"LIGHT" - Isaiah 49:1f from January 15, 2017

Alex Evans on January 16, 2017

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

From Sunday, January 15, 2017

Texts: John 9:1-12; Isaiah 49:1-13


            If you like to go to the movies, these are wonderful days. In fact, everybody seems to be going to the movies – you can hardly get a seat! Maybe it is an attempt to escape from the perplexing news cycle. Maybe it’s an effort to be carried away from current reality. But so many seem to be flocking to the movies.

This season every year tends to create lots of energy in regard to movies. Which is the best movie of the year? Who is the best actor?

            This energy emerged last week with the Golden Globe awards from the Hollywood Foreign Press. And the Oscars – considered the highest awards for film – happen in a few weeks. So these days generate lots of discussion. And so many movies seem worthy of our attention.

One of the movies in contention for best picture and best actor is the movie “Jackie,” about the former first lady, Jackie Kennedy. The movie zooms in on just several critical weeks of Jackie’s life – the assassination of her husband and the decisions and actions immediately following that horrific event in November, 1963.

One of the most interesting aspects of “Jackie,” the movie, involves her conversations with a priest. History confirms that Jackie Kennedy - through letters and conversations – had an important relationship with a certain priest in Ireland, Father Leonard. So the movie includes this spiritual conversation as a key piece of the story in those days immediately following JFK’s assassination.

Jackie and the priest are walking and talking together. We can only imagine the darkness surrounding her, the trauma she has experienced: riding in the car in Dallas, having her husband shot in the head, racing to the hospital with her husband slumped in her lap, and all that followed, including going back to DC to tell her children what happened. Jackie turns to the priest and says, “I think God is cruel!”

The priest responds, “and now you are getting into trouble.” Jackie asks, if God is everywhere, and if God cares: “Was God in the bullet that killed my husband?” The priest responds: “Absolutely.” She keeps probing: “And is God in me now?” The priest responds, “Of course He is.” Jackie snaps back: “Well, that’s a funny game, (God) hiding all the time.”

Her words and demeanor reflect the honest pain, . . . the deep sense of loss, . . . . the forsakenness that can come to all of us.

Why do horrible things happen? Why doesn’t God intervene in more helpful ways? These questions have often been on our lips – about our personal lives, our loved ones, our circumstances, our times. We all have our questions, our doubts, our deep heartache. Why do these things happen? Where is God? When is it going to be made right?

Fortunately, these questions are not just on our lips in various moments of life. They are also part of Scripture. All through the ages, people have asked these questions, and God’s people are no different from other people – we suffer, we doubt, we struggle with life and loss.

Today, our passage comes from Isaiah 49. Isaiah, the book, and Isaiah the prophet, come right in the middle of the Bible. By this time, the story of God and God’s people is quite dark. God and God’s people had been evolving together for about 1500 years – the first half of the Bible. A lot of things had happened in that time. God had established a covenant with his people. God had guided them, placed them in the Promised Land. God had given them a king to rule over them. God had taken care of them through ups and downs.

But by 1500 years into the Biblical story, the people were wandering away again from God. By the middle of the Bible, God’s chosen kings had become increasingly selfish and ineffective. Worship and faithful life around the temple reflected less faith and more sloth. God’s intentions for justice and hope seemed to be falling away. So, as you may recall, around the middle of the 6th century BC, the Babylonians conquered Israel. They destroyed the temple, sacked the city, and took the king and leaders into captivity and away from the Promised Land. The so-called chosen people had become the dejected. The so-called children of God were very forsaken.

So you might imagine the comments and questions that were on their hearts and lips. “I think God is cruel.” . . . “Is God anywhere around?” . . . “Well, that is a funny game – God hiding all the time.”

Can we really trust God?

That might well be a question on our own minds and in our hearts in these days. Is God real? Does God act or care where we are?

Here is what Isaiah 49 says to our hearts and our world today:

Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. 2He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. 3And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 4But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” 5And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— 6he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

7Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” 8Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; 9saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; 10they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. 11And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. 12Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene.

13Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. 

This is the Word of the Lord. THANKS BE TO GOD.

Isaiah speaks strongly and lovingly to people who are wavering, and wondering, “where is God hiding?” “Listen up, O peoples; pay attention, folks.” Isaiah reminds us that God was there before we were even born. He reminds us that God does not leave us alone, or on our own. We belong to God. Our lives are about living with God and serving God.

