Hope Isaiah 9:1-7

9 But those who have suffered will no longer be in pain. The territories of Zebulun and Naphtali in Galilee were once hated. But this land of the Gentiles across the Jordan River and along the Mediterranean Sea will be greatly respected.
2 Those who walked in the dark have seen a bright light.
And it shines upon everyone who lives in the land of darkest shadows.
3 Our Lord, you have made your nation stronger.
Because of you, its people are glad and celebrate like workers at harvest time or like soldiers dividing up what they have taken.
4 You have broken the power of those who abused and enslaved your people.
You have rescued them just as you saved your people from Midian.
5 The boots of marching warriors and the blood-stained uniforms have been fed to flames and eaten by fire.
6 A child has been born for us.
We have been given a son who will be our ruler.
His names will be Wonderful Advisor and Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace.
7 His power will never end; peace will last forever.
He will rule David’s kingdom and make it grow strong.
He will always rule with honesty and justice.
The Lord All-Powerful will make certain that all of this is done.
Contemporary English Version (CEV)
Copyright © 1995 by American Bible Society

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This passage was made famous by Georg Handel in his oratorio, The Messiah. It has inspired thousands of people with its uplifting words of hope and promise. A child is born! Wonderful Counsellor! the Prince of Peace!

PART ONE 11. Air: Bass (Isaiah 9: 2)
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light;
and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
12. Chorus (Isaiah 9: 6)
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

