The Sunday Sermon: Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 20, 2019
Scripture: Isaiah 62:1-5
The Lord Delights in You
This is the way the Spirit has moved. Through Advent last December we plumbed the depths of our own sacredness:
We, too, are the Word made flesh. We are bearers of the Sacred that existed before Time.
We, too, are Mary and Joseph. We are the parents of the anointed ones, charged with caring for the nurture of Love in the world.
We are the Shepherds – and by extension, the Innkeepers, the angels, the Magi, and all who are a part of the parable of Christ’s birth. We are the heralds, the deniers, the worshippers, and the keepers of the story of God on earth.
We, too, are the anointed ones. Pray with me …
I have no way of knowing how deeply those messages from Advent this past year have landed on any of you. My guess is they’ve been mostly set aside, since Advent and Christmas is over for another year. But I also guess that our remembering, our acknowledging, or our professing it doesn’t change who we were created to be. We’ve done a very thorough job since about the fourth century convincing ourselves that we are far less. Original sin, total human depravity, and an all around low anthropology have kept us not only personally suspect, but doctrinally certain, that we are “worms.” It’s more than a bit conspiratorial to suggest that “institutional authority” (i.e. the Church) benefits from keeping humanity scared, guilty, and fearful. But all that is exactly opposite what the one who accepted his divinity, his anointed nature, taught and lived.
I understand we, as human beings, have a lot of work to do. We’re a long way from the Garden. But I don’t articulate our humanity as the central problem. It’s our inhumanity that has messed so much up. Our refusal to accept responsibility for what we’ve done, for who we’ve marginalized, and for where we’ve wound up in the world is our problem. Perhaps it’s not who we are, but who we’ve become that is the problem.
So this month, the month after the reminders and assurances of Advent and Christmas, we’ve turned to our scripture to engage the questions we are still asking. If we can even begin to accept that we, like Jesus, are God’s Beloved, too, then Who are we that God would anoint us? And we’ve found some responses in, of all places, the Old Testament! That bearer of the wrath of God, the right Hand of God that subdues all enemies, the conveyor of hellfire and damnation for those opposed to the will of the Almighty: The Old Testament. All the challenges to and the confrontations of humanity are past of these writings, but there is so much more. There is Gospel in the writings of our first Testament. And we’ve found a seam in the prophet Isaiah.
On epiphany we read from the sixtieth chapter of Isaiah, hearing our instruction in clear, staccato syllables: Arise, shine! Through the words of old we were assured of our Christmas miracle: God is “with us” and at our Communion table we were reminded that God is “in us.” What remains is for us to take our place, like Jesus before us, as the Light of the world. Still we wonder: Who are we that God would anoint us? Why would God choose us?
Last week we found a response in Isaiah forty-three. (Anyone remember what that response was?) “Because,” God says, “I love you.” We can’t hear those words enough, and we need to hear them more from one another. But when we hear them from the mystery itself, from the ancient sacred Love, itself, and are able to believe it, if only for a few fleeting moments or days, then we respond in uncommon ways. We open our minds, we open our hearts, we open our lives to deeper calls. Just maybe the message is getting through.
This morning, we hear more. From Isaiah sixty-two, we read of God’s “delight in us.” Listen for the Word of God to us, about us. Read Isaiah 62:1-5. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The Lord delights in us …
This is a fascinating passage. Our various commentaries on these verses in Isaiah put these words either in the mouth of God or in the mouth of the prophet. In either case, the message is clear to me: The Lord delights in us and will not rest until we delight in ourselves, as well.
I have to be careful no to lose you with too much historical background, but we are reading from a section of this book known as “Third Isaiah.” Chapters fifty-six through sixty-six are the work of an anonymous prophet writing after the exile in Babylon. Last week we read from chapter forty-three, Second Isaiah, whose words of comfort and consolation to a people in exile are, understandably, meant to revive a broken nation and a discouraged people. “Comfort, O Comfort my people,” Second Isaiah begins and sixteen chapters follow that make up some of the most beautiful parts of the entire Bible. As we turn from Second Isaiah to the sixteen chapters of Third Isaiah, we must be prepared for some sobering reflection.
