“O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, for God’s steadfast love endures forever. O give thanks to the God of gods, for God’s steadfast love endures forever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords, for God’s steadfast love endures forever; O give thanks to the God of heaven, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.”
Pray with me: “God of amazing and unfathomable love, we gather to give you extravagant praise, and to lift up the name of Jesus who, in obedience to your plan of salvation, paid the price of love in death. Though with our minds we but limitedly comprehend such sacrifice, we believe by faith that at the end of the Lenten journey love does triumph. Therein is cause for celebration and thanksgiving this day. Assist us by your Spirit, we pray. Amen.”
Across time and space Isaiah spoke loudly to me as he spoke on behalf of God about moving from an old world to a new one. Here, during these 40 days of Lent, we have been looking at our situation. What we have seen does not please us. We are those who have fallen short, gone astray, sinned. We have attempted to help ourselves, to do it for ourselves. That, we shall see, is a path that leads us to Golgotha. So much for our attempts at self-improvement and do it yourself salvation.
In this passage the prophet is speaking to a people in exile. The people have been taken away from everything that is familiar. They have listened to other gods, gods with a lowercase g. They had refused to listen to Yahweh and have been rebellious. They had turned their back on God and had refused to follow the instructions of the Lord. In addition, the people refused to listen to the admonitions of the prophet, Isaiah. They did not want to hear how they needed to turn away from their transgressions, instead they wanted to hear things that made them feel good about the choices they had made and things that would be popular with the masses upon retelling. The people insist on choosing to act on things of their own devising until little remains of covenanted Jerusalem. It has been many years and now they are afraid of the wrath of God.
They begin to ponder: What if God is angry with them? What if God decides to punish them? What if God separates God’s self from them? What if God leaves them where they are? What if, what if, what if, so many what ifs are running through their minds.
Then the Prophet speaks to them, telling them what the Lord has said. The Prophet, in announcing hope and restoration, does not seem to be able to resist saying things that reminds them that their own offenses brought exile upon them. He then moves on to tell them how God announces God’s self, and then retells the story of their journey and all the things that happened. God, through the prophet, walks them through their history before announcing a new future journey. This new way that is being put forth will now be the miraculous return of this generation of exile.
That is why during these days in Lent, these days of confession and introspection, the prophet calls and speaks to us, telling us to lean forward toward that “new thing” that is about to break in upon us. Therefore, we need to be open to the word which speaks of our need for deliverance and look forward to the possibility, the promise of our deliverance.
Can you see what is happening? God is modeling a new but old way of showing covenant with one another and with God. Something we may have forgotten here in the US of A. God is saying I know you wandered away from me and pretty much forgot about me and that is all right, I forgive you and I still love you and I will do something that has not even entered your consciousness to bring about restoration. In telling them about the new thing that is about to happen God is assuring the people that they are loved and cared for and forgiven. God makes a statement of radical grace. They are to be a people marked in the future by God’s spirit. Let me tell you church, it is one thing to be told that “God loves you” it is quite another thing to experience that love directly. That is the mystery of love.
Therefore, during Lent, we have been given the gracious opportunity to confess, to admit to God and to ourselves all the ways we have fallen short of the glory of God. Too many of us serve a little god. And that is probably fine for most of life’s circumstances. Yet when we are in dire need, when the chips are down, when we find ourselves lost, in exile, a bigger, greater, more active God is needed and that is the God we find Isaiah speaking about to the people and to us.
It is no small thing, in a society such as ours, a society of deceit, to be honest, to confess and act upon that confession. Look at the wilderness we have made of the garden. Would not it be amazing church if our leaders, those on the right and those on the left could stop posturing for just a short period of time and admit to one another that they don’t have all the answers and then begin to work together to benefit all of the people, all of their constituents, we could see a new thing happening. It is one thing to admit to our powerlessness, our sin, another thing to do something about it. Would not it be amazing if all of us could admit to caring for each other and most especially our most vulnerable rather than insisting on my rights, my freedoms, and everyone should only do the things I want to do, because my way is the right way for me and everyone. Even if it is not, no matter because I am only interested in me and those who think, act, and believe like me.
Let me say church it is not just our nation that is in trouble, but a considerable number of our churches are in trouble. Not just those in the inner cities but those extolled as safe havens, in affluent areas, in suburban areas, in rural areas, in all the areas where we think we can safely worship God in spirit and in truth, but it has to be the appropriate spirit and truth. This kind of thinking arises from cultural norms and practices which make some feel they have been granted inherent immunity from providing for the least of these in society at large and in our own beloved faith communities, while calling on the least of these to provide for the least of these.
In our nation and in our church a substantial portion of our trouble is purely our failure to feed the craving to be cared for and to be cared about in the way God would truly have us care. We want to be seen and heard by everyone the way God sees and hears us. We have turned our back on our covenant with God and our siblings. We are living in exile. We need leaders who are as persistent as Isaiah is in speaking to the people of God. Someone who would never shift the message of God to appease the people. Someone who will boldly speak a word to God on our behalf and speak a word to us on God’s behalf. We then need to rehear the story of our journey with God as it occurred down through the ages.
Bethesda United Church of Christ, you have worked tirelessly for God’s justice in many ways. You have shown your compassion for God’s people through the giving and serving of food, you have given out hygiene kits, provided financial supplements to families and individuals, been a refugee sponsor, you have served as a teaching church for seminarians, and been involved in working for equal rights for all. You have a stellar past and now, Bethesda UCC, you are being called to go on a future journey. “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” You are now at the beginning of a new story, a new thing, that God is doing for you. A story that offers “a memory of the future,” a vision of a future hope couched in the form of a story from the past. You are moving from an old world to a new one. Let me paraphrase a portion of a poem written by Maya Angelou, “Just like moons and suns, with the certainty of tides, just like hopes springing high, still I’ll rise… You my siblings are the dream and the hope of Bethesda United Church of Christ. You rise, you rise, you rise. This is the mystery of God’s love.
The dictionary says that love is an intense emotional feeling, however, I believe that the love God has for us is much more than that and defies explanation. We try to define it and our trying is but a feeble attempt to describe the largeness of God’s love for us. God’s love for us restores us to wholeness because we are the descendants of the people God formed for God’s self. God’s love is an empowering, forgiving, embracing, radical grace giving, acceptance, powerful, calming, peaceful and all of this plus more is that which enables us to, in turn love and trust God so completely that we rejoice and delight in that relationship, so much so we want to duplicate it in some way with our siblings in Christ. That is the mystery of love.
As we walk into the future, the new thing, that God has planned for us know that we, church, have been blessed to be a blessing to others. We are to show God at work through our everyday actions, as faithful people, seeking to manifest divine loyalty in our interactions with those around us. Now let us discern our direction, purpose, and passion. Shhhh! God is speaking. Are we listening? Amen and Amen.