Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Great Things that God has Done for Us: Isaiah 63:7-9

This morning, I had the blessed and odd experience of filling in as pulpit supply at the first church my dad ever served as minister at. It was pretty cool. But a little weird to have people I don't remember (I was only 4 when we moved from there) recounting old stories to me and asking about my family. It was fun to explore my roots in that way though. I have hazy memories of the building there and some of the people and it was cool to be there.
The church I'm referencing is Paris Presbyterian Church in Paris, PA. It's right on the WV/PA border. I rarely wander out that far from the city to preach, but this seemed right. 
The passages I preached from were Isaiah 63:7-9 (primarily) and Hebrews 2:10-18.

About 35 years ago, my dad served his first call in this church. Some of my earliest memories took place in this very building. As early childhood memories tend to be, they are both fond and fuzzy memories.
When I told my parents I’d be preaching here this week, they both immediately called to mind the time our Old English Sheepdog, Nelson, nearly crashed a wedding and Dad asked me to get some pictures of the church for him. I guess today is a good day to talk about remembering, isn’t it?
The section of Isaiah that we’re looking at this morning is a prayer of remembrance. It calls to memory the great things that the Lord has done for the people of Israel. These acts of deliverance are seen as loving care for Israel. The section is titled in the Hebrew, “חסדי יהוה[1]” (Chesedi Adonai), which means, “The Love of the LORD.”
The word “Chesed” means more than just emotional “love” though. It’s more of a covenantal, eternal, unconditional, committed love. It’s used to describe David’s relationship with Jonathon, as well as God’s relationship with Israel. There’s something deeper than just pure emotion in this sort of love. It’s the word you might use to describe a lifelong friendship or a mature marriage.
At first glance, this passage seems like a nice, tame Christmas celebration verse.
Jesus is born!
The Messiah has come!
Remember the great things the Lord has done for us!
Even our New Testament passage from Hebrews – a book that can be pretty intense – is almost cheerful in tone. But don’t let the cheerfulness fool you into a sense of safety. There is more to this verse than we see at first glance. This isn’t just a nice, celebratory passage. It is celebratory, but not just celebratory. We have to look to the context and the setting of this section to get a feel for what it’s really saying here.
The rest of this chapter is full of woe and despair and Isaiah in general is not a terribly cheerful book. The prophets weren't exactly known for their optimism.
When this section of Isaiah was written, some of the Jewish people had been allowed to return from their Babylonian exile. They returned expecting post-exilic life in Jerusalem to be joyful and full of life and abundance. They got quite a shock. Life was difficult, full of hardship. There was nothing that seemed abundant about their return to Jerusalem.[2]
If you have a Bible handy, feel free to flip back to the first few verses of Isaiah 63. They are certainly a different tone. God was angry. “I was appalled!” the Lord says, referring to the deeds and lifestyle of the people. Everywhere God looked for someone – just one person even – who even remotely had his or her act together and turned up no one. “I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath.” Is not exactly the sort of scripture passage that makes the Grinch’s heart grow.
But all the terrifying stuff in the first few verses gives more weight to verse 8, where Israel, in spite of being a complete mess, is called “my people.” Not just “I guess I’ll hang on to them.” But “SURELY.” “SURELY they are MY PEOPLE. “After all they’ve done, there is not doubt in God’s mind that they are still God’s people and they are loved beyond measure.[3]
Just after this section, the people cry out to God to stop ignoring their troubles. Feeling small, alone and unheard, but still able to appeal to God. Even in their misery, in their shortcomings, in the bleak days after their exile – even then they are free to appeal to a God that still loves them no matter what.[4]
 This prayer doesn’t just acknowledge the great things God has done in order to cheer everyone up, it does so to reinforce the knowledge and the depth that come with knowing God is merciful. God is loving. God has shown this to be true in the past – therefore it is true in the present despite the circumstances through which the people are trying to navigate.[5]
When you put it into that kind of perspective, it presents the most loving picture of God I can imagine. It’s a very parental picture of God. As a parent, I can sort of see where God’s coming from in that section. More than once, I’ve been appalled by the behavior of my kids, but I still love them and tend to them when they cry.
Often we forget this aspect of God. We see faith as a bandaid that helps us to overlook the pain and troubles that we have gone through or are going through – like some sort of potion or spell for forgetting, but God offers more than that. God loves us and provides tender compassion in the midst of the pain. It’s a deeper, richer blend of emotion than simple sentimentalization of the things that God has done in the past.

