Light of the World

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The prophet Isaiah is a difficult person to pinpoint.

Unlike some of the other prophets we have covered so far, where we understood who they were and when they were speaking, there has been great debate about whether the entire “Book of Isaiah” was in fact written by one person.

Whether the book is all written by one person, who wrote before and after the Babylonian exile… or if it was written by different prophets all within the school of Isaiah, may not entirely matter.

What is important is that we can divide the book of Isaiah into distinct sections that have some distinct messages.

 

Go ahead and open that pew Bible that is in front of you… or open it in the app on your smart phone.

 

First Isaiah, or the “Isaiah of Jerusalem” was a prophet about 700 years before the birth of Christ.  He was called to be a prophet in the Southern kingdom of Judah.

The message of First Isaiah can be found in chapters 1-39… although there are a few chapters that include material by the other “Isaiahs”.

Second Isaiah’s work focuses on chapters 34 & 35 and 40-55 and take place after the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem around 540 years before the birth of Christ.  The prophecies come near the end of the time of exile and captivity and these chapters are full of words of comfort and reassurance that they will soon return home.

Third Isaiah’s work focuses on chapters 24-27 and 56-66 and take place when the exile ends.  They remind the people that returning home will not be easy or simple.

 

For today, we are going to focus on First Isaiah, chapters 1-39.  First Isaiah understood that God’s home, God’s favor, God’s delight was Jerusalem.  And as such, the kings of the Davidic line that ruled from the capital of Judah, Jerusalem, were also divinely favored.

If you remember from last week, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, had rejected the heirs of David and Solomon and had set up their own capital at Samaria and temple at Bethel.

But the Southern Kingdom, Judah, remained true to the line of David and the temple and capital at Jerusalem.

One of First Isaiah’s central beliefs was that, “while Jerusalem and its king may suffer punishment for sin, God’s chosen city will never be utterly destroyed, nor will King David’s dynasty fall.” (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 955)

 

And punishment abounded.

As First Isaiah was called to proclaim:

“How the faithful city has become a whore!  She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers!  Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.  They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause doesn’t come before them. “

“Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!” (1:21-24)

First Isaiah finds himself called by God to remind the Kings Uzziah, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, to return to the Lord, to repent of their ways and turn to God.  If not, the wrath of God would be felt in the land.

The Lord was their only source of protection and only by trusting in God would they be saved from attacks from outside their borders.

But time and time again, the Kings chose to find security in weapons and alliances instead of in the Lord. They sought protections from Assyrian against Aram and Israel, and eventually found themselves as a vassal state instead of their own nation.  The land was ravaged. Jerusalem was preserved only by God’s grace… but barely… and only because it is the delight of the Lord.

 

It is in this context that First Isaiah speaks the prophecy we find in chapter 9:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.  In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.

This small corner of the land – the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali – were some of those ravaged by the wars of Aram and Israel.  There wasn’t much there, and one scholar notes it was a place where they “fought their wars so ‘nothing important’ was disturbed. (http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/third-sunday-after-the-epiphany4)

As later conquerors came in, the culture of this place was so diluted and transformed by the influx of peoples and languages so that there was no unity.  As Rev. Dawn Chesser writes: “Keep the mix of languages and cultures there mixed enough, and oppressed enough, and no one of them will have the strength or the urge to resist the new overlords.”

This is why it is “the land of deep darkness.”

It is a place that was hopeless.

It was a place that desperately needed good news.

 

First Isaiah firmly believed that in spite of the cycle of sin and punishment, wrath and forgiveness, God would never forsake Jerusalem.  Even if this was a time of struggle and conflict, God’s ultimate plan was that the line of King David would reign.

And that promise, that hope, was a light shining in the darkness.

 

John Wesley, a founder of the United Methodist Church, said that the scripture is twice inspired… once when written and again when it is read.

And I think that is a good reminder to think of when we read these prophecies from the Old Testament.

The prophets were by and large speaking to the people and context, the situations of their day.

In this beautiful hymn about light in the darkness, about a son being given for us, about the endless peace for the throne of David… First Isaiah was probably not thinking about the birth of Jesus.

This was likely a hymn written for the coronation of King Hezekiah, who First Isaiah believed would return the land to God.

