By Rev. Jeff Lackie On Feb 06 2021
I was challenged to try and preach this week without mentioning the thing that has occupied our minds and messed with our lives for the last eleven months - and I’ve decided it’s a challenge I can’t win. Because I’m not sure what it would take to push pandemic thoughts entirely to one side. Trying to find another focus for this message felt like a denial of reality. And a preacher who denies reality is not a useful witness to the gospel.
There are those who want to behave as though the pandemic is nothing but a footnote - or worse, an attempt to deny ‘the faithful’ their ‘god given rights.’
Instead, I’m moved to ask ‘what can I do to help us see the present faithfully?’ And to that end, I seek Isaiah’s assistance.
Isaiah’s complexity is an advantage, for as we have it, Isaiah is a multi-generational compilation that offers words of warning and hope in almost equal measure. The whole of Isaiah is a lesson in facing the reality of the moment and following the thread of God’s holy presence - whatever the circumstance.
In exile; under threat of persecution; with the foundational institutions of the nation - the monarchy and the religious system of ritual observance - in ruin, the prophets represented in Isaiah offer theological explanations when necessary but ultimately, these words contain the comfort and assurance that comes from a deep and genuine trust in God.
How does the church do that? What will it take?
Maybe it starts with the basics.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
The prophet would remind us of what we’ve known for a long time.
First ideas about God are big ideas. Creator. Redeemer. Sustainer. The first chapters of the Bible - the earliest creeds and most enduring (memorable) questions in the catechism start with God’s grandeur.
Calling all things into being with nothing but words; promising desert wanderers an enduring legacy of descendants; for the prophet, putting God first requires us to remember how we have described and imagined God in the past.
People of faith, stuck in unpleasant circumstances, can quite naturally turn into skeptics. When our problems take on a life of their own and we’re desperate for relief of any kind, why not start your complaint right at the top: “why me, God? Why here…why now?” Because everyone knows that once you can name a reason, you can more easily place the blame - and the further it falls from you, the better. So blame it on God, who is sufficiently distant, and then we can get on with things. And if all this is ‘part of God’s plan,’ then we can either decide we’re done with God, or that we must do something to get back on God’s good side - pray harder, worship more often, believe BETTER…for only then will God relent. Only then will God return to something like a normal relationship with us.
The idea that ‘God is in control’ is of no use when the problems of the world grow bigger in our minds and imaginations than the very idea of God’s own self, but Isaiah’s reminder is not an ancient version of “Don’t worry - be happy”
Isaiah reminds us of God’s nearness - of God’s completely vested interest in all things - Of God’s active concern for the goodness of all creation. Isaiah tells us that no matter what twisted conclusions we think we have reached, God never left.
God’s back has not been turned - our thought and actions have not wounded God’s pride - God has not been ‘offended by our godlessness…’
Isaiah’s argument here in chapter 40 might be summed up like this: you’ve got big problems, but God is still bigger. Bigger than our problems - bigger than the caricature of God that is publicly promoted.
God is not lurking in the shadows waiting for us to screw up so we can be punished. God waits out in the open for us to acknowledge that we are (always) in over our heads.
And of course, the argument doesn’t end with Isaiah. This was the theme of all the prophets that followed Isaiah - an argument brought to life in the person of Jesus.
No more must we imagine that God is too distant to be of use to us. No longer can we claim that God is not interested in ordinary human business. Jesus brings God’s compassion - God’s interest in the ordinary - to life for us.
Have you not known - Have you not heard?
In Jesus, we see God immersed in the everyday; intimately active; absolutely present. Whatever our circumstances - in spite of our questions and doubts - God is here. God is big enough to manage the complexities of our anxieties and fears. And those who wake up to that fact - those who practice patience with the present will be surprised by the nearness - the reality of God, and energized for whatever the future holds.
Thanks be to God. Amen