By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25
If you were in church last Sunday you no doubt noticed that I was not. I appreciate Pastor Amber filling the pulpit so I could attend my Women Touched by Grace retreat. Women Touched by Grace is a Lilly funded initiative to provide training and support for women clergy. It is a series of five retreats spread out over three years. There are twenty women in the program from across the U.S. and Canada from a multitude of denominations and non-denominational. As you might imagine, when we are together we talk a great deal about our congregations. And I always leave those retreats tremendously thankful for all of you. I am deeply grateful that Trinity is the congregation I serve. Now, I’m not grateful because we are the biggest congregation or the wealthiest or located in the most exotic place. In fact, one clergy woman in the program pastors a church in Napa Valley, California. I confess, I do envy that, especially with the weather we had this past week. I imagine the Napa Valley as a beautiful, exotic place. So, why? Why do I feel myself so fortunate, so blessed, to be pastor at Trinity? Well, stay tuned for the answer.
This morning’s passage of scripture comes from near the end of the book of Isaiah. Isaiah is a very long prophetic book. Many scholars divide it into three major sections, reflecting different time periods and experiences of the ancient Israelites. Isaiah begins, as do many of our Hebrew prophetic books, with God’s warning that the people have strayed from God and God’s purposes. Their worship is not sincere; it has become empty ritual that they use to try and manipulate God. Furthermore, they are ignoring God’s commandments, particularly regarding the care of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. In the laws that God gave to Moses on the mountain, the Israelites are instructed that they must always protect those who lack the capacity to protect themselves. At that point in history, widows, orphans, and immigrants were foremost on the list of the vulnerable. As revealed in and confirmed by Jesus’ earthly ministry, the weak and vulnerable are always a priority for God and should always be a priority for God’s people. So, because the Israelites have failed to live in covenant faithfulness with God, they are eventually overrun by foreign powers. Around 587 BCE, the southern kingdoms are conquered by the nation of Babylon. Jerusalem is burned and reduced to rubble. Israel’s best and brightest citizens are taken into captivity in Babylon while the peasants are left behind, struggling to survive in a ravaged city, devoid of resources. Over time, many of those hauled away to Babylon acclimated to their new country and put down roots there. But others always longed to return home to Jerusalem, the holy city, home of the Temple where God dwelled. Their prayers seemed to be answered when, in 538, the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians and their leader, Cyrus, issued an edict that allowed the Israelites to return home. It seemed like a marvelous idea. Persia even provided the Jews with financial assistance for the reconstruction of the Temple. Their journey home and the rebuilding of their city and temple began with great enthusiasm. But they ran into a lot of obstacles. It all turned out to be a lot harder than they’d anticipated and they began to wonder, “Was this a mistake? Had God abandoned them? Was reconstruction just a hopeless pipedream?”
In our own lives, we have experiences that cause us to ask, “Does God still care about me? Will the deepest desires of my heart ever be realized?”
This morning’s scripture passage and the chapters around it are likely set within this time of Israel’s return to their homeland. This morning’s scripture passage and others in Isaiah are God’s message to those discouraged, downtrodden Jews who have returned to rebuild their city and temple. They are words of encouragement; of hope and promise. God the creator of heaven and earth is not done creating. God has not abandoned his people or the city of Jerusalem. In fact, God’s plans for his people are actually bigger than what they themselves envision. God will do more than help them rebuild a temple. God will build a new heaven and a new earth. God will restore their fortunes and – just as promised to Abraham long ago – God will make them a blessing to the nations.
But most important of all, these dreams will be realized because God will restore his relationship with the people. Relationships are all about connection, communication and fellowship. The Israelite exile was the result of broken relationship and the people’s failure to hear God; to listen to God’s call and obey God’s commands. Their prayers had become empty words. Even at the start of chapter 65, God reminds the people – as he does many times in Isaiah and many times throughout the prophets – that God has been waiting for them to call out to him. God wants them to seek him. But they had no authentic relationship with God. They had rejected fellowship with the creator of the cosmos. Yet now, God announces, God will take this relationship into his own hands. Even before they call out, God will hear and respond. God will take the initiative in repairing and restoring this broken relationship.
And the results of that restored relationship between God and the people will be blessing; blessing that extends beyond the privileged few; blessing that even extends beyond humanity to bring harmony and peace into nature. The wolf and lamb and the lion will all co-exist peacefully. God announces to the people a new society exemplified by physical health, economic well-being, and meaningful relationships.
Bible scholar Martha Sterne describes this passage of Isaiah like this:
Jerusalem stands for all human communities everywhere…
What would human community look like with no weeping... How would
such a community spend its resources... How would the common
good be embraced… health care, education, safe
neighborhoods, good water… what if these human goods were not
just pipe dreams of social idealists but the will of God?”[i]
In fact, the ministry of Jesus and the announcement of his Kingdom affirm that this is the will of God. As Jesus tells his followers in the gospel of Luke, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”[ii] God is still at work, creating something new and just and generous and God is doing it through us, his followers.
Within our biblical tradition, life begins in a garden. But creation reaches ultimate fulfillment and perfection in a city. Both here and in the final pages of scripture, in the book of Revelation, it is a city that is the context for the final and perfect union of God with his people. A city is the backdrop where God and his people dwell together in perfect peace. Perhaps it is because cities are places of diversity and places where people must live in close proximity to one another.
Now, it is always good to end a sermon with a compelling story or illustration and I still haven’t answered that question of why I feel so fortunate to serve in ministry here at Trinity. Well, it turns out those two are one in the same. Friends, Trinity is increasingly becoming a place where we build relationships with those “in need” and through those personal relationships and connections cultivate physical and mental health, healthy and reliable relationships, and provide opportunities for meaningful work that contributes to the community. Here at Trinity we don’t simply contribute money to good charitable causes. We get to know people. When they have nowhere to live, we welcome them into our homes. When they need therapeutic care, we help them find the resources. We provide opportunities for meaningful work that promotes dignity and self-esteem. And that is what makes Trinity a very special place. Social service agencies are important. But we are not a social service agency. We are a community; a diverse community where all are welcomed; not only their presence but their unique and distinctive gifts. Relationships are what restore us and this place provides us all with the opportunity to strengthen our relationship with God and with one another. I want to continue to encourage you: don’t just show up for worship or a meeting now and then. But let us build on this work of joining with God to create a just and compassionate community where resources are shared and the common good is embraced. It’s not just an idealist’s pipedream. It is the will and work of God.
[i] Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year C, vol. 4; editors David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor; pp. 293, 295.
[ii] Luke 17:21
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