First Isaiah, if you remember, had this really high view of the monarchy. He believed the kings were divinely called and eternally chosen by God.  And these words were full of hope and promise that the forsaken lands of Galilee, indeed ALL the lands, would be reunited under Hezekiah’s royal leadership.

 

But if we take seriously the idea that God can inspire the people as we read the scriptures, too, then it is understandable how early Christians, notably Luke and Matthew, remembered these words, remembered this prophecy, and saw it being lived out once again in the birth of Jesus Christ.

And so we find in the gospel of Matthew that this text is quoted and Jesus symbolically begins his ministry in that once and again occupied land of Zebulon and Napthali… before by the Assyrians and in the time of the gospels by the Romans.

And we find in Luke the promise this light in the darkness, this child that is born for us will deliver us from bondange and will uphold the Kingdom of David forever.

 

Even today, whenever we open these pages of scripture, God speaks.

You can read the same passage twenty different times in your life and every time you might have a new insight or learn something new about yourself or about God.

And that is because these words are alive.

These promises were true yesterday and they are just as true today and they will be tomorrow.

 

We are tempted to leave these old prophecies on the shelves, to forget about their harsh words and judgements, to leave the wrath of God with the prophets and to instead focus on the gospel.

But these words, though spoken to a particular context, still have meaning for our context today.

As we watch political ads on our televisions, I am reminded that we live in a time of political unrest and deception.

As I heard news that Iowa is now ranked last in our care for the mentally ill, I am reminded that we live in a land that has forgotten the most vulnerable.

As we watch the fallout from Brexit, some might say that we, as people of this earth pursue our own self-interest ahead of the needs of others.

Whenever we fill out houses with things we don’t need instead of generously letting go, we are putting greed ahead of compassion.

Our weapons, our security systems, our locks are reminders that we rely upon our own strength instead of relying upon God.

First Isaiah’s words need to be spoken into our midst today just as much as they did 2700 years ago.

And the call to be God’s people from Isaiah chapter 2 is a call that still echoes across this land today…

Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,     to the house of Jacob’s God         so that we may be taught God’s ways         and we may walk in God’s paths.” Instruction will come from Zion;     the Lord’s word from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations,     and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows     and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation;     they will no longer learn how to make war.

Come, house of Jacob,     let’s walk by the Lord’s light.

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It was a Monday afternoon, in Marengo, and a young woman walked into the church and asked to use the telephone.

Not a problem, I said.

And while she sat in the office dialing numbers and getting no response, I sat at my desk trying to pick out hymns for worship the next Sunday. Are you stranded? I asked.

I learned that Maria had just been released from the county jail, was far from home, and no one was coming to get her.

She finally got a hold of a friend or a neighbor… someone she thought might help and was chewed out over the phone.

She hung up in frustration. Maria had no options.

She was seven months pregnant, in Marengo with no vehicle or ride, and needed to get home to the Quad Cities to her kids.

In Isaiah chapter 40, the prophet is moved to share God’s compassion for the people of Israel in exile. He gave them words of comfort in the midst of their trial and tribulation. And then Isaiah hears a voice:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

He was to tell the people that EVERY obstacle that came between them and their salvation and their home was being removed.

In this time of worship, let us listen once again for the cry of the prophets.

****

I think about that woman often.

I thought about her as a group of us gathered in Ankeny about a month ago for the “Right Next Door” Conference and as we were surrounded by all of these people.

They represented those we knew, and people we have yet to come to know, who are impacted by addiction, domestic violence, incarceration, human trafficking…

We were invited to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to see them… and us… in a new way.

Because, let’s be honest: we, too, have been impacted by these things.

We are not immune to the realities of alcohol or drugs, abuse, crime, or sex.

But we often leave those parts of our lives outside of the church.

Friends, those realities are deeply part of who we are and ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist can keep us from relationship with God.

Those people in exile saw an immense gulf separating them from their home and their God. Valleys of sin and mountains of guilt lie between them and the Lord.

We face those obstacles, but I’m increasingly aware that some of the mountains and valleys that keep people from the Lord include artificial barriers we put up to “protect” the church.

It is not just their past that keeps people like Michael or Maria from walking in the doors of the church.

So my question for us to ponder is this: What are the barriers we put up as a church? What keeps people who are struggling from having a relationship with God in this place?

