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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
November 20, 2022
Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4
Please note: The audio for the first 50 seconds of the Sermon Video and Sermon Audio is very faint – our apologies for the inconvenience.
Our reading for today is from the book of Isaiah, also called “The Vision of Isaiah”. Can you trust a vision? We’ll return to that later. The prophet Isaiah was considered the GOAT (greatest of all time) of all the Old Testament prophets. Except for the Torah, the 66 chapter Vision of Isaiah had a greater impact on the faith of Judaism and Christianity than any other book. It is also called “The Fifth Gospel.” Jerome in the year 400 said Isaiah was more of an evangelist than a prophet because he described the mysteries of Christ so clearly centuries before. Much of Isaiah is incorporated into our eucharistic liturgy including the Sanctus—Holy, Holy, Holy (from Isaiah chapter 6).
Isaiah’s active duty as a prophet spans five kings, with the last one killing Isaiah by sawing him in half. That’s why prophets were not granted life insurance—their job was lethal, their calling was dangerous. God had summoned them to courageously speak the piercing truth to the powers: failed leadership, broken covenants, stealing from the poor, perverted greed, despicable denial. And then the worst pain—breaking the heart of God, the God who brought them into new life and a new land from bondage in Egypt. God feels the pain we feel when we do our best in love for others, and then are ignored by the very ones we are helping. It hurts deeply when our help is met with indifference instead of thanksgiving. Israel was not only indifferent, but indignant toward God’s covenant.. And when God’s covenant is abused, God doesn’t sleep, but demands repentance and justice. So the prophets sounded the alarm and declared that Israel would be dismantled by Babylon.
How many crises does it take for us` to wake us up? As CS Lewis wrote in his book The Problem of Pain, pain is God’s megaphone, intended to resurrect us from our own self destruction.. And if we are deaf, the size of megaphone increases. Luther said God is ambidextrous, using both hands well—the hand of justice paired with the hand of love. These are the hands of earthquakes and birthquakes—the earthquakes that wake us up, and the birthquakes that hold us in hope and ignite imagination. Isaiah knew which one mattered most. God’s justice is real and big, but God’s love and hope is stunning and bigger. Isaiah knew that just because you’re in the dog house of justice doesn’t mean you have been booted from the home of God’s love.
Desmond Tutu, the South African Anglican bishop in his role of bringing justice to the horrors of apartheid, quoted the prophet Zechariah, ch 9. Bishop Tutu said “I am not an optimist. I am a prisoner of hope.” Hope has power. Optimism is whipped cream…Hope is gifted by God. Optimism is cooked up in our little kitchens. Hope is strongly anchored in the life of Christ. Optimism is like an ice cube on the sands of Death Valley. In the heart of God, we are prisoners of hope. And in the world of God’s hope, hope is not just what we receive. Hope is also what we offer as God’s stewards. Hope is a two way street powered by God—receiving what is gifted us, and giving to others the hope we have received. God’s hope never disappears as it circulates—given, received, given, received. Hope circulates in God’s world.
Isaiah had a particular picture of hope. He declared, “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks.” War to farming. Killing to caring. Swords to ploughshares. Hope changes the game plan. These famous words are carved into a wall across from the United Nations building in New York. Also, the sculpture entitled “Guns into Plowshares” depicts the blade of a giant plow fashioned out of steel and 3,000 disabled handguns. Then another vision in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King lifted up the vision of Isaiah, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
While these visions are grand and powerful, we can easily miss the relationships and beating hearts right in front of us. The Russian writer Dostoyevsky penned the following: “I am surprised at myself…the more I love humanity in general, the less I love people in particular…I want to save humanity…yet I’m quite incapable of living with anyone in one room for two days together…but strangely, the more I hated people individually, the more ardent became my love for humanity at large.” As we pray for the world, often the hardest work, impossible work, the work we want to avoid…. lies before us, right in our lap, in our families, in our marriages, our congregations.
