Sunday 19 January 2020
The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Most scholars agree that the Book of the Prophet Isaiah isn’t written by just one author. In fact, it was probably written over the span of a few hundred years. Scholars usually divide it into three sections, and each section is thought to have been written in a different historical context. The first section, called First Isaiah, was likely written in Judah during the time of the historical prophet named Isaiah. It was just as the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires were expanding and threatening the independence of the two Jewish kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Israel fell first to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Judah held out longer. They sustained several attacks from the Assyrians and then the Babylonians who replaced them, but Jerusalem finally fell to the Babylonians in 597 BCE. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and many Jews were deported to Babylon. The so-called Babylonian Captivity lasted for seventy years. This is the period when Second Isaiah was written, during the crisis when there was no temple in which to worship God, and many of God’s people were exiled from their homeland. The final section of the prophetic book, referred to as Third Isaiah, was written after the Babylonian captivity, when the Persians had conquered Babylonian, Jews were allowed to return to Palestine, and the temple was being rebuilt.
The passage that we have today from the Book of Isaiah is from Second Isaiah. So this is during the time when there is no temple in Jerusalem and many of God’s people are in captivity in Babylon. It is hard to overstate what a huge crisis this is for the people of Israel. For as long as anyone could remember, their religious practiced had been focussed on the temple and on the land. Now they didn’t have either. How could they worship God if they had no temple to worship in? How could they even talk about God if they were no longer in the land that God had promised them? Did their God even exist any more? Had the God of Israel been defeated by Marduk, the god of the Babylonians? Was this the end?
But it wasn’t the end. In fact, it is during this period of captivity that much of the bible came to be written. Stories that had been floating around and scraps of writings were collected, edited, brought together, and producing into something that was the beginning of our bible. If religion could not be practiced in the promised land, and if God could not be worshiped in the temple, then something else would have to take its place. And that something was scripture. That something was story and song, law code and myth, poetry and prophecy. If they could not build a temple out of stone, they would build a temple of parchment and ink. If they could not worship their God with burnt sacrifices, then they would worship their God with song and study. If they could not return to their homeland, then the stories of their faith would be their home.
This is the context from which our reading today springs. The people are looking forward to a time when, they pray, they will be able to return home, bring back the people who have been scattered, rebuild a temple, and perhaps return to life as it was meant to be. But that time has not yet come, and no one is sure if it ever will. But they long for it. They long for a return to the way things used to be.
And that’s a feeling the church can identify with in this age, isn’t it? We often long for a return to the way things used to be. We sometimes feel like we’ve been taken away from the place that felt like home. A good portion of the people here grew up in a time when church dominated society. For many of you, the church was the center of the town that you grew up in. Church activities came first, and everything else had to be scheduled around them. Church was the place people came not only to worship and also for social activity. It was expected that every upright citizen be connected to a church. It was expected that everyone come to church every Sunday. It was expected that every child would be baptized, that every wedding happen in the church, that every funeral happen in the church.
That’s not the reality that we live in anymore. Especially in this part of the country, church is not at the top of most people’s priorities. Instead of church being the expected thing, now church is the exceptional thing. Most people don’t go to church at all, ever. The people who are connected to a church tend not to come as often as they used to. Church is not the primary thing defining people’s schedules. It is not the driving moral force in every community. It is not the center of social activity. It is not the thing that everyone is simply expected to do. The world has changed in a way that is beyond our control. And sometimes we simply feel left behind.
And so it’s normal to want to get back to where we were. It’s normal to try to figure out how we can bring everyone back. It’s normal to want to make things like they used to be.
That’s what the Jews in Babylon want to do. They want to bring everyone back to Jerusalem. They want to go back to how it used to be.
But God will not let them be content with just getting back to the way things used to be. That would be a hard enough job on its own. But God is still not satisfied with it. “It is not enough, since you are my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel.” It’s not enough to gather up all of the Jews who have been scattered by war and famine and forced migration. What else could God possibly expect from them? Even that task seems impossible. But no. “It is not enough to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel. I will also appoint you as a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth!” I will also appoint you as a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth!
It’s not enough to just bring the Jews back to Jerusalem. What is needed is to do something new. What is needed is to spread the message to those who have never heard it before. What is needed is to cross uncrossable social boundaries and share God’s message of liberating grace with the world. It’s not just for Jews any more. The good news has to be shared with the Gentiles. The good news has to be shared with the nations.
You know, they never do get things back to the way they used to be. Some Jews do return to Jerusalem, but more stay behind in Babylon, and they continue to develop the scriptural tradition. A temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, but it is never as grand as it had been before. After a few more centuries it is destroyed again, never to be rebuilt. They never get back to where they had been before. They never make things the way they used to be.
But they do do something new. They develop a scriptural tradition that will eventually transcend the need for a temple. They develop a moral tradition that inspires and attracts Gentiles, both common people and philosophers. And eventually they extend the message of God’s liberating grace to a much wider circle of people, a circle that now includes close to four billion people worldwide. The people of Israel become a light to the nations. According to Isaiah, Israel becomes God’s secret weapon:
“The Lord called me before my birth,
called my name when I was in my mother’s womb.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
and hid me in the shadow of God’s own hand.
He made me a sharpened arrow,
and concealed me in God’s quiver,
saying to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I show my glory.”
I really like that image of God’s servant as a finely honed weapon, hidden away by God. I’m not always a fan of military imagery when it comes to God. It can often be very problematic, especially when it is preached by the powerful against the weak. But it’s important to notice here that the only weapon that is mentioned is words. “God made my mouth like a sharp sword, and hid me in the shadow of God’s own hand.” The weapon that God wields is the message of freedom, spoken by God’s servant. The weapon that God wields is the message of God’s own grace with humanity.
And what if God has known our names since before we were born? What if God has been honing us like a sword, hidden away for the right time? What if God is preparing to do something new with us in this world, not to get us back to the way things used to be, but to use us as a light to the nations?
For most of my time as your pastor, my office has been hidden snuggly away on the back of the lot where no one knows where to look for it, and the front doors of the church have remained locked most days. Now my office is right up front. Like, right up front. If I’m there, everyone can see it. It’s forward facing. Jennifer and I have both noticed a dramatic increase in the number of people who come in to talk to us. It is at least double, and perhaps quite a bit more than that. It’s both church people and people from the community. It makes a difference that we are forward facing.
Before we had our Open House and Building Dedication last week, a couple of you went out to invite folk in the houses that are nearest to us. It’s much of a walking neighborhood, but you made the effort to do it. I know that knocking on doors was not something that you were looking forward to doing. It’s not something we were ever trained for back when church was the center of the community. But afterward, I heard you say how meaningful the experience of knocking on doors had been for you. People wanted to hear from you. They wanted to be invited. They wanted to be heard by you. You took a risk, you let your light shine, and it made a difference. It made a difference to the people you talked with, and it made a difference to you, as well.
In the next year, I want us to think about what it means to be forward-facing with our faith. When we made our offices forward facing, it made a difference in how we connected with people. When some of you put your faith forward to knock on the doors of strangers, it made a difference. What else could happen if we face our faith forward? It’s not about getting back to where we used to be, it’s about looking ahead, facing forward in faith, and living as if we are God’s secret weapon, finely honed for such a time as this. That’s what a church called Spirit of Grace is called to do: to speak grace, to extend grace, to lead with grace. You’ve already begun. May God continue to lead you forward in faith, empower you as messengers of grace, and make you a light to the nations.