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Archive for January, 2013

January 13, 2013

Text:  Isaiah 49:8-16

The Story, Ch. 16

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If you are reading through The Story with us, this is the part you probably don’t know so well.  It is easy to get bogged down with the unfamiliar names – and hard to see the big picture.  What’s happening here?

It isn’t hard to see that God’s people continue to wander away from God and refuse to follow God’s commands.  That part is pretty obvious throughout the Scriptures, isn’t it?  And I suppose we need not look much further than our own lives to see that the tendency to wander away from God continues.

This part of the story of Scripture is about what happens when we’ve wandered so far away that we can’t find our way back.  The prophet Isaiah – or deutero-Isaiah, second-Isaiah, as the author of Isaiah 49 is often called – is speaking to God’s people in exile, far from their homeland, under foreign rule and feeling hopeless.  All that is pure and holy in their lives is destroyed.  They feel abandoned and alone.

We’ve seen this before, of course.  The book of Genesis ends with God’s people oppressed by a foreign ruler – the Egyptian pharaoh – and far from their promised homeland.  Exodus describes their cries reaching God’s ears, and God delivering them from their enemies.  That’s the dominant portrait of God in the Old Testament:  a God who delivers, who saves, who frees.

So what about now?  Will God deliver the people again?  Especially when – this time around – it is their own stubbornness and sinfulness that led them to this place?  They have no one to blame but themselves!  What right do they have to cry out for God’s deliverance now?

Isn’t that just the worst place to be – caught in a misery and hopelessness of your own making?

Author Lauren Winner – I’ve referenced her before, some of you will remember – describes in her most recent book, Still, how she felt after a difficult divorce, for which she takes much of the responsibility.  She speaks of feeling God’s absence, God’s silence – and of feeling responsible for that absence.  It comes, she suggests, in three waves.  First, “You understand that the most straightforward explanation of this, God’s absence, is that you have sinned” (Still, 16).  This you can do something about; you can confess; you can promise to do better; you can scrutinize and explain away.

Then, she says, as time passes, you begin to think that it is not God who is absent at all, but you who are absent.  You think you need to just rediscover yourself, and then you’ll find God.  Still…you can do something.  You can travel, you can volunteer, you can paint or write or meditate.

But then – after more time passes – you have a frightening realization:  I cannot cajole God back.  You can do all you wish to turn yourself around, but there is nothing you can do to convince or compel God to return.  “God will return, or not, as the whims of God’s capricious grace direct” (Still, 20).  And you are pretty sure, by now, that you have no compelling claim upon God’s grace.

The Israelites have reached that moment of realization.  Isaiah the prophet tells them of the time of God’s favor, the day of salvation, and they respond only with:  “The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me” (49:14).  They simply can’t believe it is true.  Sure, God is a God who delivers, who saves.  But not us, not this time.  Will God really save us, even when the saving we need is from ourselves?  Will God deliver us from our own failures?  Surely not.  God has forgotten us.

But the prophet answers:  Can a nursing mother forget her hungry child?  Can a mother ignore the baby she carried in her womb for nine long months.

Now, we know that a mother can.  We know our human frailty.  We know that mothers sometimes battle postpartum depression or mental illness or just plain poor parenting skills – and they do forget, or even harm, their children.  But God?  Not God.  “Even if a mother could forget, yet I will not forget you,” the Lord says through the prophet (49:15).

And just in case – just to be sure – it continues, “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (49:16).  God not only will not but even cannot – by divine nature – forget or abandon God’s people.

Do you see the image here?  The text describes God as a tattooed mother![1]  What an unexpected – and beautiful – image of God caring for God’s people.  There is both a tenderness and a fierceness to God’s love – as tender as a nursing mother snuggling her infant and as fierce as a mother bear defending her cubs.  We are – already, and always – nourished by God’s care and engraved on God’s hand.

Lauren Winner was right.  We cannot cajole God back.  But we do not have to, because despite our fears, God has not and will not leave.  Lauren writes of one last wave of emotion that comes after you realize that you are solely “at the whim of God’s grace.”  Maybe, she writes, “Maybe this silence, this absence is a gift.  Maybe what began as punishment is being converted to gift…Maybe I am being shown something here…” (Still, 20).

What we are shown is that “our relationship with God is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up, precisely because we did not establish it.  We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go.”[2]

That’s the truth that Israel is shown through the prophet’s words.  They are not forsaken or forgotten.  God cares for them as a mother, and they are written into God’s very self.