More than ever, I need to hear those words.
I find it just a little harder to look on the bright side, to be hopeful about the future, to believe that good will triumph over evil.
I’m more likely to be humming one of the tunes from the old television show, Hee Haw.
“Gloom, despair and agony on me. Deep dark depression excessive misery if it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair and agony on me.”
I’m not talking about personal agony. When I look on the bright side, when I live in my own little world, I couldn’t be any happier. I have a fun family who loves me. I have a nice house, food in the cupboards and in the freezer, a car and enough money to buy gas. I have new shoes, friends who like the same things I like, a calling to serve my amazing congregations. How could I possibly not be happy?
I also have a television, a newspaper, the internet. Outside of my private domain I learn about a suffering world in grave danger, a world full of people caught up in events that seem to spiral out of control.
How many people have been as happy and secure as me and through the twist of famine or war or pollution have found themselves homeless, hungry and without hope?
I’ve always claimed that the most important attribute of humanity is the ability to hope. I used to teach that a lot, because I was a literature teacher, and the characters in most stories survived on hope. Even Romeo and Juliet hoped that they could live happily ever after. The story ended badly, but they defied their parents and married, hoping that they could escape the enmity of their rival families to live their lives together.
That was just a story. What about real life?
What about our brothers and sisters who, eighty years ago, were captured and sent to extermination camps in the forests of Germany and Poland? I’m reading The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult. The main character’s grandmother survived the camps and moved to the United States. The granddaughter wants the grandmother to tell her about the camps. The grandmother refuses, telling her that she created a new life for herself when she moved to this country.
What I would want to know is how one survives such inhumanity, why a person wouldn’t just lie down and die or put oneself in the line of a bullet? Some did. Most died. But there are survivors! What kept them going but hope that evil would be defeated and that they would be released to a new life? That strong sense of survival has always plagued my thoughts. How is survival possible? My only answer is “hope.”
What about our Syrian brothers and sisters who have been forced from their homes by famine and war? Think of those families who have climbed into flimsy boats and hoped that that boat would make it to Greece, and that they would find refuge in a new country?
What about factory closings? Many of you can relate to that. What do you do when the work that has supported you and your family disappears?
That brings up another question. How many times can hope be denied? How many times can one be rejected before trying to survive becomes too difficult, too pointless?
We each find our points of gloom, our own points of fear.
I fear irreversible climate change and its increasingly ferocious storms and growing deserts. The trashing of science and the glorifying of human infallibility are leading us to a world that will not recover as easily as it has from ice ages and floods.
I fear nuclear war that is started out of ego and narcissism rather than to end war. The nuclear bombs that were dropped on Japan most likely stopped the war. Even though it stopped soldiers killing soldiers, it did not stop the deaths from nuclear fallout, from fire, from the annihilation of complete communities. In 1945, Japan did not retaliate by bombing the United States. In 2017, in 2018, will bombs fly back and forth?
What happens when bacteria become immune to antibiotics? According to scientists at a global conference, the world faces an antibiotic apocalypse. They say by 2050, 10 million people a year could die from previously treatable conditions.
Is this not the most depressing sermon you have ever heard?
Were the times any different for the citizens of Israel in 640 BCE? The details were different, but war and famine were always a part of life. What has changed? The details. What hasn’t changed?
Our God. The words of hope sung by the prophet Isaiah can still be sung today. More than ever, we need to hear the words that inspire us, that reassure us that God is with us, that God is good, that good can survive among the trash of evil.
Two thousand, seven hundred years ago, Isaiah’s words, the words inspired in him by God, brought hope to people who were oppressed, hungry, homeless, and hopeless. One-hundred thirty generations later, we can find inspiration in those words
2 Those who walked in the dark have seen a bright light.
And it shines upon everyone who lives in the land of darkest shadows.
Is inspiration enough? How does inspiration work? It fires our imagination. Imagination shows us how to solve a problem, how to be a force for good, how to achieve justice in an unjust world. Those who would do evil, condone evil, promote evil are not invincible.
Isaiah wrote the words of that poem 2,700 years ago. Why do we read them today?
The easy answer: they’re in the Bible and the Bible is the Book that tells us the story of our faith.
But why do we still find meaning in those words?
We find meaning in those words because we need them; we need to hear words of inspiration because we, created in God’s image, have hope, need hope, thrive on hope.
Hope is the power that helps us to build the Kingdom of God in the midst of chaos, in the midst of destruction, in the midst of misery.
You know what else depresses me? Articles about the decline of our churches. I know that churches aren’t perfect. I know that Christians aren’t perfect. I especially boil over when I hear, on national news or in the local cafe, either way, people who claim to be Christian, supporting evil in the name of some other cause. There are a dozen reasons why are pews aren’t filled. But none of them is a reason for us to deny our Christianity, to deny the hope of a new Kingdom, to deny the gift of the weakest, tiniest, cutest thing God created: a baby. We claim a baby who turned the world upside down with kindness, with forgiveness, with selfless love.
It doesn’t matter to me if this is wishful thinking or word-for-word inscribed on your heart. It is true. It doesn’t matter that these words were written for a specific group of people thousands of years ago. They are still true for us. They are more important than the constitution or the Star-Spangled Banner. They are more important than your living will or your Facebook account. These words have survived a multitude of constitutions and national anthems. These words have survived—and inspired—generation after generation. They are the essence of who we are, created by God, loved by God, working for God.
So, even if we haven’t eaten any Thanksgiving turkey, maybe we need to start playing those Christmas Carols. Not Jingle Bells and White Christmas, but Joy to the World and every aria and chorus from the Messiah. We need them, more than ever. Amen.

With Justice for All

Amos 1:1-2New International Version (NIV)

1 The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel.

2 He said:“The Lord roars from Zion and thunders from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds dry up, and the top of Carmel withers.”
New International Version (NIV)
Amos 5:14-15New International Version (NIV)

14 Seek good, not evil, that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.
15  Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.
New International Version (NIV)

Amos 5:21-24New International Version (NIV)

21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
New International Version (NIV)

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblical, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

“With liberty and justice for all.” Where have you heard those words?
Many of us grew up reciting that pledge first thing every school day. I wonder what we thought it meant, other than that we were loyal United States citizens.