 

****

A voice is crying out in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord!

Make it easier for people to come to God!

Help clear out a path!

Make a smooth and straight road for the Lord to come.

 

Maria found the courage to walk across the street to the church and ask to use the phone.

And I’m going to be honest, there are all sorts of mountains and valleys that might have kept me from helping her.

  • I was there in the building alone and I had been fighting the suggestions that I keep the doors locked when it was just me there.
  • I was in the middle of trying to get some work done and I was really busy.
  • She had just been released from prison.
  • I didn’t know if she was feeding me a line or if she was telling the truth.
  • I didn’t know if she was safe to be around.

Prepare the way of the Lord!

The door was open and I invited her in. I sat with her as she made her phone call.

 

Make it easier for people to come to God!

I passed the box of Kleenex when she felt betrayed and abandoned by her friend on the phone. And, knowing she was at the end of her rope, I asked if she needed a ride.

 

Make smooth and straight the road for the Lord to come!

We gathered up her bag and I set aside my work, and on the way out the door, she asked if she could have one of the bibles on the shelf. We got in my car and drove 90 some miles to get her home.

 

Some of you might be thinking that I am incredibly naïve and too trusting.

But I think that we, as people of faith, aren’t foolish enough.

We are called to prepare the way of the Lord – and that means knocking down barriers and building up gaps in this world.

We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus wherever he leads us.

We are called to take risks in order to care for the least and the last and the lost of this world.

We are called to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and to eat in the presence of our enemies.

We are called to be vulnerable with one another and admit our faults and our weakness.

Over and over again, we hear God tell us: Do NOT be afraid, for I am with you.

 

And perhaps what is more naïve is to imagine that sin and danger exists only outside the walls of this church.

There are people in this room who are in recovery or who love someone who is… just as there are people in this room who are in denial about needing help.

Some people in this church have experienced abuse as a child or a spouse… and there are people in this room are abusers.

Our congregation has members who have been in prison or who love people who are in prison.

In this room, there are those who have visited pornography sites and probably even men who have frequented prostitutes.

We just don’t talk about it.

 

We are entering the season of Advent and the first character we discover is a prophet named John the Baptist.

He wasn’t afraid of what others thought.

He wasn’t afraid of what might happen to his own life.

He wasn’t afraid to tell the truth.

And He prepared the way for countless people to let go of their old lives and embrace God’s love.

 

He prepared the way of the Lord by calling people out to the river… to a space carved out for people to be honest about who they are… a space where they could name and repent of their sins… a space where they could receive forgiveness and new life.

 

He carved out a clear path for all people… no matter who they were… to come and be in God’s presence.

 

Isn’t that what church is supposed to be all about?

Awaiting the Already: The Promise of a New Dawn

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Have you ever sat and watched the sunrise?

The hints of purple… turning pink… and then neon orange as the sun peeks over the horizon.

What a profound thing to realize that each morning, as we wait for the sun to rise in our sky, it has already risen for our neighbors to the east… and set for our neighbors to the west.

We are waiting for something that has already happened.

Throughout this month and the season of Advent, we will be exploring these sorts of paradoxes and promises…

The already and the not yet…

The things that have happened that are about to happen again.

Of course the most obvious of these is the coming of Christ.

We remember that he came as a child to Mary and Joseph to save us from our sins.

But we also are waiting for him to come again and take us home.

Already…

And not yet…

Today, we will explore words of great comfort, as we are reminded that the promises of the resurrection are real and present for those we have lost… even as we await for the glorious day of resurrection with our Lord.

Already…

And Not yet…

A sunset, seen from the other side is a sunrise (Bishop Rueben Job)

Today is a special day in the life of the church when we take time to remember those who have experienced the final sunset of their lives.

But we do so, holding firmly to the promise that what we see as a sunset, is merely the beginning of a new dawn, a new life.

And we acknowledge that those who have died… these flames that flicker before us… they are still with us… still waiting like we are to experience the glory of God.

I have very little knowledge about the mysteries of death. No amount of book learning can prepare us for whatever might await us. But I can speak with certainty about the promises of scripture.

One of those promises comes to us from the Wisdom of Solomon – the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will every touch them… they seem to have died, but they are at peace… their hope is full of immortality.

