A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
January 19, 2014
Isaiah 49:1-7; John 1:29-37
The late John Claypool tells a story from the early days of his pastoral ministry in Louisville, Kentucky. It was 1960, and courageously, John had involved himself in the early days of the growing civil-rights movement. The group with which he was involved was engaged, in his words, in trying to “heal our cultural sickness.” He felt it was his sacred duty to do such a thing, if for no other reason than his ancestors had been slave-owners, and now he wanted, as he puts it, “to be a part of the answer where I felt my kind had been part of the problem.”
A meeting was held at the local synagogue between white and African American ministers from that area. The meeting grew quite tense, and eventually the black clergy stormed out in anger, accusing the white ministers of not having enough courage to face the opposition. What began as a “hopeful endeavor,” John says, “ended in total frustration.”
John turned to his friend, the rabbi who was hosting the meeting, and said, “I think it is hopeless. This problem is so old, so deep, so many-faceted, there is simply no way out of it.”
His friend, at that time in his 70’s and with a lot of experience in pastoral ministry, took his younger colleague into his study where the two of them sat down. John says the rabbi unhurriedly lit his pipe (this was the early 60’s, remember… now pipe-smoking clergy take it outside like everybody else), and as the smoke began to dissipate, he said, “I need to tell you something, young man. To the Jew, there is only one unforgivable sin, and that is the sin of despair. Humanly speaking, despair is presumptuous. It is saying something about the future that we have no right to say because we have not been there yet and do not know enough. Think of the times you have been surprised in the past as you looked at a certain situation and deemed it hopeless. Then, lo and behold, forces that you did not even realize existed broke in and changed everything. We do not know enough to embrace the absolutism of despair and, theologically speaking, despair is downright heretical. If God can create the things that are from the things that are not, and even make dead things come back to life, who are we to set limits on what that kind of potency may yet do?”1
“There is only one unforgivable sin, and that is the sin of despair.” Tell that to the prophet Isaiah. The forty-ninth chapter of the Book of Isaiah finds the prophet experiencing exactly that: deep despair. He’s tried everything he can think of to get his people to respond to the gracious nudgings of God, but nothing seems to work. His words fall on deaf ears, his efforts find no results, and he feels that his life is being spent in useless activity.
What makes his sense of uselessness even more profound is that he doesn’t feel as if he really has a say in who he is or what he does. God has total control, and so far it appears that God has let him and his people down. “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” “You are my servant,” God has said to Isaiah, but in response the prophet replies, “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
There couldn’t possibly be a worse place in life than when one feels he or she has been called of God to do God’s bidding and God’s work, then comes to the end of it all without any visible or positive results from all the labor. That is where the prophet stands as he speaks these words: “I have labored in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
In the commentary of Barbara Brown Taylor, “Everything he touches breaks. He knows that God has called him from his mother’s womb; he knows that he is God’s child, but that only intensifies his grief because he is convinced he has wasted his gifts. God has made his mouth like a sharp sword, but his words do not seem to be able to cut through anything. God has made him like a polished arrow, but he cannot seem to hit the target, let alone the mark. ‘I have labored in vain,’ he says, ‘I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.’”2
Have you ever felt that way? I can only speak for myself… well, actually, I’m prepared to speak for my profession as well. In fact, if you ever have a minister tell you that he or she has never despaired and wanted to give up, that everything has always been just peachy-keen and without worry or concern, that person is not being honest with you. Many a time has a minister ascended into the pulpit with a heavy heart, not sure if he even believes what is about to be said from his own mouth.
There’s pretty good precedent for it, actually. It started with Moses. After having struggled in the wilderness for a number of years, listening to the complaints of his fellow Israelites, he says, “I am not able to carry all this people alone…” (He’s transferring their complaints to him into a few of his own, except his complaints are directed toward the God who’s gotten him into this mess.) “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once – if I have found favor in your sight – and do not let me see my misery” (Numbers 11:14-15).
Now, several hundred years later with the people of Israel in yet another wilderness – this one known as Babylon – Isaiah feels the same way. He steps to the pulpit to utter words from deep within his heart, but those who hear what he has to say need to know that his heart is heavy… heavy for his people, heavy for himself…just heavy. His land and his people have been decimated by war, many of his friends have been taken into exile, and he is filled with the dreaded feeling that he and his fellow Israelites may be faced with extermination. Israel, the called people of God, may simply exist no more.
“I have labored in vain,” Isaiah says, “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” I can tell you honestly, I don’t want those words printed in my obituary, and I don’t think Isaiah would choose them either. But that’s where he is. However, read a bit further and you will see that this is not his final word. He goes on to say, “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.”
Those are transition words, and with these words you get the sense that his blood is warming to a bigger and better and more positive message. It’s almost as if he is talking himself into believing the message he has for his people. Watch the prophet, and listen to him as his own words give him the strength to believe what he himself is saying. See the prophet standing a little taller as he straightens his shoulders. “I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength.” He hears the word of God whispered in his ear, “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 end of the earth.”
