Now, you all know me well enough to know that this week I wanted to preach on Philippians. It is not as rare as you might think, but whenever I can get a little shock value out of the language of the Bible, I tend to take it. Our translators chose to translate a word as rubbish rather than what it really means. Skubala is somewhere between crap and the s-word. Today would have been my opportunity to talk s-word at you all and you would have to sit and take it! Visitors have to be wondering what is going on now. They thought they were coming to a church, in the season of Lent no less!
As an aside, and as another one of those Rome stories that many of you complain I do not share enough, I have a water cooler story to share. I have no idea if the facts claimed are true, but I like to think they are. We would gather for snacks and coffee in the morning and wine and cheese in the afternoon while I was in Rome. Anyone who happened to be around and staying in the cardinal palazzo was also encouraged to snack or drink. That meant I got to hear the weirdest water cooler talk you can imagine. By water cooler talk, of course, I mean workers complaining about the boss. What made the situation odd was that every complainer was ordained, and the boss was Pope Francis. Picture priests, bishops, and cardinals gathering for a repast and griping about the old boss. Weird thought, is it not?
In any event, our reading for the day had included one of those “earthy” words or idioms. I cannot remember which word prompted the discussion, but one of the bishops or cardinals asked me how parish clergy handled the passage with their congregations. Now, I laughed. The idea that I am normal and representative of all parochial priests is crazy. I told the guy that. Then I proceeded to talk how I simply dive right in and preach what is being said, if I feel that where God is leading me to preach. I remarked how the language is shocking, but that how we Americans sometimes need our sensibilities shocked a bit. Naturally, they asked for some recent examples and I shared. I think the “dirty rags” shocked them the most. They are supposed to be celibate, so I am guessing they do not spend a lot of time discussing women’s menstrual cycles, or the consequences. Not only have I had to run that errand for my wife, but I have had to run that errand for daughters. You husbands know what I am talking about. I see the grimaces. That’s sort of how they responded. The talkative one of the group, after I had finished, gave me one of those “bah, you are as bad as the holy Father. He strolls around here in a white t-shirt with the words skubala happens in Spanish.” Wrap your minds around that image. I must say, I’d really like to believe it is true, but it may just be employees griping about the boss!
I may have wanted to preach on skubala, but God seems to have had other ideas. Oh, I may preach on the same crap, (get it?) but not as bluntly. Turn in your order of worship to our passage from Isaiah. Our reading comes today from the 43rd chapter of Isaiah. I’m going to guess, based on comments over the last year, that very few of us have spent much time studying the entirety of the book of Isaiah. By way of background, the passage for today comes from what experts call “Second Isaiah.” There has been great hash made of the number of authors and editors of this rather large book. One that I read this week complained that it had to be more than one author. Anyone reading the doom and gloom of the first 40 chapters could not help but notice the abrupt change in tenor. No single author, according to this commentator, could ever be so doom and gloom and so full of hope at the same time.
In truth, I do not care how many hands participated in the writing and editing of Isaiah. If the book is God-breathed, as we and the Jews would agree, then we are picking nits and guessing when we fight over who wrote what. Such arguments are good for those steeped in literary criticism, but they do little to satisfy us. As an aside, though, I will remind you that the role of a preacher is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Isaiah has the wonderful job of reminding Israel that God has been faithful to His covenant with them. They have ignored His instructions, they have chased after false idols, they have stolen from widows and abandoned orphans to their fates. In short, they have earned punishment they are experiencing.
For those who do not know or have forgotten the Covenant, God promised them that, so long as they kept the Covenant, He would bless them. The rains would fall. Their enemies would be unable to hurt them. They would be a blessed people. But if they persisted in chasing after idols and ignoring Him and His instructions, He would cause the Land to disgorge them. In effect, they would be ex-communicated! For them, possession of the Land was very much sacramental. It was an outward sign of their relationship to Yahweh.
Isaiah, in today’s reading, is writing sometime in the 600’s BC. Those of us who know history realize that Babylon has rolled through town. Part of the population has been carried off and dispersed throughout other parts of the Babylonian empire. Both those left in Israel and those scattered are simply too small in number to be a threat. ANE emperors would often scatter conquered peoples throughout their villages and cities. If one could not speak with one’s neighbors, it was incredibly hard to foment rebellion. And if the emperor was shrewd, he could play ethnic enemies against one another. In effect, the enemies would be more concerned with one-upping each other than their own freedom. It was a great way to subject people, and Babylon used the method well.