One of those promises comes to the thief crucified beside our Lord – he is promised that today he will be with Jesus in paradise.

In the book of Revelation we have the promise of the day of resurrection – when we will all be raised and clothed in our recreated bodies and there will be weeping and crying and pain no more.

In the gospel of John, after their brother has died, the sisters Mary and Martha are besides themselves with grief… each one pleads with Jesus – “if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

Martha knows in her heart – she trusts in the promise that on the last day her brother will be raised again. She knows that he and she and all of us are pressing on and that Christ is the Messiah – the Son of God who will bring us to the other side; to the dawn of resurrection.

And surely Mary understands this also. But that doesn’t take away their pain and grief at the loss of their brother in this life. No longer can they reach out and touch him or hear his laughter or look into his eyes. While they trust in the promises, it doesn’t take away their sorrow.

It doesn’t take away the grief Jesus himself feels as he weeps before the tomb of his friend Lazarus.

What Jesus then does, is to give us a glimpse of the resurrection.

Lazarus – who had been dead for four days – is called out of the tomb.

We are reminded of what awaits us all.

We are reminded that the Lord God will swallow up death forever.

We are reminded that God will wipe away every tear from our faces.

This year, we have said goodbye to many people who were a part of this church family. We have lit a candle for each of them, in honor of their lives among us, the ways they helped to shape our faith, and we wait with them for the day of resurrection.

They have joined the countless other faithful who surround us with love and encouragement.

They join the company of saints with whom we sing praises to God every time we gather around the communion table.

In Isaiah, we are reminded that God will prepare for all peoples a rich feast…

Bread and wine, joy and celebration…

As we gather today around this table, it is a reminder that the feast we are waiting for is already present among us.

It is present here today in the bread and the cup.

But it is also present here today in the company of those we love and lift before God.

As you came in this morning, I hope you received one of these paper angel cutouts.

If you haven’t… will you lift up a hand so we can bring one to you… ?

These slips of paper represent those saints in our lives who have and continue to encourage us in the faith.

We shared meals with them while they lived among us, and we continue to feast with them around the table of the Lord.

They are the names of people who took risks and showed us what trust looked like.

They lived through tough times and survived.

They refused to give in.

They were kind to us when no one else was.

They believed in the promise of resurrections.

This table this morning is set with bread and the cup, but what we bring to this meal, every Sunday we gather, but especially on this All Saints Sunday is the fellowship of each of these saints.

I want to encourage you to take a minute and think about who has been a saint in your life and if you feel led to write their name on your paper.

“Behold, God has made a dwelling among the people. God will live with them and they shall be God’s people. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying…”

I really wanted to take a moment to tell you a story about one of the saints written on my slip of paper… my Grandma Doni.

But the truth is, I couldn’t do it without crying.

I had the honor of sharing a few words at her funeral in 2002 and I bawled through half of it. I’d be a blubbering mess if I even tried to start.

The day Isaiah lifts up, and John lifts up in Revelation… of no more tears?

That day is not here… yet.

But we hold fast to the promises.

We hold fast to the glimpses of resurrection we have seen throughout history.

We hang on to the amazing, powerful, awesome love of Jesus Christ that went before us through the valley of the shadow of death, who walked through the sunset so that one day, we all might rise again to a new dawn.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

**Photographer Don Poggensee

True Worship

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“We keep a troubled vigil at the bedside of the world,” writes Howard Thurman, “Thus we clutch the moment of intimacy in worship when we become momentarily a part of a larger whole, a fleeting strength, which we pit against all the darkness and the dread of our times.

I want to invite you to think for a moment about some of the darkness and dread that hangs over our world today…

 

When in worship have YOU felt a part of something bigger? When have you been given the strength to face those struggles in the world?

 

The idea that worship itself is a moment of intimacy when we become part of a larger whole is a powerful and timeless truth.

 

In our scripture this morning, we read about Isaiah, and the very reality of reality was presented to him when he met God in his vision of worship.

 

To set the stage, to understand just how important his experience was, we need to look at the first words of verse 1:

In the year King Uzziah had died…

King Uzziah was ruler over the southern kingdom of Judah and he came to be king at only 16 years of age. According to both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, he did what was right in the sight of God and had a powerful and successful reign over Judah for fifty-two years.

