Sermon: It Does Not Return to Me Empty

Sermon given at
9:30 Traditional Service
Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership
Hood River, Oregon
Sunday 13 July 2014
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

by Rev. David D. M. King

Isaiah 55:10-13

The lectionary text from Isaiah this morning comes from the time of Israel’s captivity in Babylon. During the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were conquered by the great empires of the age. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they forcibly relocated many of its leading citizens to Babylon, leaving behind only the common people. This is what is known as the Babylonian Captivity. It lasted seventy years, until the exiled Jews were allowed to return to Judea and begin rebuilding their civilization. The Babylonian Captivity changed Hebrew religion forever. Since the people no longer had a temple in which to worship God, written word became much more important. Much of what we now call the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, was written, collected, or edited during this period, and Babylon continued to be a major center for Jewish writing for centuries.

This bit of Isaiah, Isaiah 40-55, what scholars usually call 2nd Isaiah, comes from this period of exile. The temple has been destroyed. The people have been forcibly relocated. They don’t know what is going to happen next. Will they just stay there as exiles in Babylon until their children are completely assimilated into Babylonian culture? Will they ever be allowed to return to Judea? Will they ever be allowed to rebuild the temple? No one knows. But remember that the exile lasted for 70 years. After 50 or 60 years of living in a foreign land, one can imagine that hope of a return was beginning to fade. Most of the people alive by then would have never known any other home than Babylon. As many as three or four generations of Jews would have been native to this new land.

It is in this context that the prophet speaks the words we heard this morning. God has promised the people that they will be able to return to Judea, that they will be able to rebuild the temple, that they will continue to be God’s chosen people. But that promise may seem pretty far-fetched at this point, and the prophet who declares God’s promised return may be starting to look like more of a kook than a messenger of God.

But Isaiah persists in proclaiming that God will fulfill what God has promised. God is trustworthy. Whatever God says, God will surely do.

The metaphor that God, speaking through the prophet, uses is the metaphor of rain and snow. Whenever rain or snow come, they don’t return to the earth without watering the ground. So also, God’s word, once it has come to earth, does not return to heaven until it has accomplished something.

Being on the border between eastern Oregon and western Oregon, as we are here in Hood River, we’re familiar with both snow and rain. My earliest memory of Hood River involves snow. It was some winter in the mid-eighties. I was probably about as old as Karthik is now. My mom and my grandma and I were traveling from grandma’s house in Haines, Oregon, near Baker City, to our home at the time, in Banks, Oregon, on the Sunset highway west of Portland. We were driving my grandma’s big old Pontiac, and it was snowing and windy the whole way. [We made it as far as Multnomah Falls before I-84 was closed and we had to turn back. There had been freezing rain in the gorge, and the pavement at Multnomah Falls was a solid sheet of ice. We made it back to Hood River and found a room at Prater’s Motel on Oak and 13th, across from what is now the Egg River Inn. I remember it being a sort of divy diner back then. Snow was piled up everywhere, with a few footpaths dug out between the yard-high drifts. What I haven’t told you yet is that it was also New Year’s Eve. While Mom and Grandma were complaining about what a wretched New Year’s this was turning out to be and wondering whether or not the gorge would be open tomorrow, I was staring out the window at the diner across the street, watching the biggest snowflakes I had ever seen float incomprehensibly slowly to the ground. I didn’t mind being snowed in one bit.] And I had no idea that some thirty years later I’d be moving into a house about three blocks away.

When you have a big snow like that, the snow doesn’t just evaporate away the next day. It takes a while to melt and to seep into the ground. And when the ground isn’t ready for it, sometimes it melts off in great streams, running down the roadway and into the creeks and streams and rivers. Where my grandma lives, in Haines, people spend all winter looking up at the Blue Mountains and hoping for snow. And it’s not because they are interested in the ski season. They want snow on those mountains because they know that, come the spring and summer, that snow means life. Without the snow in the winter, there is no water in the summer for the irrigation and livestock that keep the wheels of civilization turning in that part of the world. Here in Hood River, without the snow and the rain, there are no cherries or pears or berries or salmon. Without the rain and the snow, there is no skiing, either, or wind surfing or kayaking or tourism or hydroelectric power.

Even though we twenty-first century Americans live a lot farther from the means of subsistence than God’s people did two-and-a-half millennia ago, it is still nonetheless true that without water, without snow and rain, there is no life. When the snow and the rain fall, they do not return to the heavens without first bringing life. They do not leave without first “watering the earth, making it conceive and yield plants, providing seed to the sower and food to the eater.” For every living thing on this planet, water is life.

And that, says the prophet, is exactly how it is with God’s word. When God’s word comes down to us human beings, it does not return to heaven until it has done something, until it has brought life, until it has produced fruit. “It does not return to me empty,” God says. It does not return to me empty.

In the gospel lesson today, Jesus tells a parable about how the earth receives the seed that a planter plants. The image of rain and snow as God’s word implies a similar parable. Depending on what state the ground is in when the snows and the rains come, it receives those snows and rains differently.

Around here, we get a lot of rain. The ground here is good at soaking it up, and it can be transformed almost immediately into life for plants and animals. That might be like us when we are particularly receptive to God. Whatever God has to say to us, we soak it right up, eager for more. God’s word produces fruit in us almost immediately.

In Denver, where we moved from, whenever it rains, it floods. Now, I grew up in western Oregon, so I kind of like a good rain now and then. There were only a couple of times while we were living in Denver that there was enough rain for me to feel like it was actually raining. Unfortunately, both of those rains resulted in Presidentially declared disasters. It’s awfully hard to enjoy the rain when it’s resulting in massive flooding. Even what seemed like only a little bit of rain to me would often cause some flooding. The ground was just too dry to take in all the water it was receiving, and so the water would stack up and be absorbed slower or flow on through to provide life and nourishment to some other place.

In the same way, sometimes we are too dry to receive the message of God’s word well. Sometimes it rolls over us like a flood, knocking down the things we are clinging so tightly to in order to make way for something new. Sometimes we need to have some old things washed away in order for us to be more faithful to God, in order to be ready to hear what God is trying to say to us right now.

Sometimes precipitation comes in the form of snow. It piles up and piles up now, but later it gradually melts and brings its life to the land around. Snow allows water to be stored up in the winter and released when it is really needed in the spring and summer.

God’s word can work like that, too. Sometimes we hear what God has to say, and it doesn’t really do too much for us right at that moment. But God’s word gets stored away in us. Then, when the time is right, sudden it comes back to us. Suddenly those words that had seemed rather dull before take on a bright and shining new appearance. Suddenly they speak to us in a new way. Like a kind of time-release medicine capsule, we received those words at one time, but they didn’t take effect until later. But still, those words of God did not return to heaven until they had done something in us.

That’s how it is with God’s word. Whether it is a word that we receive through reading scripture, an insight that comes through prayer or meditation, or the very person of Jesus himself, the word made flesh—no matter which form God’s word comes in, it does not return to God empty. Sometimes we are open and eager to receive it. Sometimes we experience God’s word as disruptive, even destructive, like a flood. Other times we do not perceive the import of God’s word until long after we have received it. In all these cases, though, the word does what God intends it to do. Whether we are ready for it or not, God is moving. God is speaking to us, and will not cease until we hear.

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