual rag in need of washing. He admits that the people have turned away, that no one calls upon God’s name or attempts to hold on to God. God’s face is hidden.

Isaiah describes the punishment the people are currently enduring as a result of their own iniquity. They are reaping the consequences of their sin. He says, “You have melted us into the hand of our iniquity,” (Isaiah 64:7d my translation).

This is what we chose, and so this is what you allowed us to have. The guilt of the people, Isaiah suggests, is a guilt so insidious, so all-encompassing that it engulfs and overwhelms both Israel and God.

Then Isaiah says, “But now, Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are all the work of your hand,” (Isaiah 64:8 CEB). Isaiah is trying to remind the Lord that Israel has a claim upon God because they are FAMILY. The Lord made Israel what they are: children of God. So the Lord is bound by an irrevocable covenant to act on Israel’s behalf. God cannot abandon them. The relationship between God and Israel requires God to act.

Gaze now on your people,” Isaiah says. God cannot, God will not let the people be wiped out any more than a loving parent would abandon their own child to death, or a potter shatter the prized work of their hands. God must act. Isaiah knows it, and Isaiah is waiting. He’s even screaming his head off about it, God, I’m waiting!

When I read this, I hear Isaiah’s longing and Isaiah’s anguish. I hear Isaiah’s prayer, and I find that it echoes my own prayers of late. I read the news reports where men, women, and children are being slaughtered. I read about so-called “honor killings,” rape, kidnapping, murder, sexual slavery, and violence against women and girls. School children are murdered in classrooms here, and kidnapped from classrooms in other lands. Captive girls are sold as brides. Children are gunned down by police officers. Nations play power games by inciting violence in other nations. And the lives of people who, like any of us, just want to live are destroyed.

And I find myself asking God, Where are you? How long will you let this go on? Get up off your couch, rouse yourself and get involved! If you’re going to hide away from us, of course this is going to be the result! Where are you, God? I’ve prayed this prayer because I feel helpless. I feel abandoned. And it seems to me that only God can fix this.

It sounds like an impertinent prayer. But it’s a prayer that I learned from reading the Psalms. My heart echoes the words of Psalm 44, “No, God, it’s because of you that we are getting killed every day—it’s because of you that we are considered sheep ready for slaughter. Wake up! Why are you sleeping, Lord? Get up! Don’t reject us forever! Why are you hiding your face, forgetting our suffering and oppression? Look: we’re going down to the dust; our stomachs are flat on the ground! Stand up! Help us! Save us for the sake of your faithful love,” (Psalm 44:22-26 CEB).

It’s a prayer of desperate need for God’s presence.

And yet, I must acknowledge that I, too, am guilty. Even in this community at First UMC, I haven’t loved as well as I ought to love. I haven’t cared as I ought to care. I haven’t always been the father or husband I ought to be. And those are just a few of my sins of omission.

When we’re surrounded by such violence, injustice, and oppression it’s easy to forget that God is with us. It’s easy to forget that God has torn open the heavens and come down. The Word became flesh, the Son became a human being in order to be Emmanuel: God with us. The Holy Spirit has been poured out and is with us in the midst of everything. God is with us.

Advent is a season of waiting. It’s about how we wait, hope, and watch. It’s been almost two-thousand years since Christ was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, but still we wait for the fullness of God’s Kingdom to come. We await Christ’s return and the day when every wrong that has ever been shall be set aright.

In the meantime, Isaiah reminds us that our waiting is an active endeavor. This kind of waiting requires action. It requires that we seek God.

Advent reminds us to seek the Lord. But it tries to do so in the midst of the very weeks of the year when we’re encouraged to go crazy. It’s the season in which our culture invites us to—in some sense—lose control and lose patience. It’s a season of excess.

We need to seek God, but it requires action on our part. It takes active waiting where we watch and hope with joy. We are God’s people, and God has torn open the heavens and come down to us. God is here. But God’s presence is not always what we expect.

