Sunday, December 4th, 2011 Vineyard Central Church Norwood, OH
Main passages: Isaiah 40:1-11 Psalm 85:1-13 (though the RCL suggests Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, which I make an object lesson in the sermon)
I think the best place to begin today is with Isaiah 40, to do the best we can to walk into the world of the author, to observe, listen, and consider what we may encounter.
As obvious as it must sound, the first thing we notice is that this is Isaiah 40.
If we sat down and read the Book of Isaiah from beginning to end in one sitting, we’d notice there is a distinct difference in tone between chapters 1-39, and chapter 40 on. The first 39 chapters give a strong message of Israel’s unfaithfulness, unwillingness to follow the way of God. The prophet reminds them multiple times that this has not gone unnoticed by God. He uses the voice of God to say piercing things,
“’I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.’ Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.”
The first 39 chapters read as a testament of the prophet using every literary device, every means of persuasion possible in an attempt to bring Israel to their collective knees, to consider their way of life, to repent, and to live differently. Along the way, a very clear portrait of God emerges that is uncomfortable and necessary for Israel to hear; and uncomfortable and necessary for us to hear today along with them.
God is not aloof, is not ignorant of what is going on. God has been patient for a very long time, hoping (desperately so), that the people he redeemed would turn back. But eventually, because God loves them, because God has called them to be a light to the nations, his anger boils over and he shatters their society, drives them into exile at great loss of life, loss of dignity, great cost. God does this, and he does this because he loves them.
So this is the immediate context we hear Isaiah 40 in today. And because the tone is so different and the way the narrator talks about God’s judgment in the past tense, longing for restoration, most biblical scholars believe Isaiah 40-55 were written about a hundred years later than the first 39 chapters. This was a common practice in the Jewish community, to continue the tradition of a prophet, to write in their name, with the community affirming the words over time as valid and truthful.
And so, Isaiah 40 gives a message of hope, “Comfort, comfort my people…speak tenderly to Jerusalem, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”
The prophet uses strong language here to give his hearers hope. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”
This is Hebrew apocalyptic language. It’s used time and time again in the Scriptures. “The heavenly bodies will be shaken, the sun darkened, the moon turned to blood,” one passage says. “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth,” another passage says. “The wolf will live with the lamb,” says another. The writers don’t actually mean that God hates mountains and valleys and wants everything level, don’t actually mean that the sun will cease to exist, or the moon drip with blood. They don’t mean that God’s going to throw the universe in the trash and start over from scratch. And they don’t mean that wolves are going to suddenly cuddle with cute little soft lambs.
All of those passages are the Hebrew way of saying, “God’s going to do something big again. God is going to make things right. The powerful will recognize their relationship with the weak, and they will live in community again. God will make things right.”
The prophet continues: “All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field…the grass withers, the flower fades. (but the word of our God will stand forever)”
These words remind the hearers of their mortality, and raise awareness of how quickly we forget the restoration of God and return to our old ways that we find more comfortable. “So remember that you are like grass, here today and gone tomorrow,” the prophet reminds us. And our faithfulness, while beautiful and full of sweet aroma like the flowers of the field, is not the center of reality. The strength of human effort is downplayed. But the intent is NOT to empty the possibility of human faithfulness, to diminish the impact of serving God. No, the intent is to exalt God, to give glory to the eternal God, which draws us to fall to our knees, adore Him, and confess over and over again, “God, you know better than we do how we were created to live. We are confused, our minds and hearts are darkened, twisted by selfishness and rebellion.”
With this emphasis established, the writer can shift back again to comfort, “Bring good news,” he says. Say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him…he tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young.”
God has been wrathful and condemning in his great love, and God will be gentle and compassionate in his great love.
That is a significant lesson that the Israelite people needed to hear, and we need to hear in our day as well. It is a reminder of the full love of God, which includes the full spectrum from the most gentle, affirming touch all the way to ripping entire societies apart in their unfaithfulness; death, pain, and the displacement of millions of people.
Our second lectionary passage of the day is an important object lesson that brings this issue into full focus. So if you would turn to Psalm 85 with me.
I want to say two things here about the lectionary with this being one of the readings for the day. First, I love the sense of unity felt in the use of the lectionary, knowing that millions of brothers and sisters are reading the same passages and praying together with the same themes. I love that as the Earth turns and we all experience Sunday over a 24 hour period, we are reading, praying, and thinking together on similar themes. This is a great gift. But I feel extremely frustrated at times with the lectionary because those who set it up have a knack for seeking out comforting passages and omitting, avoiding sharper passages. Sometimes, it’s hard to read their intent, other times, I’m sure I read into their selections something that isn’t there, and other times, like today with Psalm 85, it is SO OBVIOUS.