But then something happened. All of the success that God had brought the nation went to King Uzziah’s head. In the wake of military victories, Uzziah provided top of the line armor and weapons for his soldiers and fortified the city of Jerusalem with towers and archers and traps. But in these things, he was demonstrating trust in the hands of man, rather than in the power of God.

Our God is on that would take a whole army of the ready and send only three hundred into the battle. When you fight on God’s side, you don’t have to fight with anything else!

But King Uzziah forgot this. His pride became such a problem that he entered the holiest place in the temple… that special room at the very center that only the high priest was allowed to enter and he walked in like he owned the place and burned incense to the Lord.

 

Now, today, we wouldn’t consider that a big deal. But in the days of King Uzziah, there was a strict boundary between the people and God and just as important of a boundary between the authority of the priests and the authority of the King. This was the separation of church and state for its time… and Uzziah crossed the line.

He snuck into the temple and had just lit the flame to burn incense to the Lord, when 80 priests came pouring into the room. The chief among them cried out, “Get out of the sanctuary, for you have trespassed! You shall have no honor from the Lord God.”

Instantly, leprosy came upon Uzziah as a consequence of his prideful action and he was a leper until the day of his death.

 

It is in the midst of this culture of pride and success that Isaiah receives his vision from God.

Beginning in chapter 1 of the book of Isaiah, we hear…

 

What should I think about all your sacrifices?     says the Lord… 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. …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.

 

True worship, worship that is pleasing to God, is a moment of intimacy.

It is a moment where we are connected, as Thurman writes, to a larger whole.

It is a moment not where we show God how great we are, but we offer ourselves, with all of our flaws and weaknesses, and let God’s greatness strengthen us.

 

After Isaiah has vision after vision of the failings of his nation, of the people and the bloodshed and the oppression his people have created, King Uzziah dies and Isaiah – in the midst of this moment of transition and change – is mystically transported into God’s presence.

In eight verses, we receive the pattern of a life of worship. We find the structure we need in order to let the spirit of God connect us with reality at large.

These four movements help us keep worship from being all about “me.” They pull us and stretch us and teach us what it means to be faithful.

I want to invite you to pull out your bulletin and look with me at the headings for each section. Each one of these represents a movement we discover in this passage from Isaiah this morning.

 

We begin with Gathering Together… a time of praise .

 

I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. 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. They shouted to each other, saying:

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

 

Isaiah finds himself in the temple and he is not alone. The seraphim have joined him and they sing praise to the one who has gathered them all together.

Most importantly however, worship begins with the presence of God.

As we gather with one another, we do so in the name of God, in the presence of God, and in our call to worship, we remember that God is here before us. Whether we are worshipping in the sanctuary or outside or in the park or at home, we gather in God’s presence.

But another key aspect of this gathering is that we are praising God. We acknowledge… no, we can’t ignore WHO it is that is before us. The seraphim are moved to sing in this awesome presence. We, too, begin our time of worship with a song of praise.

Each week, as the hymns and songs are chosen that will begin our time of worship, the first one we sing always points to the God who has called us here.

As we think about what this gathering time means, we can see clearly just how far King Uzziah crossed the line. He entered the temple for his own selfish reasons, rather than to praise and honor God.

 

As we return to our bulletin, the next heading is a time of confession…

 

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

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!”

 

How many of you have had worship moments where you felt God’s glory filling the room?

Maybe it was during a hymn being sung or a scripture passage or some moment of prayer… whatever it was, in the presence of God’s glory we can feel so uplifted and close to the Lord.

But the flip side of being in God’s presence is realizing just how NOT like God we are.

When Isaiah stood there in the temple with the hem of God’s robe surrounding him and the seraphim singing and the sound of it all so overwhelming that the door frame shook… he felt pretty small.

Instead of trying to prove ourselves to God, like King Uzziah, instead of trying to stand on our own righteousness, true worship is a time to confess who we really are – both individually and as a community.

Confession is a time to lay bare the truth about ourselves. It is a time when we don’t have to pretend. It is a time when we are forced to see difficult truths about ourselves we might not otherwise admit.

We are human. We are weak. We are selfish. We need the Lord.

 

And in worship, we experience the Lord our God.

 

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

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

 

After we stand before God, vulnerable, open, knowing fully who we are and how not like the Lord we are, we hear God’s word proclaimed.

