Sunday, December 09, 2018

For a Good Reason—a sermon for Advent 2 (Isaiah 42 & 56)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
For a Good Reason
Isaiah 42.1-9, 56.1-8 (CEB)
9 December 2018, Advent 2

But here is my servant, the one I uphold;
    my chosen, who brings me delight.
I’ve put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring justice to the nations.
He won’t cry out or shout aloud
    or make his voice heard in public.
He won’t break a bruised reed;
    he won’t extinguish a faint wick,
    but he will surely bring justice.
He won’t be extinguished or broken
    until he has established justice in the land.
The coastlands await his teaching.
God the Lord says—
    the one who created the heavens,
    the one who stretched them out,
    the one who spread out the earth and its offspring,
    the one who gave breath to its people
    and life to those who walk on it—
I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason.
    I will grasp your hand and guard you,
    and give you as a covenant to the people,
    as a light to the nations,
    to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison,
    and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.
I am the Lord;
    that is my name;
    I don’t hand out my glory to others
        or my praise to idols.
The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened,
    but I’m declaring new things.
    Before they even appear,
    I tell you about them.

The Lord says:
    Act justly and do what is righteous,
    because my salvation is coming soon,
    and my righteousness will be revealed.
Happy is the one who does this,
    the person who holds it fast,
    who keeps the Sabbath, not making it impure,
    and avoids doing any evil.
Don’t let the immigrant who has joined with the Lord say,
    “The Lord will exclude me from the people.”
    And don’t let the eunuch say,
        “I’m just a dry tree.”
The Lord says:
    To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    choose what I desire,
    and remain loyal to my covenant.
    In my temple and courts, I will give them
    a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.
    I will give to them an enduring name
    that won’t be removed.
The immigrants who have joined me,
    serving me and loving my name, becoming my servants,
    everyone who keeps the Sabbath without making it impure,
    and those who hold fast to my covenant:
    I will bring them to my holy mountain,
    and bring them joy in my house of prayer.
    I will accept their entirely burned offerings and sacrifices on my altar.
    My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples,
        says the Lord God,
    who gathers Israel’s outcasts.
I will gather still others to those I have already gathered.


Last week I mentioned that Advent is an already-not-yet season, a time when we wait for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, for the coming for God-with-us into the world, and also recognise that God is with us even now, while we wait for Christ to come again. Though we are waiting, some of us patiently and others less patiently, we know that we are not alone while we wait. And though we are waiting, we also know that we are not meant to simply sit back and do nothing until God either fixes or destroys the world. The waiting of Advent is about preparation, about participating in something God is already doing in the world. The word Advent actually means “coming” or “arrival” or even “beginning.” These few weeks before Christmas are not just a time for buying presents or opening little doors looking for chocolate, it’s a new beginning, every year, as we live into the story of God in Christ.

The people who first heard the prophet Isaiah were fairly certain that they were in fact alone. They had spent years in exile, and a whole new generation had been born there, far from home, without any of the markers of God’s presence that their parents and grandparents had relied on. Yet even there, even to people who believed themselves abandoned, even in a place that was a wilderness away from everything comfortable and familiar, God spoke.

Can you imagine a world that has changed so drastically, so quickly...a world where everything felt uncertain, where young people grew up not knowing the religious traditions that used to be common, where some in the community wanted nothing more than to go back to the way things were before, and where others were insisting they had to look forward, where there were different foods available, and people who spoke different languages walked in the streets outside, and families no longer looked quite like they used to, and the government was a bit unstable, and everyone outside the church thought we were just an antiquated and boring old group with beautiful things but no real purpose?

We don’t have to use much imagination, do we?! The land seems strange, and we don’t know how to adapt, or even if we should adapt, and we are anxious about the future.

Then and now, God is this close: “I will grasp your hand” God says. What if God is really close enough to grasp us by the hand? 

This bit of Isaiah is spoken to the people of Israel, feeling alone and afraid and far from everything they knew...and to us, the Church, the community of God’s people, sometimes very far from everything we used to know. God says: “you are the one I uphold, my chosen, who brings me delight.” God says “I have put my spirit on you.”

