This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Anti-depressant.

Isaiah 40:21-31.

I.
The prophet is writing to the people of God in exile in Babylon.  It has been several decades in which they have languished in servitude in a foreign land, with the imperial government striving to erase their identity and uniqueness as a people and faith.  During that time, it has been difficult to maintain their faith in the face of what appeared to be the defeat of their God and the triumph of the gods of Babylon.  Many Jews would have given up, accepted the obvious evidence before them, and cast their lot with the victorious, powerful, prosperous empire.  Many more are simply depressed and discouraged, three generations of Jews are now accustomed to living in Babylon and struggling to maintain their own way of life.
Chapter 40 begins with the famous words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  The prophet proclaims that the exile is over.  The Babylonian Empire has fallen; a new King, named Cyrus, has taken over.  And he is going to release the Jews and let them go home.
This is an unexpected miracle, something they never dared hope for, and even now they are having trouble believing it. It’s like they don’t want to get their hopes up and don’t fully trust this new thing that seems to be happening.  I mean their prophets and other leaders have spent decades convincing them that this catastrophe really was all part of God’s plan; that their ancestors had grievously and repeatedly sinned, bringing down this punishment on them.  They had no reason to imagine that they would ever go back to Jerusalem.  They must have considered it their fate now to be a landless nation forever.
That the Jews are able to keep it together under these circumstances is a miracle in itself.  The other nations the Babylonians gobbled up were properly digested and assimilated.  But at least some of the Jews kept their faith through it all.
They also know that the prophets of the past who prophesied good things were usually false prophets.  The ones that said that God would not allow Jerusalem to fall, or the people to be defeated and sent into exile, their words did not come true.  So it’s no wonder that they are slow to believe this prophet who is now telling them that their time of punishment is over and they are going home.  Maybe they think that they would believe it when they see it.
Can we blame them?  We have no frame of reference to relate to this story.  If we lost a war and saw our nation destroyed and were forced to go live in the conqueror’s capital city, the smart money would not be with sticking with this same religion this same God who apparently could not protect us.  How many of us would stick with this loser God?  How many of us would not run enthusiastically after the gods of prosperity and power?    

II.
The prophet is trying to convince them that this deliverance is really happening and their salvation and liberation is now at hand.  And the first thing he does here is remind them of what they already know.  He has them remember their own tradition and theology.  He has them recall exactly what God they are dealing with here.  It’s like he has to remind them of what they learned in Sunday School.
“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?
 Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”
In other words, “you have always known that the God we worship is not some local deity, but the Creator of everything who is above everything and ultimately exercises lordship over everything and everyone.”  He appeals to the transcendence and power of the Creator God.
Then he immediately reminds them that times appearing to be bad are built into the very created structure of nature itself. “Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.”  People are like seeds.  When they are planted they can still be blown away in the wind and amount to nothing.  God has a larger plan than our tiny agendas.  We are like grasshoppers to God.  We try to provide for ourselves… but God has fashioned the ecosystem in an unfathomably larger way.  Our little projects may get blown away; but that could just be part of God’s grander plan for wholeness and fulfillment.
What look to us like acts of capricious destruction, what insurance companies like to call “acts of God,” or even horrible political catastrophes like war and exile, even these may be part of God’s larger intentions.  “All things work together for good, “ says the Apostle Paul.  Nothing is ultimately out of God’s control or ability to redeem and reclaim.  Nothing is outside of God’s saving will: not war, not exile, not economic downturns, not torture, not famine, not cancer, not racism, not heart disease… nothing.  Nothing will ever separate us from God’s love.  For God’s love is built into the very fabric of nature simply by virtue of the fact that God created it.
Who created everything?  To whom does everything belong?  “[The One] who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name, because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.”

III.
The good news is that even the things that happen to us that look for all the world like absolute contradictions of God’s will, not even these can subvert God’s will in the end.  God bends the most twisted and wayward strand, and weaves it back into the beauty of the whole, spectacular quilt of creation.  Our job is to be in tune with this the most profound and basic movement of reality, so that, even when faced with the worst horrors imaginable, even the ones that take our lives and the lives of our loved ones, we can step back with confidence and simply wait to see how even this will be redeemed.  Even this will be embraced into submission to God’s will.  Even this will be shown in the end to be something God used, redirected, reformed, reshaped, and reoriented to reveal God’s goodness and love.
But sometimes it is simply more comfortable, in a very sour way, to wallow in our negativity and depression.  The prophet recognizes this.  He asks: “Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God’?”  God doesn’t know or care about me.  God has no concern for my rights and needs and desires.  God hates us.  We are just lightning rods for God’s wrath.
Sometimes it’s just easier to mope in self-pity, expecting only intensifying disaster and increasing loss, than to pick ourselves up and do what is required to get ourselves in tune and participating with what God is doing.  Sometimes it’s easier to harbor resentment, or look for scapegoats to blame our defeats on.  Paranoia, hysteria, hatred, rage… these can all be far more satisfying emotions than trusting in God’s transcendent love.
My personal preference, though, is doom and gloom.  Perhaps this is why I identify so closely with the exiles, and why I frequently find myself turning to these chapters of Isaiah.  These words are better than Zoloft!
Because what God is saying here is basically, “You can mope in the corner if you want.  You can satisfy your anger, fear, and shame, if that makes you feel good.  But know this: that I created this whole place and ordered it and destined it in love, and nothing will get in the way of that.  And even the bad things that happen, I will turn to good.  You can get on board with this, and work with my will for justice, peace, love, healing, hope, and goodness, and so have life.  Or you can cherish your precious negativity, perpetuating lies, doing vast damage in the world, and die.”

IV.    
Take your pick.  God is always placing this choice before us.  Choose death, or life.  Choose curse, or blessing.  Choose anger, or joy.  Choose fear, or hope.  Choose shame, or forgiveness.  Choose evil, or goodness.  Choose slavery, or freedom.
God’s movement is always from one of these poles to the other: God is always bringing light out of darkness, life out of death, and goodness out of evil.  And Isaiah is a witness to one of the more spectacular evidences of this truth.  But he knows that it doesn’t become real for the people unless they embrace it.  If they choose not to participate in God’s movement here, they will miss out.  They will be left behind, nursing their negativity, while God’s future dawns.
God “does not faint or grow weary….  He gives power to the faith, and strengthens the powerless.”  In other words, the powerless are invited to participate in God’s power.  By following God and joining in the inexorable movement of God’s love in the world, we receive God’s power.  And we hear those famous words about what this means.  “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
No matter how consuming the fire that burned up your forest, God is always drawing strong, new, young growth from the ashes.  God made the world and ordered the whole place for life and growth and blessing, so that nothing is ever lost and nothing every gets fully destroyed.  Even earthquakes, floods, fires, diseases, droughts… they all play a part in keeping the system going and keeping the story of life alive.
Do we really think that our little lives are weighty enough to stop God’s will for creation?  I don’t.  Rather than holding on to our hurts, wouldn’t it be easier to, as they say, “Let go and let God”?
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