Israel, of course, wonders if the covenant is still in place. Has God finally abandoned them? The Exile was a bitter pill for Israel. We might think it far worse than slavery in Egypt. Before their time in Egypt, Israel was a small family, about 70 in number. They really had not tasted the potential blessings of being God’s people yet. Before the Babylonian captivity, however, Israel has been a moderately powerful nation. We would call them a regional rather than superpower today. David has conquered the Land. Solomon , at least for a time, led them in a period of incredible wealth. Then came the apostasy and abandonment of the covenant. Despite various warnings, Israel continues its own course. Then, God used Babylon to punish Israel for its sins, just as He had promised He would do. From the heights of David and Solomon’s rule, Israel has descended back into the depths of slavery in Egypt. Worse, they had been living the blessing. Now, they were knee deep in the curse.
Then comes the word of the Lord. We cannot read the first couple verses of this passage and not be reminded of the Exodus. God made the path in the sea; God wiped out Egypt’s army. We talked a bit last week about the Charlton Heston movie. When Egypt pens Israel up against the sea, what does Israel do to ensure its safety? Nothing! They walk on the dry path between the walls of water. God fights the battle for them. He keeps the chariots at bay until every last child or elderly person and their animals can cross the sea. Then, as the chariots come thundering across the path, He clogs their wheels. Think of the panic that should have happened. Can you imagining trying to outrun an army of chariots? I’d be dead in the first 50m. Me at 80 years? 2nd or 3rd step! We laugh, but God protects them all, and not a single sword is lifted by Israel in its own defense. God does everything! All hearing the words of the prophet Isaiah would be reminded of that incredible event. Some would even remember the manna, the water in the wilderness, the quail, and maybe even the sandals not wearing out.
No doubt the temptation would be to call upon God to do the same to Babylon. But God says to forget the former things; He is about to do something new. He will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor Him. Can they not perceive it?
We live in a world that seems every bit as chaotic as an Exiled Jew. Think on our church for a moment. We were a church that birthed presidents, Senators, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members, and ambassadors. Now? We are lucky if there are 450,000 people worshipping with us on any given Sunday. Our BCP and our services informed the powerful of this country. Now, we are smaller than the margin of error on any poll regarding Christianity. We cannot even move the needle on a Christian poll if we all vote the same way! How sad is that?
We comfort ourselves in many quarters by claiming that everyone else is shrinking too. All the mainline denominations are shrinking, so we think that excuses us for our own losses, or so we claim. Most of us gathered here together are now experiencing something new in this country. Fewer than half of respondents claim to be Christian. Think on that for just a second. When Pew Research, I think it was, did that first poll that put Christianity in the minority in America, they let people self-identify. They did not go to pastors and ask us to say who is in and who is out. They let Americans choose whether they thought themselves in or out. And some 54% of respondents said they were not Christian. Ironically, new immigrants had a net positive effect on that number. At least we are welcoming them in all corners with open arms, right?
And, lest we be tempted to pick on the larger denomination and pat ourselves on the back, look around this sanctuary. How does the number of those present stack up against the numbers of five years ago? Ten? Twenty? Advent is, in some ways, a shadow of herself. We have forgotten our heritage and our mission, and people have drifted away! Oh, we might want to blame the low attendance today on “Springing Forward” last night, but let’s be honest. We Sprang Forward in years past, too. We have mirrored the decline of the larger denomination far too well.
What about politics? You know, when I settled on this passage last week, the Chicago protest had not yet happened. We are a nation that has produced the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, Martin Luther King, and this is the best that we can do? We have some 350 million people upon which we can draw, and these candidates for the presidency are the best we can do? What happened to us? When did we become so rabid in our politics that we began choosing from the fringe? Rabid Republicans are confident that we will be ill served by either Senator Sanders or Secretary Clinton, if either of them win the fall election, right? Quit laughing. Rabid Democrats are just as thrilled at the prospect of a Trump or Cruz presidency. I can joke that we know a politician is lying because their lips are moving, and no one defends their candidate. Why? We have all grown fat and cynical with respect to our politicians.