Advent invites us to wait as Isaiah waited: to wait with action. Like Lent, Advent is a time to renew our dedication to God and the disciplines of the faith. We are invited to grow closer to God; to pray, to seek, to study, to search, and to serve others. It’s the Christian New Year, so make a resolution. Christmas will be here soon enough, and the Kingdom of God is on its way. Let’s wait for the arrival of both with action by loving and caring for others.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Listen | Proper 16

Isaiah 51:1-6

1 Listen to me, you who look for righteousness, you who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry where you were dug. 2 Look to Abraham your ancestor, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. They were alone when I called them, but I blessed them and made them many. 3 The LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her ruins. He will make her desert like Eden and her wilderness like the LORD’s garden. Happiness and joy will be found in her– thanks and the sound of singing. 4 Pay attention to me, my people; listen to me, my nation, for teaching will go out from me, my justice, as a light to the nations. 5 I will quickly bring my victory. My salvation is on its way, and my arm will judge the peoples. The coastlands hope for me; they wait for my judgment. 6 Look up to the heavens, and gaze at the earth beneath. The heavens will disappear like smoke, the earth will wear out like clothing, and its inhabitants will die like gnats. But my salvation will endure forever, and my righteousness will be unbroken. (CEB)

Listen

“Listen!”

For children, this is probably the most often spoken to yet least heard word in the English language. When I cooked supper the other day, I called my family three times. Only one of them came to the table. So, the two of us sat together, prayed, and started eating. The rest of the family slowly wandered into the dining room, not because I had called them for supper, but randomly. And they were surprised that some of us were already eating. Two of them even asked, “Why didn’t you call me?” To which I replied, “I did. Three times. But you didn’t listen.” And they protested their innocence saying, “But I didn’t hear you!” To which I replied, “Because you weren’t listening.”

Sometimes we don’t listen because other things—whether they’re good things or bad things, positive things or negative things, peaceful things, or stressful things—have our attention. I get how it happens because I’m just as susceptible to not listening as anyone. If I’m engrossed in a book, for example, good luck getting my attention. You might have to slap it out of my hand to get me to look up. That’s my oldest child, too. One of those times that I called my family to the table for supper, I stood right in front of her and yelled. She had no idea I was there. Admittedly, the book she was reading is an awesome young adult fantasy full of assassins, war, betrayal, love, loss, and friendship.

But still, I called for supper. Despite the other things that might hold our attention over and against everything else, eating is important, too. You can’t live without food. You can’t grow without it.

In this text, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah and calls people to listen. The difficulty is that the audience to whom the prophet speaks are living in the midst of other things that hold their attention. These are the Jewish exiles living in Babylon. They’ve experience hardship. In fact, they’ve been so traumatized by their military defeat, mistreatment by enemies, and forced exile to a foreign land that they’re likely deaf to everything but their own woundedness and pain.

All we have to do to get a glimpse of their context is to read Lamentations 5, “Our property has been turned over to strangers; our houses belong to foreigners. We have become orphans, having no father; our mothers are like widows. We drink our own water– but for a price; we gather our own wood– but pay for it.” “We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the desert heat. Our skin is as hot as an oven because of the burning heat of famine. Women have been raped in Zion, young women in Judah’s cities. Officials have been hung up by their hands; elders have been shown no respect” (Lamentations 5:2-4, 9-12 CEB). Sometimes our own reality is so painful and broken that it’s the only thing we can see.

In the midst of exile, some of these Jewish transplants were trying to live lives that were righteous. This remnant sought God even as they stood among the rubble of their lives wondering how they could possibly rebuild, replace, replant, or restore what they had lost. There were those who sought God even when it seemed that all of God’s promises to Israel had fallen apart. They still hoped in God. There were likely some skeptics, too, who had given up on God’s promises of blessing.

Isaiah tells the people, especially those who still hope, who still pursue righteousness, who still seek the Lord, to examine their past. “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry where you were dug. Look to Abraham your ancestor, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. They were alone when I called them, but I blessed them and made them many” (Isaiah 51:1-2 CEB). If you would recall, Sarah and Abraham were barren. Twice in the New Testament, Abraham is described as so old that he was, “as good as dead,” (Romans 4:19; Hebrews 11:12). It was God who made life spring from barrenness in the past, which promises the possibility that life can spring from the barrenness of exile.

Abraham also believed in God’s promises to him and God counted his belief as righteousness (James 2:23). The Hebrew word used here for righteousness has a collective sense of correct order. In the church, we sometimes like to theologize words like righteousness so much that we render the meaning incomprehensible. Righteousness is one of those “church” words that hardly anyone uses outside of church, which it why it doesn’t resonate well with most people. Yet, the word simply points to those who are doing what is correct, right, and honest. In spite of the fact that these people have been carried off, unwillingly, into exile, they are trying to do what is right, to find signs of life amid the barren.

