Before we read our scripture passage today, I want you to think about everything that is wrong in your life. That seems a bit counter-intuitive, I know, but trust me on this. We’re going to do a kind of the antithesis of “Counting Your Blessings.” -- sort of like Alexander in the Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day….where basically everything goes wrong for poor Alexander and he wants to move to Australia, and at the end he realizes that people have bad days in Australia too - like, the grass is never any greener elsewhere.
So let’s get the list going -- I’ll start -- it’s really hard to wait my turn with the vaccine (or I haven’t seen my family in over 6 months or haven’t had a proper date with Ben in almost a year or…)
The passage that we’re about to hear today was written for the Israelites living in Babylon near the end of the exile. Just as a brief reminder of your Bible history, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem around 600 BCE and eventually conquered the southern kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, including the Temple. King Nebuchadnezzer deported much of the city’s population to Babylon.
The Jews living in Babylon had lost the Promised Land and had been living for generations in this new place. The Temple - their most sacred symbol of God’s presence among the people - had been destroyed. They were a people without a home, without a sense of identity, longing for and mourning what they had lost and had no idea if they would ever see themselves having a place and a purpose again. (Maybe that puts some of our things in perspective but it also means that those who heard and understood these words knew hardship and struggle).
So they were having a very long Terrible Horrible Very Bad Day.
It’s into that situation that the prophet Isaiah spoke. So keep that in mind - and keep what you’re carrying in mind as well as we hear Isaiah 40:21-31. We’ll hear it read from the Contemporary English Version.
Scripture - Isaiah 40:21-31
Isaiah 40:21-31 (CEV)
Don’t you know?
Haven’t you heard?
Isn’t it clear that God
created the world?
God is the one who rules
the whole earth,
and we that live here
are merely insects.
He spread out the heavens
like a curtain or an open tent.
God brings down rulers
and turns them into nothing.
They are like flowers
freshly sprung up
and starting to grow.
But when God blows on them,
and are carried off
like straw in a storm.
The holy God asks,
“Who compares with me?
Is anyone my equal?”
Look at the evening sky!
Who created the stars?
Who gave them each a name?
Who leads them like an army?
The Lord is so powerful
that none of the stars
are ever missing.
You people of Israel, say,
“God pays no attention to us!
He doesn’t care if we
are treated unjustly.”
But how can you say that?
Don’t you know?
Haven’t you heard?
The Lord is the eternal God,
Creator of the earth.
He never gets weary or tired;
his wisdom cannot be measured.
The Lord gives strength
to those who are weary.
Even young people get tired,
then stumble and fall.
But those who trust the Lord
will find new strength.
They will be strong like eagles
soaring upward on wings;
they will walk and run
without getting tired.
Part of me thinks I really should have had Ben preach part of this sermon, because one of the things that struck me as I was reading this text was that it’s written to a people at the end of exile who will be getting ready to go back to their homeland and rebuild….and here we are, in the midst of our own restoration project on Firehouse road.
I think most of you know what the inside of that place was like when we bought it over a year ago. I won’t go into full on detail about what it was like wading through the inside of this abandoned property - but let’s say that seeing beyond the piles of filth and neglect took some imagination. When we came to it, it was a sad little house, an overgrown property, an eyesore and a spot of grief for so many who remembered what it was like in happier times in the past.
Bit by bit, we - and I mostly mean Ben - have taken the time to clear it out, tend to the grounds, and have begun constructing a vision for what that place could be again - with fruit trees, children’s laughter, blossoming gardens, and dinner gatherings. Bit by bit - trash bag by trash bag, I can see the project take shape. It’s easy to see the unfolding of this vision as the house tangibly changes as a result of our work and effort.
What happens, though, when that rebuilding isn’t so tangible?
We have here words from the beginning of what is called the “Book of Consolation” in Isaiah - a book that provides encouragement and comfort to a people, preparing them to return to their homeland. Here in this passage, the questions spoken by God aren’t meant to be answered, but to remind the people who really is in charge, and to get them back into a different mindset -- one of hope for a future and a readiness to rebuild.
But I have to wonder how these words landed with those living in exile. Presumably, the older generation may have remembered what life had been like in their homeland, but newer generations did not. The generation that sees the end in this story - a return to Judah - wasn’t present for the beginning. Any memories or stories of Jerusalem were before their time in captivity in Babylon - and that world had been wiped away. What does restoration look like when you know that you can never truly go back to what was? What does hope look like then?
This passage serves to not only encourage them that they will be restored, but tells them that they can also withstand the pains of restoration.
We face in our reality a similar transition. We have certainly carried our own share of troubles in our very own national and global Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day. The rollout of the vaccine promises a restoration of “normalcy” that many of us have been craving for almost a year, but supply and distribution continue to be problematic. We’re still reeling from partisan divisions - divisions that may have been exacerbated under the previous administration but that have not gone away. Truth, facts, and reality seem to be up for negotiation from huge segments of our country’s population. We’re still in the midst of the pandemic with its economic challenges and mental health difficulties of loneliness and isolation. The end is in sight for some of these things - but as we move forward, what does hope and restoration really look like as we take stock of all that we have lost? How can we get back to normal when normal is what landed us in this situation in the first place?
Sometimes, where you start is acknowledging the difficulty of your current reality, the challenge that lies ahead, and then stepping into the vision of what you hope will be….and trusting God’s work and movement in the midst of that.
This, I think, is the power in this passage. God reminds the people - and us - that God is involved and present throughout all of history - through the very creation of the cosmos. There is nothing that compares to God’s sovereignty - and God will continue to act in the world to bring healing and wholeness and restoration - not in the sense that things will be back to the way they were, but closer to the way God always intended them to be.
That’s not a project that will just suddenly happen. That world will not suddenly appear - that’s a project that needs hands and feet to enact.
God prepared the Israelites for the rebuilding of their homeland and the hard work ahead - they cannot go back to what was. God prepares us, too, for the work of rebuilding as we recover from the pandemic - and we, too, cannot go back.
I’ve heard so many people talk about what they hope will be different going forward - more priority on spending time with loved ones. Slowing down the frantic pace of life. Shopping more locally and with greater intention. Learning how to do without, or being more creative with the resources they have on hand. Paying more attention to how policies from our government or state affect vulnerable populations among us and our planet. Allowing more time for prayer and gratitude. Spending more time doing the things that honor God and God’s movement in their life.
As we come out of this unsettling, uncertain, and disorienting time - there is a wonderful opportunity to reorient ourselves in ways that give us life, that are aligned with God’s hopes and dreams for us and our world, that enable us to partner with God’s work in our community, giving life and hope to others. We have a chance to widen our spiritual imaginations to live and be in ways that witness to the healing and redemptive work of God in our lives and in the world. That’s something more than what name is on our sign or what denomination we’re a part of -- that’s something about who we are as individuals and as a community seeking after Jesus. It’s that vision that we should be yearning after with our whole being because we serve a God who cares about people over principles, who gives hope and strength to those who live in trust that God is weaving all things for God’s greater purposes for all of creation.
And so as we enter this time of transition - both as we rebuild as a community and as we approach the vote that impacts our relationship with the United Methodist Church - my prayer is that we look to God for faith and trust in the midst of the waiting...that we look to God for hope in the efforts of rebuilding...that we look to God for the vision to live and act as witness to the grace and truth present in Jesus Christ...that we follow the movement of the Holy Spirit in being people of abundant life and hope in service to others.
May God be with us as we move into these days together - may we look only to Jesus to guide our steps - and may the Spirit grant us strength and renewal in the time ahead. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and almost 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.