Have you ever had a drink of straight up apple cider vinegar?
It’s horrible. I can see by some of your faces you have.
I have because apple cider vinegar has some great health benefits – it can help fight sinus infections, ear infections and some other minor woes – but it’s awful. The thing is, when you put it in something when you are cooking, it adds a depth to the flavors that you can’t get any other way. Before adding it, my spaghetti sauce tastes sort of flat. It’s still spaghetti sauce, but it’s just kind of “meh.” Add the vinegar, though and suddenly there is a richness to the flavor that makes it a completely different sort of experience.
I’m not saying God is vinegar, but rather that we need to consider the depth of this passage from Isaiah. The trials before and the caring response of God after are the vinegar that add texture to the passage. Without the verses before and after this section, it’s like flat spaghetti sauce.

We’re 5 days into Christmastide now and already people are starting to put their trees to the curb and turn off the Christmas hymns on the radio. For many, December 26th marks the return to “normal life.” Some of us stretch it until January 2 when we return to work and begin to start checking off our list of resolutions for next year.
December is a high stress time of year. We spend our Advent flying around trying to make sure everything falls together for a picture perfect ABC 25 Days of Christmas family movie worthy holiday and by the time Christmastide actually starts, many of us are falling over exhausted.
“Thank goodness that’s over with for another year!” We’re tired, the credit card bills have piled up for many people, Christmas might not have been the same without that family member who passed away last year, there are many reasons that people walk around feeling anxious, depressed, and guilty both before and after Christmas. And because of these feelings, many of us don’t really live out the joy and praise that are supposed to fill up the Christmas season.[6]
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that during the season in which we are supposed to be celebrating the coming of the Messiah and the great love of God, many of us are walking around feeling abandoned by God and wondering what the point really is to all of this? We see in the Scripture these extravagant promises that God makes, but all around us things can seem “blah” at best.
In the classic Charles Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol, the main character – Ebenezer Scrooge – has a major beef with Christmas. It’s empty sentimental nonsense – Humbug! People wasting money for no good reason and glossing over the fact that there are problems in the world. Throughout the book, Scrooge is visited by ghosts who show him that Christmas is not about pretending all is right with the world, but is about celebrating the small joy that is found in the midst of all the hardships. For someone who didn’t care much for church, Dickens surely caught the essence of Christ’s birth in his “secular” novel.
Ultimately, this passage is inviting us to set aside the sentimental and pick up a new manner of prayer that acknowledges how deep and wide God’s love is. And the passage from Hebrews that has been paired with it in the lectionary is a reminder of what God has done for us through the birth of Christ. God didn’t just send to earth a sentimental time of year in which we all spend a few weeks trying to pretend things are exactly perfect by our human standards. God sent LOVE into the midst of everything. God sent LOVE to help out those who feel tested and tried.
What if instead of making resolutions this year about buying less clothing or losing more weight or getting up earlier, we resolve to change our posture in prayer. What if we simply started our prayers with Isaiah 63:7 “I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us?” This would change the whole way we approach Christmas next year. We hear so much about keeping Christ in Christmas in culture while forgetting to keep Christ in Christmas in our hearts. The real heart of Christmastide is love – we are all loved in all circumstances by a God so caring that God’s very son came to earth so that we might all be sons and daughters of God.

Amen




[1] Watts, J. D. W. (2005). Isaiah 34–66 (Revised Edition., Vol. 25, pp. 900–901). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
[2] Askew, E. (2010). Theological Perspective on Isaiah 63:7‒9. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A (Vol. 1, p. 146). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
[3] Charles, G. W. (2010). Pastoral Perspective on Isaiah 63:7‒9. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A (Vol. 1, p. 148). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
[4] Aaron, C. L. (2010). Exegetical Perspective on Isaiah 63:7‒9. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A (Vol. 1, p. 151). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
[5] Watts, J. D. W. (2005). Isaiah 34–66 (Revised Edition., Vol. 25, pp. 906–907). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
[6] Charles, G. W. (2010). Pastoral Perspective on Isaiah 63:7‒9. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A (Vol. 1, p. 148). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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