Saturday, December 9, 2017

Year B, Advent 2, Isaiah 40.1-11, What time is it?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“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. . .”
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.”
These are the words that the prophet Isaiah was called to speak to the people of Israel. 
Beautiful words.  So beautiful that one could write a song, or two, from them.  As Handel did in the Messiah, or Johann Olearius did in the hymn we’ll sing later.
Words of comfort,
Words of hope,
Words of peace,
Are most powerful for us at those times when we are not comfortable, when our hope is dried up, and when peace seems so far away.
So it was for the people of Israel.
“They had received from the Lord’s hand double for all their sins.”
Through the first 39 chapters of Isaiah the prophet spoke words of warning to the people of Israel, words of warning about the judgment that was to come.
In Chapter 10 Isaiah warned:
1 Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,
who write oppressive statutes,
2 to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be your spoil,
and that you may make the orphans your prey!
3 What will you do on the day of punishment,
in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help,
and where will you leave your wealth,
4 so as not to crouch among the prisoners
or fall among the slain?

What followed these words of warning was a time of judgment.
Israel was defeated by her enemies,
The nation was destroyed,
And the people were taken into captivity and exile in Babylon.
It seemed that all of the promises that God had made to his people had failed them. 
Promises of a great nation, a Holy Land, and of being God’s Chosen People.
Promises that had been made to Abraham, to Moses, and to David.
And now all was lost.
Had God abandoned his people?
The answer is no, he had not abandoned them, he had judged them and punished them for their sins.
Ironically, it was their prosperity that had become their undoing.
8 Woe to those who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
and you are made to dwell alone
in the midst of the land.
9 The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
                "Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
10 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah."

The rich were getting richer, and the poor, poorer.

This disparity displeased the Lord and the judgment was a return to slavery.
God’s vision for the Kingdom of Israel was that all of his people would share in its prosperity.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the concept of the Year of Jubilee, which was to be celebrated every fifty years.  During the year of Jubilee, or the Year of the Lord’s favor, all debts were to be cancelled, all prisoners set free, and the land was to be returned to the original owners.
Jesus quotes Isaiah in this regard when he begins his ministry with the words:

18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Judgment and punishment for Israel.

Words of hope and comfort in their distress.

And finally, a promise of Good News for the poor as the nation is rebuilt.
We live in interesting times.
As Isaiah did of old, there are many prophets today that warn us about the rich getting richer and the poor poorer.
For many, what has made America a great nation was the emergence of a middle class, people who have shared in the great American dream, who, though they are not rich, have plenty.
Today, we are being warned that the middle class is slipping away.  That as the rich get richer, the rest of us are falling behind.
Wages have not kept pace with inflation.  The cost of living, especially for things as essential as health care, has risen astronomically.
One example of this is that the cost of my health insurance now exceeds what I received in salary the first years I was in ministry. 
I am also struck by the fact that the wages I receive as a woodworker are but a fraction of what I received thirty years ago, when adjusted for inflation.
Are we at a time in our nation’s history similar to those days in Israel’s history when the prophets spoke the words of warning?
I don’t know.
I simply don’t know.
What I do know is that sometimes when we feel most secure, we are in fact most vulnerable.
A day of judgment came to Israel.
Everything that they cherished was lost.
That loss was a judgment of God upon them.
Then and only then, did the words of comfort come to them.
It was like a child, being comforted in their parent’s lap, after having received a spanking.
They misbehaved.  They were punished. And now, they are being reassured that they are still loved.
And Hope.

We confess.
We are forgiven.
And we are reborn.
This is the spiritual cycle of life.
There is a time for confession, a time to hear the comforting words of forgiveness, and a time to live anew in the grace of God.
Part of wisdom is to know what time it is.
I’ve been thinking and praying a lot about this question.
What time is it in the church’s life?
What time is it in our congregation’s life?
Is the decline of the church in America, and of our own congregation, a sign that this is a time of judgment in the life of the church?
Is this a time of comfort where, following a period of judgment, we hear tender words of comfort that reassure us of the never failing love of  God, and that though we have been judged, we are also forgiven?
Or is this the beginning of a new day?  Of the restoration of the church?  A time of hope and anticipation?
One way to put these questions is to ask “have we suffered enough to come to repentance, be forgiven, and be reborn?”
Or are we still secure in our own sins?
One oft quoted adage is that the Gospel is a comfort to the afflicted and an affliction to the comfortable.
I would suggest that one of the ways that you can recognize a false prophet is that false prophets tend to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.  They say that the rich and powerful are blessed by God, but the poor and outcast are under God’s curse.
Is that what is happening today?  That the comfortable are becoming more comfortable while the afflicted are even more afflicted?
Is this a time of judgment?
A time of comfort?
Or a day filled with hope?

In a few hundred years we may know the answers to those questions.
Today, though, all I can offer you is a promise.
That God is present in the times of judgment.
That God speaks tenderly to us when the time comes that we need such comfort.
And that God remains with us until the day that we are reborn and renewed.
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.”
These were the words of hope and reassurance Isaiah spoke to Israel as they labored in exile, bereft of hope.
These also are words that speak to us today, regardless what time it is.
God is with us.


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