Transforming Creation

“Transforming Creation”

isa-35-word-cloud

Isaiah 35:1-6, 10 – December 11, 2016

Expectation. Anticipation. Sitting on the edge of one’s seat in excitement. That sounds like we just hardly can wait another minute for a long-expected, awaited event! Can you think of events which were so exciting for you? A long-awaited trip to a far-away place, a well-deserved promotion at work, or finally celebrating a wonderful wedding or a significant anniversary. Can you remember being so excited about these things that you were sitting on the edge of your seat in preparation and anticipation?

“O come, O come, Emmanuel.” This is a familiar hymn we sing in the month of December, in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It is an Advent hymn, full of hope, preparation, and expectation about the Messiah’s coming. Are you sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting for the arrival of Christmas, of the Baby born in Bethlehem? Or, is this just another ho-hum, not-so-exciting occurrence for you?

We all know the Messiah is long-expected. Time and again in the Hebrew scriptures, we hear the prophets declaring their marvelous news, that the Savior and Redeemer of Israel is coming. The heir to King David’s throne is coming to reign over Israel. But, this week, this passage from the prophet is a little different. We turn to the prophecy from Isaiah 35, starting at verse 1: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” Here, the prophet is talking about what will happen in the future.

Here, the prophet talks about all creation: the wilderness, the dry land, and the desert. Large parts of the land of Israel was parched, inhospitable to both humans and animals. Here, in these verses, we hear about what is going to happen to the land, to creation itself.

As Dr. Michael Chan, one of my commentators, said, “The general theme is that desolate, dry places will be transformed into paradise. Those who live in desert environs can appreciate the transformative power of water on the desert. Overnight, even a small amount of rain can change a dry desert into a vibrant landscape. But Isaiah’s poem moves far beyond the natural consequences of water on the desert. Creation itself will “be glad,” “rejoice,” and sing (verses 1-2). Creation’s praise joins human praise, in recognition of God’s marvelous work.” [1]

Death Valley, a large desert area in southern California, has wildflower blooms every year. Once every ten (or so) years, Death Valley receives an unusual amount of rain from storms that are way out of the ordinary. This causes what is known as a “super bloom,” as happened in spring of 2016. For a number of days, the valley was covered in an unusually huge amount of wildflowers. [2] Talk about anticipation for the coming of the Messiah! Thinking of the super-bloom in Death Valley gives us a foretaste of what we read here in Isaiah, certainly.

Looking at verses 3 and 4: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” The prophecy not only refers to creation, it also is talking to the people of this world, the people of our God. According to commentator Dr. Chan, “Like so many other texts in Isaiah, Isaiah 35 confronts fear with promise: “Here is your God … He will come with vengeance … He will come and save you.” In switching to the second person, the prophet leaves nothing to chance, making sure that his audience knows that this message is ‘for you.’[3]

But, what was the situation of these people of Israel? A huge group of them were in exile. Israel was occupied territory, and the occupying forces had been the strong, conquering forces. They took a large number of the people as prisoners back with them to Babylon, to force the good behavior of the whole nation of Israel.

So, the prophet encourages his listeners “to be strong and not be afraid no matter how bad things look at the moment because God will come to their rescue.” [4]  Just think of how so many of them felt, being prisoners of war in a foreign country.  As you can imagine, life for them was lousy. The prophet urged the Israelites to be strong because God will always have the last word. It does not matter, not for the people of Israel, not for us, either. God is in the process of overcoming, and the end result will be a wonderful thing.

May I point out that though we are not prisoners of war like the people of Israel, we face lots of really hard situations in our lives. Personally, in my extended family, we are facing a difficult and sad situation right now. Especially hard on my husband and his sisters. Their elderly father is gradually dying; slipping away. Yes, it is particularly tough for me and my whole family right now. And yes, God is a refuge and strength for our family, a very present help in times of our trouble and difficulty.