You are forgiven.

I love you.

I have a job for you!

Now… these might seem like simple words – and they are! – but they are also words we proclaim in our time of worship in a hundred different ways.

Through song and scripture, through the cross above us, through our actions and bodily motions, through painting and dance, through sermons and images, through the smell and taste of Holy Communion, through the touch of a neighbors hand or the smile on a strangers faice, through a burning coal that touches our lip and makes us clean… This is the gospel that is proclaimed over and over and over again:

You are forgiven. I love you. And I have a job for you!

 

You see, in the very same moment God is helping us get over the past and our failings and weakness, God is getting us ready for the future God has planned.

In the words of Anne Lamott – God loves you right where you are and loves you too much to let you stay that way.

And when we come face to face with God in Christ, we hear that message, too. When we are touched by Christ in the breaking open of the word, we are forever changed.

Worship, therefore, is a time when we let God set the agenda, rather than barging in to tell God what we think, as King Uzziah did.

Finally, we respond in faith.

 

I said, “I’m here;

send me.”

God said, “Go…”

 

When we open ourselves up and let God in, when our lives start to change – then we can’t help but respond to God’s call.

In our response to God’s word, we begin to realize that it is not about us. Isaiah’s plans don’t matter anymore.

His problems and failings don’t matter any more

The money he was saving to buy a new donkey doesn’t matter anymore.

When God asks, Isaiah responds – Yes.

 

In worship, we respond to God’s invitation with prayers. We lift up our own lives and those of others that God has called us to care for.

In worship, we respond by offering our whole selves in love and service and by giving back even a piece of what we have been giving.

In worship, we hear hymns that call us back into the world that is full of darkness and dread with a renewed strength and a word of hope.

In worship, we are sent out into the world, not alone, but with the Holy Spirit as our guide.

 

 

 

 

Prayers from the wreckage

I’ve been following the Lenten prayer prompts from Faith and Water for these forty days.  I’m a bit late and doing some catch-up, but the spirit is there.

Isaiah 10:21 (NRSV): “A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God.”

Life breaks us into pieces. To those seasons of our lives, Isaiah brings amazing good news: God only needs pieces to rebuild the whole.

Holy God. Whole-ly God.
There is a shattered place.
A land at war.
A house divided.

Brother turns against brother.
Neighbors who are anything but.
Broken remnants of relationship are all that remain.

God, I know my part.
I know my silence.
I know my anger.
I know my action and my inaction.
I have watched it fall apart and have felt helpless to stop it.

Maybe what I’m feeling is what the sons and daughters of Jacob felt so long ago.
Broken.
Confused.
Angry.
Scared.
Looking at all the land… crumbling around them.

A remnant will return.
Pieces are enough.
Whole-ly God, you take our broken pieces and make us whole.
You take this broken world and create life.
You speak good news into our midst.

Help me, O God, to hear a word of hope.
Help us to see light in the darkness.
Help us to pick up broken pieces.

Show us where to begin.

Strength for the Weary

This morning, I have 13 reasons why I am a little bit tired and weary.

First of all, it is only 6:15 in the morning Hawaii time.  It took me about a week to get myself on Pacific time, and time changes are always more difficult when you head east.  This time next week, I’ll be operating on central standard time once again… hopefully =)

 My other twelve reasons can be summed up in this one picture.

 Last night we had a mini-lock-in to prepare for SouperBowl Subday and we had 12 awesome young people here to help out.

After two hours of work – slicing, cutting, stirring, scooping and sandwich making – we had a couple of hours of games to play and finished with worship and communion at midnight.  It was a fun evening!

After getting all of the hard work done, we played JESUS bingo for prizes, had an indoor snowball fight… with all of that scrap paper and played a rather disgusting game of “Chubby Bunny.”

I want to thank everyone who has ordered subs and soup for today.  All the money we raise from the food is going to help continue ministry with these young people and to send us on our mission trip this summer to the Twin Cities in July.

So those are my thirteen reasons for being weary this morning… but as the scripture reminds us, I have one very good reason for being strong…

28Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.29He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Will you pray with me?

 

Before we dive into the meat of today’s readings, I want to give you a little background on this passage from Isaiah.

