The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Baptism of our Lord
January 13, 2019
A nation in turmoil. Fear and distrust on every side. Serious questions about authority and leadership. Serious questions about identity and land. Who are we? Who are they? Other questions just beneath the surface also bubble up. What about our institutions? How have they served us? How have they failed us? But perhaps most importantly, what’s the point of it all? Sometimes I wonder if chaos is the natural order of things; peace and order being the outliers.
The questions we seem to be asking ourselves today are not that different from the questions the ancient Israelites were asking themselves. Remember, their capital city of Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. and the people were taken away in exile. Torn from their homeland, they lived in a land of strangers, the land of Babylon. At critical moments, their leaders had failed them and brought this catastrophe down upon the whole people. Their most cherished institution, the Temple, the thing that held them together, the center of their praise, prayers, and life had been wantonly ravaged and destroyed by enemy warriors.
And now by the waters of Babylon, far from Jerusalem, their homes destroyed, their families uprooted, they are left to wonder – who are we? What’s the difference between us and the people who’ve taken us? And most importantly, what’s the point of it all? I mean, the Israelites had been praying and worshipping and sacrificing to God for generations upon generations, all the way back to Abraham. And now, now in the time of their greatest need, they’re abandoned by God and handed over to the enemy. What was the point of it all?
That is the nagging question. What’s the point of it all? We have seen whole communities decimated by meth. We have witnessed the ebb tide of civility in our common discourse. We’ve seen our dear friends and family live out their final days wracked by the pain of cancer and the ghoulishness of Alzheimer’s. We’ve seen our most cherished institutions – church and state – flounder in headwinds. It feels like exile, like we’ve been dragged off and we’ve woken up in some foreign land among an unfamiliar people. Have we brought this judgment down upon ourselves? Who are we? Along with the Israelites we ask, what’s the point of it all?
What’s the point of it all? The question asked by the disciples standing at the foot of the cross watching Jesus give up his final breath. Here was a man who loved others as no one ever had before. And you look up and see that this is what love gets you, death on a cross. What’s the point of it all?
As faithful Christians we go deep into the holy scriptures, scouring them for an explanation for the confusion and chaos of our lives. We want something, we want God to explain it all for us so that we can wrap our minds around it and come to grips with it. We are looking for anything, anything that can explain the heartache and confusion of our lives.
But I hate to break it to you, I’ve read the whole bible, and I haven’t found the answer yet. I cannot quote to you chapter and verse that explains or describes the turmoil each of you live with; that we, as a people, live with. What’s the point of it all? There is no answer.
But there is a hope. There is a hope built upon the firm foundation of a promise and a command from God. It’s too bad, in our reading from Isaiah this morning, the lectionary cuts out the two most important words of the whole reading. It’s at the very beginning of the reading. We started with, “thus says the Lord.” Which is great. But the first two words in the text are actually, “but now.” “But now thus says the Lord.”
I cannot think of two more hopeful, life-giving, meaningful words than those. “But now.” “But now” acknowledges all the woe, all the horror, all the shenanigans of human existence. It doesn’t try to erase history, it accepts the past. “But now” gives us space to wail, to lament, to shake our heads at the brokenness of things. “But now” invites us to look at the cross and to see not only death, but new life.
“But now” gives us room to dream for the future. “But now” is like a semi-colon in our lives; just a momentary pause before we move on. “But now” is how God looks at us; God looks at all the nonsense we’ve come up with and still, still dreams a new future for us. Because God is that good.
Add this “but now” to the beginning of the Isaiah reading. “But now” “do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name, you are mine.” Think of it – the Israelites would have heard this when they were held against their will in Babylon. When they were in the midst of their confusion and turmoil and pain at what they had lost; when their own lives had been shut down. And here, here we have the Lord God telling them that there was still reason to hope. God says, “But now” “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
There is no denying that we have brought much of our agony and confusion upon ourselves. We need only look in the collective mirror to see where things have gone off the rails. But here, even in the heart of the Old Testament, we have God professing an unaltering, unwavering, love for God’s people, despite ourselves. “But now” God says, as God turns from the past to envision a new future for us.
So finally we return to that haunting question. What’s the point of it all? What’s the point of pain and anguish and animosity and fighting and captivity and exile? Well, there is no point. It’s not to teach us how to be thankful, it’s not to scare us into believing in God. There is no point to suffering or misery or cancer or bankruptcy or bickering or death. The scandal of the cross is that Jesus dies up there and it is ghastly. In fact, I believe that evil is so evil, the agony of our own lives is so horrific, the pain that we bring upon ourselves is so tragic, that giving it an answer and an explanation would only make it ordinary. No, evil must be rejected as the thing that is beyond our speech; as the thing that cannot be defined. Because to put words to it would make it understandable, and to understand evil would be to become part of it. The only way to cope with our lives and with the world is to remember those two, gracious words from God: “but now.”
Here is my spiritual exercise for you this week. Keep praying to yourself, “but now.” When you get a bad bit of news this week, when you feel the angst of a nation on edge, when you toss and turn, worrying about x, y, and z; when you think back on the things that you have done and left undone; pray those two little words. “But now.” When you look at the cross to see the fullness of human despair; where you see the fullness of God’s agony; remember that it is not a period, it is a semi-colon. “But now.” But now God will arise and give you new life. But now God will overcome the terrors of death. But now God will do something new and you will be restored, redeemed, healed from all the shenanigans we’ve brought upon ourselves. But now God dreams a better future for us.
“But now, thus says the Lord. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”