Often we now read this as being about Jesus, which, of course, it is. Jesus is the one on whom God’s spirit rests, anointing him to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, light to those who live in the shadows. Most of the words of the prophets had a meaning for their own time and a meaning for the future...but that is not to say there is no further meaning beyond that fulfilled in Christ. 

One of my dear friends is a rabbi, and I asked her once what it meant to be waiting for the Messiah. She said “to say we are waiting for the messiah is to say that the world is not as it should be, and we still have work to do to prepare.” Remember, the word were originally spoken as a commissioning to the whole people...that could again be true.

God says to the people, then and now: “I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason.” When God created this community, God already had a role in mind for us. It wasn’t a haphazard accident, God called this community together for a good reason. God calls the Church into existence, gathers us for a purpose, and gives us all we need to fulfil that purpose, if only we will see and pursue it.

The next words after “I have called you for a good reason” are the key. “I will give you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.” 

Notice God doesn’t say “I give you as a sign of my covenant”—God says “I will give you as a covenant.” The servant of God, whether we read that as Christ or as the whole community of God’s people as this was originally written, is the covenant. God’s faithfulness is all wrapped up in human skin. And we are called, for a good reason: to be a light, to help people see, and to set them free.

God is right in saying this is a new thing. Even now, three thousands of years later, and after nearly two thousand years of celebrating Christmas, we still can’t entirely wrap our minds around the idea that the community of God’s people might just be the place of continual divine incarnation, that we might be the continuation of God’s covenant call—that God wasn’t only in Christ, but continues to live on in his Body. Just as the people waiting in exile three thousand years ago, we long for days gone by—days that we look back on with deeply rose-coloured glasses, forgetting the part we played in creating the situation we’re in—while feeling a bit adrift. 

The second part of today’s reading is a reminder that then, as now, one of the ways people tried to get back to the way things used to be is by cracking down on rules they’d once followed....but God is doing a new thing. So the immigrants, and the eunuchs, and others who were outcast because they did not look the part, did not say the right words or have the right accent or the right skin colour or the right language or the right money, are exactly the people God is gathering in. Isaiah tells us that the rules were so long-ingrained that immigrants and eunuchs had come to believe themselves that God excluded them. The fancy term we use for that now is “internalised oppression”—when people in oppressed groups actually believe themselves inferior, because they have taken in all the stigma or fear or hatred that others have put on them. We see it in the suicide rate among LGBT teenagers, for instance, or in the ways girls approach STEM subjects as if they are somehow inherently less good, or in the people of colour who believe their only place in society is in kitchens and corner shops, or poor people who don’t believe themselves worthy of help or of a treat or of love.

But God has a new thing to say. To those who have been kept separate, to those who are looked down on, to those who believe themselves inferior, God says: what matters is not the outward signs of your body or your language. You belong here. All who seek are included, regardless of their qualifications. God’s house is for all, no exceptions, and God is even now gathering more people in. 

And so the cycle begins again, right? God gathers us...for a good reason, to give us as a covenant, a light, a healing presence, liberators. And then more are gathered...for a good reason, to be a sign that God’s faithfulness is not restricted to the few, that God’s presence is not only for those who remember how things used to be, not only for those who can say the right thing or behave in exactly the same way, but for those who are near and far away, from east and west and north and south, everyone whom the Lord our God shall call. 

George MacLeod once said “the church is a movement, not a meeting house.” I think Isaiah would agree. The place where God dwells is not in the Temple, but in the people, and so we are never alone. The servant is the covenant. The church, the Body of Christ, is the continued incarnation. And even now, God is gathering still others, and has a role in mind for us to grow into as a community.

This Advent, this season of waiting and preparing for a new beginning, God is doing a new thing, right here, close enough to take us by the hand, calling us to be a movement, not a meeting house, for a good reason: to be the Body of Christ, light in the world, offering healing and freedom to all, not just some.

May it be so. Amen.

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