What happens, then, when God’s people grasp the truth of that reality?  The prophet is pretty clear about that too:  They are called to share it with others.  Isaiah 49:8 says, “I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people…”

Now pause a minute and think of how often we heard ‘covenant’ language as we read through the Old Testament these past months.  Covenant is a powerful expression of the relationship between God and God’s people.  And for the people of Israel, the covenant was bound to the Temple and the promised land.  But the temple has been destroyed and the land is occupied by a foreign army.  How can the prophet speak of covenant now, in exile?

The answer is that the people themselves become the sign of God’s covenant with the world.  The forgiven, restored people of God become the sign, the proof, of God’s love.

That is our calling as a God’s people – to receive God’s love and share it with others.  The prophet suggests some ways we can do that:

  • By caring for the land – creation-care (49:8)
  • By saying to the prisoner “come out” – out of addiction, out of despair, out of fear (49:9)
  • By saying to those in darkness, “Show yourselves” – confronting sin, expecting truth from one another, offering forgiveness for failures brought into the light (49:9)
  • By feeding the hungry and providing water for the thirsty (49:10)
  • By comforting people who are suffering and comforting those who are grieving (49:10, 13b)
  • By proclaiming the good news that God’s peace extends to all nations, far and near, north, south, east and west (49:11-13a)

Those aren’t just abstract concepts.  We live them out when we…

  • create and tend to gardens (the memorial garden, the community garden)
  • host life-giving recovery ministries like AA and NA
  • share life together in covenant groups, where we can speak truth to one another
  • support local food pantries, 8th Avenue Place, and the Helping Hands fund
  • visit the sick, send a card or make a phone call to a grieving friend
  • share the ways we have experienced God – and invite others to worship, to Sunday School

We are given as a covenant to the people; God empowers us to share God’s love with others, and to join in God’s work of bringing hope and salvation to the world.  In the words of the hymn writer:

With promised mercy will God still

The covenant recall…

That we might worship without fear

And offer lives of praise…

My child, as prophet of the Lord,

You will prepare the way…

Please stand and sing those words, Blest Be the God of Israel, #209…


[1] See Terence Fretheim’s commentary at Working Preacher for more on maternal imagery for God in Isaiah.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=5/25/2008&tab=1

[2] (David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 1/6/13, http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=654)

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Battling the Blues

January 6

1 Kings 18 & 19

The Story, Ch. 15

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Any of you battling the post-holiday blues this week?  Yeah?  Well, you’re not alone.

I think the prophet Elijah could relate.  He’s got it bad!

Elijah has just experienced one of the greatest victories of his life.  It happened something like this:

The King of Israel – in Elijah’s time – was Ahab, a notoriously cruel man who not only treated his subjects harshly but also worshipped the false god Baal.  King Ahab, and his notorious wife Jezebel, were on a hunting expedition for – of all things – prophets (see 1 Kings 18:4).  Yes, that’s right, Jezebel and Ahab were hunting down the prophets of God and killing them off, one by one.

So, imagine being Elijah when he is summoned to the king’s chamber.  Elijah the prophet, called before the King who murders prophets.  Now I don’t know about you, but I think I would have run for my life – found someplace to hide – escaped across the border – anything to get away from the king!

But not Elijah.  No, Elijah not only goes to King Ahab’s palace, but he brashly challenges him to a dual!  He challenges the king to a prophetic showdown – a faceoff between Elijah, prophet of Yahweh God, and the King’s prophets of Baal.

King Ahab takes the bait.  He calls together 450 prophets.  They build an altar, prepare a sacrifice, and call upon their god to send fire down to consume the burnt offering.

Nothing.

They call again – louder, more insistent.  Elijah taunts them:  “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27)

Still nothing.

They dance, they beg, they cajole with all the insistence of a 2-year-old that WILL.NOT.STOP.WHINING.  (Trust me – that’s a lot of persistence.  I know of what I speak.)

And still nothing but some desperate prophets exhausted by their own antics.

So finally it is Elijah’s turn.  He builds the altar and prepares the sacrifice, just as they did.  And then, just to rub it in their faces a bit, he douses that altar with water.  Three times.  Until it runs down and forms a lake around the base of the altar.

Wait…wha..??  He throws water on the altar that is supposed to spontaneously combust?  Elijah must be ridiculously arrogant – or he is giving himself a convenient excuse if nothing happens when he calls out to Yahweh God!

But he needn’t have worried.  When Elijah prays to God, fire falls on the altar and burns not only the sacrifice, but the stones of the altar and water-drenched soil around it, too.  Elijah calls, and God responds!