To illustrate the power of the present and the personal, in the movie Bruce Almighty, Bruce has a girlfriend, Grace, who he has been treating with meanness and disregard. One day, after another fight with Grace, Bruce is struck by a truck, goes to heaven, meets God who invites him to pray. Bruce offers a flippant lofty prayer for world peace and world hunger. God stops him and asks him what matters most now, for you. Bruce softens, drops his head, with tears in his eyes, he says “I care about Grace. I want her to find someone who will treat her with all the love she deserved from me. I want her to meet someone who will see her always through the eyes of God as I do now.” Will the eyes of God allow you to turn your swords into ploughshares with those who are closest to you?
The vision of Isaiah is part of God’s history with us. Luther spoke about the revealed God and the hidden God. The revealed God shows up in history, most profoundly in Jesus Christ. But there is also the mysterious, hidden God. There is much more about God we don’t know and never will. Perhaps Winston Churchill’s description of Russia in 1939 applies to God: God is a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Job discovered this mystery of God in his failed attempt to pin down God for answers. We don’t like mystery in our lives, unless it’s in a book, on TV, or in a movie. We like mysteries when we are safe and it’s happening to other people. Instead we humans search for certainty and people who believe like us. That’s safe. Our Christianity may also become overly safe, wooden, and concrete: read, believe, and produce.
However, the life of faith is intended to be more spacious, brimming with awe and wonder. The Jewish philosopher, Abraham Heschel punctuates this point: He writes: “God is not the object of discovery, but the subject of revelation. The way to faith leads through wonder and amazement. Awe preceeds faith; it is the root of faith. Within the commonplace are spiritual adventures. Awe enables us to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and simple. Indifference to this wonder is the root of sin.” Luther also had a mystical tendency seldom talked about. Luther believed that belief in God was insufficient. He described faith not simply as belief, but as “living, creative, active, powerful.” Not the abstract God, but the living Lord. He underscored the indwelling of the Spirit in our lives, what he called “the fullness of God.”–the magnificence of God’s love, the clarity of God’s will, the guidance of God’s Spirit, the surprise of new directions when hope is lost, corrections for our lives gone astray, the hope of light that brightens our darkness, the mud of bitterness covered by the path of blessedness, clarity about what matters most, less, least, and not at all. All this and more is “the fullness of God.” The core question in all this is not “How do I find God?” That question is relatively safe, easy, and never solved. The core question, instead, is “How will I let myself be found by God?” That question is dangerous, unsafe, uncertain because when you are found by God, who knows how you will end up in a wondrous world of God’s surprises.
Imagine all the ways God seeks us. Didn’t we just hear about “The Vision of Isaiah”? Visions are also called “waking dreams.” In Proverbs we read, “When there is no vision, the people perish.” Recall the bounty of Biblical visions–Abraham’s vision about blessings to come; Samuel’s vision as a young boy about his mentor, Eli; Zacharias’s vision about a fresh pregnancy, a son John, Jesus’ cousin; St. Paul’s many visions; the entire book of Revelation is based on a vision God gave to John. What about dreams? I believe that God is speaking to me constantly through my dreams as in a recent dream which I named “The Opera and the Party Bag” (I won’t unpack that dream now). Joseph, the dreamer, his dreams and interpretations in prison. Peter’s dream in Acts 10 about new pathways to the Gentiles. Jacob’s dream about Jacob’s ladder. Solomon’s dream about the gift of wisdom. Daniel’s many dreams and visions; Joseph’s dream about taking Mary and then the dreams that warned him about danger. Visions, dreams, coincidences, odd surprises. God uses all these pathways. If if all of this happened back then, why can’t all of this happen right now…with us…with you?
And then angels. Translated, the word “angel”, “angelos” in the Greek, means “messenger.” Angels are messengers from God disguised often in plainclothes. In Genesis 12, the strangers who visit Abraham and Sarah have a stunning message for these aged ones—pregnancy. Shocked by what she hears, Sarah laughs, and that’s why they named their son to be born “Issac,” means “laughing boy.” Like Sarah, we can easily laugh at all the ways God tries to surprise us. We can also treat all these stories as ancient and interesting folklore that decorate our Bible museum. And then our biggest defense? We’re too distracted. Too much to do. We worry about worry. And we suffer. “Worry is the misuse of imagination.” Worry constricts our world. Imagination expands our world. As the theologian Walter Bruggeman writes, imagination opens us up to God’s alternative reality and God’s surprising world. Imagination was the core attribute of the prophets. Sadly, the loops of our lives entangle us in the swamps of fatigue. We’re too worn out to be surprised anymore. And then we obsess about the wrong question: “How to find God?” instead of the question of revelation, “How will we allow God to find us?”
