The Sunday Sermon: Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 27, 2019
Scripture: Isaiah 63:7-9
You Are My People
“Arise, shine … I love you … I delight in you,” says our God. “You are my people … You are my people … You are my people … You are my people,” says the Lord.
It’s been a beautiful month of Sundays this January. Very few of us have shared all four of them. The weather last week and even this morning, the first Sundays after the Christmas celebrations and New Year’s holidays, the first Sundays of a new calendar year, and more personal reasons have not found many of us together every Sunday this month, but the messages during this fascinating time of “sermon delivery” have been remarkably consistent. I hope you’ve noticed.
We’ve been reading from the Old Testament book of the Prophet Isaiah and exploring not our shortcomings or other faults; hearing not of impending doom and destruction; finding not words of anger and disappointment from God. Rather we’ve been exploring, finding, and hearing words of love, joy, hope, and promise from God – about … us. Us, you and I, human beings, creatures of the primal Love that created and creates all things good.
In December last year, for the four Sundays in Advent, I preached on the coming Christ like I do every year. Except this year we heard over, and over, and over, and over (four Sundays “over”) that we, you and I, are the ones we are waiting for. That we are the ones “God” is waiting for. Like Jesus, we are the Word incarnate. We are the parents of God. We are the shepherds, the heralds, of the Good News. We are the Beloved in whom God is well pleased.
This was not, and still is not, an easy message to hear over and over and over and over. Not easy because this is not what we’ve been taught by our church. We’ve been taught that we are the problem … only. It’s not easy to hear over and over and over and over that we are “good” because, if we’re brutally honest, we don’t want to hear it, we don’t want the responsibility that our “goodness” carries. Let Jesus do it. Let him love the world literally “to death.” We’ll profess him Lord and Savior, accept our depravity, and get on with our lives – pretty good lives, in fact, thank you very much. Our own identity as God’s anointed is not an easy message to hear and accept because we wonder “who are we that God would worry about us, let alone trust us with the only thing that will save the world – sacrificial Love?”
This month, we’ve been answering that question, those questions, and addressing our hesitancy using the book of Isaiah. It’s an interesting choice, turning to the Old Testament to hear of God’s love for, and delight in, us. 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 … You shall eat but not be satisfied.” All that is there. But so, too, are the words of God’s love and delight, God’s joy and hope, in us.
The first Sunday in January was Epiphany. “Arise, shine; for your light has come,” God said though the prophet. On the second Sunday this month God said, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” And last week, “You shall no more be forsaken … for I delight in you.” We have one more week, this week, one more Sunday, today, to hear of God’s happiness in us. Next month we’ll get busy with the “so what” of all this. But one more morning to hear, through the Old Testament Prophet’s voice, why we are “worthy” of our call.
Now, I know I’ve been pretty selective in what I’ve lifted up in the scripture readings of this month. As I’ve mentioned several times, there are more condemnations and disapprovals in Old Testament prophecy than commendations and approvals. But I’ve not made any of our readings up! We’ve been reading from actual scripture. And we are again this morning, you’ll be happy to hear. This morning’s passage, however, carries an extra dose of caution for us as we seek to hear Good News and God’s favor. First, let’s pray together …
And before I read, listen to this:
Preachers who turn to the Isaiah for a comforting word (in these verses) will have to ignore everything they learned in seminary about interpreting a text in context, for these three verses are airlifted out of a chapter thick with divine wrath and human despair. In the verse preceding today’s (reading), God declares, “I trampled down people in my anger” (verse 6). In the verse following (today’s reading), God is the enemy of those who have grieved God’s holy spirit, “fighting against them” (verse 10). The three verses planted between these judgments rise like tender shoots among sharp briars. (Taylor, B.B. Feasting on the Word, year A vol. 1, 147)
More than any other week this month, I – we – are warned against hearing God’s “tender love” apart form God’s “sharp rebukes.” I hear the instruction to us, and rise to the challenge for us. Listen for the Word of God. Read Isaiah 63:7-9. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
These verses present a poignant and tender picture of God, right in the middle of the Old Testament, right in the midst of a larger passage whose words before and after are “sharp briars.” The picture of God that verses seven, eight, and nine of Isaiah’s sixty-third chapter paints is a consistent one – we’ve been drawing that picture all month – but it’s also an understated and often neglected one. These three verses are actually a lectionary reading, though they are chosen for the Sunday after Christmas in year A, not the third Sunday after Epiphany in year C. These verses are isolated from the rest of this chapter for a reason, I believe: So that we can explore even more deeply the grace and love of God and God’s call to us in the midst of all we do to demean ourselves and to suggest that God is first and foremost angry with us. More than the other affirmations we’ve explored this month (God’s love and delight in us and God’s call to us to shine), the prophet uses “favor,” “mercy,” and “steadfast love” here in these verses to emphasize our role, our special part to play, in the divine plan for the redemption of the world.
In verse eight, Isaiah seems to delve into the very thoughts of the divine, revealing a vulnerable God who assumes we will respond to love and grace, who trusts that we will act faithfully. Is Isaiah being ironic? Is God being naïve? Or even just giving us the benefit of the doubt? I had a little fun as I began this morning, putting the emphasis on different words in the sermon title. In verse eight when, in the mouth of the prophet, God says “surely these are my people,” the emphasis must be on “my.” Surely these are my people. And as God’s people, surely, God says, we will learn to identify with God’s character. Surely, we will choose to be God’s people. Verse eight presents God as vulnerable, willing to assume the best of the people, of us, and willing to risk being hurt by this assumption.
That’s how much we mean to our God. We are not worms. We are not totally depraved. We are not “sinners in the hand of an angry God.” We, too, are the Beloved, the anointed ones, the incarnate Words, the Love of God on earth.
That’s so hard to hear, nestled as it always is between articulations of divine anger and grievance. With warnings of “context” and admonitions to remember what you learned in Sunday school, Sunday sermons, or seminary, we too often miss what is tucked between and beneath all the attempts to hammer into us that God is not happy with us: God loves us. God delights in us. God trusts us. God says, in spite of what we may believe, “You are my people.”
I’ve referenced often the commentaries and “conversation partners” I use most often in my sermon writing this month, more than I usually do. I think that’s because more than any other message the “goodness of humanity” is so at odds with most theological writings and most of the theologians who are doing the writing. The long “warning” I shared right before our reading was from Feasting on the Word, one of the newest commentaries for preaching on the revised common lectionary. In one of the entries for this passage I read one contributor who wrote that the fidelity, grace and love of God that we’ve just unpacked and heard again “cannot be taken for granted or presumed upon.” When I read that I immediately highlighted it, drew an arrow to margin at the bottom of the page, and wrote this: Yes it can – be taken for granted and presumed upon – or it’s not the love of God.
So frightened and paralyzed are we of a vulnerable God who risks being hurt that we question God’s love and grace and trust in us. This passage reminds us that, in our deepest understanding of who our God is, God comes to earth as the most vulnerable creature imaginable: a helpless, human child.
We’re the fickle ones, not trusting ourselves, not believing that God trusts us, not admitting to ourselves that we are God’s people. But we are, whether we want to admit it or not. God knows it. God says it: You are my people. Wouldn’t it be nice if we trusted ourselves as God trusts us? If we woke each morning and began each day knowing we are God’s people and behaving as if the world depended on that? Because … it does.
We’ll explore in the month before our Lenten journey begins again what a world where we take responsibility for ourselves and one another can look like. For now we can pray: Surely, we are God’s people. May it be so.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 27, 2019