As most of you know, the Revised Common Lectionary of scripture readings provides four readings for each Sunday of the year. Normally it’s one from the Hebrew Scriptures, a Psalm, a Gospel reading, and another passage from the New Testament. Here at St. Andrew’s, we often read all four texts, even though only one or two can be the focus for the sermon. But sometimes I decide to focus the whole worship on only two or three readings, and actually dispense with reading the others. And today is one of those days.
What may be unusual about this morning though, is that I decided to skip the New Testament readings. The text from Hebrews was a highly theological piece about the suffering that Jesus endured and his ability to help people when they are experiencing suffering as well. And the Gospel text was from Matthew… the story about Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus fleeing to Egypt to escape the angry King Herod. (That one certainly makes sense for the Sunday right after Christmas.)
But this week, I was drawn to the Psalm and the reading from Isaiah that seemed to pick up a similar theme. It seemed like a wonderful thing to do during this week that is so full of gathering, and celebrating, and rejoicing. It seemed like a good thing to do for us to pause and give thanks to God, to praise God for all the good things that we experience in life.
I particularly like the way that Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the passage from Isaiah 63 puts it:
“I’ll make a list of God’s gracious dealings,
all the things God has done that need praising,
all the generous bounties of God,
his great goodness to the family of Israel –
Compassion lavished, Love extravagant.”
The prophet sounds just like a psalmist here, recounting God’s good deeds, and reminding God’s people to remember and to praise God.
The origin of this passage is that it was written in the post-exilic period… the time after the people of Judah and Jerusalem that had been sent into exile in Babylon had finally returned to the land that they loved. So when I first read it, I thought of it as a simple song of praise from the prophet.
Now that we’re back in Jerusalem, I’m going to make a list of all the wonderful things that God has done for us! God has been so good to us… getting our people out of slavery in Egypt, leading us through the wilderness, and bringing us into this good land, flowing with milk and honey. Yes, things were difficult for us for a while there… Babylon was a really tough time. But God has come through for us again. We’re back home in Jerusalem, and ready to praise God!
Perhaps you remember how God’s people complained and lamented when they were in exile. They felt that God had abandoned them there, and they seemed completely without hope. But now the years have passed, and they’ve made it home. Now they look back on their exile experience, and they see it differently. They look back, and they notice that God was actually with them, that God was actually helping them, that God was the one who got them through that difficult time and led them home again too.
The prophet has God declare, “Without question these are my people, children who would never betray me.” And the prophet explains that God became their Saviour. “In all their troubles, God was troubled, too. He didn’t send someone else to help them. He did it himself, in person. Out of his own love and pity, he redeemed them. He rescued them and carried them along for a long, long time.”
When I speak to people about their experience of God, I notice that many people can recognize God’s presence and help most clearly when they look back. When they’re right in the middle of a crisis, or deep in the experience of grief, or caught in the grip of pain and suffering, God may well be there… but the opportunities to notice God or to reflect on God’s presence may be fleeting.
But just like God’s people who had the opportunity to return from the exile, many of us are able to look back on the most difficult times in our lives and realize that God was indeed with us… with us in the people who stayed with us and helped us through, with us in the small blessings that lightened our burden, with us in the hope and encouragement that kept us going through the worst parts of our situation.
Just the other day, I was talking to someone who went through a rather traumatic medical procedure a few weeks ago. And he said, “You know, Amanda, I felt the presence of God around me through the whole thing. I was scared, and it was terrible, but the peace of God just seemed to surround me.”
Theologically speaking, we make an awful mistake on a regular basis. We do it, just like the people of Israel did it before us, and people after us will likely do it for years to come. When bad things happen… like exile to Babylon, like horrible car accidents, like random illnesses, like sudden losses of the people we love… we tend to ask, “What did I do to deserve this?”
We talk about the fact that we believe in a loving God. But then when something terrible happens, we try to figure out why God is doing this to us. Why did God let the Babylonians win? Why won’t God help us to get home again?
Isaiah provides us with another theology of suffering though. He tells us… When the people were troubled, God was troubled with them. When the people were suffering, God was suffering too.
And what is most interesting about this passage from Isaiah is that it’s not written after the fact, when all the suffering has come to an end, and everything is right and good for God’s people. Yes, they have made it back to Jerusalem, but their troubles are nowhere near over. If you read the verses that come before and after our passage, it becomes clear that the crisis is not yet finished. The city of Jerusalem and the temple are in ruins. They have returned to their homeland, but it’s no longer the land flowing with milk and honey that they expected.
And yet, the prophet raises his voice to praise God. He says, “I’ll make a list of God’s gracious dealings, all the things God has done that need praising, all the generous bounties of God, his great goodness to the family of Israel – Compassion lavished, love extravagant.”
I wonder. Is he simply reminding himself and the people that God has the power and the love to help them? God’s done it before… God could do it again. Or is he trying to remind God, himself? Remember how you helped us before? We are so grateful for that! Do you think you could help us out again?
Well, whatever the prophet’s intention, what is obvious is that he expects God to be present and active among God’s people. He expects God to be troubled when the people are troubled, and to come in person to help them. Isaiah expected that hundreds of years before God sent Jesus to make his presence and love incarnate in the world.
On Christmas Eve, we reflected on the idea from John’s Gospel that Jesus was God’s Word (God’s message to us) made flesh. Jesus came to physically embody God’s loving presence with us in the world. Now, I’ve heard a few people talk about seeing Jesus in their hospital room, or feeling Jesus’ hand holding theirs through a difficult time… but most of us can’t actually SEE Jesus today. What we do have is a little less blatant, but just as powerful. What my friend described as the peace of God surrounding him through a traumatic experience, must surely have been God’s Spirit.
And not only that, but Christ’s body is still physically present in the world. It’s present in the people of God, Christ’s body on earth today. Together, we are the ones who must be present with those who are suffering, who must share the sorrow of those who are grieving, who must provide hope and encouragement to those who are struggling.
Christmas is the perfect time to pause and remember that God came to us in person, in Jesus Christ. And God remains with us still through the power of the Holy Spirit within, and around, and between us, Christ’s body here on earth.
Let us praise God, together with all people and with all the earth. Praise the Lord! Amen.