What about personal chaos? Some of us are burdened by the cares of life that we pay no attention to the wider concerns of the world. How many of us are struggling in fights against various diseases? Some of us have hearts that are failing. Some of us are losing our eyesight. Too many of us are fighting cancer. Some of us are fighting questions of provision. We may pretend that there is no pressure to keep up with the Joneses here in Brentwood, but how many of us have hid our worries from our brothers and sisters? At least our relationships with one another and with others in our lives are as strong as ever. Can you imagine if we had to deal with failed marriages, tough parent-child relationships, squabbling sibblings, or jerks at work or on the roads? Boy, things would really seem out of control then.
Yet it is into those messes, and others that I have left unnamed today, that He speaks. We are so busy in the chaos, do we stop to listen? Can we see? I think we forget who it is we are called to cast our cares; I think we sometimes think we have to solve our own problems. Maybe it is just the hustle and bustle makes us deaf and blind to Him and His movement in our lives. . .
That’s part of my job, right? To remind you all that He is still at work in all your lives? Part of our problem is that we want Him to do things our way. We like to think we know what is best and forget who it is we are called to trust. One of my favorite examples centers around a lady who was struggling with provision. She came to me mad that God had abandoned her in her time of need. She explained the need and how she needed a winning lottery ticket or inheritance to cover the bill. As we chatted, she shared how there had been some small provisions. Her insurance company had issued a rebate check for overpayment or safe driving. The IRS had discovered she’d paid a couple hundred dollars to much a year or two earlier. A loved one had given her a $100. As she went on bemoaning God’s forgetfulness, I stated that which you are all thinking. I asked her how much of these little provisions she had received. All told, she was within $60 or so of her need. I pointed that out to her. She disagreed. That was just the world at work. Yes, in my world both the IRS and Insurance companies are renowned for their generosity. Both are famous in my world for giving back money.
Like you and me she wanted the splash. She wanted that great winning ticket or me to be flush with discretionary funds or a stranger to cover the bill in a pay it forward movement. What she had gotten was what she needed, and it did not cost a loved one a death. She just wanted the huge sign, as if the IRS and Insurance were not like stones rolled away from an empty tomb!
Many of us long for the great signs of power. Who does not want to see the ocean divided in two, water turned to wine, manna waiting on us every morning, or see the Resurrected Jesus? We long for those powerful miracles of the dead rising, disease being healed, the blind having sight restored, the demonic cast out, and the storms of our lives calmed. What we should be longing for, though, is God. As He reminds us in the brief passage, He gives water in the desert. He makes paths in the wilderness. He is the One who forms His people for Himself, that they, you and I, might declare His praise.
The call in Isaiah is not one for the purpose of looking for the big miracle, though that can happen at times. No, indeed, the call is to remember who it is that calls us, forms us, cares for us, and loves us. That God has done and is capable of mighty things in our lives. But is that God who promises to do the new thing and still enable us to praise Him, if we perceive Him. Nothing about our Lord has changed. He is as immovable as we are moveable; as constant as we are haphazard; as faithful as we are idolatrous. And it is He who will see us through the chaos of our lives. He is not a God limited by the region of His people; heck, He not a God limited by anything of His people. He truly is Lord of all. And just as His mercy and love have seen His people through numerous governments, through rises and falls in the numbers of His people, through slavery and freedom, through health and disease, and even through untold natural disasters, His mercy and love will see us through whatever it is which befalls us in life.
Put in different terms, the God who saved us in the past will walk with us through the present even as He is ensuring our future with Him. And it is that relationship we share with Him that defines us, or rather should define us. In this the fifth week of Lent, we should be well aware of our need for a Savior. We should understand at a visceral level of our own inability to please God by ourselves. Our sins pollute us and stink as skubala in His nose. Though we rightly deserved our consequences for our sins, He came down from heaven. Though we rightly deserved death for our sins; He amazingly bore that cost for us. And though we might think ourselves separated from Him at our death, He demonstrated that amazing sign that we might know His power equal to His love and mercy. While the rest of the world is clucking its tongue and stressing about life’s chaos, you and I are called to remember the character of the Lord who saved us. Better still, we are called to share His love of us and His willingness to save everyone one of us with those not yet part of His family. That, my brothers and sisters, is perhaps the greatest miracle ever wrought, that He would use men and women and boys and girls like you and me to share His love. That, my friends, is truly a God worth all our praise!