Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Comfort ,o comfort my people, 12/18

Psalm 122
1I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
2Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together.
4To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.
6Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.
7Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
8For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

Isaiah 40:1-11
1   Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
2   Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, 
that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3   A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4   Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
5   Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, 
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

6   A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
     All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7   The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; 
surely the people are grass.
8   The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9   Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;
     lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear;
     say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10  See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
11  He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,
     and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
When I hear this passage the first thing that comes to mind is the same words in Handel’s Messiah. Somehow, Handel’s music always brings the passage to life for me. The beauty of the music echoes the beauty of the words and reminds me that they aren’t just words. This is a passionate dialogue between God and the prophet about God’s beloved people Israel.

            When this passage takes place God feels far away from his people. Israel had turned away from God, like we all do sometimes. They allowed injustice and inequality to thrive in their society and forgot that God cares deeply about the poor, so Israel ended up in exile, dominated by their more powerful neighbors, the Babylonians.

            Israel’s punishment was harsh, but fitting. They turned away from God, so God let them see what it was like to be apart from him. But now God can’t take the separation anymore. God longs to bring his people home; he longs to make peace with the people he loves. God calls the prophet into action to bring Israel a message of forgiveness. “Comfort, o comfort my people,” says your God. God tells the prophet to share not only God’s message but his passion too: “Cry to her that she has served her term and paid her penalty.”

            I can picture the prophet running through the streets, yelling out the good news that God has forgiven them, that God wants them to come home, that the sins of the past are wiped out forever. The prophet imagines the power of God’s forgiveness lifting up the valleys and flattening the hills. He imagines God’s mercy carving a highway through the desert.

God’s incredible love can’t be stopped. The mountains and hills of our past aren’t high enough to keep out God’s forgiveness. The depths of our deepest despair aren’t low enough to keep God from reaching us. The wilderness emptiness we sometimes feel because of how we’ve been hurt and how we have hurt others isn’t lonely enough to keep God away.

Filled the hungry with good things, 12/11

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. 4They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

8For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.

10I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Luke 1:46-55

46And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the LORD, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

            The book that we call Isaiah probably had three different authors in three different times. The first part, creatively called First Isaiah, follows the ministry of the Prophet Isaiah in the eighth century in Jerusalem. At that time Judah was a relatively stable, small country, that was doing pretty well economically.

The Northern kingdom of Israel had already been conquered by Assyria, but Judah seemed to have dodged that bullet. Perhaps that made the leaders of Judah feel superior and self-righteous. Israel had fallen because of her idolatry, but Judah had escaped and was even prospering in many ways because of her faithfulness. Isaiah’s ministry was to let Judah know that wasn’t the case, that in fact, Judah was on the wrong path too and would face destruction if they continued what they were doing. The biggest problem was that the wealthy were doing very well but were getting rich by exploiting the poor. They prided themselves on their religious devotion, but maximized profits through unjust business practices. The rich were getting richer while the poor suffered. Does that sound familiar?

Anyway, first Isaiah’s mission was to deliver God’s message that this is not OK. Religion isn’t about worship and sacrifice; it’s about living our faith everyday in how we treat others, especially the most vulnerable. Isaiah brings God’s warning that without a radical change Judah will go into exile like Israel.

Second Isaiah was probably written after first Isaiah’s prophecy of doom had already come true and Judah was in exile. It is a message of God’s hope, because even though Judah’s injustice has led to disaster, God’s love never fails. God will transform Judah into a righteous kingdom again, a kingdom so full of God’s love it shines like a light to the world.

Third Isaiah is similar in message but written later. Many of the exiles had returned to Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, but the return home had not brought the total restoration of Israel they had hoped for. Third Isaiah continues to encourage them and to let them know that one day God’s plan for redemption will be complete and the whole world will be at peace.

Our passage from Isaiah comes from the third section. We can almost picture the Jews returning from exile, excited to be back home with a shot at some political autonomy. They come over the last hill craning their necks for a glimpse of home, but all they see is devastated ruins.

It’s easy to feel that way when we think about Rochester. We remember the glory days when Kodak jobs were secure and plentiful, when technology and manufacturing created a vibrant economy that supported broad prosperity and vibrant culture. Now we see the ruins of Kodak Park with many of the buildings empty and a tenth of the former work force. We see the devastation of a school district that doesn’t graduate half of its students and where functional literacy is out of reach for many kids. We see devastated families, chronic unemployment, high crime and a deep-seated sense of hopelessness.

            Nationally, we’ve seen a huge and disturbing concentration of wealth over the last forty years. When we adjust for inflation, wages for many workers are actually lower than they were forty years ago, while the people at the top of the economic pyramid are much richer and pay less in taxes. Big companies and wealthy donors have nearly unlimited access to political power and our representatives are more focused on making each other look bad than on getting anything done to make our country better. In our politics we are driven by fear, prejudice and greed rather than by the spirit of welcome and opportunity that made our nation great.

            The good news is that God wasn’t finished with Israel then and God isn’t finished with us now. Even when we turn away from God’s love, God stays faithful. God is working among the ruble and brokenness to plant and nourish something new. God is planting justice, righteousness and new life where we least expect it.

Mary, the teen mother of God (12.4)

Luke 1: 26-45
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
My name is Sam Picard. I’m the pastor of Laurelton United Presbyterian Church about 3 miles north east of here. I also work as a paramedic with Rural Metro. I meet a lot of young mothers on the ambulance. It’s not uncommon for me to take 15 year old girls to the hospital in labor. In 2007 19% of births in Rochester were to teenage mothers. Many of these moms are single. Most live in poverty and have a hard time digging themselves and their children out of that situation. Being a parent is challenging, as many of you know. Think how much harder it would be as a teenager with few financial resources.

            Many teenagers living in poverty feel hopeless. Their circumstances and surroundings can conspire to make them feel worthless. Sometimes that’s a big part of why young women get pregnant. Surrounded by poverty and violence I imagine it’s hard to imagine a better future.
There was plenty in Jesus’ scenario that could have made Mary feel the same way. Certainly, women were far from equal in that culture. The Roman occupation limited Jewish opportunity, surrounding them with constant reminders of their lack of independence and power. Nazareth, Mary’s hometown, had a bad reputation as well. Like many young mothers in Rochester’s poverty crescent, it would have been easy for Mary to feel like a nobody and give up hope.

            But that’s not how God sees things. God chose Mary to be the mother of the savior of the world. God chose an ordinary girl in challenging circumstances to play a special role in our salvation. Paul’s words about Christianity in general fit Mary well: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

            That’s part of God’s character. God doesn’t care about appearances or how the world sees things. God has a long history of seeking out unremarkable people and families to do amazing things with. One of the blessings of the church’s decline as far as economic and social power is concerned is that it frees us to see God’s love for the ordinary and humble.

            The church’s future isn’t in big fancy buildings or reaching out to the rich and famous. The church’s future is in rediscovering God’s love for the simple, for the least impressive, the under resourced, the despised and the impoverished. The church’s future is committing ourselves once again to the city, to those places forgotten or ignored by empire. Our future is in finding ways to bless and stand with those in need, reaching out to the hungry and hopeless.