Submit Your Own!
By rick brand
I am curious as to whether or not I need to tell the congregation where the last two stories come from. I do not think they know Barbara or Walter. I have put that into a footnote. But should I mention it in the sermon?
Text: Isaiah 35:1-10
A GOOD WORD
December 16, 2007
First Presbyterian Church of Henderson, NC
Rick Brand, Pastor
As long as I have been old enough to listen to what adults say, I have heard the same thing. I started delivering newspapers when I was in the fourth grade, and every time I would collect for the paper somebody would ask me, when are they going to start printing some good news. Yet somehow the negative news seems to sell papers better, and the faster you can get it on the internet the happier we are.
Perhaps you have noticed it as well, when you met someone and ask them how they are they will start telling you their problems and the challenges they are facing instead of the good things and the solutions they have found. The negatives of life seem to be what we focus on. Did you ever wonder a few years ago when the country was caught up in the great Ten Commandment debate, why we were so insistent on putting up the Ten Commandments but nobody wanted to put up the Beatitudes? The Ten Commandments -- Thou shall not, Thou shall not... all the negatives, and the Beatitudes, Blessed are the poor, blessed are the peacemakers. The Ten Commandments are all the things we are against. The Beatitudes are the vision of what we are for. But nobody was pushing the Beatitudes. We are usually so much better at telling our children, "don't do that", put that down, don't eat that. than we are at telling them the things that we want and hope they will do. In our political campaigns we are so much more skilled at negative attacks than we are at being able to create and share a vision of the positives.
Which is why this 35th chapter of Isaiah is such a wonderful poem for us at this time of the year. In the 34th chapter of Isaiah, Isaiah has talked about the coming of the reign of God and its negative impact on life, but now in the 35th chapter Isaiah wants to give us the positive picture of the kingdom of God. Isaiah gives us a lyrical anticipation of the coming of the time when God restores all creation to well being, the faithful will be healed and all the lost will be brought home to joy. We as Christian people may speak negatively about what the culture has done to our celebration of Christmas, but we also need to share with the world the positive vision of what the coming of kingdom of God means to us. It is not that we are against economic development, but we have a vision of a world that lives in a sustainable economy that is environmentally positive. We await and pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God that has been revealed in Jesus because it will bring the vengeance of God. The vengeance of God that not only removes that which is evil, but sets right all and makes right all that is broken and distorted.
It is not that we do not like what we see necessarily, it is just that as the people of God we have this magnificent picture of the transformed and renewed creation when God brings his kingdom in fullness. This is the full picture of what all history will be like when all is as Jesus taught us to desire. Creation may now be sinking into dysfunctional, deathly chaos, ice caps melting, global warming, drought, fires and famine, but creation will be rejuvenated, the earth will be fruitful and all the wilderness and rocky places will be productive. "The wilderness and dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom, the crocus will blossom abundantly, and all the ground will be made fertile.
Not only will the earth be fertile, but there will be water in abundance. "For water shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; and the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water. The grass hall become reeds and rushes." As we are watching and worrying about the water in our state, we can feel the kind of delight and relief that will come when the water flows in great abundance and all have plenty.
The Coming Kingdom of God has a lush and glorious picture of the earth renewed and all the barren, rocky, scarred places of earth restored. But the vision of the Kingdom of God also points to a different kind of community. The coming of the Kingdom of God will make the weak strong and those of feeble knees (does that sound like some of us) will be firm, and the timid and fearful hearts will be encouraged and inspired by the "Fear Not, for the Lord is with you." That is what the angels say at the birth of Jesus. "Fear not, for the God is with you." There is a new community and there is a new highway to that community. A highway shall be there, a road without danger or peril, no lions or thieves, but the road by which all those who are exiled from the community may come home. The ransomed of the Lord shall return with singing. This is the road by which all those who were in exile shall be able to come home. This is the road by which those who have been held in slavery are freed and coming home. This is the road the refugees from war, famine and disease will use to return to their place. This is the way by which those who have lived offended and disgusted by what they have had to live through and with come to the place where there is only that which is pleasing and good. The exiles, the refugees, the prisoners, and the slaves, the sick and the lame, will journey down the Holy Way and there will be nothing unclean in the place where they come. Nothing that will defile or disqualify them from worship. This will be a holy community, a restored community, even as the earth has been renewed and restore. There will be no rebellious and arrogant souls who think they know more than God, there will be no fools who want to try something contrary to the wisdom of the Lord.
