A Sermon based upon Isaiah 40-1-11;27-31
Happy New Year, one and all! May this be the Lord’s year in Alpena. May we see a few new signs that the promises and visions of the prophets of old are being fulfilled… especially those of the prophet Isaiah, from whom we heard in this morning’s two Scripture readings.
Some sentences of chapter 40 simply leap off the page with familiarity, especially during Christmas-tide and Epiphany. “Comfort, comfort ye my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” A voice cries in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord! (!) Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill brought low… And the glory [the glory of the Lord!], shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together… for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” Do those verses not resonate indelibly with the majestic melodies of Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Messiah!”? Do we not feel the rumblings of John the Baptist’s bold preaching as he “prepares the way” for Jesus’ ministry?
On this very first Sunday in the New Year, I felt it is most appropriate to look back 2,500 years to Isaiah’s vision of what was coming on the horizon of his day, which Christians see fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ… and which points us still into a new future.
Six or seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, the word of God came to Isaiah. He’s got 66 chapters of poetry -- and adventure stories and prophecies -- accredited to him! That’s ten more than Jeremiah… and almost twenty more than Ezekiel! (By contrast, Jonah has only 4 chapters; Habbakuk three; Haggai only two!)
Isaiah’s social commentary covers three periods of Hebrew history: first, from the time when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was being destroyed by Assyrians from Damascus and Nineveh near the end of the Jewish Civil War.
Second, when the remaining kingdom of Judah (& its Capitol City Jerusalem) were under attack from the Babylonians; we call that “2nd Isaiah”.
And, third -- “3rd Isaiah” -- was during the 70 years of Jewish captivity when the leading families were in exile in Babylon. (Today we call that country “Iran”.)
It is during this last very bleak period that Isaiah articulated the reassureingly hopeful vision of God coming with mighty arms to “feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (much like we see in our Good Shepherd window up front here).
Yes, in the very worst of times, God gave Isaiah visions of a coming “Day of the Lord” when the “lamb would lie down with the lion” and when swords of war would be transformed into plowshares. “I ain’t gonna study war no more!”
In the soon-coming Day of the Lord “the knowledge of God would cover the earth, just like waters that cover the sea”. Isaiah writes: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create! … No more shall be heard the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be… an infant that lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days; for the child shall die at 100 years old! … They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” How hopeful would such a day be! (Can you almost feel it coming?)
It was (yes) a time of despair and defeat for the remnant people of God. Their national identity was a thing of the past. Surviving in exile -- in foreign captivity, not just as refugees or asylum-seekers! -- was the name of the game. In the midst of fear and death, with horrors behind them and hopelessness on the horizon, God gave the word to Isaiah: “Comfort, comfort my people…”
Walter Brueggemann, a well-known and popular (though now retired) UCC professor of Old Testament, wrote a book back when I was in seminary: “The Prophetic Imagination.”
He makes the case that a biblical prophet is often a “contrarian”. When the people think things are going well -- as they prosper and find life easy -- the prophet critiques the social injustices and self-centered arrogance, idolatry and materialism, of the leading citizens and power-brokers. However, when people are in dire straits, feeling frustrated and powerless -- helpless, hapless, and hopeless -- the prophet encourages a new vision. In short, the biblical prophet comforts the afflicted… and afflicts the comfortable!
“Get you up to a high mountain,” says Isaiah, “O Zion, herald of good tidings. Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings! Lift it up! Fear not! Say to the cities of Judah: ‘Behold your God! Behold, the Lord God comes with might; behold, his reward is with him and his recompense before him.” … “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended; that her iniquity is pardoned; that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sin.”
Isaiah tells the people that God is about to intervene. The “glad tidings” are that the Lord is about to interrupt the process of warfare and captivity (and well-deserved penalty) in order to bring all the divine glory and goodness that had been promised to the people of Israel back when they had been doing well.
A way is being prepared (a highway) in the desert wilderness (between Babylon and old Israel) which will bring the people straight back… Every valley shall be raised up and every mountain & hill be made low. The uneven ground will be made level and rugged places will become smooth. And the glory of the Lord (the God of the Bible) will be revealed, and all people (together) will see it!
As I said a moment ago, we cannot read this memorable text without hearing the orchestration and harmony of Handel’s Messiah” in the background. It inspired him, and it inspires us. But, as Christians, we also cannot read this text without thinking about Jesus and his ministry as the much-anticipated (longed-for and awaited) fulfillment of Isaiah’s promises. We call the church season which begins today “Epiphany” -- a revealing -- because it is when Jesus was “revealed” (or manifested) to the people as the promised Messiah.
But such a focused vision (in which Jesus was recognized) was not so clear to Isaiah. For him, the description of the Day of the Lord -- the promised salvation of the people, the good tidings which were heralded from the hills – described the “end” of what had been and the inauguration of a brand new era. (Not unlike what Nancy Pelosi is promising with the new majority in Congress!)
For Isaiah, what God was announcing was the end of suffering: the end of captivity, the end of violence, the end of idolatry and corruption, the end of fear. The herald of good tidings who got up the high mountain -- the heralds of good tidings, who lifted up their voices with strength, saying: “Fear not! Behold your God!” – were announcing the start of something new: the appearing of God among them, the intervention of God into human and earthly affairs. Human life on earth was about to be renewed -- refashioned, re-arranged -- according to the will & purpose of God. The Lord God was “interrupting” history -- bringing the old ways to an end and starting something altogether new. (Not just a switch in whose party is in the majority – something altogether new!)
Do you see why I thought that Isaiah’s words might be a good way to start a New Year? “Behold,” says the Lord God, “ , “I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered nor come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create!”
The “end” of the world as they knew it – the “eschaton” it is called in Greek, and has been a major theme of some theologians – is the work of God. The culmination of history and fulfillment of God’s Dream for the world will not be brought about by clever politicians, or deep-pocket philanthropists, nor by military action, nor even by the combined efforts of faithful people (like the Jews in Exile in Isaiah’s day, or by you and me today). We can do our part to help God along, but the End – the eschaton, the salvation -- is the work of God.
Now, that’s something we can TRUST! I would rather it be God’s design and God’s doing – God’s “dream”, if you will – than any of our current crop of politicians. (From what I’ve seen, they are guaranteed not to get it right.)
If Isaiah is to be believed, God will send a Messiah to establish justice, secure peace, reveal truth, and uncover beauty.
Like the dispirited Jews in Isaiah’s day, I (too) find inspiration in Isaiah’s words. I like these texts; they fill me with hope. They kindle what Walter Brueggemann calls my “prophetic imagination”. Yes, things can be different than the present “status quo”; they will be different! (Thank God!)
“Get you up to a high mountain… herald of good tidings! (That’s you! -- That’s me!) Lift up your voice with strength… herald of good tidings. Lift it up! Fear not! Say: “Behold your God!”
As I contemplate the “end” of the current ways of the world -- and the advent (or epiphany) of the Realm of God -- I am filled with hope and with new energy. For me it is a “blessed” hope, because it is a hope of real blessing: blessing for me, for you, and for the world God loves.
When times are hard, and the outlook is bleak, a person with hope is like a light in the darkness. Hope is a gift from God, for which we should be thankful. “In the end,” writes the Apostle Paul, “these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.” Well, that may be St. Paul’s preferred virtue, but I like hope! And as he says: “Hope remains.” In the end, hope endures.
Because hope endures, we are able to embrace the future -- not with the cynicism and skepticism of our jaded age, but with anticipation and delight. Hope draws its vision and strength from the future, not the past. Hope is rooted in the future, is tied to the future, will flourish and become fulfilled in the future.
I think it was Carl Sandberg who wrote: “Hope ties itself yonder.” Yonder.. up ahead, down the road apiece, around the next river-bend. Hope keeps us leaning into tomorrow… Hope keeps us connected to the New Year we have just begun; and what our potentials are, where our opportunities lie, where we can best be invested for a flourishing return. Hope looks ahead… to next year, to the next century, perhaps even to the final “Eschaton” when Jesus is “all in all” (the Alpha & Omega, the beginning and “the End.”).
The prophet Nahum once said: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace!” (Nahum 1:15) Proclaiming peace is one kind of good news, but glad tidings are anything that draws our hearts closer to God and towards one another. The Christmas angels brought “tidings of great joy, which would be for all the people” and they sang: Glory to God in the highest, and Peace on Earth among men, with whom God is pleased.” I think it is good news whenever it is God news!
Hope is how we reach out to the future with all its rich possibilities, seize it, and pull it into the present. When we have hope (like Isaiah, or like Jesus, or like St. Paul), it is as if we are infusing the present moment with direction and energy from God’s hoped-for future. We are drawing upon the power of the future (as it is intended by God) to transform the present.
Frankly, that’s a pretty good definition of “faith”, too, don’t you think? Hope takes its inspiration from the future, and our faith transforms it into perspiration today. (!) Hope gets things done (sometimes against the odds, and often against the grain of conventional thinking) because it takes its pattern from the future.
President John Kennedy once said: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” A few years later, his brother Bobby (himself a candidate) said: “I see things that are not; and ask, why not?”
As Christians, we see things that are not yet – things that Isaiah says will be, things that Jesus says are coming, things that the later Apostles said will be happening – and we ask: “Well, why not now? Why not today? Why not here and now?”
We see Isaiah’s vision of a coming kingdom that is just and kind, merciful like a good shepherd, righteous like good government, and altogether lovely… and ask: “Why not now?” If the future that God revealed to the prophet -- and the possibilities that God unleashed in Jesus’ life and teachings and his resurrection; and the transformation of lives that the early church witnessed -- is a true picture of God’s intended future “end”, then such a vision alters the present by empowering us to “rejoice”, to embrace, to reconcile where we’ve become alienated, and to serve where we can with integrity… in Jesus’ name.
As we start a New Year (my sixth year here in Alpena), I can say that I am proud to serve as the Minister of a congregation of people who gather to worship God with open minds -- and with open hearts, and open hands ready to serve our neighbors -- who then leave the sanctuary when the hour of worship is done to serve the needs of society around us. We do this year-in-&-year-out with the desire to imitate Jesus: his approach to people, his attitudes, and relying on his resources. I want to be sure that we are all ready for the End (the Eschaton) when it comes -- when God’s Dream is fulfilled for our world.
And if we do so, frankly, we will be right alongside our sisters and brothers from other denominations and congregations -- so long as they, too, are living like Jesus, praying and loving and welcoming and serving. (You can feel free to imitate them, too -- these folks from other churches in town -- if you like… so long as they imitate Christ; because, you see, there is really only One Church.)
We started today’s service with the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God’s new order -- God’s coming kingdom -- which gave the world a preview and foretaste of Jesus’ own ministry. So it would seem appropriate to conclude today’s sermon by quoting another passage from the prophet Isaiah… a passage which was selected by Jesus himself, as he stood up to read Scripture in his own hometown congregation in Nazareth. I am reading from the Gospel of Luke (Chapter 4:18-21), in which Jesus quotes Isaiah (Chapter 61:1-2):
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has
anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has
sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering
of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
I suppose it’s no wonder that Jesus’ followers thought of Him whenever they read the prophet Isaiah. Here was somebody who was actually living as Isaiah had described it. It’s no wonder they began to call Jesus the “Messiah”.
And in time, his followers took upon themselves the challenge: to live like Jesus; to trust like Jesus; to forgive like Jesus; to take risks like Jesus; to share their possessions like Jesus; and to offer themselves (as Jesus did) a living sacrifice for the world’s salvation, out of love for God, and in Jesus’ name.
So… “Get you up to a high mountain, O herald of good tidings.
Lift up your voice with strength, herald of good tidings! Lift it up!
Fear not! Say to all: ‘Behold your God!” … and we do so, in Jesus’
 I Corinthians 13: 13
 Luke 2:10,14
 Isaiah 65:25
 Isaiah 2:4
 Isaiah 65:17-21 (selected verses)
 Brueggemann, Walter, “The Prophetic Imagination”, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1978