You know, . . .  it happens almost automatically. When life comes crashing down around us, when we feel beaten and battered by life burdens and complexities, our vision becomes MYOPIC. The only thing we can see is that which is right in front of us – the pain, the sorrow, the anguish, the uncertainty of how things will go. Isaiah, speaking for God, demands our attention – “Listen up, you coastlands.” We have to broaden our vista – widen the sweep of our perspective. God has been God since the beginning of time. What we are dealing with, worrying about, may be real and painful. But all things are seen in a broader context – the magnificent sweep of God who knew us before we were born and who carries us into eternity. “I am your God; you are my people.” That never changes. “Look up, you peoples.” We keep our eyes on God no matter what happens. This applies to our personal and seemingly unbearable pains and losses; it applies to our transitions in government; it applies to our fretting and worrying about all things. We belong to God. Isaiah reminds us: our cause is with God. Our reward is with our God (v. 4).

As you can see from the bulletin and the sermon title, our “Word of the Week” is LIGHT. I really love how that word – light - works in our passage today. It is used in two very different ways.

Isaiah says, “Listen up, you people. Pay attention, folks.” God is at work in ways we often cannot see or understand. God is at work through heartache and loss, pain and uncertainty. We have to raise our gaze and recognize God’s presence, promises, purposes all around.

Then God says, “it’s too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel. I will give you as a light to the nations.”

“It’s too light a thing . . . .”

I wonder if you know the name, Jim Collins, and his award- winning book entitled, Good to Great. It is a book written for business and leadership; but Collins’ main point is very thought-provoking: “good is the enemy of great.” We usually think that “good” – a good company, a good person, a good thing is on the way to being great. We even assume that good can usually become great with a little more effort or a little more ingenuity or a little more change. Collins’ writings and efforts have turned this thinking on its head: he says “good is the enemy of great.” When we get to the level of good, it is easy to be satisfied. When we get to good, the drive to be great can fall away. He says good is the enemy of great.

This is similar to the way Isaiah is speaking, and urging us. Look up, folks. Pay attention. God is real. God is at work. But it is “too light a thing” just to think in good ways, or limited ways, as if it just applies to our lives. “It is too light a thing” just to state the promise or claim the comfort of God. The message of God’s boundless love and abiding promises absolutely cover us, especially when we need to hear them the most. God is not hiding. God is not far off. God is not absent from our hurts or our deepest concerns. God’s light pours over us. And it is too light a thing just to claim it or live under that light, with your club, your people only, or your family.

Rather, Isaiah pushes it far beyond us. “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” “It is too light a thing” just to receive the light, or be covered with light. We cannot be light Christians. We are called to BE light. We cannot just be good with the news of God’s presence and care. We have to BE THE LIGHT. Be great with the Light as God’s people for the whole world!

As the wonderful gospel of Jesus reminds us, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overwhelm the light;” AND we are called to bear the light, share the light, not just a little bit, or when we feel like it, but to the ends of the earth, for all the world. 

We have that great lesson of Jesus today, the inquisition about the blind man, blind from birth. “Was he born blind because he sinned, or his parents sinned?” They asked Jesus. “Neither,” says Jesus. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed through him.”

God’s works are meant to be revealed in our lives every day. “It is too light a thing” that we simply live. It is too light a thing that we simply go through our days, come to church, greet one another, do a little of this and a little of that to serve God.

“It is too light a thing” that we simply be God’s people, known and held by God. “It is too light a thing” that we only receive God’s comfort and care, especially when we are feeling bleak and covered with darkness. We are called to BE LIGHT to the nations. We are called to say to the prisoners of darkness and death, “Come out!” We are reminded that God’s light covering us, absolutely is meant to make us conveyors and purveyors of love and light with every aspect of our lives. And sometimes, this challenging call “to be a light to the nations” is exactly what will help us out of our darkness. We lift our gaze, broaden our vision of God’s care and presence and promises all around us, and “it’s too light a thing” just to receive it. When we get going as people of light, when we serve, even in our sense of brokenness and pain, striving to be instruments of light, well, then we find our way – toward light and life. The goal is God’s light covering us and God’s light covering the whole world.

This weekend we celebrate the great Martin Luther King, Jr. King reminds us poetically: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. . . . . The chain reaction of evil -- hate begetting hate, (ugliness producing more ugliness) must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

We have to be people of grace and kindness in all our dealings, especially in a culture that seems more and averse to grace and kindness. We are to be people of fortitude and faith in our approach to the world. We have to be people of integrity and character, especially in a culture where this seems to be falling away. We have to be people of hope and justice and good works, not for ourselves but for God, for the world.

“Sing for joy, O peoples. For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.”

Friends, we have work to do, especially in these days. It is too light a thing just to know about God’s light, to receive it. We are to be people of light. God says, “I give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” May Christ’s light cover and guide all of us, and bring about God’s glorious reign. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: O Lord, make us instruments of your peace; where there is darkness we seek to be light, following Jesus. AMEN.

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on January 15, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.