The Sunday Sermon: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – February 3, 2019
Scripture: Isaiah 65:1-2, 17-25
This is What it Looks Like
On the liturgical calendar, the calendar that guides us through the seasons of the church, the new year begins about a month before the secular calendar new year. The Church New Year begins in Advent, which this past year began on the first Sunday in December. We heard a month of sermons, read a month of liturgy, and sang a month of hymns (familiar as the Advent and Christmas hymns are) that contained a bunch of “incarnational theology.” That’s not uncommon for Advent and Christmastime, of course. In fact that’s what Sunday services have always been about during Advent and Christmastime: The Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth who, depending on which Gospel you choose to follow, was the Christ “in the beginning”, or was revealed as the Christ at his conception, his birth, or his baptism.
What was different last Advent and Christmastime was my relentless insistence and insistent proclamations that the incarnation of God didn’t just happen, or only happen, in Jesus, but that we, too are incarnations of God; that Christmas is a reminder and a celebration of God incarnate not only then and there in him, but here and now in each one of us. The difference between Jesus and you and I is not one of kind, but of degree. Jesus accepted his identity as “God’s anointed” and lived his life fully (as fully, we say, as any human being has thus far lived). He loved his love wastefully, not counting the cost, and he had the courage to be … what? … all he was created to be. (Amen.)
The truth is, my relentless insistence and insistent proclamation continued through the Sundays last month, January, the first month of the new secular calendar year. I prefaced each of the past month’s sermons with a reminder of your and my incarnational identity. I’m sure some of you are saying, “Here he goes again. We’ve heard this sermon for two months now. He’s through the first page of his manuscript and he hasn’t gotten to anything new!” And you’d be right because that reminder, that prompt, set up the messages of January. And it’s setting up the first message of February. Why, or better yet “how,” can we accept ourselves as “little Christ’s” (and that is quite literally the definition of Christians – little Christ’s)? We can accept this identity, we must accept this identity, because it is God-given.
We spent last month discovering, through Old Testament prophecy of all places, our “Beloved-ness,” hearing how God delights in us, claims us as God’s own people in spite of what we continue to do to deny it, and implores us, too, to “rise and shine,” to be what Jesus accepted in himself and what Jesus called the rest of us to be – the “Light of the world.”
This month, a full month of Sundays, and one next month, before our Lenten journey begins again, we’re going to explore just what the world we live in may look like if … if … we dared to accept our God-given Christian identity – not simply as followers but as fellows of Jesus, as Christs, ourselves, hearing not just what Jesus did, but what Jesus told us to do, what God created us to do. What might the world look like if we were all we were created to be?
You’re lucky this month, because we’re going to reveal the answer to that question right up front, no suspense or tension. After two desperate verses from God, we hear how it would look. Listen of the Word of God. Read Isaiah 65:1-2, 17-25. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This is how it looks. This is a world where we, where all, through hearing whatever religious or secular wisdoms are at our disposal, accept who they were created to be. That is, this is, how it looks.
Now, this is a very familiar passage, but I read and we hear it most often during a very particular service of worship. Anyone hazard a guess as to when and where these verses, the first two and these last verses of Isaiah’s sixty-fifth chapter, are read? … That is correct. Most often read, most often heard, most often “believed,” at a Service of Celebration for a Life and Witness to the Resurrection,” at a Memorial Service after someone has died, at a Funeral.
For this passage, you see, speaks to us of the promise through the prophecy that God will create for us a new heavens and a new earth when we die, that eternal life will be lived in God’s peaceable kingdom where no one will cry in distress, where the infant mortality rate will be zero, where all will live out “a lifetime” and not die young, where there will be no homeless, no hungry, no unemployment, where all will actually “seek, and hear, and follow,” the Way of God – the Way of Love, where the wolves and lions (in whatever guise they may wear) will not devour the lamb and the ox (whoever they may be), where none will hurt or be hurt, and none will destroy or be destroyed. This must be a passage for the next life. Because, this is not the world we live in.
So we pray for it, we hope for it, we witness to it when one of us dies. This, we say is the world into which we are reborn, recreated, resurrected. That’s a beautiful profession and a needed expression at those services where we read this passage most often. The problem, as you well know from my relentless insistence and insistent proclamation is that this is not a world meant only for our “life everlasting.” This is a world meant for right now, right here and now. And in this understanding, we begin to hear, once again, why a deeper understanding of our own incarnation and a stronger confidence in our own divine potential is so essential. God is waiting for us.
