Monday, January 10, 2022

But Now . . .

 Sermon preached on the First Sunday after the Epiphany (The Baptism of Jesus) at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, New York:  Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

You can listen to this sermon here.

But now thus says the Lord, the One who created you, who formed you: Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

           “But now.”

           I wrestled with this sermon far more than usual this week, and one of the main reasons was that I could not get beyond those first two words of the Isaiah reading and couldn’t figure out why.

           I’ll tell you what I figured out:  they are the Gospel, the Good News God has for us.

           Now let me tell you how I got there.

           But now.  The words suggest there is a connection to what has gone before, presumably in chapter 42.  The second half of Chapter 42 is a rebuke, a reminder of Israel’s past, what had got them into trouble and resulted in their near destruction as a people, the laying waste of Jerusalem and the taking of most of the people into exile in Babylon.

           The chapter includes a devastating image of the people’s rejection of God:

 O deaf ones, hear.

          O blind ones, look and see!

Who is as blind as my servant,

          or deaf as my messenger whom I send?

Who is as blind as my dedicated one,

          as deaf as the servant of the Lord?

You have seen much but do not watch,

          opened your ears but do not hear.

[Isaiah 42:18-20, Robert Alter translation]

           The words drip with sarcasm.  They offer nothing but helplessness and hopelessness for the People of God.  The chapter ends with these decisive words:

 Is it not the Lord whom they have offended

          and did not want to walk in his ways

          and did not heed his teachings?

And he poured out upon them his fury,

          his wrath and the fierceness of battle

          and it seared them all round

                   but they knew not,

          it burned them—

                   they did not take it to heart.

[Isaiah 42:24b-25, Alter Translation]

           This is ugly stuff.  God is not happy.  Again, the offer is helplessness and hopelessness.  It is the opposite of what Jesus hears at his baptism.  No, this is the angry parent who says: I am more than not pleased with you. You are no longer my child.

           But now.

           If you read the prophets—not just Isaiah, but any of them, you will read a lot of what sounds like chapter 42, maybe even the majority of it.  They all have, however, some form of

           But now.

           Israel’s God—who is our God—loves his people so much that he cannot ultimately let go.  Israel—we—forget God and reject God’s ways in what often appears to be a total abandonment of God.  And God’s anger burns so hot that his judgment is harsh and his abandonment total.

           But now.

           But now, God says, I cannot forget that I made you.

           But, God says, now I cannot reverse the fact that I have redeemed you.

           But now, God says, I remember, I gave you your name, you are mine.

           And the reverse of anger and judgment is total in truly beautiful words from the end of today’s passage

 Do not fear, for I am with you;

I will bring your offspring from the east,

          and from the west I will gather you;

I will say to the north, “Give them up,”

          and to the south, “Do not withhold;

          bring my sons from far away

          and my daughters

                   from the ends of the earth—

          everyone who is called by my name,

                   whom I created for my glory,

                   whom I formed and made.”

           What a reversal!  I have judged you and found you wanting. I willed that I might never set my eyes on you again.  But now.  But now, I remember you are mine and I will gather what I have scattered.  I will re-form what I have made.

           Many people want nothing to do with the church because they think we talk about sin and judgment too much, that we are obsessed with it.  And there is, we must admit, some truth to that, especially when we have given the label “sinner” to certain groups of people just because of who they are.

           But we cannot stop talking about sin, because sin is real, and anybody who does not think so is just not paying attention.  There is wholesale rejection of the ways of God—the ways of truth, justice, and peace, of compassion, of a radical commitment to helpfulness and hopefulness.

           We must tell the truth about sin and evil in our world.

           But now.

           But now we must also tell the truth because it is by telling the truth that God sets us free.

           But now we must tell the truth about love and compassion, which is the only way love works in the world.

           But now we must tell the truth about the hope we are given, because life is not worth living without it.

           But now we must tell the truth about community because all of these things—love and compassion, freedom and faith, hope and life—all require that we understand that we are one people, across any difference we can imagine or create.

           On January 6, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, spoke to the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  He reminded us of the motto of our country found on the Great Seal of the United States of America:  a banner above the eagle says, E pluribus unum, “Out of many one.”

           He went on to tell us where those words come from, and this was something if I ever knew I had forgotten.  They come from words of the ancient Roman orator Cicero, who said,

 When each person loves the other as much as him or herself, it makes one out of many.

           As a country we are in danger of our divisions becoming so strong that we are in for a long age of living in what amounts to armed encampments.  Nothing could be further from the best dreams of our forebears. Nothing could be further from God’s dream for us.

           As individuals we are tempted by these divisions, and by so many other things that want to be more important to us than the love of our neighbor.  If the heavens above us would open we would not wish to be told we are God’s beloved, we would wish to have won the lottery, or given some thing that our heart desires.

           I cannot imagine that God is not angry with us, and if he spoke out loud to us, we might hear some of those harsh words from chapter 42 of Isaiah.  And we would deserve it.

           But now.

           But now what God wants for us is more than we can ask, desire, or pray for.

           But now God wants to tell us we are beloved, pleasing to the One who made us.

           But now God would send us on the same mission as he sent Jesus.

           But now God says:  Go and tell the world some good news.

           But now God says: Go and be for the world some good news.

           But now God says:  Love your neighbors as yourself.

           But now God says:  Strive for justice and peace among all people.

           But now, God says:  Respect the God-given dignity of every human person.

           But now, God says:  Let me love you so that you may love others.

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