The Pledge of Allegiance, as it exists in its current form, was composed in August 1892 by Francis Bellamy (1855–1931), who was a Baptist minister, a Christian socialist.
The Pledge was supposed to be quick and to the point. Bellamy designed it to be recited in 15 seconds. As a socialist, he had initially also considered using the words equality and fraternity but decided against it, knowing that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans.
Justice for all. Liberty for all. Those words are easy to write on paper, to recite from memory, but often difficult to enforce.
Amos brings God’s message that God wants justice.
15 Choose good instead of evil! See that justice is done.
How does God bring about justice? God delegates the assignment to us. Have you ever noticed how God doesn’t use a magic wand very often? God wants us to do all the work. Sometimes that work is not pleasant. Sometimes that work is difficult, even dangerous.
When you think of justice, what comes to mind? Judges? Courts? Juries? Laws? We depend on our legal system to help keep order in our society. That system operates without us unless we are lawyers or judges or sheriffs. All we have to do is avoid those people by obeying the law. Easy, right?
God’s system works differently. Here, the concept is closer to the modern concepts of social and economic justice, where all people receive everything they need to thrive. This is different than “fairness,” where everyone gets an equal portion. Fairness is where everyone gets an equal slice of the pie, where justice is where the hungry get more and the full get less. Justice is not where everyone receives equal medical care, but the sick and injured get all the care they need, and the healthy get their annual physical. (Gregory Rawn, Forming Faith Blog)
I also found an interesting source that describes the original Hebrew term for righteousness, which is connected to justice in the Hebrew Bible.
24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Martin Luther King, Jr. used this verse from Amos in many of his speeches, most famously in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
We hear the term often in scripture; it is an important part of our understanding of the relationship we have with God. A simple definition I once learned is that righteousness means we are “right with God.”
TZEDAQAH ( The Hebrew word for righteousness) means “the constant pursuit of justice.”  That is, the purpose of righteousness is to bring about justice. We are not born righteous; it is something we must learn, that we must practice and train for. It is a way to imitate God, who is always righteous and just. Prophets like Amos taught their listeners not about what would happen for sure, like a fortune teller. Prophets taught what might happen, what could be, if people stayed in right relationship with God.
One of the benefits of righteousness, the pursuit of justice, is that it creates social stability. Think of the wars started by rebellion—-what was the issue in the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution? When people do not receive everything they need to thrive, when enough people are hungry, thirsty, maligned, oppressed, homeless, sick, the seeds of revolution are sown.
In the Hebrew Bible, one of the requirements of righteousness is giving to the poor. The rule is that the recipient is never beholden to the giver. For instance, when someone picks up food at the food bank, they don’t owe the people at the food bank anything. The people at the food bank owe the customers thanks for allowing them to give as a part of their relationship to God. In other words, they are thankful for the opportunity to give. That is how justice works. The poor do more by accepting than the giver does by giving. Let me repeat that, because it is so opposite of what I hear on the street and among my friends. The poor do more by accepting than the giver does by giving. Let that sink in. That is righteousness, that is the pursuit of justice.
One of the things the media helps us worry about is the “wealth gap.” Essentially, the gap is about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and those in the middle heading in one direction or the other. To look at it from the point of view of TZEDAQAH, we will have many more opportunities to practice righteousness, to pursue justice in the years ahead.
I saw somewhere on the news that someone wants to abolish laws that preachers can’t endorse political candidates. Are you ready for that? I’m not. But here is another idea from George Rawn:
Justice vs. Service. There is undoubtedly much debate over this, but there is a difference between what we generally think of as “service” and “justice.” Works of service provide for immediate needs (e.g. shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry), while works of justice focus on changing the systems that make people homeless or hungry. Service helps in the present, while justice works for the future. They are different, but they are also both necessary.
How do we Christians work for justice in the long term? I don’t think it’s by making the church a political force—-at least not our church. It does challenge us to act as individuals, as independent thinkers, as everyday Christians, to think about what we can do in all the aspects of our lives. We are Christians all the time, but we are also citizens, community members, card players, parents, grandparents, motorcycle riders, students, employees and employers. In all those aspects of our lives, righteousness, the pursuit of justice could guide our decisions, strengthen our resolve to live deliberately as Christians, and influence what comes out of our mouths.
Amos’s words of warning were meant for a group of God’s chosen people who had forgotten how to follow God. These same words, centuries later, still have the same meaning for God’s chosen people: us and all of humanity.
15 Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.
24 But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Amen.

 

 

 

 

What Kind of God do We Claim?

1 Kings 19:1-18Contemporary English Version (CEV)

19 Ahab told his wife Jezebel what Elijah had done and that he had killed the prophets. 2 She sent a message to Elijah: “You killed my prophets. Now I’m going to kill you! I pray that the gods will punish me even more severely if I don’t do it by this time tomorrow.”

