Listen and Look – August 30, 2020

Listen and Look

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Isaiah 51:1-6

August 30, 2020

Main Idea: God guides us.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Thus begins A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, a story about a traumatic and disorienting time, much like the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile, for which today’s Scripture text was written, much like the times in which we find ourselves now.  During the month of August, we are exploring the world and words of Second Isaiah who preached hope and deliverance to a disoriented, anxious people.  Isaiah’s words to the exiles speak to us, for we too are disoriented and anxious.  We have just finished two political conventions which promoted two very different visions of our nation and our future. Each claimed the soul of America and consigned the other to chaos and depravity.  We are bombarded with crises; natural and human made, to say nothing of the constant talking heads hectoring us to believe this or that.  It is no wonder that sometimes we don’t know which way to turn.   Into this chaos, this collective anxiety attack, Isaiah brings words of clarity and comfort.  Listen to God.  Look to God.  God will guide us.

The exiles in Babylon were a traumatized people.  40 years had past since the destruction of Jerusalem, but the memory of that trauma was deep in the self-understandings of these people as exiles and aliens in Babylon.  They did not know what to do.  They did not know who to trust.  They did not have any hope.  Into this despair, Isaiah brought them comfort and extraordinary hope; the word of God spoken directly to them.  Listen, Look, Trust that God will guide you.

Trauma specialists have techniques to help those who are experiencing anxiety and panic attacks.  One technique is to help the person focus on what they know rather than what they fear.  This is exactly what today’s Scripture text does!  In it, God speaks to the exiles, and to us, “Listen, Look, Trust.”

God says “Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord.” Yoo Hoo!  Focus! Disregard all the noise and all the worries and all the blather.  Listen to me!  Okay, now that I have your attention.  “Look [down] to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”  Look at your feet, and below your feet, and see the foundation from which you were created. The very stuff of stars, and mud, and mountains, and butterflies, and diamonds.  You were created with beauty and purpose.  Made with the very spark of God.

Now “Look [back] to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.”  This verse is the only time Sarah is mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures outside of Genesis.  The exiles had defined themselves by the fall of Jerusalem and their deportation but God calls them to look back beyond their traumatic history, all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, that old barren couple whose descendants came to number as many as the stars because they trusted in God.  Abraham and Sarah whose first home was in the place later known as Babylon!  By remembering Abraham and Sarah, the exiles could identify with them (Wow, Abraham and Sarah lived here before they went to Canaan!  God’s power extends even to this place!) They could recognize that their journey laid a map for the exiles’ own return home.   If God could make a great people from two old people willing to travel, surely God was with the exiles.

From the memory of Abraham and Sarah, Isaiah reminds the exiles of an even more foundational memory, that of the Garden of Eden.  “For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.”  Creation will be renewed and even in the struggles of the world, the beauty and purpose of creation will be revealed.  God’s attention and care will be on those places of wilderness and desert, those places that had seemed most abandoned.  For the exiles, joy, gladness, thanksgiving and song were in very short supply but Isaiah reminds them that these attributes are intrinsic to their very nature.  God will comfort them and they will sing and give thanks once again.

God says “Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation”.  Notice that God claims them as God’s own. God says, Stay focused.  You are my people, my nation, and I need you to pay attention. “For a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples.”  My care for you extended to all of creation.  My teachings about how to live together and how to care for each other are to be shared with the whole world.   “I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope.” My justice and my peace are for everyone. 

God told the exiles to listen, to look down at their foundations, look back to Abraham, Sarah and the Garden of Eden, and look forward to the future of peace and justice in the world.  Finally God says “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath.”  Everything is transient except for God alone.  Good things may happen, bad things may happen, things will change, “for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.”  The surest foundation, the only foundation is the love and power of God.  As Jesus says “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away .” (Matt 24:35)

So today let us put aside our low grade or high grade anxiety about the state of the world to listen to God and follow God’s call.   Ready?

First, Let us look to the rock from which we were hewn.  We can feel our two feet on the floor, yes?  We can feel the strength of our hands and our back.  We can see ourselves as part of God’s beautiful creation, and affirm the spark of God which resides in each one of us.

Now, Let us look back to Abraham, Sarah, and the Garden of Eden, and to Moses and David, and Isaiah and the other prophets, and John the Baptist, and of course Jesus, and Paul, and the sisters and brothers in faith that stretch down through history to our congregation of today.  Those in the past had to deal with what we are dealing with now.  Political crises, natural disasters, and pandemics have happened before.  We can draw strength from their experiences and wisdom, their questions and their faith.  The story of the exiles especially resonates with us today. If God could make a great people from two old people willing to travel, surely God was with the exiles.  If God can raise Jesus from the tomb, surely God is with us today.

Now, let us look forward to the future God intends for the world; a future of justice and peace for all.  The Corona virus pandemic has revealed significant flaws in our current culture; systemic indifference to the needs of the vulnerable, embedded racism against people of color, and an addiction to materialism at the expense of our environment. As disorienting as these days are, they give clarity to the needs of the world. God’s teaching gives us clear guidance about how we are to respond to these important issues.         

In all things we can trust in God whose love for us and for all of creation is unshakeable. The only true foundation.  Heaven and earth may pass away but God remains.

In this sermon series we have affirmed that God cares for us with a fierce and tender love (Is. 40:1-11), that God has power and empowers us, (Is. 40:21-31), that God is our rock, there is no other (Is. 44:1-8).  Today we affirm that God calls our attention and guides us to comfort, purpose, and peace.  In this season of disorientation we need all of this.  We need to be reminded of our foundation and of the idols that try to lure us away, either with fear or with false security. 

I am sorry to say that this season of disorientation will continue, at least for the near future.  For the next few months we will be buffeted by political rhetoric predicting wilder and wilder chaos if the other side wins. It is vital that we use our faith to guide our choices on the ballot.  We will continue to be challenged by the  Covid crisis, and the economic hardship that has gone along with it.  We pray that the school re-openings will go as planned with little disruption or illness.  And that those with kids at home will somehow be able to juggle the demands of work and family.  With dedication and care for each other, we will be able to move past this pandemic and not only restore our communities, but make them stronger and more just. 

In this season of disorientation and anxiety, God calls us to trust in God; to keep our focus on God, to rest in God’s grace, and to order our lives with God’s priorities.   In the midst of all this uncertainty – God’s will, God’s love, God’s providence is secure. For God is the rock from which we were hewn.

Let us pray,

God of deliverance and salvation, we thank you for your providence and care.  In all things and at all times, we put our trust in you.  Help us to put aside our distractions and fears so that we might focus all of our energy on your love and purpose.  Amen.