The redeemed and the ransomed are coming home. Coming back where they are welcomed and received as part of the family of God. Back where they gather round and join in the songs of celebration and delight. The land rejoices with abundance and the people rejoice with song. God's vengeance has come, and all has been set right. Vengeance of God is the act of God bringing His salvation to put things back into God's intended order. Such vengeance may have an destructive aspect as it shatters and breaks all that is contrary to God's purposes, but then it is the setting back in place all as it should be.
It would be appropriate to say that the mission trip to the Gulf Coast last summer was a small act of God's vengeance. There was the removing and tearing down all that was destroyed and broken and there was the putting up and making straight and fixing the homes of those who lived there. God's vengeance against evil is to remove it and to restore the good. Here is the picture of that community that lives in the joy of that restored community. That contentment, the peace, that delight to be at home with others is the joy of the kingdom. God created us in joy and created us for that joy, and it is the vision of the Kingdom that we will live in that joy at the end.
So it only makes sense that for us as those who look forward in faith to that coming kingdom of God that we do guide our actions by that vision. That picture of the Kingdom to come helps us pick and chose our actions. That which helps to restore the earth and helps build community are the works of the people of God for the Kingdom of God.
John Cheever had a short story I remember reading many years ago about his brother. He talked about how his brother was one of those who always looked at the negative side of things. Life was always hard. Everybody was out to get you. The deck of cards was just stacked against the little guy. The small investor never had a chance. As I remember the story, the last scene was a description of a beautiful sunset on the coast of Maine. The family was there. Their wives were there. It had been a glorious day, and Cheever describes this sister in law coming out of the ocean, happy, strong, health, and all his brother's eye could see was the mole on her shoulder.
Isaiah knows that as the people of God we will have some words of judgment to declare, but we are also encouraged to tell the vision of the coming Kingdom. We have some no-no's but only because we have this much greater and glorious vision of the renewal of creation and community by the power of God. We have a vision by which to work to make the kingdom visible around us.
Two stories: Walter Wangerin shared this moment. It was a late Saturday night as he sat in his study at the church trying to write his Sunday Sermon. He could think of nothing to write so he sat in silence. Then he noticed that he was hearing water running. Water running? Where was that coming from. He figured it was more productive than staring at blank pages so he got up to investigate.
Without turning on any lights, he went through the sanctuary and down into the basement. He listened and the water continued to run. He got beneath a basement window and he saw two feet in high heels. He knew whose feet they were. The woman who lived next door to the church. The woman who had a lot of different men visiting her at all hours of the day and night and not her family members. "Wow, she's probably been stealing our water all summer- maybe longer." So with great delight as the water continued to run, he began to turn the cut-off valve. The water slowed. Then stopped. He listened. He heard her shout something. Then the feet began to run away. At first he took great delight in having caught her and stopped her. He laughed to himself. She knows that I know now. By the time he got back to his office, he sat down and began to cry.
It is "hot town, summer in the city, back of my neck getting dirty and gritty." New York City, heat wave. The children pour into the streets because there are no fans or air-conditioners inside, and while it is not cooler on the street, at least there is more room to move around. They eventually gather around the fire hydrant, and suddenly somebody knows the trick and unlocks the hydrant. Water shoots out, a wondrous gushing stream, into the windows of the passing cars. The children pretend to run away in fear of getting wet, but they are soaked in seconds. The children dance in the water. They will play until somebody comes and turns it off, but often the police look the other way. The grown ups walk close enough to get some spray on their faces. The women in the windows smile.
Which of those two stories do you think suggests the Kingdom of God for which we wait?
Isaiah 35 - D. von Schlichten
By Lois P. Strukl
Dear Rev. von Schlichten,
This is an excellent sermon.
It uses very few words to express strongly that God will lead us away from suffering.
Isaiah 35 does describe the great suffering of the people of Israel in exile. Fifty years of captivity meant that several generations would have not been born in freedom. The young were instructed that life could be different and that did turn out to be the case.
We are often arrogant and assume that our own difficulties are so much worse that those of others. This passage tells us that we are wrong.
Thank you for this sermon. I would not change one word.
Sermon on Isaiah 35:1-10 for Dec. 16
By David von Schlichten
Suffering and Overcoming
(Word count: 685)
December 16, 2007
Helen Keller said, “The world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming it.”
The world is full of suffering. We lamented over suffering last Wednesday during Bible study. We mourned that some people have sent hate mail to the troops. We lamented over yet another story of shootings. We filled with sadness as we spoke about loved ones dying from cancer. All of us around the table last Wednesday felt the weight of the world's suffering.
