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the sermon for

the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

04 February 2018

Isaiah 40:21-31
Only those who need the gospel
are able to hear the gospel!

02042018"The Doom of the Nation." That's the title of chapter twelve in my Old Testament text from back in seminary. "The Doom of the Nation." Dark. Ominous. Full of foreboding. Jerusalem had survived a siege by the armies of Assyria. Assyria the great! Assyria the powerful! God saved the people! And now, they believed they were invincible, unconquerable! Jerusalem rejoiced! Jerusalem reveled! It was a time of patriotism! It was a time of believing! The people felt they were on the brink, on the verge, of something special! Of a Golden Age! A return not just to the good old days, but to the great old days, to the greatest old days! They dreamed! And the dreams they dreamed were big dreams!

But then, came Babylon. This time, when the armies reached the city, Jerusalem was defeated. Defeated, devastated, and destroyed. And the Temple – like the city – was left in ruins. People died. A lot of people died. By the sword. By hunger. Plague. And the rich and powerful – everybody who was anybody – were led away in chains as trophies of war. Those who endured, those who survived, became refugees. Jerusalem, for all intents and purposes, was no more. Worse yet, god had vanished. And Jeremiah sang a dirge...

"How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal, a sharecropper, a slave..."

Humiliated. Abandoned. Alone. But like I said, the worst part of it all was that god had disappeared! God was gone and Babylon had done what no one else had been able to do. They undid everything god had done. They took away the land. They broke the promise! "The Doom of the Nation." Its ruin. Its death.

And it's funny... reading through the passage from Isaiah earlier in the week... all I could hear was the anger, the accusation. All I could hear was god ranting and raving against a broken people. Pointing fingers! Laying blame!

"Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?"

I read the words and god sounded so angry, so bitter! Like someone who had reached the end of their rope! The last straw! The last nerve! "It's he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing."

It sounded like a scene straight out of Job. You know what I mean. When god's taken about all god can stand and lets Job have it! A who-do-you-think-you-are kind of moment! I have to confess, each time I'd start reading, I never got beyond this point. I'd hear the rage and I, simply, gave up. The only thing that kept me going was something a professor told us in seminary. This, he said, was SECOND Isaiah. It's a book of promise! A book of hope! And so I read. And I read again. Until something happened. God's voice slowly, surely began to change. Less ruthless, less rude. Gentler, more compassionate. After a while, I realized god was beginning to sound like a parent! Like a parent comforting a child – their child – after waking from a nightmare!

"It's okay! I'm here! I've got you! The Temple's gone. Jerusalem's no more. The land belongs to someone else. But we still have each other! I'm still here! I'm still with you! I never left!

I was amazed at how it worked! It seems, the people who needed good news heard it! The people who needed good news heard it! But the people who don't –people like me, sitting in my office, safe and sound – don't! Can't!

That's what's happening in Mary's song, in the Magnificat! God casts the mighty down from their thrones and uplifts the humble of heart! God fills the hungry with wondrous things and leaves the wealthy no part! It's not that god's doing two different things, speaking two different messages. One to the mighty and wealthy. Another to the humble and hungry. God does only one thing, speaks only one word. But some just can't hear it! Can't hear it because they - like me, don't need it! And what they hear twists and distorts that good news into something they can hear, twists and distorts that good news into something it's not!

It's the suffering - the agony and the anguish – that reveals the gospel! You can't forgive someone who believes they've never done anything wrong, someone who thinks they've done everything right! No matter how hard you try! You can't lift up someone who's never fallen! You can't wipe away tears someone has never cried! You need the gloom, the despair, the agony! You need the changes and the chances of life to understand, to appreciate!

That might be why it's so hard to be evangelicals here in the U.S. Real evangelicals! Gospel-believers! We have it too good! What do they say? Even on our worst day, it's better than... We can do anything we put our mind to! All we have to do is try harder and do better! Truth is, we just don't need saving! Why bother with a savior; faith becomes nothing more than a code of ethics or a set of laws, nothing more than rules and regulations. So, when something comes along that knocks us on our kiester – something like 9/11 or any one of the numberless mass shootings – we don't know what to do, how to feel. So we just shut down. We simply go numb. No. We don't need saving. Or if we do, we save ourselves. And when we read the words like the ones we did, this morning, we think god is angry! And so we just stop reading.

The Doom of the Nation. Unfortunately, that's what it takes to get our attention. It's only in the darkness that we can hear god calling – whispering, actually – softly, tenderly... "Why? Why do you say, I'm not here, when I am! Why do you say, I don't care, when I do! When I've never stopped caring! Have you not know? Have you not heard! I've been with you, all along! I've never, ever gone away!

The Doom of the Nation. It's here that we, finally, can feel god's hands take hold of us! It's here that we, at last, can feel god's arms around us! That we can feel god's heartbeat, god's warmth! That we can hear god's breath in our ears! That we know we're safe! Safe... in spite of! Safe... no matter! It's the doom that is important! The doom that matters! Without it, there is no faith, there is no believing!

That's the difference between the rich and poor! That's the difference between the powerful and weak! That's the difference between the satisfied and the hungry! Between Pharisee and sinner! Between grain and chaff! Between wheat and weeds! Between sheep and goats! The one doesn't need saving – or, at least, doesn't think they do! But the other... the other is captive, bound, and needs someone else to come and set them free! The first hear only anger. For the latter, for those who need a savior, for those who need good news, there's the love, the charity, the grace. Always the love, the charity, and the grace! "God gives power to the paint, strength to the powerless!" Because they know, without a doubt, that it can happen no other way! "Have you not known," god asks! Expecting us to say, "Yes! We have known!" "Have you not heard?" "Of course, we've heard!" "Remember," god says! "Think back! To when you were young! To the lessons you learned! To the songs you sang! Jesus love me, this I know! Jesus loves the little children, all the children! That's still me! I'm still that god! And I'm here – I'm still here – beside you! Now! And forever!

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