Isaiah was a prophet of Judah, or the southern part of what used to beIsrael. After King David died, thekingdomofIsraelwas basically split into two. The green part on this map shows the part which was known asIsraeland the purple shows the southernkingdomofJudah.

Isaiah is called upon by God during a very difficult time in the history of the faith.  You see, all God wanted from the people was for them to follow Him.  To trust in Him.  To let Him be the King of their lives.  But both of these kingdoms had said – No thank-you, Lord… we are going to do it yourself.

This is the God of all creation!  This is the one who sets the stars in the sky and raises up nations and kings! This is the one who had brought them victory and had given them thelandofIsraelin the first place!  And they turned their backs on him.

As a result, God let them fall.  AndIsrael, this green portion on the map, has just been conquered by the Assyrians.  They have been wiped off of the map and out of history.

And the word of God that comes to Isaiah is this:  I am the God of all creation.  I am everything that you need.  Tell the people ofJudahthat if they don’t start to follow me, if they try to trust in their own might, they will only find ruin.

For 39 chapters, Isaiah carries this word to the people ofJudah.  He warns them.  He pleads with them.  All he has to do is point to the north and remind them of what happened to their neighbors.  But his words fall on deaf ears.  And disobedience has its consequences.  God sends the Babylonians in and the kingdom of Judah is conquered.

But here is the really important part.  God does not forget the people in exile.  He sends Isaiah to them again, this time with a message of comfort and hope.  From chapter 40 on, the whole feel of this book of scripture changes.  Now that the people realize that they can’t do it on their own… now that they realize how futile it is to try… now that they are at rock bottom… God is right there, offering strength and hope and life.

Yes, Isaiah reminds us that even young people like myself will faint and be weary if we try to go on our own.  We will fall absolutely exhausted by the side of the road.  Simple youth is not a prescription for strength.  Military might will not save us.  Protein shakes  and lifting weights will not build the kind of muscles that we need here.

If we want to be spiritually strong and whole and full of life the only place that we can turn is the Lord.

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The question that I really wrestle with is: what does it mean to wait?

After all, that seems to be the key to that verse of scripture.  Those who wait for the Lord…

Does it mean that we sit quietly and patiently?  That we stop everything else we are doing and just see what happens?

Not at all.

In fact, the Hebrew word for “waiting” is the same as the word used for twisting – like making a rope.  (It is not a passive state, but one of tension as you are being worked on. It also means to expect, gather, look patiently, tarry, wait (for, on, upon) and bind together. (from Lindy Black)

Blogger Lindy Black asks – Is it possible that waiting on the Lord is more than just passing time?  Is waiting on the Lord also being open and available to the will of God?

There is the old joke about the man who prayed to God that he might win the lottery… but he never went out and bought a ticket.

If we dive deep into what this word “wait” means… it is not passive, it is active, expectant, full of hope and tension as we not only wait for God to act, but we also wait upon the Lord in service and worship.

I have quite a few friends who are pregnant right now, and as they “wait” for these new lives to come into the world – they can tell you that waiting is not passive.  It is painful.  It is full of uncomfortable moments. But in the midst of it all, your life and the life of that child are one.  What you eat matters. What you drink matters. How you move matters.  A relationship is formed in the process of the waiting.  Your life and their life is bound together – it is entwined.

That’s how it should be when we wait upon the Lord… our life becomes entwined with God’s as we serve him… as we are bound together… and in the process, his strength becomes our strength – he takes our single cord and with others in the church we are made into the many… we are made strong.

[retell the story of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law – a woman who found her strength and her salvation… what is the first thing she does?  She serves.]

In her book “On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross,” Megan McKenna talks about this amazing act of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law:

I am often amazed that this last line offends many, especially women, who may cynically respond, “That’s why she was healed, to be a servant to the men.” But they have missed the meaning of the phrase “to wait on them,” which is the term used for a deacon. She “ministers” to him, just as the “angels ministered to him” during his time in the desert. Jesus has gone out to Simon’s mother-in-law in her disease and grasped her by the hand for the victory of justice. In gratitude for his taking hold of her and giving her life to do his work, she responds wholeheartedly. Now the first four followers of Jesus become five in number.

I think her strength comes not only from the healing power of Jesus.  Her strength comes from the fact that she is serving Jesus.  That she has bound herself to him.  That she has let him come into her life and now it is Christ’s strength that flows out of her.