However, we also had stories of joy. We talked about a man who had saved another man's life with one of those portable defibrilators. We gave thanks for a young girl having a miraculous recovery from an illness that could have killed her. The world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming it.
We opened our Bibles to the first reading for today, Isaiah 35:1-10. The passage burst with life and hope. Isaiah 35 promises that the desert shall bloom and that God will create a royal highway on which he will lead his people home. Through the wilderness God leads his people home, protecting them from getting lost and from wild animals. God leads us away from suffering, overcomes it for us.
This passage, Isaiah 35, originally referred to the people of Israel returning home from the Exile. In 587, the Babylonian Empire attacked southern Israel, knocked down the Temple, destroyed Jerusalem, and took hundreds of God's people into captivity. For about fifty years, God's people wept in captivity by the cold waters of Babylon. Finally, in 538, King Cyrus of Persia set the people of Israel free. After fifty years of captivity, the people of God could go home.
Isaiah 35 describes that return home. God leads the people of captivity to freedom, to their homeplace. You know how good it feels to go home after being away for a long time. Isaiah 35 sings of that journey, with God leading.
That event happened over 2,500 years ago. Isaiah 35 reminds us of that event as a way of declaring, “God has saved us before, so we know he will save us again.”
Indeed, Isaiah 35 also points ahead to the End, the Second Advent of God, the Second Coming of Christ. The day will dawn with salmon-colored, intense brilliance. Christ will ride to earth on the clouds, and he will lead us away from suffering to overcoming. We shall overcome someday, because of Christ. We shall be free at last from prejudice, violence, sexism, global warming, war, poverty, injustice. Isaiah prophesies that Christ will lead us on the royal highway through the desert to freedom from suffering. Thank God Almighty that we shall be free at last.
In fact, God began that liberation, that salvation, that overcoming, when he sent Christ to Bethlehem, the first Advent. When Christ busted into the world, he made us, the blind, see the Good News and made us, the deaf, hear the Good News and made our souls magnify the Lord. Christ died on the barren tree and then rose to life in the garden, where he calls us by name.
God delivered the people of Israel from the Exile, God will lead us down the highway to eternal freedom someday, God sent Christ at the First Advent to begin our liberation through the death and resurrection. God continues to lead us today, washing us with Baptism, forgiving our sins, feeding us Holy Communion, teaching, challenging and comforting us through Scripture. God hears our prayers and answers them.
God does not always give us what we want, and we have many vexing questions jabbing our souls. Even so, as Isaiah 35 announces, we have hope and joy in the face of suffering because God is the Savior, past, future, and present.
The world is full of suffering, but God opens our souls' blind eyes and deaf ears, loosens our souls' tongues. Christ is the supreme miracle-worker who leads us through the desert and back home to Jerusalem. The world is full of suffering. It is also full of God overcoming it.
By David von Schlichten
Your sermon is timely, wise, biblically faithful, artful, and edifying. Thanks for sharing your proclamation of the Good News, a proclamation we ache for.
What response did you receive from parishioners?
Yours in Christ,
Isaiah in Omaha
By Tom Steagald
Dave and others:
This, as promised, is the manuscript I preached from on the Second Sunday in Advent. It is quite a bit different than the rough draft. The sermon ran 21 minutes, which is a couple of minutes longer for me than usual, but not altogether unusual. My folk are used to me going twenty, plus or minus.
Should you ever attend Sabbath services at one of the synagogues in Charlotte, you will remember that crucial moment: the rabbis go to the ark, the great visual center of the chancel area, there to pull back the curtains over the grotto in which the Scrolls are resting. The hand-copied Scriptures are removed, taken to the place where the reading will commence, and carefully, carefully unrolled. The rabbi says, "For instruction shall come forth from Zion…" and the people respond, "The Word of the Lord from Jerusalem."
Instruction shall come forth from Zion—from Zion, the Temple mount; and instruction—the Hebrew word is Torah, meaning guidance, divine direction, the word of life, the Word of the Lord. The worshipers remind themselves of what this word is they are about to hear—it is Torah, it is guidance, it is life—and then they listen.
