"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!"(!)
To believe in a good God... To believe that we are freely and joyously reconciled with a God who loves us (who is with us even in our exile, who wants us to flourish in every way) DOESN'T MAKE SENSE when we hurt. We just can't believe it. "Don't turn on the lights, man; just leave the darkness DARK!"
When we are dulled by grief, or beaten down by frustration, it is easier to refuse the loving care offered by God's Word and God’s followers -- easier to ignore promises of coming newness (reconciliation, reunion, joy & hope) -- than it is to believe that God actually is still at work in us.
When we are overwhelmed with personal issues, with turmoil in the family and trouble in the news ... When we are tired from our work and wearied from the physical burdens and emotional pressures we carry ... When we are morally confused about what values deserve our investment and who is really in charge ...That’s when we need Isaiah’s word the most: the encouraging word!
I'm sure you've been there. I know I've been there…Times when the frustration, confusion, criticism, & darkness or fear, makes us want to lock the door of our hearts to the love that God has for us. Love delivered through caring people -- people like the prophet Isaiah, people like Jesus -- people we sometimes meet in our neighborhood as we go for a walk, or ones we know from Church.
It's natural to be like that... To want to keep our lives just as dark and cold as the “diseased” world around us seems to be.
And yet, to do so is to miss the Messiah (the Savior) who has already come. It’s giving in to the darkness that shrouds our nation.
Then again, if you are like me, we may keep the door to our heart closed just because we are too tired to open it. It's not that we are blind to the glory of God (& the miracle that Jesus Christ has come into the world!), or that we are too mean-spirited or evil to let the light come into our lives... No, we're not blind, nor evil. We're just too pooped!
Working from home, while managing children, burn us out. Self-pity drains our energy. Criticism erodes our confidence. Or, because of personal circumstances and crisis situations that we prefer to keep private, we simply "hurt" so much that we have no "spiritual push" left in us.
A recent loss -- by death, divorce, unemployment, whatever! -- may make us feel stuck in a void, sucked down into an empty pit where nothing ANYONE can do or say will make us FEEL that life is alright. It happens! We've all had those moments -- those weeks! Some of us may be having them right now.
If we cannot locate the energy to accept God's presence in OURSELVES -- to accept grace and forgiveness for ourselves -- then we surely cannot feel it for others. Not because we are EVIL, but because we are exhausted.
Then it is not so much a matter of us CHOOSING not to “open the door” to God's messengers of light and grace and Good News... we simply don't have enough strength to do it. GOD needs to open the door!
When we pray for a miracle to happen, it does not need to be a major healing, or divine vision, or tremendous event... It may take a miracle just to get us to feel (to truly, deeply feel) that things are ALRIGHT when everything (everything) seems all wrong! By ourselves, we may be too tired to feel it.
"Arise? Shine? C’mon, Isaiah. Just leave the darkness DARK!" We’re too tired to turn on the light, and so we sit in the dark (like everyone else).
When we’re worn out, beat down, fatigued, or failing, it’s natural to want to roll over in bed and cover our ears, cover our eyes, when the alarm goes off: “You’ve got to get up!” It’s natural to be that way, but it’s not faithful. Isaiah is not merely stating a fact, he’s giving an order! “Arise! Shine! Because your light has come!” That light, which is understood as a gift from God, carries with it the power to transform the remnant Israel so that the scattered nation will be restored, and also -- as the Jews begin to take on the light of God themselves -- those outside of Judea will inevitably be drawn to their light.
Kings will be drawn (like moths to a flame) to “the brightness of your dawn.” In other words, the light that is intruding into their darkness – the light of God that comes from God – will be seen by the other nations as Israel’s own rising. In the face of gloom and despair, the glory of God brackets, contains, & overwhelms the darkness everyone else experiences.
We all know that life relies on light. You can’t miss a bright shining light, because light is (by its very nature) so visible!
An all-enveloping night -- darkness like the empty stretches of outer space -- will not give rise to life. Light is crucial to the very survival of the created order.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to his followers that they were “the Light of the World! A city set on a hill for all to see!” Well, a city set on a hill does not need light-hearted light; it needs a dynamo of energy to set it ablaze for all the world to see.
Have you noticed how some folks naturally radiate the warmth and engaging style of “light”? -- light-hearted people, with a light touch, or who strike us like a ray of light in the dark of night. Some folks appear to us as light-bearers, radiant, charismatic, extroverted, visible.
But there are others who, by temperament, are less visible, less brilliant, much more introverted and perhaps more-easily discouraged. Each of us, truth be told, are just "ordinary folk."
And it's my hunch that ordinary folk (like us) feel "too tired" a LOT!
We’re plenty tired enough apart from those of us suffering from colds, pneumonia, & recurrent worries about cancer, Mary Davison’s broken wrist, Dolly’s recent heart surgery, pending knee & hip replacement surgeries, and so forth... those kinds of things exhaust us. We get the blahs; it happens!
With all that surrounding us we tune in to “virtual worship” and listen to words from Isaiah, or from Jesus -- words about a grace and light that has come to make life "alright at the core..."
But we are muzzled by fatigue, shackled by our fear, paralyzed by our own very real hurts and losses, such that we cannot find the extra reserve of power to open our lives to the REALITY of that Gospel message -- to the FACT of God's presence in the world, & of God's love experienced in this church!
Then, as I said a moment ago: it is not so much a matter of us CHOOSING to open the door to God's message... we simply don't have the strength to do it. GOD needs to take the initiative, to open the door!
The surprise is that God DOES open the door – sometimes... The miracle we need DOES HAPPEN, and God offers us the gift of knowing that while things seem to be all wrong around the edges, things are alright at the core. The CoronaVirus happened, but we’re still here. The exile has taken us (and isolated us, and put fear in place of our faith), but a new future is in the making…
… A new normal is on the horizon, if we lean into it… and make a better world than we had before. Darkness has over-whelmed the nations, yes; but our light has come. “Arise!” says Isaiah: “Shine!”
In the midst of our frustration and fatigue, an Isaiah-like person announces God’s Good News to us. A Jesus-like person preaches it LOUDLY, clearly, and puts it into practice personally. And the further surprise is that we, sometimes, accept it.
Sometimes... someone comes to us with a prayer like Saint Patrick’s, to remind us that with this surrounding shield of God's strong love, we ARE going to be alright! Have faith. Trust God. Arise! And Shine!
As Jesus said in his Sermon: a lamp sheds no light if you put it under your bed. (!) So, let’s get it up, friends! Get it out! Hold it high! Not for our glory. Not for First Congregational United Church, but for God !
Shine on! Amen