Sermon: Because of Love
Year C Ephiphany
I don’t know if you heard the story about Jake Olson a couple weeks ago on either television or the internet. Jake is twelve years old and has been fighting a rare form of cancer, retinoblastoma, since he was an infant. After losing sight in his left eye to the cancer when he was two, doctors had been working diligently to keep his right eye through the use of chemo and radiation therapy. Finally, this year, the cancer had progressed to the point where his remaining eye had to be removed. Asked if there was something special he wanted to see one last time before the surgery that would take his sight completely, Jake replied that what he really wanted to see was another USC Trojans football game.
The coach of the USC team, Pete Carroll, invited Jake to join the team for a practice and the team soon adopted Jake. It wasn’t long before Jake became an inspiration for them and everyone who heard his story. You see, Jake, not long after finding out that his remaining eye would have to be, told his mom not to worry, since this was just going to be a new stage in his life. That is his approach towards life. He spoke with confidence and faith. To have such faith is truly inspirational and his story has touched millions.
But while listening to his story, I could not help but think about those whose view of God is such that they believe that bad things happen to people because they or someone in their family must have done something wrong to warrant God’s wrath. I thought about the so-called religious leaders who spoke out after 9/11 claiming that it was God’s retribution against all the pagans, abortionists, feminists, homosexuals and the ACLU for making a mockery of God. I thought about those who claimed that Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the tsunami in Sri Lanka a couple years ago were also God’s punishment for homosexuality and licentiousness. I wondered what those people would think of Jake. I wondered what those people would think about the words from the Isaiah text that we heard today.
Now I have to be fair and admit that in the beginning of the Old Testament, God made a covenant with Israel that was, indeed, conditional. In Exodus 19:5, we find these words, “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all peoples.” If we listen to God, if we keep the covenant, good things will happen, implying that bad things will occur if we do not. And much did happen to Israel finally leading up to the time of the writing of our passage from Isaiah in which Israel found herself once again in exile. But, there is a change in God’s outlook here in the second part of Isaiah, and it begins with “But now thus says the Lord…”
But now, things are different. But now, God says as it is written in Isaiah 43:19, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” God knows Israel. God knows us. God knows that try as we might, we are often sidetracked. God knows us well and God new Israel well as we find it written in Isaiah 48:4, “Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew, and your forehead brass.” Or, to quote Homer Simpson, “D’oh!” But now, as Paul Harvey used to say, you’re going to hear the rest of the story!
When I started writing this sermon, I thought that perhaps I could set a personal record and write my shortest sermon ever. It would have been over in a matter of seconds because for me, Isaiah 43:4a sums up God’s relationship with creation. For me, this verse defines the gift God gave us in Jesus Christ. This verse is the overarching message I see when I contemplate Scripture. And yet it is something that I still need to be reminded of.
You heard it today and it really is all we need to know, “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you.” Precious in God’s sight, honored and loved! I’m not God so I can’t really know what God feels. However, the closest thing I can possibly think of that might reveal to me how God feels is the moment when I first held my daughter the day she was born, holding her and looking at this tiny being. You see, we had two miscarriages before she was born, two other chances and something happened. When I held my daughter, all I could feel was unconditional, overwhelming love. And I felt this love without ever knowing what kind of person she would grow into, without ever caring whether she would bring joy or sorrow into my life. All I could feel at that moment was how I loved this little thing with my whole being, regardless of who she would become. That is the closest I can imagine God’s love for us, precious in God’s sight and honored. Because of love, God says “I am with you.” Because of love God says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Much had happened to Israel—rescued from slavery in Egypt to settle in the land promised by God. And then being conquered by Babylon and sent into exile throughout the Babylonian empire after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The focus of their faith had changed. They were no longer a Temple based people. They took their faith with them, building synagogues for learning and worship, meeting together in small groups in the midst of a non-Jewish world. They began to settle into their new lives living as a people dispersed in the world and perhaps feeling as if their God had abandoned them, perhaps feeling comfortable yet incomplete and yearning for more.
How often does that happen to us as we go through our lives? We enter into a life of work, going about our daily business, getting by and feeling comfortable, yet somehow incomplete. We perhaps feel a call to do something more but the routine we know beckons us to sit back, to wallow in the place we are in. The days and years go by in a seeming blur and we sometimes sense something missing. There is this occasional nagging feeling that there ought to be more meaning in our lives but we feel powerless, or we lack the energy to do anything about. And sometimes we may even feel frightened to face the unknown drawing back into the comfort of the routine and the predictable.
Israel was in Babylonian exile. The places they were in began to feel somewhat like home. They were feeling somewhat comfortable taking on Babylonian customs and practices; they were getting absorbed into the culture in which they lived. I would bet that many were also second-guessing themselves, thinking of how many times they thought they had disappointed God, thinking about what may happen to them if they failed again, what retribution God may send down upon them. It was easier just to stay where they were. But now, but now God was calling to the Israelites in exile, calling to them to come back to Jerusalem, to a ruined city to rebuild their community, to be God’s people.
But now, God says, do not remember the old ways, the old agreements. I am doing a new thing because of love, because you are precious in my sight. No matter what you do, I love you, for I created you and call you by name. You have no reason to fear. I am not promising that you will not suffer pain and hardship, but I am promising that you will not face your challenges alone for I will be with you every step of the way. I am promising that whatever you face, whether it be raging rivers, or burning fires, I promise that it will not overwhelm you or consume you, because I will be with you. Because I love you, I remember you and have inscribed your name on my hand. Because of love, God says, do not fear. Do not fear, because I love you. You are my beloved.
God affirmed Israel with love so that they would have the courage to become who God called them to be. God affirms us in love, a love so deep that God entered into this world in Jesus Christ to be in relationship with us. And Jesus, who needed no baptism of repentance, entered into the waters to be baptized by John, to enter into our world of repentance, to know the life we lead with all its temptations and pain. After the baptism, as Jesus prayed, a voice came down from heaven and said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Because we are beloved, because of love, we need not fear.
I am not sure who coined the phrase, “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” but it is no less true today than when the Israelites were in exile in Babylonia. Relying only upon ourselves is not enough. Struggling to remain in control is more than we can handle. In fact, if we believe that the situation we are in was caused by God, we would indeed be hopeless, and we would certainly be alone.
But now, thus says God, “do not fear, for I am with you. I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’ Everyone whom God formed and made. None are excluded. Everyone. Because of love
This economic crisis, a recession for some and a depression for many more, calls for extraordinary measures. We are called to surrender ourselves to love, to surrender ourselves to God. It is a scary proposition to let go of ourselves. It is overwhelming to look to the future and what we might need to face to become who God wants us to be. But now, because of love, we do not face it alone. Because of love, God will be with us as we pass through the torrents of change and yet not be overwhelmed. Because of love God will be with us and we shall walk through the fires without being consumed. Because of love, God says, I am doing a new thing. Because of love, we have Jesus Christ. Because of love, we will be able to accomplish all things in his name. Thanks be to God, because of love. Amen.