Sometimes we Methodists do not regard our Bibles so highly. Not everyone but many consider Holy Scripture, as irrelevant—or if not irrelevant, exactly, then antiquated at least, inaccessible and not the last or even our first best word of instruction or guidance for life. Not all of us, but many of us see, treat the Bible as a kind of artifact, something we ought to have read or know more about, but something, too, from another time and place, possessed of a different world view than ours and so not always at the top of our list of necessary reading. Yes, yes, it is valuable, in a way, of course, and to be honored and looked at, surely… but it is strange, too, and remote, like other museum pieces.
But then something happens. Like this past week, in Omaha.
And every week, it seems there is a new example of our fallen-ness and sin—wars or rumors of wars, random violence and tragedy, greed and scandal and heartless cruelty. Every day we prove again and again that we cannot save ourselves, that we and our world are in bad need of God’s merciful saving, that God’s mercy alone is saving.
Every day we prove it, and some days we even notice it, that there is no peace on earth. That there is no goodwill among humans. Turn on the TV news and you do not see glad tidings of great joy for all people. No, the storms are raging. Our little boat is sinking. And like the disciples we might cry out to God, Do you not care that we are sinking? If you have a saving, storm-calming, world-changing word, would you please wake up and speak it?
Is there such a word? In this land in which we live, in this time and place, with a view of the world that is increasingly dark, is there a word from the Lord, help or instruction and guidance for us? Today?
I am grief stricken for the Omaha dead and their families. Six of them employees of the department store, just hoping to survive the craziness of Christmas retail. Two of them shoppers, out on a pleasant December afternoon to buy gifts for their kids or grandkids, for their parents, their spouses—and never imagining, any of them, that Wednesday would be their day, the day and that mall the place.
When I heard the news on Wednesday I recalled, rather eerily, the Gospel lesson from last week—do you remember?—how two will be in the fields, and one will be taken; two will be grinding meal and one will be taken. That two trying on shoes and one was taken; that two were near the elevators and one was taken, and you must be ready, Jesus says, I must be ready, we must all of us be ready because we do not know the day or the hour…but know this, that if any of them had known at what time the boy was coming they would have stayed awake or stayed away and would not have let that thief come into the mall.
I feel so sorry, too, for the shooter who spent part of last year "in the fetal position chewing his fingernails"—a ward of the state till a just few months ago, his sanity hemorrhaging way like the woman with the issue of blood. Nebraska spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this poor boy, on doctors and foster homes and treatment options, and still he was not healed.
"Now I am going to be famous," he wrote, and when and where and why did it happen than our disaffected came to imagine that this is the way to be famous? Then again, in the ethos of American Idol and Dancing with the Stars, perhaps if you can’t sing or dance you shoot.Elizabeth Achtemeier once said that if we want to make the world safe for boys we should start by making boys safe for the world, but neither strategy seems to be working. And so on Wednesday a boy walked into a mall in Omaha and opened fire. Who could have imagined such a thing? Or maybe we don’t have any trouble imagining it at all because this is, what, the fourth mall shooting, as I count them, this year?
Where do we find our comfort in such a time as this?
Kathleen Norris has written that the "twin religions" of America are optimism and denial—meaning some will try to forget this, just one more American tragedy, and as quickly as they can, jut put it behind us, while some will deny that it has more than passing or local significance.
For those who think otherwise, "grief counselors are standing by."
But is that all those folks need, grief counseling? Is that what we mostly need when bad things happen? War-weary as we are, buffeted as we are and almost daily by bad news and tragic news, by sad and violent news? Grief counseling?
Or do they and we need something deeper than that? Something more and better than that? I suspect that what we need is a deep and abiding word, a rechanneling word, to redirect the flow of our fear and anger, to name the darkness—optimism and denial are lies after all—to name the darkness to proclaim the light. The darkness needs naming, and the light needs proclaiming, nor will it be a light of our own making.
"Is there any word from the Lord?" Can the same God who brooded over the primeval chaos move into our darkness and call forth light once again?
We unroll our scroll today, to the prophet Isaiah, and his word to us is good news. Not optimism, but hope, built not on denial but trust. As Isaiah preaches, the days are dark; yes the times are bad. Isaiah’s listeners were war-weary and spent with grief and worry over the coming fall of Samaria. But in spite of what you see trust in God, Isaiah says, for a new day is coming. Is that a word for us?
Isaiah preached to a people walking in great darkness that there would come a light; that war would soon give way to peace; that soon and very soon they would see the wolf lying with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together… that there would soon be shalom, a peaceable Kingdom, where cows and bear would graze, where lions would eat straw like the ox, where children would no longer fear to play where the adder’s dwell…it’s poetry, of course, but Isaiah’s point was that there would be no more hurt, no more pain, no more destruction or death or pain, for the earth would soon be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea…"
That was Isaiah’s message and war-weary Israel’s hope: for a new king, a child, to lead them to that peaceable place. Do not lose hope, Isaiah says to his people, and the Apostle Paul says that it is a message for us, too. Do not lost hope. Do not despair.
