November 17, 2019

“Taking Stock”

Isaiah 60:1-7

Our focus for today’s sermon is from Isaiah 60:1-7 -Arise! Shine! For your light has come!” I chose this passage of scripture, to encourage us as we travel through what is a difficult and somewhat dark time for our nation. Public impeachment proceedings have begun, and pundits are spewing out their opinions, flaming the fires of the populous and dividing us further and further apart. It is likely to get far worse before it gets better. Impeachment is but one of many sore points for our country at the moment. It just feels strange to be an American these days. The hidden underbelly of our nation has come into the light and it isn’t pretty - Racism, once thought of as dormant, or at least somewhat under control, has reared its ugly head as immigrants and DACA recipients are called all sorts of horrible names. Hate crimes are up significantly since 2016. According to the New York Times, in a report posted on November 12th, “Personal attacks motivated by bias or prejudice reached a 16-year high in 2018, the F.B.I. said Tuesday, with a significant upswing in violence against Latinos outpacing a drop in assaults targeting Muslims and Arab-Americans. Overall, the number of hate crimes of all kinds reported in the United States remained fairly flat last year after a three-year increase, according to an annual F.B.I. report. But while crimes against property were down, physical assaults against people were up, accounting for 61 percent of the 7,120 incidents classified as hate crimes by law enforcement officials nationwide.”

And yet another school shooting occurred this past Thursday. 2 students were killed and 3 others shot. The shooter then turned the gun on himself. More senseless violence, as once again, access to a firearm leads to tragedy.

We are divided, angry and struggling as a people, and it seems as if the fabric of our nation is being torn apart. Because of how things are, it is easy to lose hope. It is my hope that in focusing upon today’s passage, we can still see the light of God shining-a place to find hope and purpose for life.

What is the history behind these verses? What was the prophet Isaiah trying to convey to the people of God at a certain place and time? The book of Isaiah covers a little more than 200 years of history - From the threat of Assyria in the 700’s B.C., to the destruction of Israel and the people being led into captivity in Babylon in the 600s B.C., to their eventual release and return to Jerusalem with some real struggles to rebuild their homeland. By the time we get to the third section of Isaiah, chapters 56-66, a good number of those exiled in Babylon have returned home to rebuild the former devastation. In 538 BC, King Cyrus of Babylon issued an edict allowing those Jews who wanted to leave to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. Not all went back. Some stayed in Babylon, but enough came back to help rebuild. Sheshbazzar, son of Jewish King Jehoiachin, was appointed as governor of Jerusalem by King Cyrus and given the task of directing the rebuilding of Jerusalem. After approximately 18 years of hard work, he got the people to rebuild homes, walls, and also got them to lay the foundation of the temple, completed around 520 BC.

Then things began to deteriorate. Chapter 59 speaks of social disintegration. Listen to this description - “Therefore, justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! There is darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead. We all growl like bears; like doves, we moan mournfully. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us.” (Isaiah 59:9-11) This section of scripture seems to describe America at the moment, at least to me.

What brought about social upheaval for those who had returned to rebuild their lives and the temple? After the foundation for the temple was completed, the people of God stopped working upon it and focused on their own homes instead of God’s home. Now keep in mind, for the Israelites, the temple was the place where God lived. That was the place where they encountered the very presence of God, where they worshipped God, where they found forgiveness, hope, and restoration. God was at the heart, the very center of Jerusalem. Apparently, they began to focus on other things. Troubles began afflicting them - they experienced drought, crop failure, hunger, inflation. There was community conflict, vindictiveness, harsh accusations, false lawsuits. This society had turned into something far from what God intended. For a good four to five years the people suffered and struggled. They took their focus off of God, focused instead upon themselves and their struggles and lost their way as a result.

So in Isaiah 60, the prophet sees them stumbling around in the dark, groping around like blind people. He calls them to rise and shine - for their light has come! In fact, it has been there all along and if they would just focus their lives back on God and complete the temple, they would be blessed beyond measure. He was trying to renew their languishing spirits. They were in a crisis and needed to be reminded of God’s light.

After Isaiah’s call for the people to see the light of God, he recounted that indeed darkness would cover the earth and thick darkness the people, - there will be struggle - but the Lord will arise upon them and God’s glory will be theirs, and nations will come and help them rebuild. George Frederick Handel put this section of scripture to music in his famous work, “The Messiah.”

I will now sing for you the recitative, “For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth,” followed by the aria, “The People Who Walked in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light.” Notice how the first piece starts out dark and threatening but ends in a major and happy key.

