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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.
June 18, 2023
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
We continue today in our short series on Isaiah. Next week is the last week. In its entirety, the book of Isaiah covers Israel’s history before, during, and after the exile. And it’s divided into three sections, but not according to that timeline.
The part we read today concludes the second part of the book of Isaiah, which is often called The Book of Comfort. The people of Judah and Jerusalem have been in exile, and the prophet brings a word of hope for their eventual return. And this hope is a fulfillment of God’s promise to the people.
It begins in chapter 40 with the words – “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”
And for as beautiful as that message of hope is, the people weren’t buying it.
At the time this part of Isaiah was written, the exile had happened about fifty years earlier. So, these words were directed mostly to the grandchildren of those who had been forcibly exiled when Jerusalem had fallen. They’d grown up hearing stories about the glory of Jerusalem from their parents and grandparents. And the generations that would’ve returned in a heartbeat were dying off.
And also at this time, Babylon had been conquered by the Persians. The Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the peoples whom the Babylonians had exiled to return to their homelands. In some cases, he even paid their way.
But the current generation of Israelites in exile – at best – has only vague memories of Jerusalem and the temple, if they had any memory of it at all.
Along with all of that, is the reality that many Jewish people living in Babylon at the time chose to stay there. Because after that amount of time, they’d been integrated into Babylonian society. They had jobs and owned homes.
They were free to worship Yahweh, and weren’t forced to recognize Babylonian gods. And the cities they lived in were the financial, commercial, and cultural centers of that part of the world. They’d built a life there.
In contrast, Jerusalem was in ruins. The people who returned would first have to stake their claims to land in the area. Many of the fields immediately surrounding the city hadn’t been tended. And there was only a small settlement where the city had once stood, so they would have had to build houses, the temple, the city walls — and, really, the whole infrastructure.
And since the monarchy wasn’t in place, there weren’t any prestigious jobs for skilled laborers. So, for a generation of people that didn’t have personal experience of the city the way it was before, there wasn’t a lot of incentive to go back.
So, Isaiah had to do some convincing. And by the time we get to the part we read today, he’d directly challenged the people’s doubt and fear. And this part of chapter 55 acknowledges that God’s promises can be doubted and questioned – and it affirms that any of these doubts or questions will be met.
All the people had to do was accept God’s invitation. To accept the nourishment that God provides. To remember the everlasting covenant. And to trust that God would raise them up. And many of them did.
The ones who did had their work cut out for them. God didn’t wave a magic wand and rebuild the city so that it was waiting for them when they returned. And there was plenty of weeping and wailing when they got to Jerusalem and saw what needed to be done.
But Isaiah’s call for them to return to God, even before they left Babylon, set their hearts in the right direction. Before they had a chance to get distracted by the work that they would have to do in Jerusalem, they were able to perceive the possibilities of God’s blessings and promises. And to lean into God’s faithfulness as they trusted that God would raise them up.
I mentioned last week that, as a nation, the U.S. hasn’t gone through this type of experience in the same way that other countries have. Individual cities have had to be rebuilt after a natural disaster, but it isn’t the same as having to rebuild after an invasion and occupation by another country.
But that doesn’t mean our country isn’t in need of some kind of restoration and rebuilding.
Yesterday was the remembrance of the Emanuel Nine. The nine black people who were killed at the Mother Emanuel AME church by a white supremacist during Bible study. And tomorrow is the commemoration of Juneteenth – the holiday that marks the end of slavery in the U.S.
And as we sit today, literally between those two days, it feels like holy space and holy time. And whenever we’re in an in-between, holy space is where we become acutely aware that God’s ways are not ours. Because God’s words and deeds bring life and love.
Racism and white supremacy don’t bring either of those things.
And in order to remove white supremacy and racism, and rebuild and truly create a nation rooted in the life and love that God brings, we first have to take things apart. And as Christians, it is our responsibility to do that. When we think of the work involved, the scale of it, it’s a daunting task. So, we start small.
I’ve shared with the Bible study group that, a lot of years ago, my grandma gave me a quote on a piece of paper that says, “Clean up the world tomorrow. Today, just do your room.”
When we think about the work of dismantling white supremacy and racism in our country, we start with ourselves. Literally, inside these walls. We commit to having ongoing conversation and educating ourselves about the harm that has been caused.
We become aware of the ways that we’ve unknowingly perpetuated it as individuals and as a congregation. We acknowledge it, apologize for it in whatever way we can, and make changes so that we do better going forward.
And then we move outward. The restoration needed for our country will likely take longer than any of our lifetimes. But as we do the work here, we discover that God renews us along the way and raises us up to continue the task so that we’re able to keep going.
In any situation, when we think about God raising us up, or renewing us, or restoring us, we tend to have an idea of what we think it should be or look like and the timeline it should follow. And we want it to happen in a nice, neat order – with all of the pieces falling into place so that we can move onto the next thing.
And the truth is that it doesn’t always happen that way. It doesn’t need to and, sometimes, it just can’t.
When the Israelites rebuilt Jerusalem after the exile, it didn’t happen overnight. It took decades. And they did it a step at a time. And they cried and complained during the process because it was such a tough undertaking.
And they also remembered who God is. They held onto the possibilities of God’s blessings and promises. And leaned into God’s faithfulness as they trusted that God would raise them up. And that’s where they set their hearts.
In the work God calls us to do dismantling racism and white supremacy – and in any work that requires that level of dedication – there will be tears shed, and feelings of vulnerability, and wondering why we aren’t done yet.
But those aren’t the things we hold onto. We set our hearts toward God, and the life and the love of God’s ways. The possibilities of God’s blessings and promises. And we trust that God will renew us along the way, and raise us up to continue the task set before us. Thanks be to God! Amen.