Those who returned to Zion did not experience the fulfillment of the beautiful promises of prosperity, peace, and joy that Second Isaiah prophecied. The last third of the book of Isaiah describes hostility between rival groups in Judah, civil and religious leaders looking after their personal gain, and a court system full of corruption. It appears that these humans are up to their old ways once again – they … we … are being inhuman once again. Where will we find the word of God entering into these renewed realities?
I know where we expect to find God’s word to us: In condemnation and rebuke. We expect to find the words we more immediately attribute to the Old Testament prophets: Woe to you, O Israel … I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger … With my right hand I will kill all who take pride … It’s there: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Lamentations just to name a few. It’s there.
But it’s not here. It’s not in our reading this morning, even though we expect it. I mentioned earlier that several of my commentaries interpret this passage differently. I first read about these opening words in Isaiah sixty-two coming from the prophet’s mouth. The prophet Third Isaiah, whoever he may be, is addressing the people who have been full of hope from the promises of Second Isaiah but are now battling the terrible morale cause by broken dreams and crumbling faith. All are wondering if God is powerless to help them, or simply indifferent. In this context, the prophet doesn’t announce another promise and doesn’t speak to Israel, but rather he speaks to God, demanding that God do something about the situation: For Zion’s sake, I will not keep silent, says the Prophet … until her vindication shines … and her salvation burns. Until, in other words, you do what you said you would do, O God!
I get it. And to be honest, this was the most common interpretation, that the prophet is speaking these words on behalf of Israel, on behalf of us, demanding that the God who asks us to be faithful is faithful in return. I get it. And on another cycle, in another year or season, this may have been my own preference. But not this year, not this season.
We have heard of our own sacred call this season – to be God’s anointed, the parents of God’s Word, the shepherds of God’s field, the Beloved children with whom God is well pleased. We have questioned our worthiness and we have heard that God asks us to Arise and Shine, anyway. We have heard that God loves us in spite of our pathological desire to be less than who we were created to be. So this year and this season, I hear and proclaim God’s voice in the opening verses of Isaiah, chapter sixty-two.
In these verses, God speaks about speaking, surprising the men and women of the late sixth century BCE, and surprising us in the twenty-first no less. We who, for our continued bickering, back stabbing, and constant power grabs expect divine silence or no response from God at best, and divine retribution for our “inhumanity” at worst, but we hear instead more words of promise. If these are words in the mouth of God, then the reason God speaks is surely not for God’s own honor – we’re behaving dishonorably, shaming God once again. No, the reason God speaks is for our honor. God speaks for us, in spite of us: For your sake, I will not keep silent. For your sake I will not rest until you get it! I love you … I delight in you. Your vindication will burst out and your salvation will burn bright. God is not letting us go. God is fighting for us because God loves us and God delights in us and God believes in us.
I have no way of knowing how deeply the messages from Advent and Christmas this past season landed on any of you. My guess is they’ve been mostly set aside, since Advent and Christmas are over for another year. But I also believe that our not remembering, our not acknowledging, or not professing our God given holiness doesn’t change its truth.
Listen to our reading, hearing the voice of God speaking to us: You will no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate. It makes a difference for us to hear God saying this. Even if, even when, we give up on ourselves, God does not. God will not. With these words, from the mouth of God, Third Isaiah acknowledges the “historical devastation of the community,” exile for ancient Israel and our self-imposed exile from who we truly are. Third Isaiah admits that we have suffered and that we have lived in despair for a long time. But now … now everything is to change. And that change rests not in anything we must do beyond believing in our nature as God’s beloved. The change agent is not us. It is God’s enduring love for us.
There’s images of marriage that follow and that can be off-putting for many reasons, some very good reasons. But the imagery that this poetry uses is meant to evoke certainty and covenant relationship to a community struggling in conflict over who they are. This imagery of marriage and delight reveals God in the midst of it all, defending, protecting, and insisting on our special beauty, rejoicing over us, delighting in us … in spite of all we do to demean ourselves and make ourselves ugly.
This is the way the Spirit is moving this year, through Advent and Christmas, into the new year and in these weeks of this first month. “The Spirit blows where it chooses, we hear the sound of it, but we do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” All true. The question is, “Do we have the courage to follow it? To be all we were created to be?”
God is waiting. “God’s mercy lives forever. God’s love will keep us ever.” Will we ever believe it? I pray it may be so.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 20, 2019