The people who witnessed that fire could only stammer:  “The Lord – he is God!  The Lord IS GOD!”  And they fell on their faces in repentance before that charred altar (1 Kings 18:39).

That’s a pretty resounding victory for a prophet of God!

That all happens in 1 Kings 18.  But then we turn the page to chapter 19, and the tone changes.  There we find Elijah sitting under a tree, alone, praying again: “I’ve had enough, God.  I’m tired.  I’m scared.  I’m done.  Just take my life.”  (1 Kings 19:3-4)

Talk about the blues!

There is none of the bravado, none of the brashness of the day before.  Only exhaustion, and self-doubt, and apparently a desperate need for sleep.

You know what I love here?  I love that God answers Elijah’s prayer here just as quickly and decisively as he did the day before.  Only this time, the answer comes not in the form of fire, but in the form of sleep and food, silence and stillness.  Just what Elijah needed at that moment.

And then, when Elijah is ready to listen, God speaks.

Elijah, what are you doing here?

Hiding, God.  I’m hiding.  Because I’ve given my all to calling people back to you – used up my life warning them to repent – and they hate me for it.  They want to kill me!  So I’m done, God.  Why bother anymore?  I’ll just live out my remaining days here in this cave, where the phone can’t ring and the emails won’t ding and no one can find me.

Really, Elijah?  You really think that’s best?  Come here a minute.  I have another idea.

And then came wind – fierce, howling wind – and earthquake – and fire, more fire.  Then…silence.  And in the silence, a gentle whisper:

Elijah, go back.  You’re not done yet.  And you’re not so alone as you think, either.  Go find Elisha – he’ll be the Robin to your Batman.  He’ll stick with            you.  And you know what?  There are a lot more people who love me than you realize.  At least 7,000 of them in Israel alone.  They need to hear your message, need your voice to lead them to me.  So go on now.  Get back to it.

Go on and get back to it.  You know, when you hear the voice of God, it is wise to obey it.  And so Elijah goes on and gets back to it.

As we pick up The Story again this week, this episode from Elijah’s life reminds of several things.  It reminds us of the mess that the Israelites have found themselves in, and their frequent failure to seek God.  It reminds us that God uses people – like the prophets – to speak to us in the midst of everyday life.  It also reminds us that, despite human hard-heartedness, God will not desert us.  And it reminds us that the story continues – there are yet 7,000 who have not bowed to Baal – human sin does not have the last word.  All important things to remember at this point in The Story!

But in this particular episode of the wider story, I find it most interesting to trace the silence and the noise.  The prophets of Baal make a lot of noise.  Shrill, frantic noise that gets louder and louder the longer it goes.

The response they get?  Nothing.  Silence.  A deafening silence, the kind of silence that crushes their spirits.

It is a different kind of silence that greets Elijah’s prayer.  It is a deep, restorative silence.  The kind of silence that settles one’s spirit and makes space for you to clear your head and catch your breath.  A life-giving silence.

Eric Park, a United Methodist clergy colleague, wrote about this kind of silence on Christmas Eve.  Eric asks what it was that was silent about that “Silent Night.”

Probably not the animals in the stable, since animals can rarely be counted on for reverence. Probably not the owner of the stable, who was most likely voicing several loud questions about how long the strangers were going to occupy his property. Probably not the shepherds and angels, who were engaged in a rather noisy exchange. Probably not even the infant Christ, since newborns are known for screaming their way into the world that exists outside the comfortable womb. Perhaps we can describe it rightly as a “silent night” only because God’s willingness to become flesh had inspired nothing less than an astonished silence from the “cosmic powers of this present darkness [and the] spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). It was a silent night because the incarnated God had hushed the shrill dissonance that sin and death so consistently produce.

An awareness of God’s presence brings that kind of silence:  the silencing of the shrill dissonance of sin and greed and gluttony that dominate our lives and our culture, especially during the holiday shopping season.

So are you feeling a bit of the post-holiday blues this week?  You’re not alone.

Elijah’s story suggests that the best anecdote – the best way to restore our souls – is to get quiet before God.  To slow our frantic pace and turn away from the shrill demands of busy lives, and to tune our hearts to God’s presence with us.

That doesn’t just happen.  It requires us to intentionally set aside the things that usually fill our time and drain our energy, so that we can make time to be still before God.  It means we have to answer Elijah’s question:  “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)

I won’t tell you it is an easy choice.  But I do trust that if we choose to follow God – and to step back from the need to get more and earn more and win more often that usually dominates our lives – then the dissonance of sin will be silenced and we will hear God’s voice anew.

Let us pray…

 

 

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