Suzanne Guthrie writes:

Peter’s mother-in-law is lifted up, as in the Resurrection… And she begins to serve – just as the apostles are sent out… She is the church’s first deacon. She announces the Gospel by her action. Healed, transformed, and readily at service she slips into her role as easily as if her life-time had prepared her for it… She serves, like Jesus himself… She receives the Light into her home, she is raised up by the Light, the Light shines through her as she ministers to others.

That is what we are also called to do.  Whether we are old or young, rich or poor, weak or strong.  To accept the light of God into our life and to let it transform us and give us strength.

What Isaiah was trying to teach the people of Judah is that our power has nothing to do with us.  Our power is God’s.  Our strength is the Lord’s.

those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

my good deeds are like a tampon…

In this week’s lectionary readings we find a prayer from Isaiah 64.  The tide has turned in Isaiah’s (or second Isaiah’s) thoughts and no more are there promises of destruction… now there are promises of salvation and pleas for God to act.

“If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Isaiah cries. 

It is a lament, for Isaiah looks at himself and at his people and knows why God is not answering.  The people have sinned and turned their backs.  So God is waiting. 

As I read this prayer today with my lectionary group, I was unprepared for the next line in the scripture.  As I remember the translation there was always something about filthy rags… but as I read along in my new Common English Bible, the verse leaped off the page:

“We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag.”

To be unclean – ritually unclean – means that a person is temporarily unsuited to take part in holy activities like prayer, sacrifice, fasting, etc.  Temporary is the key word there.  A ritual impurity, such as that caused by contact with bodily fluids or menstruation, are not permanent states of being. 

In order to become clean again… a ritual washing is required.  Sometimes just the hands, sometimes full emersion.  But washing none the less.

When Isaiah uses this concept in the passage, he is connecting the hearts of the people to their worship.  He is connecting a physical reality to a spiritual one.  Because of their sins, they have defiled themselves.  God doesn’t want them in the presence of the divine right now.  Like it will later say in Malachai 1:10 –

“Who among you will shut
the doors of the templec
so that you don’t burn something
on my altar in vain?
I take no delight in you,
says the LORD of heavenly forces.
I won’t accept a grain offering
from your hand.”
When our lives are filled with sin, good deeds mean nothing. They can’t earn us a place in God’s heart.  In fact, the hypocrisy of them only serves to anger our Lord more, because they cover up the truth… that we need to be washed clean. 
That we need to be transformed from the inside out.
That we need our Holy Potter to take our misshapen clay and to form us once again. 
Come, Holy God, tear open the heavens and wash us clean.

fasting in secret, doing justice in the daylight

Last night in Disciple Bible Study, we very timely read the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew.

As a class, we wrestled with the implications of such contradictory phrases:  being salt and light, letting the whole world see the witness of our life – vs – praying and fasting and even almsgiving in secret.
How can we be witnesses for the Kingdom of God if everything we do is secret?
I’ve often loved the familiar quote by St. Francis of Assisi – Preach the gospel, use words if necessary.
We are supposed to be salt, flavoring this world for the Kingdom… but do it in secret?
It has always seemed strange to me that as we put ashes on our foreheads on this holy day and walk back into the world, we read the gospel:

And go out into the world to feed the hungry and to weep with those who mourn; to share your bread and to rejoice with others. And do it not for any heavenly reward… but do it because the Lord loves them. And do it because YOU love them too.

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them (Matthew 6:1)
Yet as we wrestled, clairty started to find us.

We created a distinction between our personal piety: our prayer life, our fasting, our giving and realized that those aspects of our piety have nothing to do with other people.  It is not done for others, it is done for God.  No one else needs to know what we have given up, what we sacrifice, what time we have spent with the Lord.  It is not for them… it is for God.


On the other hand, this same God reminds us that the fast he chooses is a life lived out in public:


Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  (Isaiah 58:6-7)
These actions have to be done in the world.  You can not do them from the quiet of your closet. 

God is calling us to both personal and social holiness, public and private repentance, transformation of heart and mind and soul and body.


As a Wesleyan, these two make perfect sense together.  Love God, love your neighbor. 

Fast and study and pray and worship, not for any reward but just to spend time with your Lord.