Turning Around

Passage: Isaiah 63:7-14
Date: January 1, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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When I was cleaning up my desk at home after Christmas, I found a scratch pad on which I had written our family’s predictions for 2016. I had predicted Ted Wheeler would be elected mayor. Gregg predicted Hillary Clinton would be elected president. Sarah predicted her school would remain a K-8. We were half right and half wrong. (Sarah’s school is a bit in limbo.)

Others made predictions and wagers about 2016; some were right and some were wrong, but it is that time of year when we tend to look back, to look at the whole of the year, to look at the sum of 366 days and try to make some sense of the aggregate. We do that with entertainment, with movies and music and books; we do that with politics; we do that with war and peace and the environment. We do that with our own lives, with work and health and family.

And then January 1 rolls around (quite early this year, it feels like) and we turn around again, at twelve months that loom in front of us, and we wonder what will happen. What do we look forward to in 2017? Some of you await births and some await weddings. Some await graduations and retirements. We look forward to vacations and the arrival of summer. Here at church we look forward to celebrating our 125th anniversary in the fall.

So on this day when we look back and we look forward, we hear from the great prophet Isaiah, whose words are almost always stirring, encouraging, and challenging. We’ve got that gamut in this section from chapter 63.

Remember that several authors and editors wrote this masterpiece we call the book of Isaiah. Remember that the book spans almost two hundred years of Israel’s history. Early in the book the prophet warns the people of Israel that they must “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, [and] plead for the widow.” (1:17)

But the people do not heed the prophet, and the prophet says that God punishes them for not being faithful to what God has asked them to do. As punishment, the people lose their homeland. In the middle of the book we read of their life in exile, as captives in Babylon, far from the land they love. Then in the last part of the book, we learn that the people have been released from their captivity; they have returned home, and there is rejoicing.

There is rejoicing until they see that the land they love has been destroyed. There is no temple in Jerusalem. The fields lie charred and barren. The generations born in Babylon miss the comforts there, and do not know this God of Israel. Joy quickly turns to despair and complaint. The people blame each other and they blame God.

But constant in the book of Isaiah is the presence of God who engages with these rebellious, faithful, joyous, miserable people.

In one sense, the book is about the people who follow God. We learn about them. They celebrated and feasted. Some celebrations turned to revelries and debaucheries that brought shame rather than honor. These same people would thank God only to complain when things didn’t go their way. In exile some decided it was easier to capitulate to the ways of Babylon than continue to try to follow the God of Israel.

Perhaps humanity has not changed all that much. Some days we do really, really well – we invent penicillin and slow the progress of terrible diseases. We donate generously and selflessly. We advocate for those who have no voice. We tear down systems that hinder the full living of some. That’s on our good days.

But we have bad days, too – bad months, bad years. Gregg and I recently found ourselves telling Sarah about bomb shelters. The images from Aleppo and Mosul are nothing less than depressing and quite horrifying. Massacres and shootings, greed – I don’t need to tell you those stories. You know them as well as I.

It is that time when we look at what have been our good days and our bad days. Then there’s the faith part of all of this. If we were to turn around and look back at 2016, would we say we followed Jesus well, or did we stumble or stray from the path, or simply sit down and refuse to take one more step?

I’m never entirely sure how to talk about faith here at Westminster. For some the word itself – “faith” – conjures up brainwashing, or lockstep, rote agreement of impossible things. Some speak gladly of their faith, of what they believe about God and Jesus and all of it. Some read the Bible as interesting or dull literature; some read it as the blueprint for their life. Some don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus; some bet all that they have on that very thing.

So when I ask how well any of us did in our life of faith the last year, I know I’m poking the bear a little. But because we are here for worship this day, reading an ancient text whose themes sound quite contemporary, it seems worth the risk to admit: all of us have given God praise where praise is due, and all of us have given God the opportunity to call us rebellious children.