3 Elijah was afraid when he got her message, and he ran to the town of Beersheba in Judah. He left his servant there, 4 then walked another whole day into the desert. Finally, he came to a large bush and sat down in its shade. He begged the Lord, “I’ve had enough. Just let me die! I’m no better off than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down in the shade and fell asleep.

Suddenly an angel woke him up and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 Elijah looked around, and by his head was a jar of water and some baked bread. He sat up, ate and drank, then lay down and went back to sleep.

7 Soon the Lord’s angel woke him again and said, “Get up and eat, or else you’ll get too tired to travel.” 8 So Elijah sat up and ate and drank.

The food and water made him strong enough to walk forty more days. At last, he reached Mount Sinai, the mountain of God, 9 and he spent the night there in a cave.

While Elijah was on Mount Sinai, the Lord asked, “Elijah, why are you here?”

10 He answered, “Lord God All-Powerful, I’ve always done my best to obey you. But your people have broken their solemn promise to you. They have torn down your altars and killed all your prophets, except me. And now they are even trying to kill me!”

11 “Go out and stand on the mountain,” the Lord replied. “I want you to see me when I pass by.”

All at once, a strong wind shook the mountain and shattered the rocks. But the Lord was not in the wind. Next, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.

Finally, there was a gentle breeze, [a fine silence] 13 and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat. He went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.

The Lord asked, “Elijah, why are you here?”

14 Elijah answered, “Lord God All-Powerful, I’ve always done my best to obey you. But your people have broken their solemn promise to you. They have torn down your altars and killed all your prophets, except me. And now they are even trying to kill me!”

15 The Lord said:

Elijah, you can go back to the desert near Damascus. And when you get there, appoint Hazael to be king of Syria. 16 Then appoint Jehu son of Nimshi to be king of Israel, and Elisha son of Shaphat to take your place as my prophet.

17 Hazael will start killing the people who worship Baal. Jehu will kill those who escape from Hazael, and Elisha will kill those who escape from Jehu.

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Elijah is a wanted man. This is not surprising, considering he has just killed 950 prophets. If you’d killed 950 prophets, you’d be on the run, too. Those prophets had worked for a different company/a different god: they were prophets of Baal and Asherah, some of the gods worshipped by other nations and tribes in and around Israel. Elijah became involved, at the instruction of God, because the Israelites were worshipping Baal—-and ignoring God. God tolerates rejection only so long. He sent Elijah to remind the Israelites WHO had saved them time and again from slavery, from exile, from hunger.

Elijah had not only killed those prophets; first he had humiliated them and their followers. For a really entertaining story, read chapter 18 of 1 Kings, the chapter before today’s lesson. The King and Queen, Ahab and Jezebel, were furious that their prophets had been destroyed, and Jezebel vowed that Elijah would be joining them in the next twenty-four hours. Naturally, Elijah ran.

He had nothing left: no friends, no food, no energy. Elijah gave up.

4 Finally, he came to a large bush and sat down in its shade. He begged the Lord, “I’ve had enough. Just let me die! I’m no better off than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down in the shade and fell asleep.

He was in the middle of nowhere, with no shelter, no food, no water, and he was being hunted down. What hope was there?

5 Suddenly an angel woke him up and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 Elijah looked around, and by his head was a jar of water and some baked bread. He sat up, ate and drank, then lay down and went back to sleep.

A miracle. In the middle of nowhere, where there was none before, Elijah finds bread and water. He ate, drank, and went back to sleep. Perhaps he was so exhausted that he didn’t give it a second thought.

7 Soon the Lord’s angel woke him again and said, “Get up and eat, or else you’ll get too tired to travel.” 8 So Elijah sat up and ate and drank.

The food and water made him strong enough to walk forty more days.

Forty days—-I wouldn’t make it to Wheatland in forty days. But Elijah had a destination: Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai. Mt. Horeb was God’s favorite hang-out when God wanted to talk business. God had met Moses there generations before; God had given Moses the Ten Commandments on Mt. Horeb. Now, God wanted to talk to Elijah in person. God had a plan.

