Passing Through

A Sermon Based on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-22
Preached on January 13, 2013

I have a love-hate relationship with the Biblical prophets. I love how their often strident voices yell at us, urging us to live better lives, pushing us to be all that God wants us to be. I love their focus on justice for the least among us. But most of all, I love the hopeful visions they cast about the better world, the better future that God has in mind for creation. Just close your eyes and listen to these words. Try to catch a glimpse in your mind’s eye of a world that looks like this:

  • They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks
  • Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened; And the ears of the deaf unstopped.
  • Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
  • I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.

What’s not to love?  I have to confess that I’m getting a little tired of the reality that the best words of grace and hope always seem to be deferred to some non-specific time in the unforeseeable future.

  • Behold the days are coming, says the prophet Amos.
  • The Lord will give you the desires of your heart, says the Psalmist.
  • The kingdom of God is at hand, says Jesus
  • I’m about to do a new thing, says God.

If Biblical historians and archeologists are correct, we’ve been waiting for these promised days to come for more than a couple of millenia. A quick listen to the local news, a few moments watching CNN, a brief glance at the newspaper is all we need to remind us how much we need God’s new thing right here and right now. I just want the Bible to be more specific.

  • On April 30, 2013 all tanks, military jets, hand guns, land mines, assault rifles, weapons of any kind of destruction, mass or otherwise, will be melted down and made into pots and pans, gardening tools and sewing machines.
  • On March 15, 2014 we will wake up to find that all cancer is curable, that there is no such thing as diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis or any other illness that ultimately beats us into the ground.
  • On October 12, 2015, everyone will have exactly what they need for a safe, healthy and hopefilled life. No one will be without a home and everybody will have enough to eat.

Wouldn’t you love it if the prophets had been that clear – if John the Baptist out in that wilderness had shouted a vision that included start dates? This is why I hate the prophets. They cast incredible visions, but leave the logistical specifics up to God. (Who, by the way, doesn’t seem to be very good at cluing us in to how the vision is going to unfold.)

This was a problem for the people of Israel, too. For generations, they had been listening to God’s promises. Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David – Each of these great men were told of the greatness to come. Each was promised that an incredible future was just around the corner. In one way or another, God’s people had been hearing about a new thing for as long as they could remember. It’s not surprising that we have more than a couple of Psalms that express the yearning that must have been in their hearts as they waited for God’s new thing to be completed.

How long, O Lord! How long?

By the time we catch up with Isaiah and his prophetic visions, dozens of generations have passed away since the time of the Exodus. Moses led people out of Egypt. Joshua led them into the Promised Land. David and a whole line of mostly righteous kings have guided the people to nationhood. But God’s people noticed that they weren’t getting any closer to the vision God had cast for Abraham. They were a nation – that much had come to pass. But the vision of dominance – the one where all nations are bowing down before Israel – that one seemed a long way off.

Tiny, insignificant Israel found itself caught between the great military and economic powers of Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt and the glory days promised to God’s people didn’t seem to be working out they way they had expected. So God’s chosen people began to look around for other options. Alliances with the various foreign kings were made as Israel explored the possibility of greatness achieved through political agreements. God’s people began to make use of other methods to enhance their regional greatness as well.

Practical connections were made through marriage contracts and trade agreements. Even the religious leaders began to take a look at the gods of the powerful. If the Babylonians achieved greatness through the support of Marduk, why not add that deity to the list? And why not adopt the little household godlets that provided for good fortune in the market and protected the Babylonians from every day problems like household fires, family illness, and death in childbirth.

It’s so hard to wait. Especially when we see how somebody else is getting what they want. Especially when we think we can figure things out for ourselves. It’s so hard to trust somebody else for future hope and security when we believe that we are fully capable of getting the ball rolling and keeping it rolling all by ourselves.

The bottom line for Israel – the bottom line for us – is trust. Even while we’re wondering “are we there yet?” Even as we demand: “why aren’t we there yet?” Even when it seems like we just keep passing through, that we are never arriving. Even in the midst of despairing: “how long, O Lord, before we get there?” We are called to trust.

Trust? Oh GOD!…How long, O Lord? I mean, really…how long?

Trust may well be one of the hardest things ever for a person of faith to do. And I think that’s why God goes to great lengths to remind the people of Israel just who God is and who God has been for them. Just take a look at how many times first person singular is used in this passage alone. I am. I alone. Mine. I formed, I redeemed, I saved. And so on. God isn’t on some narcissistic ego trip. The people needed to be reminded of their connection and their calling to a holy and loving God. And God doesn’t stop there. Before God says – forget the past – in order to bring their connection to a living and active God, the Lord calls up visions of deliverance, experiences of salvation from their past.

Isaiah didn’t call forth these reminders about the past because God wanted Israel to return to that world – to their glory days. God knew that tradition alone would not keep their faith alive. Still, it was important for them to remember, so that they could recognize that the power and presence of God had been with them them in every generation. That’s why God ultimately said: Forget about the past. Don’t keep going over old history. God wanted the people to know that it wasn’t possible to look backward and see the future God has in store. Remembering the past was not enough to keep the fires of hope burning in their hearts. God knew that if all the Israelites did was cling to a set of religious practices formed in their already distant past, those same practices would soon be empty of value and irrelevant for future generations. Instead, God’s voice called the people to turn their focus back to God’s purposes for creation and encouraged them to return to God’s power as their support in good and bad times. God knew that if the people he loved could reestablish their trust, they could find new meaning in the present and renewed hope for the future.

God’s voice is calling to us today through this ancient prophet. Today – on this day we remember the baptism of Jesus – on this day when we see the font and remember our own baptisms. That moment when Jesus passed through the waters, we we received those same waters – that was not the end of something. Baptism isn’t something we can check off a list and say: “well that’s finished.” If we hear anything in the lone wild voice of God’s prophets it’s a reminder that we are just beginning. When many of us would like to say: “I’ve done my time as a leader. I’ve served my limit on the Session. It’s my time to sit back and rest a bit.” God calls us to pay attention. To be sure, the light has come. Salvation has been given to us. But every single day, God is doing a new thing. Every day, we can be sure something new is about to burst forth in our midst. We aren’t just passing through this life. Every single day the Spirit is calling us to be an essential part of God’s new thing.

This year, as we begin visioning work we need to do to move into the vibrant future God has in mind for us, as details fall into place and our ministry together begins to unfold, trust needs to be our byword. We will be tempted to think about previous congregations and previous leaders and to try to bring that history to this time and place. Some of us will want to review the past and others will begin to think about how to bring new life the things we’ve always done. Together, we will need to trust that God is always ready to do a new thing, that God is about to do some new things in our midst.

To trust God means that we may have to let go of our plans and handbooks and lists and open our eyes and ears through prayer and study to the vision God has for us. What is God saying? What is God doing? How are we to be a part of that? We might not be able to simply sit around a table and plan for God’s new thing. We might not be able to do a cost benefit analysis or create a 100% effective and accurate strategic plan. Even though we can see with 20/20 clarity the efforts of the past, God’s open-ended, eternally hope-filled future is often less clear. Yet, trusting in the gifts we have received, trusting in the grace we have been given, we will move into this uncertain future together, carrying the light of Christ we know makes a difference. We will wonder a bit. And it’s certain we will wander around a bit more than we might like. But we can be sure that even if we don’t perceive it yet, God’s new thing is already springing forth among us.

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