Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Sing of Joy and Triumph”
Isaiah 55: 1-13
February 28, 2016
It is easy to sing of joy and triumph, right after one wins the game, or the war, capturing all the prizes and good fortunes. But, is not so easy when the opposite is true. When we experience victory or everything in our lives is going so well, we need to pinch ourselves to be reminded we are human; when we feel like this, it is just so wonderful! Then we can find ample desire and energy to begin singing at the top of our lungs, with joy and jubilation, and it is a breathtaking feeling; it is a sensation no one could possibly stop us from celebrating! In fact, no one could stop us no matter what life throws at us. On the other side of that wheel of fortune, and that sense of infallibility, such as times like when the stock market crashes, or someone in the family gets in a calamity, or the family car is totaled in an accident, well… it is much, much, harder to even get up in the morning. In our scripture reading today the Prophet Isaiah is addressing his remarks to people whom have gone through ‘far worse’ than I have just suggested constitutes a bad day!
Pastor John C. Holbert, a retired professor of religion, tells us that: “The context of Isaiah 55 is crucial. (If we are to grasp the fullness of the message it contains for us sitting here in the Twenty-First Century.) We are at the very end of the long Israelite exile in Babylon. Many, if not most, of these exiles have been born in the foreign place, having only heard about the old land of promise and its capital, Jerusalem…” At the men’s group, of which I attend quite often on Tuesday mornings, I listened to a pastor, The Reverend Bob Baggott, talk about the type of exile these Israelites possibly experienced. They all were living in a strange place, ripped and torn away from everything that they had ever known. Far, far away from their former homes. During the Babylonian conquest, during the sixth century (B.C.) Before Christ, these Israelites, usually the best educated and skilled members of the conquered nation, were dragged back to Babylon to bolster the needs of that foreign and far-off land. In this setting they were the immigrants, disparate and unconnected. They were having more than a bad-day.
Many of us have been forced to move during our lives, but far less of us have personal knowledge as to what it feels like to be forced into servitude in a foreign land. Maybe we have one or two, here today that have been a prisoner of war in the modern era, or know of someone who has. Yet, most of us have heard of the Syrian Refugees who have been forced to flee from their homeland as the ravages of war smite and smash their former homes. When one is forced to leave one’s home, for major lengths of time, losing everything of which they once possessed, one adds the loss of identity to the list of losses; and as time drags forward, the lengthening list continues – pulling the individuals involved deeper into the abyss. They are forced into a situation where they lose control over their lives, in every possible way. As time moves on their core beliefs begin to break down. They become angry. Their old understanding of God dies. They begin losing their frame of reference. Ultimately, many begin to lose their faith in God. At best, their understanding of God goes through a dramatic change.
It is at this point that the role of the Prophet becomes critical!
Juliana Claassens, Professor of Old Testament in South Africa, explains: “The job description of the prophet contains among other less than coveted tasks the ability to speak a life-giving word of hope when all the events seem to point to the contrary.” The ultimate challenge is to help a broken people regain their faith and belief in God. The Prophet’s job is to build a space for trust, to build between these lost people and their understanding of God, although by now it has diminished to a point where the most they might affirm is that there is a power greater than themselves.
The Prophet must begin a process through teachings and conversations that will make a space in a person’s mind and heart where they will begin the process of rebuilding their understanding of God; thereby regaining a sense of hope. On this, a new identity of a God that they can bring into their hearts during troubling times, can be reborn.
How do we rebuild spiritual identity? It is believed that we must start with our core beliefs, and then begin building on this, thereby helping ourselves to begin to ‘hope for’ and even ‘believe again’ in a new beginning. We must renew our willingness to cling to a thread of hope, hope that will drive away our despair and doubts. Once again, or for the first time, we come to believe that redemption, recovery and liberation, salvation even, can come at any moment. It is at this point in the journey that we need to become willing to re-frame our understanding of God as we grow and move away from the abyss, the chasm, and or the void that has pulled us down.
