Have you not known? Have you not heard? Those who have made it to my blog and those who pay attention sometimes to my prayer before the sermon understand that I have a great fondness for Isaiah. It probably comes a no surprise to them that I chose to preach on Isaiah the first time it came up in our readings together, though some of you sorely tempted me to look at Mark today. Before I tease a few of you, let me make myself clear: I love, absolutely love, when people take the time to come in or call and really discuss any sermon or lecture that I give. I know it drives some of my Roman counterparts nuts, but we Episcopalian/Anglicans like a good argument. For all the wrestling we do with God, Jacob should be our patron saint! I tell people that it is sometimes challenging to get a point or two across with no misunderstanding in only fifteen or twenty minutes. We come from different experiences, we have different foundational understandings, we priests can get caught up in stuff that bothers us but not our congregations, and things like that. When sermons make sense or are considered powerful, it simply means the Holy Spirit showed up! When they don’t make sense, there is a problem. As a pastor, the only way I can ever address a problem is to learn that there is a problem. Sometimes the fault lies with the priest and his or her communication or discernment; sometimes, though, the listener gets a spiritual wedgie for a good reason. Our conversations, I hope, help me to express better what I was trying to say and for those of you visiting to understand better what I think God is saying to you—at this time in your life, at this place in your spiritual journey with Him.
That all being said, and y’all just knew there had to be a “but,” several of you came by to try and figure out what I meant by spiritual warfare in light of the reading from Mark last week. A couple were disappointed to learn that I believe there is a battle raging around us that we usually cannot see. Most, though, were simply trying to reconcile what they had been taught about such things with the fact that Jesus sure seemed to teach the demon as real last week when He cast it out. As you all are getting to know me and how I work, and as some of your chuckles acknowledged, I was sorely tempted to do another sermon on spiritual warfare this week on Mark. Sorely tempted. It’s in there, right? Those interested can just visit again this week for round 2!
Isaiah’s passage represents some of his best poetry in the entire book. Those who have studied the book understand that it is rather large, comprising some 66 chapters! And, in the infinite wisdom of our lectionary editors, we jump right into the fray in chapter 40. It is actually a rather good place in which to jump as we begin to wind up this season of Epiphany. Isaiah is speaking to a group whose Exile is about to end. Israel has spent the better part of fifty years in Exile. World powers of the time, Persia, Babylon, and Assyria, had taken their turns beating up on Israel and leading the people, God’s supposed people, into Exile. I have explained how many in the ANE thought that events on earth reflected the cosmic battles of the heavens. To any discerning mind, Yahweh lost a big battle to the gods of Persia, Babylon, and Assyria. His holy city was in ruins. His Temple was torn down completely. The vineyards and farms lay fallow. His people had been carried off into Exile and slavery. If Yahweh really was whom Israel claimed Him to be, they would be resting comfortably in their own homes, in their own lands, and worshiping Him in His Temple!
We understand that kind of mockery, right? Have you ever heard someone question whether “your God” was loving and just and good? People will wonder why there is cancer, natural disasters, crime, racism, all kinds of evil if God is really good. To better challenge us, they will often point out His perceived shortcomings in our lives. If your God loves you, why do you have financial problems? If your God loves you, why do you struggle with disease? If your God loves you, why does He let people stab you in the back at work? If your God loves you, why are your relationships so screwed up? And, let’s face it, we earn many of those challenging questions. How many times have you seen Christians declare they don’t worry about such things because they have found Jesus? Yes, our world is not much different than the world in which Isaiah ministered.
You would think, would you not, that the ending of the Exile would take care of all the problems facing Israel? God’s people are about to head home! All their problems are solved, right? As Isaiah will mention immediately following our passage, there is a lot of work to be done. Jerusalem must be re-settled and rebuilt. Farms must be plowed. The Temple must be rebuilt. Being returned to the Promised Land, really, is just the beginning of their work. It is so bad that when the Exile is officially ended, the Jews will bless those who make the choice to return and do the work. Israel blessed those who left the Exile first! To complicate matters a bit more, the rebuilding will be but a shadow of the former glory. Ezra/Nehemiah will tell us that the elderly will wail over the size of the new Temple because it is nothing like the Temple that was torn down. So there will be this blending of youthful excitement over the accomplishment and elderly rue over failed comparisons. Have you not known? Have you not heard?
In many ways, our baptism inaugurates a similar set of emotions in us, particularly if we are engaged in what other denominations call “believer baptism.” There is excitement over the impending rite. Families and friends will often come to the service to celebrate and show their support. We expect things to be different when that water is poured over our head or we find ourselves immersed in His death and raised into His Resurrection. But in many ways life seems to go on just as it did before. Diseases still assault us. Friends still betray or hurt us. Money remains an issue. Even if we really pour ourselves into discipleship, what happens? The more we learn about God, the more we learn how far short we have fallen! Think of the writings of your favorite saint or saints. You admire them and their life; they probably taught you that they were undeserving of God’s grace, that they had doubts, that there was still a lot of work to be done. Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Isaiah’s message to Israel is a great reminder for us in Nashville. We live in a world which struggles to convince us that we are crazy to believe in God. And even if there is a God, we are nuts to think He gives a whit about us. Isaiah captures that tension between the transcendence of God and the Immanence of God quite well. God is so big that He stretches the heavens over Himself like a canopy. His knowledge is such that he can name the stars. His existence is such that even the rulers of the great empires wither like stubble at a blast from His nostrils. We, human beings, must appear as little more than grasshoppers before His might and majesty. We hear and see the same arguments all the time. The Hubble Telescope is pointed at a dark square inch of the sky and what does it see? Hundreds of galaxies! Each with millions and billions of stars. Sociologists tell us that more human beings live on planet earth today than have lived combined in history. Nature, if you have friends along the coasts or living in the Northeast, seems out of control. And we have the audacity to proclaim God! And we proclaim not just a god, but The God who loves us, who came down from heaven and saved us! We proclaim God who holds all of that and even that unseen in His hand!