Maybe you, like me, have those times when you don’t want to love your neighbor much less your enemy. Maybe you, like me, don’t really want to give what you have to the poor but would rather spend it lavishly on yourself. Maybe you, like me, mourn the deaths of celebrities who entertained you for decades but shed not one tear for people in South Sudan, or Afghanistan, or Colombia, or our inner cities or our small towns, or any place in the world where violence has been normalized.

It is so much easier not to follow Jesus. Sometimes I think it would be so much easier not to believe in God, the only downside being that I would have to find a new job.

And then I think:
    but if there were no God, who would love us unconditionally?
    If there were no God, who would care enough about us to call us on our sin?
    If there were no God, what would keep this community glued together, and where would the really good stories come from?
    If there were no God, how would we find life in the midst of death?
    If there were no God, who would we turn to when all hope was lost?

So I choose to believe there is a God who is not some super Sky Deity with a wizard’s beard and awesome sparkling white robes but who is someone else.
    I choose to believe there is a God who is both proud enough to pronounce the creation good and humble enough to lie in an animal’s feeding trough.
    I choose to believe in a God who avenged the slavery of the chosen people with horrible violence – a God I find frightening and wrong and incomprehensible.
    I believe in a God who was put to death on a cross and in his dying moments cared for his mother and those who died next to him.
    I believe in a God who is as tender as the best parent of a baby, and as frustrated as the best parent of a teenager.

Sometimes we turn ourselves around and seek God. And then sometimes God turns us. We often say that in our prayer of confession – “God, turn us around” which really is what repentance is – turning from being one way to being another way. And then there are those times when it seems as though God puts a blindfold on us and spins us around – the way you do when you play Pin the Tail on the Donkey – and takes the blindfold off and says, “Now that I’ve completely confounded you, go find your way. You needed to be shaken up a little.”

It might be a good exercise to read the whole of Isaiah sometime soon. I did that this week. I read those beloved texts that Handel set to music, and strange texts full of strange names, and talk of battles and death, and unbelievable poetry. What I realized in going through this book is that thousands of years ago, there were people who cared about the sorts of things we care about: family, peace, security in all manner of things.

Thousands of years ago there was this group of people who believed in God, and the prophet reminded them of the good that God did for them, and how deeply God loved them, so deeply that God would not allow them to throw away their lives on petty and destructive things. Reading through Isaiah this week I encountered again a God who is unknowable, capable of violence and vengeance, and who is devoted and forgiving and generous with life and hope.

Isaiah might be a good book for us this year, because while it speaks to me personally, it is a book addressed to a community – a community who rebelled, a community who was exiled, a community who came home to the hard task of rebuilding. With a political landscape on the horizon that will be very different from the one of the last several years, some feel they are at last home, and some feel they are in exile. I believe we are pretty broken as a society, divided, distrusting. The hard task of rebuilding faces us too.

My hope for us as a worshiping community of faith is that as we strive to be faithful to God, we will be faithful to each other as well; that as we seek to love, as we seek to do those things Isaiah called the people to – “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, [and] plead for the widow” – we will learn again how to reach out to one another, and how to reach out to God, whether we reach out in praise or complaint or repentance.

If you turn around once more time and look back at 2016, you might notice something. We were at our best when we reached out to each other and up to God. We were at our best when someone we loved died, and we gathered to remember them, and to give thanks for their life, and we served cookies and tea and sat down and talked about this person who changed our lives.

We were at our best when we studied poverty, its causes and its effects, so that when we went out to make a dent in that social plague, we brought our brains and our hearts and our faith to this issue.

We were at our best when, after the election, we were able to muster the courage to reach across whatever aisle divided us and to say to the other, “I don’t know you. Please tell me about yourself, what makes you weep, what makes you think, what you hope for your grandchildren or for the future.”

Let us strive to be at our best in 2017. I will tell you in advance we won’t always achieve that goal, but we are a people who believe in forgiveness and mercy. Still, let us strive to be faithful to each other and to God, so that thousands of years from now, someone might read our story, and have hope in their time, too.    

To the glory of God.