Listen to the sermon here.
"Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.
Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended."
A Song in the Desert...A Light for the People
Even when there is nothing to record it sound waves are being emitted. Some sounds are subtle, while others are abrupt. Some are pleasing to the ear, while others literally can cause pain. Louis Colaianni, author and dialect coach wrote, "Sound has a profound effect on the senses. It can be both heard and felt. It can even be seen with the mind’s eye. It can almost be tasted and smelled. Sound can evoke responses of the five senses." (Colaianni & Nelson, 1994)
We are no strangers to the effect sound can have upon us. We all have heard sounds that can bring back memories, bring us comfort, startle us, or even move us to tears.
Sometimes the overabundance of sounds in our world is so overwhelming that they become a collective noise and lose their distinctive effect. Sometimes that noise is found in the voices and stories we hear pouring from our news channels and our favorite social media outlets. That noise is heard and felt in the disagreements and vitriol over agendas and policies. That noise comes from the cynicism over the way things are as well as the pessimism that things will never change; it will only get worse, as some say. And we lose ourselves in the noise becoming numb even to the stories that should move us to action. This noise can be both herd and felt. It can even be seen with the mind’s eye. It can almost be tasted and smelled. Noise can evoke responses of the five senses.
Do you ever feel like there is just too much noise?
I must confess that sometimes the noise is so loud that I feel like I cannot ever hear my own voice let alone the voice of the divine.
The noise can get so loud that it is hard to hear the sounds of hope in a world that seems to be full of despair.
Yes, the world is full of noise.
There are reasons for lament, that is for sure. One cannot see images of what is happening in Ferguson, Iraq, Syria, Israel/Palestine, and the list could go on, without longing for peace. One cannot hear the news of another young death, another suicide, another painful diagnosis without praying for mercy. One cannot learn about oppression, inequality, discrimination and violence without crying out for justice.
Within the struggle there seems to be no song of hope. It can feel as though we are stuck. This is especially true when the loudest voices want us to believe that this is just the way things are, and the way things will always be. Granted, if we are honest with ourselves we would admit that there are times when it can be difficult to see any other way or hear any other news than bad news.
But as people of faith, we must not allow ourselves to remain there. There is another story into which we are called to participate.
In another time, in another place, the people were overwhelmed by sounds of despair and songs of hopelessness. The people of Israel had been taken into captivity by the Babylonian Empire in the 6th century BC. They were removed from their homeland which had been destroyed by their invaders and now lay desolate and deserted. A land that once held so much promise, a land that represented their past, and a land that was to hold their future was now a wasteland and a distant memory. The people had been forced to leave their land and all the things that were familiar to them. There was reason for lament, that is for certain.
The people had been in captivity for over two generations. Understandably, they had lost their identity and could only hear the sound of despair; the noise of the voices who were convinced that this would be the way it would always be. They had lost the sound of faith. They grieved a dry and barren (deserted) land void of hope. They lived lives mostly void of good news; void of a song.
It was into this context that the voice of the prophet rings out with a different song in what is often called Second Isaiah. The prophet cries out encouraging the people to hear a different sound than the one that was dominating their everyday lives. Of the role of prophet, Abraham Heschel, noted Jewish theologian, author, and activist of the middle of the 20th century, writes, "the prophet's ear perceives the silent sigh...While others are intoxicated with the here and now, the prophet has a vision of an end." And the prophet's task is "exhortation, not mere prediction." (Heschel, 2001)
That is what we have here in the beginning of Isaiah 51, a text written to the exiled people. The end the prophet sees is one of Divine purpose. "He employs notes that are one octave too high for our ears." (Heschel, 2001) The prophet of Isaiah 51 speaks of a sound that was rooted in their past and would prove to shape the future into which they were called to walk. It was a sound of hope rooted in the covenantal promise of God.
Our text begins with a familiar imperative for the people of Israel to "listen." Upon hearing this those listening to the prophet's voice may have been reminded of the Shema passage, a text from Deuteronomy 6 that has shaped the faith and community life for our Jewish sisters and brothers for millennia. It begins with the same imperative in Hebrew shema - translated "listen" or "hear". The passage reads, "Listen (Hear) O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." This is the passage that is written on the hearts and door frames of their homes even today. It is the song they sing as they sit and as they rise. In our text this morning, the prophet calls out to the people, these same people, those who pursue righteousness, people of faith, to listen once again. They are to open their ears to hear a different voice, a different sound, in the midst of the noise of their real despair.
And what is the message that Isaiah is calling his hearers to heed? The message is to look, look beyond the desperation of their present circumstances back into the lives of those who have gone before. The prophet calls his hearers to look to God's activity. The prophet calls the people to not only listen, and remember who they are, but he also calls them to consider the promises fulfilled in their past. Promises that grew out of the original covenant made with their common ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. With the same imperative strength, the prophet cries out to the people to "Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many." According to Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, "The exiles are to recall the ancestors in order to ponder the memory that Yahweh gives miraculous blessing to this people in the most unlikely circumstances." (Brueggemann, 1998)This is a major part of the story of Israel. God acts in decisive and mighty ways within even the most dire of circumstances. When hope seems dashed upon the craggy rocks of their present reality, they were to look back to the divine activity of promise. The God who has acted is acting now and will act yet again. This knowledge of the past activity of a mighty God should give all who pursue faith confidence that this same God will continue to follow the same pattern.