It all starts with listening. The word “obedience” literally means “obodentia” which is translated “to listen.” Being obedient to God is listening for how God is knocking on your life. In my Morning Prayer, I added these words: “Lord, in all our journeys, help us to travel lightly so that we might be wide awake for your many signs, wonders, and surprises. Equip us with your Spirit and enable us to experience the power of your presence. Open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, our hearts to receive, our minds to believe, and our souls to conceive.” If our receptor sites are turned on, God will have room to land within us. Simply put, for you, God wants to be Everything, Everywhere, Everytime for you…to quote a Fleetwood Mac song.
But Luther said that we are incapable of being open by “our own reason and strength”..but it is only by the gift of the Spirit that our hard soil can be softened–Word and worship, the waters of Baptism, the meal of the Eucharist, our prayers, our hymns, our songs, our readings, and our conversations with each other as a community of saints. These resources begin to open us to the wonder of God’s world. What accelerates our openness is our emptiness. It’s hard for God to fill us when we are filled with ourselves. Desmond Tutu writes: “It is through weakness and vulnerability that we discover our soul.” Isaiah gave his magnificent vision in the midst of his emptiness. In chapter 6 he cries out: “Woe is me! I am lost. I am inadequate!” Oscar Romero in 1980, Archbishop of El Salvador, witnessing the terror of imperial powers, feeling empty, prays simply: “ I can’t…You must…I am Yours…Show me the way.” Our emptiness opens the door to God’s fullness. I conclude with this story.
December 23, 2021. Thursday night, cold and wintery. The clock was ticking. Late—about 11:30 pm. Almost Christmas Eve. This would be my third night in the Intensive Care Unit at the University of Washington Medical Center. In 2003, my aortic connective tissue disease almost killed me. Eight hours of emergency surgery at Overlake Hospital pulled me from the jaws of death before. Over the intervening years—lots of imaging, watching, waiting—all guardrails against death. Then last December, unrelenting acute back and abdominal pain, classic signs of an aortic emergency. CT scans at Issaquah Swedish confirmed a bleeding aorta. No time to waste. Rushed by ambulance in the middle of the night to the University of Washington. A bleeding aorta is on the edge of being a bursting aorta. The jaws of death opened again.
The gauntlet of surgery awaited, more incomprehensible than I imagined. I was scheduled for three surgeries in six days, five major procedures. It was Christmas week. The first surgery would be the next day. The second surgery on Christmas Eve would be the most precarious, extensive one—8 hours—invading all regions of the thoracic area including 36 minutes of complete cardiac arrest. This surgery was a few hours from now. I was afraid. I felt held by the prayers of many, the presence of my family, punctured by many tubes and IVs. At 11:45, all was quiet. I would be awakened very early for surgery. Soon it would be midnight, Christmas Eve. My eyes were transfixed on the ceiling above.
And then I heard it, a faint sound, a noise that wouldn’t stop coming from behind the wall in front of me. It was annoying. A radio in the ICU at midnight? Then the sound became clearer—a large chorus, muffled words, strong music. Then I realized I was hearing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah! on and on and on. Now 5 minutes before midnight. Was I going nuts? Medication? Auditory hallucination? I knew about these things. I pinched myself, tested myself—none of this. I was hearing the chorus. Were these the angels of Bethlehem? The clock struck 12 midnight, Christmas Eve. The chorus behind the wall, faint words, strong music—“the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord…And he shall reign forever and ever..king of kings, lord of lords.” The music covered me completely. It was a holy sacrament. Suddenly, ten minutes past midnight, the dawn of Christmas Eve, it stopped. I was stunned. What just happened here! My tears dripped onto my bed. I felt so small, but so embraced. God’s world was overcoming my little world. God’s magnificence covered my insignificance. My eyes closed. I felt encased in grace. We offer this prayer: May we all come alive in the wonder of God’s world, may we all rest secure in the arms of God’s love, and may we all shine bright like the stars in the heavens reflecting God’s hope. May all this be so. Amen.