Tuesday, January 18, 2011

His arrow in His quiver . . .

How can a good God allow such violence? How can you claim God is good and that you belong to Him when so many of you are sick or injured? If you really are His child, why doesn’t he heal you to prove that He exists and loves you? How can you (or they) be loved by Him, when you have no money, are unemployed, or (fill in the blank)?—We have, over the course of the last few days, heard many of these questions and others like them. I know I have heard questions like these, and I have heard people asking some of you over the course of the past few days.

The shootings in Arizona have certainly weighed on the minds of many people in America. We have this incredible need to know the reason “why” such acts are committed. As rational beings, we believe in cause and effect, and we seem always to want to shoehorn events into causes and effects. What could have caused a man to act like this? Harsh language—let’s blame that, never mind that many of us are cussed at or given the finger as we go about life, and most of us will never respond as did he.

In our neighborhood, of course, we are dealing with the death of a battered woman. The crime itself was bad enough (he ran her over with his car repeatedly), but to think that it happened despite the authorities being alerted to the danger unnerves many of those around us. Why was he released from jail? Why did she seem to find batterers? How did they seem to be able to find her?

Those in orbit of our church have noticed our deteriorating health in spite of our discussions about adoption, empowerment, and glorification. “You guys went forever with nobody sick, and now all of you are breaking down or getting sick. Heck, some of you are getting diseases that the doctors can’t figure out. And you want us to believe that God loves you and us?” And they are correct. I went almost a year-and-a-half without a hospital visit. Now, I am lucky to make it a week. To outsiders, we might look crazy for thinking we are loved by God, at least their expectation of such affection.

And, my favorite conversations centered around Community Meal this week. It was our first visit since the Christmas dinner. Larry, Charlie and I were peppered with questions. “You really think God cares about us?” “Why would you waste that much money on people like us?” But my favorite conversation was with horseradish man. I call him that because that is what we forgot last month. I asked everyone last month if there was anything we could have done to make the meal perfect. Most everyone grunted and shook their heads no, but one man had an idea. This is the guy whose buddy punched him in the arm really hard to show him he was not dead or dreaming, just to remind you of whom I am speaking. Anyway, he answered me with horseradish sauce. We had totally spaced the horseradish sauce with the prime rib. After a brief apology, we moved on. Apparently, he caught flack from everyone. He felt the need to corner me and apologize to me on Wednesday. I reminded him that I had asked and he had answered. He did not act or sound remotely ungrateful. “Well, why I have you cornered, can I ask one more question? Do you believe what you prayed, and do you think people like me get to come?” It sounded like two questions to my ears, but I asked him to explain.

Truthfully, I had forgotten what I prayed. But he remembered that I had beseeched God to make the meal an appetizer worthy of the wedding feast to which He calls all of humanity. It sounded good and like something I would say, and I told him that. I told him to sit and we could continue this conversation over his meal. While he ate, we spoke of God being a way better cook than all of us who labored to make them a wonderful Christmas meal. He is, after all, the Creator of all things, seen and unseen. If anyone knows the right spices and right amounts to use at such a meal, it would be Him. And we spoke of wedding feasts, their history and imagery in the Bible. And once that was finished, we were able to get to the real darkness in his life.

For years now, he has been unable to get a decent job. For the past few months, he has bounced from shelter to shelter and friend to friend. It is hard being older and unemployed, but not old enough to retire. It is hard to feel loved, especially by God, when you know what you have lost and see so many with it, and unaware of those going without in their midst. His friends used to try and help, but there was only so much that they could do. Is it true? How can I know? Are you sure it applies even to me? My divine appointment that night was to remind him that His love is true, that all it takes is faith, and that the cross and empty tomb stand as stark reminders both of His love and His power to accomplish all His promises.

Our conversation ended with a thank you both for me and the entire parish. As he teared up and hugged me again, he told me that we had given him the single best gift he had ever received in his life. He wanted to thank all of us for giving him hope in the form of a meal at a time when it seems most acute to him that the world and God have forgotten him. When I asked him if he was just forgetting the good times, he replied that it was the lost good times which caused him to treasure all the more the meal we had prepared and to cling to the hope that God had promised him in the future.

Brothers and sisters, those are just the highlights of my week. What are yours? Where were you used by God to help others understand the true worth of grace and the unparalleled value of His promises? Who was the family member or friend that dogged you for coming to church or for supporting church more than he or she thought you should? Who was the co-worker who asked you why your and your Christian friends still get sick, still lose jobs, maybe act like hypocrites when we claim to be adopted by God? Who in your life snorted when you said you would pray for them or their concerns? I bet it happened, if you will only think about it. Isaiah reminds us of that it will and it does.

In one sense, the passage is about Isaiah and his recognition of the ministry to which God had called him. Think of poor Isaiah. He ministered almost 2800 years ago. It was his calling to tellJudah not to depend upon Assyria but to depend upon God. He got the unenviable job of proclaiming to God’s people that they were not keeping the covenant. Better still, he got to tell them that God would keep the covenant by kicking them out of the land. And, just when things would look to be hopeless and utterly destroyed, He would destroy it once more for good measure. Then, and only then, when things looked totally devoid of hope, God would act. A shoot would sprout from the stumps. Hope would arise from destruction. And God had called Isaiah to this ministry even before he was born.

In another sense, Isaiah is prophesying the arrival of God’s messiah. Just as God had promised to Sarah and Abraham, God had declared to His Anointed that through Him the world would be reached. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” As Paul will explain, drawing upon the covenant made with Abraham and Sarah and upon the prophet Isaiah, Jesus will represent the ultimate fulfillment of His promises. The world will be forced to acknowledge Him. Some will reject Him; some will despise and abhor Him; others will fall down in worship of Him. But the whole world will be taught God’s salvation through Him.

In one last sense, however, this passage of Isaiah from today is fulfilled in your life. Before you were born, He called you! He has made you like a sharp sword in His hand and an arrow in His quiver. If you will let Him, He will use you to glorify Himself and draw others into His saving embrace. It is you He has placed in situations full of darkness, and it is within you that the light of His Son burns. That light is within each one of us, who knows what it means to have been forgiven and to have been redeemed and to know the need for hope. It is not something that wells up of its own accord or our efforts but rather is the result of that gift of grace, the result of that peace which passes all human understanding, and drives us to share with others in the joy of His salvation! And it is this gift of grace which impels us to give food and hope to the hungry and hopeless, to give comfort and strength to sick and needy, and to proclaim freedom and release to those enslaved and those who would enslave others. Brothers and sisters, this is the prophesy of your life in Christ! It is too light a thing that you should hang out only here with His people your brothers and sisters. Rather, He has called you as His ambassador to proclaim His Gospel wherever you go and to whomever you meet. And He has promised you and me that kings and princes and powers shall prostrate themselves because of His faithfulness and because He has chosen each one of us! And so, brothers and sisters, He has sent you into a world armed with the certainty of your faith and wizened by the comfort He has brought you in difficult situations to be His mouthpiece of truth and to be His hands in loving service. And because it is Him whom you serve and Him whom you love, your labors will never be in vain, your strength will not be wasted. Even should you die in Him, still will your receive your reward. What else is the empty tomb but a promise of that?



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