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” /Isaiah 55:1/ “All that one needs to accept the invitation is a thirst.” /author unknown/ The Prophet began reaching out with his words of inspiration, urging the exiled to hear again the invitation of God. Isaiah refers to this as a ‘new covenant’ between God and the people. He understands their needs, but challenges them to have a willingness to hope one again. If they will but reach out with a desire to be filled with God’s nourishment – then truly they will be nourished! These are challenging words. Are you thirsty? Are you willing to trust in God to satisfy your needs when logic and common sense tell you it is hopeless?
This past Tuesday evening, here in this sanctuary, we had the singing duo Jason and Demarco and their family gave us an hour and a half of live music, while they shared their journey and their ministry with us. What a joy! First, and foremost, you need to understand that they have really good voices and high energy levels, coupled with a strong faith! Personally, I have heard them sing, three years in a row, and they have greatly moved me each time I have had the opportunity to listen to them. The point of true inspiration is when you begin to grasp their journey and the challenges that they have faced along the way. Once you ‘get it’ then their successful ministry, with their full family being present, as they go from church to church – carrying their message, really jumps out at you!
You see Jason and Demarco were rejected by the church, rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation. They were marginalized. But somewhere deep down in their hearts, the need to sing of joy and triumph inspired them and gave them hope. At some point in the journey Jason’s mother came to understand that they were truly loved by God and began to support their relationship. And for the past fifteen years this couple have been sharing their message through their: singing voices, to churches who do accept them, for who they truly are. The joy and inspiration that comes from them is deeply moving and uplifting and inspirational all at the same time! Their two twin boys, along with the boy’s grandparents, carry a strong message to those who are willing to open their hearts to the love of God seen in this united family.
Patricia Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament (Louisville Presbyterian Seminary) gives us this thought to consider. “What would happen if we were to take seriously the graceful (abundance and wealth) of this passage, offering nutritional gifts not just for ourselves, but for all for whom God cares?” Isaiah’s voice in verse three speaks out in the name of God “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.” /Isaiah 55:3/ If we are thirsty enough and willing enough then we too can join in this sense of joy that this Prophet’s voice offers us; even now in the Twenty-First century!
The pinnacle of this reading is in verse twelve. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” /Isaiah 55:12/ We are being told that if we allow ourselves to thirst and drink of what God offers as, then the hand of the ‘New Covenant’ is extended to all whom reach back across the chasm to accept the hand of God. I personally know, just how hard it is to reach across that abyss, that deep and foreboding gorge, without fear and trepidation. Yet, that is the challenge: one must come to believe that God is still alive and the covenant is for you and for me.
I listened to a man just the other day, challenge me and those with me to “expand our world view.” Then he told this simple story. “I went fishing, and caught a twelve inch fish.” Going on he told us that: “I was in the kitchen cutting it apart, so that it would fit into the frying pan when my friend came in to ask what I was doing. I told him, I caught a twelve inch fish, but only have a six inch frying pan. His friend told him to get a bigger frying pan.” Then again he challenged us, saying: “Expand your world view!” (If your understanding of God doesn’t fit in your contracted and shrunken view of God, then you need to expand your view!) /Paraphrased – Author’s name unknown to me/
Today, we may be experiencing a victory. Today, we might be suffering a defeat or loss. This very moment, we are all in the presence of this prophetic witness of the new covenant promised to the oppressed exiled remnant of Israel, way back in the Sixth-Century Before Christ. The challenge for us modern Christians, is to embrace a new expanded view of what God still has in store for us! We need to lift up our very hearts and voices; lift them up to the heavens with joy in our hearts.
We need to look forward to the ultimate victory and triumph that is ours for the asking. With willingness, with openness and an expanded understanding of the faithfulness of God, we are invited to eat and drink of the love and promises of God!
Let us now open ourselves to receiving the words of ancient scriptures, into our hearts and minds, in hopes of hearing the leading of the Spirit of God in our lives today. Hear now the words of the prophet: Isaiah, chapter 55, verses 1 thru 13.
1 Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. 4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. 5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. 6 Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 12 For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
May God bless us, one and all, as we now ponder the message this reading contains for us today.