Like Israel, we need to be reminded about the character of God. Have you not known? Have you not heard? We gather each week to remind ourselves, through the Liturgy of the Word, of the saving, wonderful acts He has done. We gather each week to remind ourselves, in the meal we call the Eucharist, that God in His transcendence came down from heaven to incarnate a baby who would grow into the full stature of the man, the Adam, and obediently go to the Cross to save us. God is truly with us in ways ancient Israel could never have hoped or expected when they were in Exile. Unlike ancient Israel, you and I know, know, that the chains of sin and death which bound us have been broken. Death might reach out to grasp us, but it can no more hold us than can a pregnant woman stop the contractions of labor! He has claimed us. He has placed His seal upon us. He has sent us out into the world, to use Epiphany language, as manifestations of His love, His power, His hope. Like those returning to ancient Jerusalem, the task at hand is of immense size and scope. The hungry must be fed, the poor must be clothed, the broken need to be healed, the prisoners must be set free. Yet the Lord who gives us these tasks, the Lord who assigns us as workers, understands the size and scope and, even better, the need. And for that specific work He wants accomplished, He sends you and He sends me.
Were it not for those saving works, were it not for His voice, we would have no way of knowing that the God who created all that is, seen and unseen, cares about us. Isaiah is correct to point out that our significance should be like insects. Time and time again God has proven we are of infinitely more value and notice than an insect. And through the words of Isaiah, He is reminding us of that truth yet again. We may feel insignificant to the problem when sent by Him to feed the hungry in His name, we may feel utterly powerless when sent by Him to speak words of comfort into the lives of those who feel anything but special and loved by God, we may feel impotent when called to face any of the darknesses that try again and again to overcome His light in our lives, yet it is God who sends and God who equips us to manifest His glory in the world. God, throughout history, gives to His people whatever is needed to accomplish His will.
We spend a great deal of time in the season of Epiphany discussion our baptism, and rightly so. But as we begin to wind up the season and head to Lent, we are reminded, for just a moment, of the glory of our inheritance. Each week when we gather around that table, we eat of His flesh and drink of His blood mindful that we are His adopted children. That meal, brothers and sisters, is part of His pledge to us, a constant reminder that He wins in the end. I wonder, however, whether we consider the scope of the pledge He has made to us? The God who created all things and who sustains all things, has promised to share with us His eternal glory! Have you not known? Have you not heard? God desires nothing more than to share with those who are weak and weary of His strength. God desires nothing more than to share with those who are faint and fall exhausted of His renewal. God desires nothing more than to share with those who are dying of His eternal life. God desires nothing more than to manifest through you, you who are tired, you who are wearied, you who are exhausted, His glory in the world around us. And so He drafts men and women like you and me, ordinary, mistake-prone, amateurish, and whatever other weakness you would use to describe yourself, and uses us to accomplish great things in His name! That God who transcends time and space knows us. He knows our weaknesses. He knows our failures. He knows our sins. He knows our needs. Better still, He has promised that whatever we ask in His Son’s name, to His glory and His honor, He will bestow upon us. In that way He takes ordinary men and ordinary women, ordinary girls and ordinary boys, and makes saints in the lives of others. Have you not known? Have you not heard?
It is appropriate, as we begin to end this season and launch into Lent, that we remind ourselves of His promises and of His character. We are, to use the language of Isaiah and Ezra, those who have agreed to lead others to the Promised Land. We have, by virtue of our baptism and willingness to serve in His Name, committed ourselves to the growth of His kingdom. Our thankful service in response to our own salvation is to walk in the shadows, to serve in the shadows, proclaiming His hope and His peace and His love to a world often deaf to His offer. As He has throughout history, though, He promises that He will be with us, He will empower us, He will share His glory and power with us, that His will might be fulfilled. Have you not known? Have you not heard? It is an amazing thing, a wondrous thing, is it not? The God who fashioned all that you see, all that you know, has called you by name, just as He did those disciples on the shores of that sea. Like them, He has promised you that you will accomplish great things, miraculous things, in His name. And to make sure that you accomplish what He purposes, He has promised to share with you from all that He has! And that is but one of the offers we have to those who use the scope and seeming power of the darkness to question or mock what we do! Have you not heard? Have you not seen? Most of us gathered here have, and that is why we are here. Our job, our commission, is to tell and to show that others might hear and know of His power and His love!