God made flowers bloom in the desert once before. The prophet reminds those held in captivity that this same God will make the desert wilderness into a blooming Eden paradise once again. Where now there is only lament and a barren wasteland, God will bring the beautiful sound of songs of joy and the sweet fragrance of blossoms of hope.
The prophets words do not end there. The hearer, the reader, hears the same imperative yet again. "Listen!" This time they, we, are to pay attention to the teaching that will pour out from the mouth of the Lord; a teaching rooted in the justice of the Lord that will be a light for all people. The heavens and the earth will pass away says the prophet as will all of those who inhabit it - the way things are will not be the way things will always be. God's salvation will be forever, and divine deliverance will never be ended. God has acted in the past and God's activity will never end in spite of the gravity of current circumstances. These are the assurances that are to not only buoy the people of God but also serve as a beacon of hope to all people.
In the midst of deep despair and the loud noise of hopelessness, it is easy to forget that the promises of God will never change. "The all-inclusiveness of God's grace rings out...The mission given to the exiles is to carry the message of God's compassion, justice, and truth...Israel's covenant with God was to be a light and a blessing to all peoples"(Allen, 2007). The way of God was shining through the people of God even in the cacophony of the noise in which they lived.
In many ways, the church has lost itself in the noise of bad news. We not only hear the bad news of our culture, but we also hear the voices that tell us the church is dying. We hear the opinions of others that there is nothing that churches can do about it. I do not want to minimize the despair, the pain, or the discouragement felt by the news. It is real. However, there is another sound. It is a sound that has never ceased. It is the sound of hope from a covenantal God who speaks words of promise through the voices of those who have gone before us. Ron Allen writes, "Robbed of memory, everyone is a stranger to us and we are strangers to ourselves. A forgetful community is no longer aware of what it is about, what its purpose is, or whom it loves" (Allen, 2007). It is time to listen to the words of the prophet who calls us to hear a different way.
The world gets so noisy that we can no longer hear the word of God. We need someone to hear it for us. This is where the voice of the prophet breaks through the noise to speak a word of truth giving us hope that there is a different way. "The perceptive ear of faith will still hear God's voice in spite of screaming cynicism and doubt, reminding us that God's salvation is sure and eternal, even outlasting all creation" (Peters, 2013).
The following passage is found in a captivating small book entitled The Impossible Will Take a Little While, it was told by Sonya Tinsley Hook to the author. She says, "Every day presents infinite reasons to believe that change can't happen, infinite reasons to give up. But I always tell myself, "Sonya, you have to pick your team." It seems to me that there are two teams in this world. And you can find evidence to support the arguments of both. The trademark of one team is cynicism. They'll tell you why what you're doing doesn't matter, why nothing is going to change, why no matter how hard you work, you're going to fail. They seem to get satisfaction out of explaining how we'll always have injustice. You can't change human nature, they say. It's foolish to try. From their experience, they might be right.
Then there's another group of people who admit that they don't know how things will turn out, but have decided to work for change...They're always telling stories of faith being rewarded, of ways things could be different, of how their own lives have changed. They'll give you reasons why you shouldn't give up, testimonials why we've yet to see our full potential as a species. They believe we're partners in God's creation, and that change is really possible...If I'm going to stick with somebody, I'd rather stick with people who have a sense of possibility and hope. I just know that's the side I want to be on" (Loeb, 2004).
People of faith, it is time. It is time to hear a different voice in the midst of the noise that constantly surrounds us. Hearing this voice is not to deny the existence of the struggle. No, giving heed to this voice is choosing to live into the hope of God found through the resurrected Christ. We as people of faith are called to live into this different tune. We are called to see a way even when there appears to be none and have courage to move into it.
In our noisy world, may we have the courage to listen to a different voice calling out to us. May we look at the witness of the lives of those who have gone before us that give testimony to the activity of a covenantal God. May we live lives that prove to be a song in the desert and a light to all people pointing them to the all-inclusiveness of God's grace. Amen.
In our noisy world, may we have the courage to listen to a different voice calling out to us. May we look at the witness of the lives of those who have gone before us. May we live lives that prove to be a song in the desert and a light to all people.
Allen, R. (2007). Preaching the Old Testament: A Lectionary Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.
Brueggemann, W. (1998). Isaiah, Volume 2, Chapters 44-60. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.
Colaianni, L., & Nelson, G. (1994). The Joy of Phonetics and Accents. New York: Drama Book.
Heschel, A. (2001). The Prophets. New York: Perennial.
Loeb, P. R. (2004). You Have to Pick Your Team. In The Impossible WIll Take a Little While. New York: Basic.
Peters, R. E. (2013). Isaiah 51:1-6, Pastoral Perspective. In Feasting on the Word (Year A ed., Vol. 3, pp. 362-367). Louisville: Westminster John Knox.