Sunday, 10 January 2010

God calls a people

Epiphany 1 year C Sermon 10

Now if you just opened your Bible…and stuck your finger on Isaiah could gain great consolation from God speaking to you… through those words

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I’ve called
you by name, you are mine

But when the beautiful poetry of Isaiah was first recorded…it wasn’t intended for you
or anyone
else… as an individual.

God isn’t speaking through the prophet
to a
person named Jacobbut to a people named Jacob…descended from Abraham…an ethnic community…

whose name had become Israel…whose members had been scattered… in Egypt and Syria and beyond…

to the north and the south and the east and the west… first as nomadic tribes… trading exploring and marrying in foreign lands…and later… taken into exile… as hostages and prisoners of war

settlers and slaves… their families with them…their language with them…their culture with them.
Believing their God was never
tied to a place
Emmanuel…God with us…
with them… wherever they went…

For hundreds of years…Jacob Israel…didn’t indicate a sovereign territory to be defended…but a chosen peoplecalled and formed for God’s purposes…to be a light to the world….to embody God’s word to the world … to demonstrate and model what it means to be human…in relationship with others and with God.

Not one of the people were an island unto themselves
… for they could neither
survive nor bring about God’s justice and peace on their own… they needed God and they needed each other… no disaster could wipe this people out as long as they lived faithfully and hospitably.

When you pass through the waters I will be with you; God had promised…and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Do not fear, for I am with you;

God isn’t promising individual invulnerability…
God is promising the survival of a
people…charged with bringing peace with justice on earth.
A people whose descendants would live on…
continue God’s purposes…

Wherever they went… God would call them

Slide words

I’ll bring your offspring from the east,
and from the
west I’ll gather you.

Slide words

I’ll say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Don’t withhold;

bring my sons from far away and my daughters…
from the
end of the earth.

God would always ensure there were a people… a remnant who’d embody his word… who’d shine the light …especially for the weak and the powerless

…living in the darkness of oppression and injustice and exclusion.

God’s light would not be extinguished.

The story Isaiah tells… is that the people are willed by God to practice justice and righteousness—
to extend the good
news of God’s Shalom to everyone.

But this story has two parts…because even with God’s guidance and protection…the people manage to lose their way…ignore their calling and flirt with other gods. Instead of justice and righteousness…God finds injustice and exploitation.

The first part of Isaiah’s story details how the people abuse God’s purposes of love… their actions are greedy self-serving and unfair—great wealth is accumulated by a few… and God’s people aren’t welcoming and generous to the poor and the stranger.

The people wantonly distort God’s commandment… to love their neighbour.

And so before the words of comfort and reassurance we heard in today’s reading… Isaiah’s story delivers a massive judgment on the very people… God has called and formed for his purposes. The message is clear…being chosen does not exempt them from judgment.

But mercifully the people are invited to repent…and to exchange their corrupt selfish ways… for God’s way.

Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doing from before my eyes;
learn to do
good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow, and welcome the stranger…

The accent falls on the last lines, "widows and orphans and strangers." Those with no clout are easy to leave out.

And happily… the people are given a chance to change… to reorder their community life…around caring and sharing and hospitality.

It’s an chance they don’t take. [pause]

And it’s the strong opinion… of the first half of Isaiah

… that the people of Israel have grossly disobeyed God…and surely will be punished. Justice has not been done…and Chapter 39 ends…with the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of her wealthy and educated elite.

[pause] And then there is silence…seventy years pass…

and finally the next chapter begins…with the most moving testimony in all of Hebrew Scripture…to God's steadfast love and determination… to rescue and redeem the people called and formed for his purposes. [pause]

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim her hard service completed, her sin paid for… A voice of one calling in the desert…prepare the way of the LORD…

He tends his flock like a shepherd:

He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart;

To God’s wayward people… getting a little too comfortable in exile…the message is clear…forget the glitz and the glamour of Babylon and her so called gods

…the only cause that counts is God’s…and there’s more work to do…

God is bringing his people home…liberated and

restored…given another chance to be God’s servant people in the world… God's human agency. A chance to accomplish what they refused and failed to do before…

Israel’s new mandate is to reach beyond themselves…

to all people. Especially the powerless and rejected…not out of pity…but so all those made in the image of God… may be restored to full dignity.

God will not rest…until justice is established in all the earth;

But there’s a warning...faithfulness to God’s cause is not to be marked with a lot of showy religious discipline… like prayer and fasting… if injustice and exploitation are still going on.
They must not
turn a blind eye…

Through the prophet God’s counsel is clear
a "
true fast"… consists of caring for the outcast …
and the homeless and the hungry.

Isn’t this the kind of fasting I prefer:
to loose the chains of
injustice to set the oppressed free

to share your food with the hungry and provide
the poor
wanderer with shelter… to clothe the naked,
and not to turn away…


God’s purposes won’t be frustrated.
There will
always be a remnant God can count on… and if their numbers should grow small…why he’ll just gather up more… from the east and the west…and the north and the south…

God’s always calling a people… forming and reforming them in covenant relationship … to shine the light of his love for all to see. [pause]

and today is no exception…

Two weeks ago as we baptised little Tessa Jones… welcoming her into the covenant people of God…and as we did…we recalled the story of how the mantle of God’s people Israel passed to Jesus’ shoulders…at his baptism in the Jordan.

If Israel would not embody what it means to be God’s son God’s child…then God would call a new people out of the faithful remnant. And those Jesus gathers from the east and the west and the north and the south will continue God’s saving purposes… of peace. [pause]

Israel refused to shine the light for the world. And so the hopeful ‘but now’ we hear in Isaiah 43… echoes again in letters to the early church in Ephesus and Rome…

But now… in Christ Jesus… you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

Look around…you are not alone. You’re not called to shine the light alone for those who sit… in the darkness of rejection and abuse and exploitation in Wanaka…
in Aotearoa New Zealand…in the Sudan… or China…

An ongoing stream is formed and reformed…its points of light can be seen around the world…a stream of people called by God… recognisable by anyone with ears to hear or eyes to see…not by their religious labels…but by the qualities of justice and peace that shine out in their relationships and in their communities

… as they work to shed the light of God’s love beyond themselves to those who sit in darkness… without hope…

The story isn’t finished. Look around you… together… you are connected by a calling…you…and you and you…togetherare the ‘you’ God addresses.

It is you God calls and gathers and forms and saves and judges and restores…it’s you…God loves and cherishes

a people called…to realise God’s purposes in the world.

My thanks to Walter Brueggemann for his insights on Isaiah. A Story of Loss and Hope. Sojourners Magazine, November-December 1998.