Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
“The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” Isaiah 58:11
Let’s begin this morning by saying something out loud that we may not want to think about. It has been a hard week. We bring many different political commitments with us through those doors, but this week there was something to disturb everyone. No matter what our allegiances or affiliations might be, many of us are feeling that something is broken in our country and in our institutions. Something is broken, and we don’t know what to do or how to fix it.
We don’t like to talk about these things much, especially not here, but I think it’s important to name the fear and the worry. Otherwise it can seem as though our lives of faith exist only in some kind of fairy tale land where all of the bad things just magically work out. When of course our lives of faith exist in all the mess of real life.
It’s an especially good week to hear from the 58th chapter of Isaiah.
Isaiah is a long prophetic book in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s really made up of three big sections from different time periods. It follows the people of Israel from an era of being united as a kingdom through a continued fracturing, first into two separate kingdoms and then into smaller and smaller groups. They are eventually conquered by the Babylonians and sent into exile. They were divided in a different way at that point, ejected from their homeland and forced to live in places they had never seen, torn apart from friends and family members.
By the time we get to Chapter 58 there’s a new conquerer in town, one who has defeated the Babylonians and has agreed to let the exiles return home. But they return home to face the hard truth that their familiar places and institutions have been destroyed – including the temple that used to be the center of their worship life. They eventually rebuild the temple, but it will take time and hard work. So, after a long and tumultuous period of history, the people of Israel are reminded that it is far better to trust in God than to depend on any of the current political powers of the day to look out for their best interests.
The book of Isaiah is a powerful one. Like many prophetic books, it brings together words of judgment with words of comfort. It tells the truth about who we are and about who God is. The voices that contributed to Isaiah are quick to remind the people that their suffering is often a direct result of their own sin and selfishness, their turning away from God in pursuit of their own ways. That’s why this passage begins with the voice of God urging the prophet: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” There is an urgency in reminding the people that they must do some things differently on the other side of exile.
In this case the voice of Isaiah cries out for a fast. It doesn’t mean, as we usually think of that word, to stop eating for a while. It doesn’t mean the latest fad of intermittent fasting to slim down before summer. In this case the prophet calls for a fast from injustice. The prophet says, essentially: Stop doing the things that hurt each other and yourselves. Practice some humility and remember that you actually need God.
Some of us gathered last weekend to discuss the movie “Wonder Woman.” One of the most fascinating parts of that movie for me is how much Wonder Woman wrestles with whether or not humankind deserves to be saved from evil. Early on she thinks her mission will be simple. People are caught up in a war, which is bad. She will come and take care of a few things, and then the war will be over, which will be good. When the war is over, she thinks, people will change from being bad to being good – just like that.
She of course discovers that humankind is a lot more complicated than she had assumed. By the end of the movie she says this:
I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light and learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both…And now I know that only love can truly save the world…
Wonder Woman has found her way to a core understanding of our Lutheran theology, that each of us is both saint and sinner all at once, capable of goodness but so often tempted away from it. She also learns that whether or not we deserve saving, we do not save ourselves. For that we must rely on a love that is greater than our own.
As we hear in Isaiah, God sees what we are up to. God has met us, after all. God knows what we’re made of – and that it’s not all pretty. God sees how we have tied ourselves up in knots by the pointing of fingers and the speaking of evil. We’re so busy blaming each other for the mess that we are in that we have forgotten to do the things that God has told us are most important – to loose the bonds of injustice, to free the oppressed. To feed the hungry and house the homeless and clothe the naked and figure out what led those people to be hungry and homeless and naked in the first place and do something about it. What a better use of our time that would be. A much better use of time than the pointing of fingers and the speaking of evil.
But God does not give up on us. As Wonder Woman learned, only love can truly save the world, and the power of God’s love is more than we can comprehend. In this passage we hear a word of hope. We hear a promise. And I want to make sure that you hear it this morning. God will be with us as we loose those bonds of injustice, as we free people from the shackles of what has held them for too long. The Lord will guide us continually and satisfy our needs in parched places and make our bones strong. And we will be like watered gardens, like springs of water whose waters never fail.
That sounds good to me. That sounds like the opposite of the way I have often felt lately. I want to feel strong in my bones again, to feel satisfied rather than desperate. I want to feel the light dawning, warming my face as I look to the sun.
And even now the light is breaking forth like the dawn.
The light breaks forth when we gather shelves of food and bags of clothing outside those doors to share with our neighbors in need.
The light breaks forth when we serve a meal to those who are experiencing homelessness, as some of us will do at St. John’s in Summit this Tuesday night.
The light breaks forth through the Scouts and their leaders with whom we are honored to be building a relationship. The light breaks forth as you grow in leadership and in your service to our community. It is a joy to partner with you in that process.
The light breaks forth when a wonderfully creative Minister of Music and her talented team transform the Fellowship Hall into a coffee shop and when you fill that space with delicious goodies and when teenagers spend hours sharing their musical and artistic talents and cheering each other on.
Make no mistake. This light is not a light of our own making. It is a light we have been given as a gift, but it is breaking forth in ways that we can only hope to channel into the dreariest corners of our world. That’s the thing that gives us life. That’s what we are here for.
There will still be days when we feel overwhelmed or when it seems like our small contributions are inadequate in the face of all that has gone wrong. Those are the days to remember that we are not in this alone. Those are the days when we shall call, and the Lord will answer; we shall cry for help, and the Lord will say, Here I am. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