Waiting for the Word

RNS-HOLIDAYS-INTERFAITH bThe grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Our lesson this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah. As has been foreshadowed for some time, the nations of Israel and Judah are doomed. The prophets have warned about this, that the people’s unfaithfulness to their covenant with God will be their undoing. Isaiah has joined his voice into the chorus of doom. But now, Isaiah preaches comfort.

God will not abandon you, Isaiah tells them. You will face national humiliation. The Temple will be destroyed. You will be torn from home and into exile. But God is still God. And you, despite evidence to the contrary, will be God’s people.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

We often end up reading Isaiah during the season of Advent, as we await the Christmas celebration and the birth of the Word made flesh. We see Isaiah’s teaching about a “voice crying in the wilderness” as speaking of John the Baptist. We hear his preaching about the suffering servant as pointing to Jesus himself.

And Isaiah’s message of both uncomfortable truth and truthful comfort is reflected in Jesus’ own ministry, where he challenged the unjust status quo and embraced those who have been cast to the side by “decent society”. Jesus, too, prophesied the destruction of the Temple while encouraging those who might listen to repent, return to God, and be faithful. Much like the Rabbinic legend of Isaiah’s being sawn in two by the order of the King of Judah, Jesus is crucified as Herod looks down from his throne. And in both cases, God’s truth cannot be stopped by death.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Every day, it seems, we are brought the news of this or that terrifying trend in our world. Gun violence, terrorism, racism – all of these seem to us to be immediate threats to our way of life and proof that we need to barricade ourselves in order to maintain the status quo. Nothing can dissuade us from this opinion, not even the overwhelming evidence that we are safer now than at any other point in human history. Don’t get me wrong: injustice and violence are very real. There are awful trends that are on the rise. And yet, even accounting for all of this, as a whole, we are living longer and safer lives than we ever have. What is also different, unfortunately, is that we are living in a world of 24-hour news and social media where any knucklehead with a smart phone can broadcast his ignorance to the world, and where every threat seems like it’s next door. We hear about things we never would have known about before. Add to this the fact that fear sells, and business is booming.

And it is in this context that our calling as a church finds its voice.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

There is, I believe, a line of continuity from Isaiah through Jesus and into the Church. We are the ones who call Jesus both Lord and Savior. We try to follow in his footsteps while keeping healthy doses of mercy, recognizing that we will never do it perfectly. And we are those who find continued purpose, meaning, and direction in the word of our God.

In other words: we should be able to distinguish between those things that are temporary and those that are permanent and place our value accordingly.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Friends, none of this is permanent. Church buildings may last a long time, but they don’t stand forever. Music may be remembered fondly, sermons may be quoted, but they are still relatively fleeting in the grand scheme of things. We may have live lives, but we are not immortal. Neither borders nor nations are fixed. Languages may grow, shift, change, and adapt, but they also die. There is one thing, and one thing only, that is eternal: the word of God. And in this season of Advent, it is really the only thing for which we should faithfully wait. Christmas Eve can be lovely. Candlelit hymns achieve beauty. Christmas mornings can bring joy. But none of them are really, truly, in that ultimate sense, worth waiting for.

What would it look like if we lived as though the word of God was the only thing that mattered? How would our lives be different if we put everything in service of God so that whatever else we did was filtered through its unique lens and seen through its focus? What would it mean if our faithfulness and obedience were to Christ, and Christ alone?

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

This past Wednesday night, as reports came across of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, I did something I regret: I followed the news on Twitter. I’m not a big fan of Twitter, but I have come to learn that it has value in getting breaking and local news. It also, it turns out, is where the world goes to vent its hateful spleen.

There was little information, but a great deal of conjecture, about what happened. It felt like everyone was gleefully cheering for the “right” kind of shooter. Many were trumpeting that the attack had all the hallmarks of a right-wing extremist. Others were sure that it was Islamic terrorism. And still others were convinced this was a workplace dispute turned deadly by lax gun laws. As I watched this “conversation” taking place, I was appalled by what I saw. And I was convinced that we were going to end the evening in an all-out American Uncivil War.

And then the press conference started. The San Bernardino Chief of Police and an FBI Spokesperson fielded questions with the kind of care and caution that good police work and investigation demand. They refused to speculate or jump to conclusions that weren’t sure yet. And they reiterated, again and again, that they would follow where the evidence led them. It almost restored my faith in humanity – almost.

By now, it seems certain that the attack was religiously-motivated. The couple did not appear to have had any formal connection to Daesh (that is, ISIS), but were rather inspired by them. Gauging by the reactions I have seen, this conclusion has done little to dissuade people from believing what they had already believed. Those who were anti-gun are still anti-gun. Those who were anti-Muslim are still anti-Muslim. Those who were anti-immigrant are still anti-immigrant.

I don’t know if anything I say will convince any of us to change our minds about any of this. That’s up to each of us on our own, and whether we are truly open to being transformed. But here is the question that I want to ask each and every one of us: what is it that God wants you to do? What is it that faithfulness to the eternal word of God calls us to do?

Fear is powerful. But it pales in comparison to faith in the God we know in Jesus Christ. The challenge is to ask ourselves constantly what God would require us, even – and especially – when we are afraid and terrified. It is when we stop asking for God’s wisdom that we risk putting ourselves in the service of the things that will not last.

This afternoon, a few of us will be heading over to Mercer’s Tucker campus for an interfaith gathering called “We Refuse to Be Enemies”. If you’re interested in coming along, please let me know.

I, for one, am going because I have developed friendships in the Atlanta interfaith community. I have learned a great deal through these friendships. We do not gain anything by using our differences to build barriers around our communities. Nor do we gain anything by pretending that there are no differences. Instead, what strengthens us is being honest about those differences while opening ourselves to the possibility that we might be changed for the good – me by them, and them by me.

In short, I am not going because I believe it is an easy thing to do, or a polite thing to do, but because I believe it is a faithful thing to do. The word of God calls us to cross boundaries, because God is the God of all peoples. It calls us to recognize and embrace the dignity inherent in each person, because we are all created in the eternal image of God. And it calls us to go into places of discomfort not for the sake of following our own desires, nor the desires of our tribe or nation, but the desires of God. Those are the only desires that matter in the end.

However it is that this moment in time speaks to you, the one thing I commend to you is to seek God’s desires prayerfully. That is where you will find true faithfulness. And when we bring those Godly desires together, as the church, we cannot be stopped.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

My friends, we are the Church. We are the body of Christ. We are the people of the Word. We are the ones for whom we wait.