The Apostle Paul says, "whatever written in former days was written for our instruction…" he says, by which he means it was written not just for whoever read it first but also for whoever reads it now. Pick up your Bible, unroll the scroll. The word is also for us.
It is an audacious claim, in a way, for Christian scholars and pastors remind us over and over again that each text has a discreet history—that in our Isaiah text for the morning, for example, the first best meaning for those who heard and read it first.
Remember the stump? Isaiah meant and the people understood the stump to mean the end of the David’s heritage. David and his heirs were a sign of God’s abiding presence and wisdom, not only for Israel but for the world, but by the time of Isaiah the Davidic line is dead. All but. Not only dead but cut-off, chopped down: the glory of Israel and God’s presence so much firewood for the pagan kings.
But the stem. The Stem! New life and growth—not regime change, not exactly, for this stem comes from the root of Jesse. Jesse, you will remember, was the father of King David, and this new stem shares DNA with what was, to all appearances, dead. If the old certainties were hard and cold with the passage of time, a new green appears, a new branch, as remarkable and miraculous as the notion of long dead Jesse producing a new son from the dust of his long-dead loins.
Isaiah saw, and the people hoped for, a new king—one for their own time. This new king would be like the old ones but not like the old ones. He would be what all the old kings should have been: a means, a channel, of God’s presence and rule among the people. He would be blessed with such spirit as to rule justly.
It is a message for Isaiah’s time, for Isaiah’s people.
Yes, yes, of course, but it is a message for us, too, Paul would say, we who ourselves are so war-weary, who see that on the mountains and in the valleys, in the Great Plains and most everywhere else there is so much hurting and destruction, so much fear and distress. No, we do not discount the original word of Isaiah; in fact, we count on that word, for that is our hope, too, is it not? Peace now. Peace ultimately—in this world and in the world to come?
We Christians read this text and we think immediately of Jesus—he is the stem growing from the stump! He was the king to come! He is the King to come again. The babe born in Bethlehem who alone was and is blessed with the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord: he is the One who will just justly: not by what he sees, not by what he hears, which is to say he will not be swayed by appearance or spin, but he will know the truth and he will speak the truth and the truth will set us free. We Christians read Isaiah 11 and we recognize the prophet’s description, hail the prophetic depiction: we see Jesus!
And yes, this text was written 700 years before Mary had the first twinkle in her virginal eye. Yes, Isaiah is speaking to his own people, telling them of good news for them, light for their darkness. The Apostle Paul, student of Rabbi Gamaliel, knows that as well or better than any scholar or preacher we could name.
And still he writes that this writing is for our instruction, for our encouragement, that we too might have hope—real hope, grounded in the promises God made to Israel. Paul says that our understanding of the Scriptures does not displace its original meaning but confirms the promises made long ago. The steadfast word of God stands steadfast to make us steadfast—can give us hope, patience, even in these dark times. The Hebrews have taught the world something about waiting and hope. We have something to say about where our deepest hopes lead, that we may all be filled with joy and peace in believing—a new king, yes, yes, a Once and Forever King!
Is there any word from the Lord? For us? Today? During this Advent season which, in some ways, some days, is so dark. We are all of us walking in darkness, my friends—one one kind or another—and looking for light. And is there a word from the Lord?
"Instruction shall come forth from Zion, the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem." The Lord’s word comes to us from Isaiah 11, and yes, from another place and time, but with the power of a visitation of angels. A king is coming who will be the presence of God’s justice and reign among them.
The prophet stands among us today, and so does the Apostle, not only in Jerusalem but in Omaha and Stanley and Charlotte. The word of encouragement, of Torah, of counsel and understanding: take heart, do not fear, be joyful as the Spirit gives you gifts: the King is coming. Take up your Bible and read: the King is coming again, and with one voice we and our elders and our progeny, the children of Israel and the people of the Church, might sing praises to God. Praise to the Peacemaker.
Blessed be the Peacemaker, the God who has promised the making of a deeper and lasting peace than we have seen. Blessed be the Peacemaker, who gives to us what we do not deserve and cannot make for ourselves. Blessed be the peacemaker, making a peace for which all of us deeply hunger.
Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
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