Isaiah’s encouragement from this passage, along with the work of the prophet Haggai, got the people-focused off of themselves and their struggles and back upon God. They rebuilt the temple, along with help from other nations, including Persia. For some 500 years, the nation of Israel flourished, as the people of God got their focus back upon God, and they were blessed beyond measure.

How then does this passage apply to us today? Where do we find hope? If you have your hope in politics or the impeachment process in particular, I believe just as those who returned from exile who had their hope elsewhere, your hope is in the wrong place. The psalmist writes in Psalm 146, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, where there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” (Psalm 146:3)

In the book study we are currently going through, Shane Claiborne’s work, the Irresistible Revolution, Claiborne calls Jesus his president, and goes on to say, “My president has already ascended the throne and has already delivered his state of the union address. I don’t believe that God needs a commander-in-chief or a Billionaire in Washington, and I have little faith that he will incarnate the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, and the fruit of the Spirit. I will declare my allegiance from the mountaintops, joining the chorus of saints and martyrs. And I will raise the banner of love above all flags.” Claiborne’s hope is found in God and God alone.

What about us? Hope can be found in a God who loves us, who calls us into a relationship, and who blesses us, daily with good things. If we focus our lives and our hope upon God, and upon God’s blessings in our life, no matter how dark things may get, God’s light will always shine. Sometimes, we just need to re-find our focus, and Isaiah’s words can do that for us today.

When I worked as a sales clerk at Sears back in the 1980s, for most of the year I was focused on customer service-assisting those who came to the sporting, toy, camera and garden department to help them find the product they needed. It was a massive department, and I rarely took notice of just how much was packed into our section of the store - I was focused on other things, except for once a year, when we did our annual inventory. In January of each year, we took stock of every item in the department, which took hours - Back in those days, there were no computers to read the labels and count. You did it all manually with a pencil, clipboard, and paper. We had so much in abundance around us - I just couldn’t see it most of the year, because my attention was elsewhere.

I would suggest to you that, just like the Israelites back in the 500’s B.C., we too may need to refocus our lives and remember how many ways we have been blessed by the God who shines the light of hope before us. Perhaps it is time to take an annual inventory of the blessings God has given you in this past year. It is so easy to focus on the unfolding drama in Washington D.C. and the dysfunction in our nation’s capital, to be shocked by racist rants, to listen to all of those people shouting at one another that we may forget even now in the midst of all this mess, God still blesses us.

As for me, there have been more than a few moments feeling as if I were groping about in the shadows as a blind person. In such moments, I have taken my focus off of God and placed it on my personal struggles or the struggles of the country I love. When I refocus and place my eyes on the light and hope of God, I am amazed at the abundance around me.

I am blessed with our church and for the people who make up the body of Christ here. I am blessed to lead worship in this beautiful sanctuary, for worshiping together in the presence of God. I am blessed with good leaders on session, a compassionate board of deacons, an incredible office view, and a creative and flexible music director, who in addition to so many other things, plays Handel so wonderfully!

And personally, I am blessed for being able to get out of bed each morning and to live each day that God has given me upon this earth. I am blessed with my family- my wonderful, funny and dynamic wife Paula, and my two awesome kids Sam and Abby. I am blessed to live in a nice, spacious home in an incredible location. We are blessed as a family to be able to provide food on the table each night and to sleep in warm comfortable beds with a roof over our heads. I am blessed to be able to run and hike in the midst of this beautiful valley, full of mountains and trees and changes in season.

What about you? How has God blessed you this past year? How has God given you hope and light? This is a time to arise from the shadows of despair, to remember and focus upon God’s blessings on your lives and bask in God’s light. Arise! Shine! For your light has come. Follow that light from out of the shadows and shine it to others-proclaim God’s justice! For the passage in Isaiah tells us that the glory of God will be seen upon us. The word in Hebrew for glory, kabod means “weight splendor, brightness.” Stand up for the immigrant. Speak out against racism and encourage others to see people of color as sisters and brothers. Lift up the poor. Love and support those who are unhoused. Work to have weapons of war beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks. French Theologian Jacque Ellul wrote, “Christians should be troublemakers, creators of uncertainty, agents of a dimension incompatible with society.” That dimension Ellul mentions is the kindom of God. Work to make this place “on earth as it is in heaven.” Follow that light and stir things up! For when you do…

Sing - And his glory shall be seen upon thee! Alleluia. Amen.

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