(Make a quick skim read of the Psalm and take a guess at what the Lectionary folks omitted)
When manipulating the passages so obviously like this, one has to ask, what is their purpose? I had seen this pattern before in the Lectionary and wondered when it was brought together; who shaped the passages for reading? Is this pattern several hundred years old? I wasn’t surprised to find after a bit of research that the Revised Common Lectionary was brought together in 1994. That date is telling. I also wasn’t surprised to find that the RCL was an ecumenical effort (Catholic and a variety of Protestant communions), and one of the markers of ecumenical works tends to be an appeal to the lowest common denominator that everyone can agree on.
Maybe more important, though, is the wider issue of belief. One of the most distinct beliefs across our society that’s been in vogue for at least the last 75 years or so is that if God loves you, he would never do anything that brings you pain, would never hurt you. And if that was the Biblical message, that would be well and good. But it’s not. The Biblical message is that God loves us deeply, relentlessly, desperately, and that God will stop at nothing to bring about his kingdom.
It also seems to me that the most comfortable people of the world are the ones who love to read the Jeremiah 29:11s of the Scriptures over and over again. This also fits with the shapers of the RCL being Western, powerful people. Yet those in the world without power, being crushed, used by wealthy empires to maintain their way of life; it is those people who cling to passages on God’s judgment on sin. Why? Because those passages give them an outlet for their pain, gives them questions they can ask they didn’t know they had, channel their frustration to show them how to pray so they don’t become embittered and hopeless.
We need this reminder most here in Advent. Because the people on the eve of Jesus’ birth were NOT comfortable. They were occupied by the most powerful military in the world, taxed into the ground, with the system of taxation carried out by wealthy Hebrew persons grinding their fellow citizens into the ground. The people of Israel were groaning, suffering, longing, and Jesus’ mother Mary (one of those marginalized people) didn’t offer words of consolation to comfortable people:
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
So, I want to emphasize how desperately we need to hear the part in Psalm 85 that the Lectionary-shapers omitted. It is a voice of pleading, of weeping, of desperate humility, of throwing oneself at the feet of God, of looking unseemly, not-together.
“Restore us again, God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us. Will you prolong your anger through all generations? Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”
How does the psalmist, speaking for Israel, plan to respond to God? “I will listen to what God the Lord says; he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants- but let them not turn to folly.” Another way to say that last sentence is “God promises peace to his people- his faithful servants- IF they do not turn to folly.” Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him. There is much wrapped up in those two last sentences.
When God’s people fear him, value him, cherish his authority and voice above all other voices, obey and act on that voice, and do it together; wonderful things result.
And then comes this beautiful image, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. The LORD will indeed give what is good.”
There’s a conversation that often comes to mind for me when thinking of the tensions described above. It involves one of my heroes, Clarence Jordan, co-founder of Koinonia Farm in Georgia, in conversation with his brother, Robert. Clarence approached his brother Robert Jordan (later a state senator and justice of the Georgia Supreme Court) to ask him to legally represent Koinonia Farm. Robert responded to Clarence’s request:
“Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lost my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”
“We might lose everything too, Bob.” Clarence said.
“But it’s different for you,” Robert responded.
“Why is it different?” Clarence said. “I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ And I said, ‘Yes. What did you say?’
“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”
“Could that point by any chance be- the cross?”
“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not ON the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”
“Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.”
“Well, now,” Robert said defensively, “if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t HAVE a church would we?”
“The question,” Clarence said, “is, Do you have a church?”
So, like Clarence and Robert, we are presented with a couple options in our life. Do we choose a genteel Christianity that says all the right things, that goes out of our way to read comforting passages that avoid responsibility and reinforce our way of life, that stops short of a willingness to give of ourselves with all of who we are? Or do we choose a Christianity that follows Jesus and obeys him, willing to be stretched, and willing to be broken, willing to care enough about the brokenness of the world that we are driven to our knees in prayer?
This world is very, very sick; but SO full of potential for healing and joy.
May we turn our gaze off ourselves and towards our Creator.
May we have the courage to come to terms with and embrace the full spectrum of God’s love.
May we be shaped by this love to pour our lives out in service to God, to play a role in the healing of God’s world.