This is a challenging time of the year for many people. Carolyn Brown so helpfully reminds us that “many congregations have become sensitive to people for whom it is hard to rejoice at this time of year.” [5] Since her ministry focus is on children, she mentions that this group includes children as well as adults. Imagine how difficult, how confusing, even overwhelming the holidays can be for children, sometimes. (And for adults, too.)

“Children face the same problems that daunt the adults, but do so with different twists.  For one thing, they lack the experience of many Christmases that the adults can draw on to keep a sense of balance.  For another, they feel that as a child they should be totally into the season.  It feels even more unfair to them than to the adults that they are not going to have special gifts or fun family gatherings or decorations.” [6]

I am going to our sister church, Epiphany United Church of Christ, to assist for their Blue Christmas service this coming Wednesday. And, Pastor Kevin will assist me here at St. Luke’s Church for our Blue Christmas service a week from tomorrow, on Monday, Dec. 19th. Often- times, people get overwhelmed by the holidays. Perhaps they have lost a loved one during the past year, and this is the first Christmas with that empty chair. Perhaps there has been some other significant change or major move in their lives. No matter what the event or grief or situation, sometimes people need a refuge, they need a quiet gathering for support in this very busy time.

May I say that Isaiah’s promise is for us—all of us. No matter how hard things seem at the moment, we know that God will eventually win and God’s peace will come to the whole world. God will send joy to us all, despite the difficulties we all go through, on a daily basis. Knowing that, we can be strong and patient.

We can praise God for the witness of the prophet: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;” Do you hear? Creation will be transformed, both the world and the people therein.

We can look forward to that, when Christ comes again in His glory. Soon and very soon, we will see Him face to face. We can sit on the edge of our seats as we await this wonderful, marvelous event. Praise God! The Messiah, the King is coming. We all can sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” and really mean it, truly wait with anticipation and excitement.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Michael J. Chan, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3118 

[2] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160302-death-valley-super-bloom-wildflowers-weather/

[3] hael J. Chan, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3118 

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-third-sunday-of-advent-december-15.html

[5] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-third-sunday-of-advent-december-15.html

[6] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-third-sunday-o

f-advent-december-15.html 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

 

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The Light of the Lord

“The Light of the Lord”

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Isaiah 2:1-5 (2:5) – November 27, 2016

At this holiday and homecoming time of the year, some people’s thoughts turn to those who are traveling. Those who will be coming to a gathering, a party, a meal. Have you been waiting for someone to arrive at a gathering? A meal, perhaps? At this time of year, the sun sets early. People often put the porch light on to welcome the traveler, in hope and expectation. That is the situation we have here, in our scripture passage from the prophet Isaiah.

And, what a grand porch light it is! Let’s read from Isaiah 2, verse 2: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”
But, what of Isaiah’s audience? What about them? Times in the nation of Judah were uncertain, to say the least. Spirits were low. The Israelites were in fear for their lives. The Assyrian armies were closing in. The nation of Assyria was a major world power in that time, conquering nations, kings, and vast areas of land right and left. (This was several centuries before Jesus Christ was even born in Bethlehem.) What about today? We can look at our times, too. A great deal of uncertainty, everywhere we look. Uncertain times here, locally, in the immediate community. On a nation-wide scale, as well. What about internationally? However—Isaiah brings a word of hope to people of his day, and hope to people of ours, too.

The prophet gives a prophetic announcement in these verses. It isn’t a hymn of praise, but instead words to let people know that God is not absent or unable to help, but instead a very present help. A hope, in times of uncertainty and need. The very promise of salvation, to not only the people of Israel, but to anyone who hears these words. We can see that from the mention of “all nations” streaming to the mountain of the Lord.

Many people in Isaiah’s time frankly doubted God’s power and faithfulness, with the Assyrians breathing down their necks. These were uncertain times, indeed. Can you imagine, a huge army right on our border, and not very much in between? Imagine the fear, anxiety, and conflict for those people of Judah! Even though, today, we here in the United States are not in such dire straits as little, puny Israel, we face uncertainty and times of conflict, too.

