Sermon, February 9

Updated: Mar 8

Famous Last Words

by Rev. Deborah Lewis


“The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in”

I want all that. Don’t you?

Just hearing these words, I feel less “parched.” These are images to keep before us when the view is not pretty. These are promises to count on when days are hard, bleak, confusing, parched. These words were written to God’s confused people, who were divided and torn from each other during the Babylonian exile. Some of the Israelites were taken captive and carried away to exile in Babylon; others stayed home but under occupation by the same foreign conqueror. Eventually Jerusalem and Judah were destroyed, including the Temple. They were a people without each other, without their land, and without a dwelling place for God. After 50 years, they have been returned to their home and to one another. They are desperate to get back to life as it used to be, to rebuild. They diligently fast but with their fasting come complaints. What’s taking so long, God? Don’t you see us fasting here? After all we’ve been through, here we are fasting for you and you don’t even notice us! This reminds me a little bit of another story of exile and salvation, from the book of Exodus. Once the Hebrew people finally escape their slavery in Egypt, following Moses across the Red Sea and into the desert wilderness, they take a good look around at their new lives…and then they start complaining. Remember how good we had it back in Egypt? We had houses and food, not just this weird daily manna. Did God bring us all the way out here just to let us die like this? It seems we come from a long line of complainers who have trouble seeing what’s right in front of them. And we tend to overestimate how much we have done, while wondering why God can’t manage to do more for us.


God tells the prophet Isaiah to

“Shout out, do not hold back!” Be as loud as a trumpet when you tell my people that all their fasting is self-serving, when they oppress their own workers on the very same fast day.


Then God says,

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”


Oh, right. God is not looking for one really good fast day (or even one really good season of Lenten fasting). Our God wants our lives to change. Our God wants to mess with the order of things, to restore broken relationships and to completely restructure other relationships. How could we be so dense? Of course God sees what we are doing. And not doing. Every single bit of it.

This is a tricky passage, not just because we are prone to complaint and pitiful, self- serving “Over here, God!” prayers. It’s tricky because we could read it as a list of tasks which,when accomplished, fix things. We could fall into the trap of hearing Isaiah’s “if/then” language as a promise that we can achieve our own salvation with a few simple actions.

It is conditional language but the conditions are this: live a life of radical love for your neighbors and then you will see exactly where I am. After describing the kind of fast God asks of us (loosing bonds of injustice, breaking yokes, sharing bread with the hungry…), God says, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help and [God] will say, Here I am.”

Here I am, says God… Revealed in the relationships you restore through justice. Present in the company you keep when you love your neighbors. That’s where I am, says God. This is not a quid pro quo bargain God is striking with the Israelites, or with us. It’s not: “Do this and then I’ll show up” or “Do this and I’ll finally notice all of your efforts.” It’s a reminder for the umpteenth time to a forgetful people: “Live like this…care for these…give up what you think makes you worthy…share with the ones who need what you have…because when you live like this you will see that this is where I live.” It’s a promise. Here I am. All along.

The God who satisfies every parched place is not looking for shows of piety. In fact, if that’s what showing up here today in worship is about for you, God really isn’t looking for that. But, if showing up here in worship today supplies you with what you need to live and love justly, if it reinforces the mindset and the framework for seeing sisters and brothers in the faces of strangers ... if singing praises to God today enables you to keep singing and standing with hungry, poor, and naked neighbors tomorrow at your job and in your neighborhood and downstairs at PACEM…if being part of this community of faith helps you develop a whole set of “behaviors with broad social consequences” for justice and new, right relationships… then God is here for that.


Isaiah’s people are trying to look ahead to better days, but their eyes are turned inward and backward. They are focused on what they’ve lost. They are longing for what it used to be like. (Dare I say, they want to “make Israel great again”?) They are so worried that God doesn’t see their pious efforts that they don’t see where God is. They pray looking heavenward and don’t see the poor and hungry at their feet.


I wish I didn’t know what this was like.


If you also hear yourself in the complaints of our biblical family, take heart. The message God gives them is for us, too. God’s used to reminding the wayward and self-involved. God’s used to loving people exactly like us. In this post-Iowa, post-impeachment week in our frayed country, where no matter where you look the view is distressing and depressing, we need to hear exactly where God promises to show up and when. We cannot afford to look inward and backward, nor can we afford the luxury and defeat of cynicism. The news is a constant barrage, a fire hose gushing nonstop. In the midst of this, cutting through our desperate prayers for something to change, for the next election to be free of corruption—God says, I see you and I hear you. Do you know where I am? Remember where I live?

The invitation is to know God through our relationships with one another. Forged relationships. Restored relationships. Restructured relationships. Based on justice, humility, and love. Over and over, on a daily basis. There is no checklist we can accomplish and then be done with. We are called to give all of who we are, reshaping our entire lives in the image of Christ. Then…

“The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in”

I want all that. Don’t you? Thanks be to God!

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Wesley Memorial
United Methodist Church

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