In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Barry and I had a relaxing 10 days in Canada, on Prince Edward Island. It was a return to a place that we've always associated with R and R. It's a place that holds good memories, especially in a few locations like beaches and B&B's and ice cream shops and walking trails. We've been there about 9 times over the years, I think, just because it brings us joy.
And it's astounding what's happened in the news over the 12 days that we were gone. Sobering, actually. So much that it makes your head spin to think of it:
* We've seen North Korea rattle its sabers; we've seen our own President promise fire and fury in reaction; and, thankfully, we've seen those threats seem to fade a little as the days went on.
* We followed the news from Charlottesville, Virginia, as white supremacists clashed with counter-demonstrators. Barry and I used to live there in the late 70's. That story was surreal for us, believe me. That was something we'd never seen before in Charlottesville. And we continued to hear on the CBC in Canada / numerous reminders that racism is still very much in the foreground in our country (and in Canada, too).
* We saw more chaos in the White House. I won’t elaborate on that.
* We read about the terrorist attack in Barcelona, where at least 14 people were killed, reminding us of the political instability of the planet, let alone our own country.
* We continue to hear of the dreadful crisis of warfare, displacement of peoples, and cholera in Yemen.
* And now there’s Hurricane Harvey causing incredible destruction in Texas.
It's enough to make anyone pretty depressed for our future, isn't it? Things seem to be worse than ever. It's surely enough to direct energy away from R&R and onto an anxious perusal of the news from the beach.
And yet it's not all that different from what was happening for the ancient Israelites as they waited and suffered in exile in Babylon. That's the concern of our first reading today. It comes from the middle portion of the book of Isaiah--the portion written in Babylon to the exiled people of Israel. A quick reading of the passage tells us that it’s a message of hope to the people. Let's take a look...
Listen! Listen, God says to God's people. Listen and remember, listen and hope and trust God to bring about a turning away from fear and depression // and toward hope. God tells the people in beautiful poetry that they should look to the rock from which they were carved out, and to the quarry from which they were dug. In other words, look back. Look to your roots and to the stories of your ancestors that will show you that God is listening, God is real, God will act, God will save.
The prophet mentions Abraham and Sarah, two elderly and barren people called forth by God to leave the comfort of their home and go forth with incredible risk into some unknown land that God would reveal to them. At age 99 Abraham became a father to the peoples who would grow into God's great nation Israel. At age 90 Sarah would bear the son whom they would call Isaac, which means "Laughter." This boy was called "Laughter" because both his parents laughed when his birth was told ahead to them. It was funny; this God was funny and was demonstrating his power by making a quite impossible thing come to pass.
Listen, Israel! Remember this! God has amazing power to shape history, to save you, to set you free again.
The poetry returns as we hear:
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.
This is a promise that God would turn around all the garbage they were dealing with every day and that God will redeem it--make it better--make it holy and save the people. We hear the word "comfort" used twice and we hear that God will bring change and beauty and joy. This verse brings so much hope. And it's worth listening to--even now. For the Bible was written as a love letter to God's people and that never changes. God's word is a love letter and a light to ALL peoples, all over the earth, regardless of their belief in /or their rejection of / God. And regardless of what century it happens to be.
Listen! Listen, God says to all God's people. I will act, and there will be joy. Don't be afraid to hope. Even in the 21st century. Don't be afraid to hope.
And this passage promises so much more than what we might call "Pie in the sky." Because we know that God's deliverance and God's redemption of all the junk may take longer than we want.
* * *
Our lives are full not only of joy but also of suffering. Sometimes we can't see the redemption because of all the pain displayed in the news and simmering in our hearts.
Even our issues aren’t beyond God's power to turn hearts and minds to the Good. Take a look at the end of the passage--verse 6 tells us "the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats." Eww. "But [God's] salvation will be forever, and [God's] deliverance will never be ended." So this is the promise of hope that all things will be redeemed and righted in the end...and all will be well in God's economy. But it sure is easy to lose sight of this promise, and to discount it as pie in the sky.
So -- what if our lives have hit a place of frustration and grim despair? What do we do? It's way too facile a thing to tell people to hope if they feel utterly powerless. But we know that a good remedy for feeling powerless / is being proactive. So be proactive. Pray and don't let God NOT hear about the suffering you see, the fear that's all around. Tell God the issues, and ask for more faith not only for ourselves but also and especially for the whole population in our times. Pray for Kim Jong-Un and his people. Pray for modern Nazis and white supremacists. Pray for Donald Trump and pray for people on the other side of the aisle. Pray for terrorists to come to know the salvation of God and turn. Pray for peace and safety for all people. Be proactive in prayer. And remember.
Remember Abraham and Sarah, brought from hopelessness to a real future. Remember Moses, saved over the waters, who led his people through the water and into freedom. Remember the prophets, who taught us to hope for salvation. Remember the Savior of the World, born into abject poverty, teaching Wisdom, embodying Truth, and triumphing even over suffering and death.
Remember times in our own lives, when it was clear, looking back, that God was turning despair into hope.
God isn't done yet.