January 19, 2020, sa2ord.20, CHPC, J. Mark Barnes
“I Have Labored in Vain”
Isaiah 49. 1-9, 14-16a
We love hearing from the prophet known as Second Isaiah during Advent. His words are always part of our preparation for Christmas: “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.” “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” “Lift up your voice with strength, do not fear, say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
Isaiah spoke to a people in exile, claiming that their 70 years of captivity in Babylonia would end. God was doing a new thing, liberation was at hand! We borrow Isaiah’s triumphant words to help proclaim our in the coming of Christ. God has come to free us. So the way is open, the future belongs to God! “Joy to the World”!
But Christmas is behind us now. And, in the lectionary reading for today, we hear something quite different from Isaiah. He laments, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” He’s discouraged and tired of waiting on the promises of God. Time stretches on and on. When will the captives return home? When will Jerusalem be rebuilt? “How long, O Lord!”
After the confession this morning we sang, “There is a Balm In Gilead”: It begins, “sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain.” That’s what Isaiah is talking about. Even prophets get discouraged! This is Martin Luther King weekend. Dr. King stirred up such hope and passion for justice. “I have a dream,” he proclaimed. “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” But he also bore a heavy burden being the mouthpiece for justice. During the Chicago Freedom Movement in the summer of 1966 things weren’t going well. Chicago’s brand of racism was particularly ugly and violent. Politicians were resisting and there was internal fighting within the movement. Some were fed up with the slow and costly way of nonviolent resistance. Dr. King said in a speech at that time, “I’m tired! I’m tired of marching for something that should have been mine at birth. I’m tired of all the tension…tired of living under the threat of death. Sometimes I doubt whether I’ll make it through. I must confess I’m tired!” From that time until his death, in 1968, Dr. King repeated a lament: “The dream I had in Washington in 1963 has too often turned into a nightmare.”
Sometimes you get discouraged and think you’re work’s in vain. Being a human being is hard sometimes. It just is. And trying to live God’s dream of justice and peace is harder still. I’m glad that famous prophets have cried out in discouragement because it’s where we all live sometimes. It would do an injustice to Isaiah’s people’s experience to celebrate the triumphs, the release from captivity, without remembering the exile, the long years of waiting and suffering. Likewise, it would do an injustice to African Americans’ experience to laud civil rights victories and celebrate only Dr. King’s vision without remembering the 400 years of their waiting and suffering under slavery, , and Jim Crow and the virulent racism that still thrives in our nation today. “How long, O Lord?!”
All of us who have been called in baptism to follow Christ get discouraged. We’ve God’s to call to care for creation on our hearts so it’s discouraging to hear politicians denying climate change and scaling back laws that protect the wilderness for the sake of corporate profits. We’ve got God’s vision of peace and welcome for all in us so it’s disheartening in this mean season when the US and other countries are turning their backs on immigrants. Separating families and locking them up. It’s tough to proclaim the non-violent way of love at a time when nations seem resigned to war as an ongoing condition. Earlier this week, Debbie caught a typo in this morning’s bulletin. One of the lines of the “Balm in Gilead” response read, “There is a blam in Gilead.” It’s funny, but it also seems true. BLAM, BLAM, BLAM. So, much violence! And meanwhile, we’re so deeply divided, in government and in our communities.
And, frankly, we seem to be up against ourselves a lot of the time…when we’re just too busy or lazy or greedy or self-preoccupied to make the changes we know we should. We confess the resistance in our own hearts to living the love of Jesus. Our relationships don’t go as we’d hoped. Who knew it would be so hard to be part of a family sometimes?! Or, to be a friend, or a co-worker? We get stuck in the same old patterns, unable to break free. God, help us!
“Sometimes we feel discouraged and think our work’s in vain… “
But the old hymn goes on….”but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead”. The prophet says, “I have labored in vain” but in the same breath adds, “Yet surely my cause is with God.” And “God has become my strength.” Thank God, for this gift of the Holy Spirit, this deep down knowing that in our weakness we may depend on God. “There is a balm in Gilead.”
Barbara urged us last week: “trust the truth of your belovedness.” That’s so important. Trust the truth of your belovedness! And just as important, if we wish to be God’s people, is for us to trust the truth that God is our strength.
There’s a surprise in our text. After Isaiah pours his heart out about his discouragement, God responds by increasing his responsibility! God says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Mercy! You know you kind of expected God to say something like, “Oh, well, sorry, of course, take a little me time and we’ll cut back on the work.” But no, God moves the task from too difficult to utterly impossible! “A light to the nations?!” Mercy!
How does this even make sense?
Well, increasing the challenge of the mission is one way scripture has of casting us onto the mercy and strength of God. The scope of the mission gets bigger but our ability to cope doesn’t. What then do we do? Give up! OR….Trust that God is our strength!
Now, trust isn’t certainty. Trust means that we venture out not knowing how things will turn out. How our words and acts will further God’s will remains a mystery. Isaiah puts in this way: “God made the words of my mouth a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me, he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.” Isaiah’s words are an effective weapon in God’s battle for the triumph of love but how they will accomplish what God has spoken remains hidden with God.
For us, it means that while we do have real agency, we have to offer what we can and trust that God is weaving our small witness along with that of many others into the great tapestry of divine love in ways beyond what we can think or imagine.
We know that in time, not in the time that they would have preferred, but in time, the captives did return from Babylonia and the holy city, Jerusalem, was rebuilt. We know that the witness of Dr. King in Chicago, as hard and costly as it was, was the confrontation that began a new chapter for justice in Chicago.
In this present time, love is making a way. It’s not always “onward and upward!. Sometimes, it’s one step forward and two steps back….or ten! But love makes a way. The “Me too” movement is advancing, slow but sure, against the belittling and abuse of women. The “Black Lives Matter” movement,, with white allies who are learning about and dealing with their white privilege, is confronting the powers in the Spirit of non-violence and moving the conversation forward in police departments, in city halls and schools. Young people, inspired by the witness of Greta Thunberg, are demanding that their elders act now to combat climate change. There are communities which are recovering from the ravage of drugs and families finding their way to forgiveness. God is at work, making things new, through words of our mouths and the work of our hands in seen and unseen ways. God is our strength.
We have a friend who is a Russian pastor. The last time he was in the States, he told us that the Russian government under Putin has clamped down on Protestant Christians. His church is now required to videotape all gatherings of 30 people or more and have those tapes available for inspection. It doesn’t bode well! We asked him, “what are you going to do?” “We go on being the church,” he said, “and if necessary we go underground again! God is our strength!” We know what his church has survived, with the killings of pastors and elders and many men in the church under Stalin, and the subsequent persecution and confiscation of church property by the government. So, when he says, “We’ll persevere because God is our strength” you believe him!
Trust in the truth that God is our strength. The Spirit breathes life and hope into every heart that opens even a crack. And God gathers people in the communion of the Spirit. There are millions who are dreaming of and daring to work for a more just and generous way of being. A multitude! And it’s not a one-generation project either. We will hand off the work of love to the next generation just as it was handed off to us. And God will be there to see it through until the day when love is complete at last in the new realm of God. Let that day come!
The old hymn goes: Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain. But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a balm.”
So, sisters and brothers, rest in the love of God. Trust the truth of your belovedness! And trust that the One who loves you with such great love is your strength! And then do whatever you can, in your own way, to bring good news to the world. Leave the results with God. And who knows what might happen? Given that the great, saving love of God which comes to us, also, by God’s grace, comes through us. Who knows?!
And now, to God, who is our strength,
be all praise and glory!
Now and forever. Amen.