The first two verses are haunting. God is speaking. God is lamenting. Listen to them again:
I was ready to be sought out … by those who did not ask, to be found … by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am” … to a nation that did not call my name. I held out my hand all day long … to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good …
Those people, that nation, is us. We’re the ones not “asking,” not “seeking,” not “calling God’s name,” not taking God’s hand or walking in God’s way. Or at least we’re not doing any of those things until one of us dies. Then we read this scripture. Then we consider these cries from God and profess that the one who has died has finally heard, has taken God’s hand and will now live forever in the kingdom described so eloquently by our prophet. Again, it’s a beautiful profession well placed at the time of someone’s death. But it’s a profession intended as well for this life.
Adding the first two verses of this chapter to the last nine make it unmistakably clear what God wants us, needs us, to do right now. Why is God “ready to be sought?” Why is God ready to be “found?” Why is God “holding our God’s hand?” Why is God providing a Way for us to follow, that we’re not following? Because God wants to create a new heavens … and a new earth right here and right now.
We’ve spent months setting up this month. This is why we were born, why we are beloved, why we are anointed, why God loves us, why God delights in us, why we are God’s people, why God needs us to “Rise and Shine!” Because something different than “what is” is intended. Because something new is possible. And because God is going to do it. With or without us, it will happen. Jesus believed that. I believe that. It’s why I’m here, it’s why I do what I do. It may not happen in our lifetime, but it will happen. The Kingdom of God is among us, within us. Has it come fully? Quite obviously not, but it has been realized, this dream that Isaiah prophecied and that Jesus died for. We are still here talking about it. We are still here learning what it will take to fully realize what is already here in part, what has already begun. This dream is not for another life, but for this one. And God is waiting … for us.
We’re going to explore how we are called to bring about this “new heavens and new earth” on this earth in the month ahead. Where are we not and why are we not; where should we be and how are we a part of God’s glorious new creation. We will use this month set aside for “awareness” to become more aware of what is, and what should be, all around us. And we’ll start with ourselves.
The whole context of this passage, as almost all of those we’ve read from Isaiah in the weeks past, is a people who have for the most part turned their backs on God, or else why would God be seeking and imploring and holding out hands for them? For us? This context, the fact that we have, for the most part, turned our backs on God, makes it really difficult for us embrace what we’re hearing: Something new, particularly this new vision. Because if we are to start anew, as God says we will, then present things will have to change. If a new reality, a new heaven and a new earth, are to come, it will turn the world upside down. Do we really want that “here and now.” Maybe that’s why we read passages like these most often at gatherings like those at the end of life, so it can be imagined for “then and there.”
I mean, certainly we’re up for the promise of long life and low infant mortality. We have experienced the untimely deaths of those we love – parents, to be sure, but also brothers and sisters and, even more painfully, children and grandchildren. We long for a world where the promise of abundant life is a reality. But, while I don’t in the least intend to diminish the pain of these deaths in our lives, we have not experienced them caused by starvation or exposure to the weather, or through an inaccessibility to healthcare or at the hands of racist, homophobic, or religious extremists. Now bear with me. This is the hard part.
Our pain and suffering is real, but all of us have houses to live in. All of us have enough food to eat. All of us have, or have had, gainful employment. All of us have access to healthcare. We are financially secure. Many of us are male, most of us are heterosexual, all of us are white, and we’re all Christians living in the United States.
You’re starting to get uncomfortable. I feel it. We are starting to get uneasy with these thoughts and the vision laid out in Isaiah and throughout the entire Bible, most prominently in the life and teachings of Jesus. We’re starting to get upset. Let’s not. Let’s rather get motivated. This is just the first Sunday of this month of consciousness raising. Our pain and suffering are no less real. But our lives are more profoundly blessed than the majority of humans beings in this world. That’s what we’ve heard for the last month: We are blessed, we are beloved. That’s not a liability. It is an asset, an advantage that God insists we use for the good of all people. If we can get our heads and our hearts around that call, the only question for us is, “how do we get in on what God is already doing?”
One book given, one new friendship claimed, one covenant of love, one can of beans, one moment of praise, one confession of God’s presence in the “Other,” one moment in which another person is humanized rather than objectified, one challenge to the set order that maintains injustice, one declaration of the evil that is hiding in plain sight, one declaration that every person in the world is a child of God. That’s how we get in on what God has begun. That is how a life in the Kingdom of God looks.
This month we will offer our Sundays mornings to more deeply understanding how we may live into the promise that we are; how we may more faithfully recognize and engage the systems of oppression that maintain injustice; how we may more faithfully respond to the violence in our lives that destroys hope for any future at all in the lives of far too many; how we may more faithfully declare that the Love we receive and the Love we are is for everyone. This is who we are. This is why God delights in us.
This month we will ask for God, seek God, hold out our hands for God, and follow God’s way. The wolf and the lamb will feed together. The lion will eat straw like the ox … and no one would hurt (or get hurt), destroy (or get destroyed) on all God’s holy mountain.
This is what it looks like. Thus says the Lord.
Let’s make it so.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / February 3, 2019