At this point, I have to say something about killing in the Bible. Elijah was on the run because he had killed 950 people. If he did that nowadays, he’d be called a terrorist or a serial killer. At times like these, in passages like these, I like to become a pick-and-choose theologian. I like to skip over the hundreds of thousands of people in the Old Testament who died at God’s direction. The poor soldiers who got caught in the Red Sea. All the thousands that Saul and David and their troops killed in battle. One author, Steve Wells, went through the Bible book by book and counted up how many people God personally killed, starting with Noah and the Ark. Remember all the people who didn’t have their own personal ark? Wells came up with a estimate of 25 million people. His conclusion: how could anyone believe in that kind of God?

I can. I know about a God who never gave up on his chosen people, even though they abandoned God time after time. God went along with them when they wanted a king. Every time they turned to Baal or Asherah or the local top ten gods, God forgave them and called them back. I like to think that God finally figured out what to do when God sent Jesus. God moved beyond floods and earthquakes and armies to love and grace and mercy.

If we study just the God of the Old Testament, we see a God who constantly forgives, who constantly seeks to take care of God’s wandering tribes. I maintain that God changed God’s mind any number of times.

God changed tactics when Abraham asked God to spare Sodom. God changed the plan to destroy the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness when Moses begged him not to. God was against a monarchy system, but relented and had Saul anointed.

Armies and killings and wars still plague us. We are human, made in God’s image, but not with God’s wisdom. But, God’s wisdom is the key for us. Over and over, in every book of the Bible, we see God’s wisdom in how to be whole and healthy. That wisdom culminates not in more and bigger guns and walls and armies, but in love. This love is not a love of things. It is not a love that leads to envy and stealing and plotting. It is a love that works through grace and mercy.

Later in our lesson, Elijah makes it to the mountain for some one-on-one God-time.

God asks him: “Elijah, why are you here?” Elijah lets God have it.

10 He answered, “Lord God All-Powerful, I’ve always done my best to obey you. But your people have broken their solemn promise to you. They have torn down your altars and killed all your prophets, except me. And now they are even trying to kill me!”

Elijah is ready to quit. He sees no future in trying to repair the relationship between God and God’s people. God is NOT ready to give up.

11 “Go out and stand on the mountain,” the Lord replied. “I want you to see me when I pass by.”

All at once, a strong wind shook the mountain and shattered the rocks. But the Lord was not in the wind. Next, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.

Finally, there was a gentle breeze, [a fine silence] 13 and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat. He went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.

God reveals God’s gentle side: God is not in the earthquake or the thunderstorm or the forest fire. God is in the silence of our own minds and hearts. God is not violent; God is peaceful.

It is that peaceful God that comes to us, when we are ready to give up.

God gave Elijah strength and confidence enough to return to his work as a prophet. Chapter 19 ends with Elijah choosing his successor, Elisha, who would accompany him in future challenges. Chapter 20 is not about relaxing at a flowering oasis or feasting on leg of lamb. Chapter 20 is more war. But this is one chapter in the book, one book in the Bible.

We don’t live like the Israelites, we don’t follow the same cultural rules. We have our own rules. If we are accused of picking and choosing from the Bible, it’s because we like to pick the parts that agree with our personal situations and preferences. Sometimes that separates us; sometimes it unites us. Reading the Bible is easy; understanding it is not. That’s why we come together on a regular basis to look at Scripture passage by passage, story by story, verse by verse.

Is it right to ignore some chapters, isolate some verses out of context, claim a favorite few as the law of the land? I struggle with Scripture. What I look for is evidence of a loving God, a God who cares so much that God keeps on providing, keeps on hoping, keeps on calling us to to turn and return. Beyond that, I study what God wants from me. That is pretty obvious: love God. Love my neighbor.

Elijah had a hard life; Elijah survived with the help of God. When our lives are hard, when we are forced into harmful or painful situations, when we don’t know where to turn, we can turn to God and God’s people. God has never stopped loving. Is that enough?

It takes faith. But that’s why we meet in this particular place, at this particular time. We have faith. In the silence of this sanctuary, in the quiet of our prayers and in the proclamation of our hymns, we find our faith and we turn and return to God. Amen.