What does the prophet have to say about that fear, that anxiety? He brings words of hope and expectation to his listeners. Listen to verse 3: “Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us His ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” So, God will begin a time of learning, a time of pilgrimage! “A purposeful journey to a holy place.” [1]

Again, we see that the prophet tells us many, many people will come to God’s house! Remember, this proclamation refers to all nations, all peoples, and addresses all who have open ears to hear.

All this will occur “in days to come.” Sure, the prophet is not specific; this is an indefinite time, but there also will be a radical transformation! Listen to verse 4: “[God] shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Can anyone read these verses and not long for peace? And not have keen hope and expectation for this coming time of peace and concord? The Lord God will sit as a judge or arbiter for many, many people. And—this is fascinating—the nations, themselves, shall willingly lay down their weapons. Many nations shall cause their weapons—their swords—to be turned into something radically different. To rephrase, “God promises that there will be a time when everyone gets along.  It will be so peaceful that people won’t need swords and other weapons anymore.  So, they will turn them into garden tools.” [2]

It does not take a brilliant student of current events to tell us that this prophecy is not here, yet. We regularly hear about wars and rumors of war today. We see for ourselves that nations are at each others’ throats, bickering, sometimes fighting, and even committing acts of mass destruction and death. What is to be done?

The prophet brings these words of hope and expectation to a fearful and anxious people, at an uncertain time centuries ago. Is the situation much different, today? Our time is filled with conflict. Fearful, anxious, and uncertain, too.

The prophet’s message holds out hope and expectation, true. But hope would be empty if we did not have a situation where we needed God’s help. We have to see our desperate need first, in order for us to realize that we are sunk without God. This whole mindset of conflict, fighting and resistance to any kind of peace certainly registers as a time of great need. The prophet was calling to the nation of Israelites just as much as he is calling to us.

“God is taking us somewhere we cannot go on our own, not because of our righteousness, but because of God’s goodness. The coming peace is God’s, but it is promised to us. And thus, like Israel, Isaiah calls us to act in the meantime as though the promise is ours.” [3]

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. We have the reminder of our hope set before us, in this Advent wreath. Today, Carl and Irene lit our first candle, the candle of hope. Yes, both scripture readings this morning spoke of expectation in the Lord’s working, in different ways. Yet, how does this work show itself?

Practically everyone here is familiar with the need for light. If we have a dark closet or a dark basement corner, bright light is so useful and needful to shine in and reveal our needs.  What about dark news? Dark times need light, too. The prophet talks about hope and expectation of nations turning tools of destruction and war into tools that will help us to grow food, and to provide nurture and healthfulness. Isn’t this a promise of light? And wonderful things to come?

Can we “compare lighting the Advent candles to putting a candle in the window?  [This is a way] of saying we are ready, you are welcome, come in. Often we turn these lights on while we are setting the table, sweeping the floor, and cooking dinner.” [4] Isn’t this a way to use common, everyday things to work with God to bring God’s light into the world?

In Christ’s kingdom, we have the opportunity to tend with everyday garden tools to cultivate and grow the peaceful, loving ways of God rather than using swords and spears—and bombs, tanks and guns—to cultivate wayward humanity’s own ways of conflict, fighting and war. Truly, may we all be faithful, anticipate God’s light and expect it in God’s peaceful ways, and not our own. Come, Lord Jesus!

 

[Thanks for several ideas to Gene M. Tucker and the The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Vol. 6, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39), (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000)]

[1] Gene M. Tucker and the The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Vol. 6, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39), (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000).

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-first-sunday-of-advent-also-sunday.html ; Carolyn C. Brown, Year A – First Sunday of Advent, Also the Sunday after Thanksgiving in the USA.

[3]  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=7

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/08/year-first-sunday-of-advent-also-sunday.html ; Carolyn C. Brown, Year A – First Sunday of Advent, Also the Sunday after Thanksgiving in the USA.