The sounds of the Hebrew poetry in verse 1 even suggest something of this. The words for rock and hewn in Hebrew are צוּר (tsur) and ‎ חֻצַּבְתֶּ֔ם (chutsavtem). They have harsh-sounding consonants that might suggest something hard and barren. They sound quite different from the words for excavation, dug, and cistern, ‎ מַקֶּ֥בֶת בּ֖וֹר נֻקַּרְתֶּֽם (maqevet bor nuqartem), which have gentler, murmuring consonants with m, n, and r that might suggest something drenched or life-giving.

Look to Abraham and Sarah. The people are told to look to their past so they might be enabled to reimagine the future. A nation of many sprang from one barren couple. They had nothing, but God gave them everything. In the same way, God promises to comfort Zion. All the barren wastes and ruins of the land will become lush and verdant like the garden of Eden. From the people’s current state of despair and, perhaps, even a kind of death, will come happiness, joy, thanks, and the sound of singing.

But, honestly, when we’re experiencing difficult times in life, whether it’s the death of a loved one, a difficult move, serious illness, loss of a job, financial difficulty, or any other trauma, it’s easy to lose sight of the possibility for our strength being renewed and our life flourishing again. Experiences like these often lead to depression and self-doubt. In those times we often ask ourselves if God even cares that we’re going through the tough stuff life can throw at us. I know this from my own experiences. We’ve lost family members recently, we moved two years ago, we’ve had loved-ones go through serious illnesses, and we had a child with a persistent illness that was only recently resolved. And when we were in the middle of those things, it was easy to throw up our hands and ask, “What’s next? What more can the world throw at us?”

It’s easy to lose a clear sense of perspective and not even realize that clarity is missing. In times of deep distress, our priority, whether we realize it or not, becomes our own physical, emotional, or familial survival—even if we’re the caregiver for someone else. Every other matter tends to get drowned out by that one thing, which can leave us angry at everything, bitter toward God, and frustrated with others. It can get to the point that those sounds of our anguish are the only things we can hear, the trouble in front of us is all that we can see. There are people in our congregation and in our broader community who are experiencing times like this.

And that’s where these Jewish exiles were in their life when God called them to listen. It’s a place we can recognize because we’ve either been there ourselves, or we’ve walked that dark road with someone we love as they experienced it. God called them to listen, and God calls us to do the same. When all we can see is darkness and ruin, God calls to us and encourages us to listen. It’s not the end. The Lord will offer comfort. Life can flourish again.

But it will require us to listen. We can seek righteousness as much as we want, but how will we know what righteousness is unless we listen to the one who defines it? Finding righteousness means aligning ourselves with God. It means we allow God to chip away the hardness of our hearts so that we can love with hearts of tender flesh. It takes intentionality on our part, and an openness to the movement of God’s grace. We’re told to listen because God is teaching. God is speaking about matters of justice, but we must pay attention and listen. We’re all seeking righteousness or we wouldn’t be in church worshipping God today. But doing what’s right requires us to pay attention.

What does it mean to do what is right? How do we accomplish it for ourselves and for others? Life is meant to be lived for God and for others. How might we—each of us—minister to the people in the world around us, whether they’re a part of our congregation or not? Our church provides many opportunities for service. We have ministries for kids, youth, college students, homebound, hospitalized, we’ve partnered with an afterschool program called Thrive, we provide meals for families who’ve experienced sickness or surgery, Bridges of Hope, and Susanna Wesley Nursery School. There are lots of possibilities, and if none of them fit you, we can do something new and different.

Isaiah reminds us that nothing in this life in permanent. The prophet tells us that the heavens will disappear like smoke and the earth will wear out like clothing. The inhabitants of Earth are all going to die like gnats. Planet Earth’s time is limited by the lifespan of the Sun. Our star’s lifespan is limited by its fuel. The universe is expanding at an incredibly high speed. Some physicists theorize that the universe will keep expanding until it has, essentially, stretched itself into non-existence, with each particle moving so far apart from others that they stop interacting with other particles and lie still. We’re only here for a limited amount of time.

Isaiah doesn’t tell us about the end of creation to frighten us. What he does is set up a comparison between the finite and the infinite. Creation itself will come undone and pass away, but God’s salvation will last forever, and God’s righteousness will never be broken. God’s salvation will endure forever because God is infinite in every respect. God is righteous because God always does what is right. God will do what is right for us. We can trust that the Lord will set things right—even as we stand among whatever ruins might lie around us—because God’s righteousness never ends. God’s salvation will endure forever. And in all the places that were once barren, lifeless, and broken, God will make these things new so that we can share in the fullness of life. God made us to have life, and salvation is the continuation of that life even as everything else falls away.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher