"Worn Out, Beaten Down, & Isolated...Got Hope?"
"Worn Out, Beaten Down, & Isolated...Got Hope?"
(a sermon based on Gospel: Matthew 5:14-17 Old Testament: Isaiah 60:1-3)
Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister
First Congregational United Church of Christ
201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707
Beside me you can see the U.C.C.'s "50th Anniversary" General Synod banner: "Let it Shine!" It reminds me of this morning’s Old Testament text in which the prophet Isaiah says: "Arise! Shine! For your light has come! The glory of the Lord has risen upon you."
Frankly, those words also make me think of when I was a child, and my Mom (Dodi) would come upstairs on a school-day morning, while it was still dark outside, and sing: “Rise and shine, and give God the glory, glory!” Rise and shine! “It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up, it’s time to get up in the morning!” Most of the time I would pull the covers closer around my ears, thinking to myself: “I’ll rise, but I ain’t gonna shine!”
I wouldn’t be surprised if Isaiah’s call to the people of Judah in his own day garnered just such a reluctant response. We may rise up, because we have to… but we’re not about to put a shiny face on it. (!) The people to whom Isaiah spoke those up-beat, peppy words faced another day of labor -- hard labor, forced labor -- driven by their captors in Babylon.
Yes, Isaiah’s people (the Jews) had been grabbed up by the Enemy Empire and taken into Exile in a foreign land. We think we have it bad with the CoronaVirus economic shut-down and forced isolation in our homes… But Isaiah’s people had been defeated in war -- kidnapped by Babylonian soldiers and taken into prison camps hundreds of miles away from Jerusalem -- to work as exiled captives in what we today call “Iraq” – then, it was Babylon.
The remnant refugees from what was formerly independent Israel were far from their home – worn-out by hard work, beaten down by their captors… They were being fed strange food, clothed Babylonian style, bombarded by foreign speech! Nothing was familiar, and they couldn’t do anything about it. (What a bummer!)
If you’ve ever traveled to another country, you might know how disoriented they feel. Patty & I lived for two years in Germany and again (after seminary) we lived in Switzerland. Those are both fine modern European nation-states, with comfortable lifestyles, but they still came across (at first) like a nation of strangers. Street signs are in a different language, the food is not what we know from home, the money is different – Deutsche Marks, then (now the “Euro”); Swiss Francs. Patty & I had no political influence on the natives since we were “Auslander” (foreigners)… and nobody ever explained the cultural “rules” until after you had broken them!
In Switzerland, for example, where everything runs with Swiss precision, on time and in order… Patty & I put our household garbage out at the curb in black trash-bags right next to our neighbor’s trash which were in brown trash bags. (The brown ones cost three or four times more than the cheap black ones, and since Patty & I were on a limited budget we bought the cheaper option.) But our trash was left at the curb when the others’ were picked up! Nobody told us that the City workers would only collect the brown trash bags. We later found out why. The extra cost was because the trash-collection expense was included in the price of the brown bags. Who would have known? Everything was a bit “foreign.”
When I think of being far from home (as were Isaiah’s people) and unable to get back, I think of the Preschool Director at one of my former churches (Maria) whose family took a Christmas trip.
She and her husband -- together with their three teenage boys as well as her Mother-in-law & Father-in-law -- reserved a time-share in Spain for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
They flew out from LAX on British Air, connecting through London’s Heathrow airport, in order to to get to their final destination in sunny Spain. (!) Except for one thing…
Their flight was the last one in before Heathrow airport was shut down due to an extreme snowstorm. (!) The seven of them got out of the airport on the very last bus before London’s public transportation also shut down, and fortunately they acquired the last four rooms in a London-area hotel. The airport remained closed due to ice and heavy winter weather for the entire week!
The hotel was much more expensive than their already-paid-for time-share in Spain, and the family (of course) had not packed appropriate clothes for snowbound England! They had to shop for winter clothing during the snowstorm! To make a long story short, Maria’s family was far from home for the next week, unable to get back, and their week of ordeal in English “exile” cost them $30,000.
I’m sure the Jewish remnant in Babylonian exile felt even more frustrated than Maria’s family in their inability to get anyone to stand up for them… to take their side, to protect them, correct the injustices, take care of their needs in an understanding way. When you’re “stuck” in a foreign place – far from home – you just want someone who speaks your language, someone who knows you, who loves you, someone with whom you don’t always have to “translate” what you mean.
The captives from Jerusalem were tired, and grumpy, and put-upon. They knew they were not the ones in charge! Their God must not have things “under control” after all, or why would all this bad stuff be happening to them!? Their sons and daughters have been taken from them violently -- sent elsewhere to work, or to die.
The Jewish elders know that they cannot take care of their people. Jewish lives don’t seem to matter! The leaders from defeated Israel know they cannot protect themselves from the violence of everyday life.
In Isaiah’s world, the people were simply “on hold” (like Maria’s family marooned in London in the snow, or like many of us stagnating in social isolation due to the lingering shut-down of our community life). The people were hopeless. For them, there was no “safe” place anymore. They knew they were in trouble, and they felt helpless to change anything. (!) What they wanted was a place where they could hide out -- where they could lock the doors, and lick their wounds, and make the world go away! (“Take it off of my shoulders!”) What they don’t want is any kind of “pep talk” from the prophet Isaiah: “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory!”
Why not? What’s wrong with a little Good News in the middle of such bleak hopelessness? After all, up until then, their Bible was clear: God was with them, to save them! God’s salvation is free. God’s “grace” is, by definition, free. The “revelation” of who God is -- the light and the glory of God -- is there (says Isaiah), yours for the asking. So, why don't folks just open their hearts and believe it!? (“Behold… the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen in you!”) Why don't we want to receive good news like that?!
Why is it some people will not rejoice when the light dawns in their darkness? Why don’t we all rise up in praise upon discovering that we are loved by God; we are embraced by God...? That we are already forgiven and reconciled -- that we can live in peace, and die in peace... Why not!? Why is that so hard to believe good news?
Maybe the timing is wrong. Maybe we just can't "feel good" about God right now, because we are in pain. Or because we are "at wit's end" -- plunging around in darkness, devastated, bummed-out (like those exiles were). Or we’re sick; the mortgage is due; our family's treating us badly; we’re feeling all alone, lost, weak...
When the circumstances surrounding us have nothing good for us (as we’ve been hearing for the past five months!), then it makes sense to think that God doesn't really like us, either!
It makes me think of the advice that Job's wife gave him when he was down and out -- that morning when he had lost everything: his wealth, his health, his children, his home... What sensible words of advice did his sweetheart have for him? "Curse God and die!" THAT'S what makes sense! Just "curse God, and die!"(!)