God has changed his job description. No longer will Isaiah’s ministry be solely to the people of Israel. His message will reverberate across the coastlands and the ears of people from far away will tingle in excitement to know that God has a redemptive plan for his human creation. “Kings shall see and stand up,” proclaims the prophet, “because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
Sometimes, the purpose of our coming to worship is so we can have the kind of experience with God that will enable us to stand a little taller and strengthen our shoulders for the challenges that lie ahead.
And sometimes it happens apart from worship.
I don’t often visit the thirtieth floor of the Regions Bank Building downtown, but I had the occasion to do that Monday. As I stood looking out over the beautiful view looking west, with our impressive state capitol building shining in the noonday sun, I looked a bit further west and to the north. There it was, rising above the bare-limbed trees, our church’s steeple. I pointed it out to several people who were near me. That steeple served as a beacon for me, and that experience caused me to straighten my shoulders and walk a bit taller.
But is it really the building, the facilities that we work so hard to preserve here, that will be the future beacon of our church? If you believe that, we need to talk. No! The days to come, the years that form the second century of this church, are not dependent on these walls nor even our location. Whatever the future may bring depends on you and me and what we bring to our ministry that begins and finds its home in this place.
What God chooses to do here is not dependent solely on us either.
The people of Israel had this tendency to think of their God as only the God of their people. He was their sole domain, at their beck-and-call. After all, wasn’t it their God who led Moses to free his people from the tyranny of Egypt? Wasn’t it their God who brought them to their own land? Wasn’t it their God who said they were to have no other gods? In their minds, God was confined to the space occupied by those of Jewish blood. No, the prophet tells them, God has bigger plans… plans not just for those of Hebrew heritage but for all those who inhabit the earth that God has created. And it is for that very reason that you and I can gather in this place today, because God chose not to limit his grace to a particular people, and we have no right to do the same.
Because, in case you haven’t noticed, allow me to tell you: the world we live in now is just a little bit different from the one we used to know.
There are a number of us in this place today – you younger folk not included – who grew up in the post World War II culture. That time of history had as much, if not more, to do with how church and ministry were conducted than any other consideration. It was during those years when churches were burgeoning. It seems that just about everyone went to church. But there were downsides. Religious experience was pretty much a matter of attending church regularly, trying to get others to accept Jesus as savior, just as we had done, of course, and from a Southern Baptist perspective fulfilling the 6-point record system. If you don’t know what that is, see me later and I’ll explain it to you. However, it was during this time that classes and colors of people were segregated, and folks like us lived in our own safe and self-contained cocoons.
We don’t live in that world anymore. Today, it is a world in which dangers lurk on every corner. Social media, if nothing else, has shown us how small our world really is, and there are people out there who are not like us, some who do not like us, and who fear us just because of who we are… or perhaps even more true, because of who they think we are. There’s a Bahai center around the corner, and people you know – people you know – are dabbling in Buddhism. Used to be, these faiths were studied only in comparative religions, if you tended to do such a thing. But now, they exist right here in our neighborhood. As I’ve pointed out to you before, the attitude toward faith has become so prevalent that an acronym has been developed for those who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. SBNRs is what they are called. They’re your neighbors who want to live their faith, whatever it is, on their own terms without the benefit of a church structure informing them how they ought to do it.
What does all this mean? It means that it is not too little a thing in which we are engaged here. In fact, it is more important than ever that we, you and I, model for our community what it means to be the presence of Christ. And that leaves no room for despair. Besides, as Brian McLaren says, “Despair is boring and uncreative, and to succumb to it is to empower it.”3
It is no secret that we struggle around here to keep things moving in a positive and growing manner. It is true that we often bemoan the fact that this church doesn’t involve the numbers of people it once did. But, as one commentator has said, “When our own ideas of success go bankrupt, when our own notions of servanthood are exhausted, only then is there room for God to give us a new vision of ourselves.”4
Oddly enough, it was when Isaiah gave up in his despair – essentially calling a spade a spade when he said that he had no clue as to what to do next – when his own ideas of what was needed were given over, and his own sense of purpose was shredded and put away, that he then found room in his heart for God to give him a new vision for his people.
Let us call for a new vision today, one that will lead us boldly to move into a second century of ministry and faith. After all, “If God can create the things that are from the things that are not, and even make dead things come back to life, who are we to set limits” on such a God as that? And let us allow the Spirit of Christ to show us the way, because it is too light a thing for us to do anything else.
Lord, we need you as never before. Help us to find our strength in you and not in ourselves. In the name of Christ we ask it, Amen.
1John Claypool, The Hopeful Heart (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse Publishing, 2003), pp. 18-19.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 158.
3Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), p. 128.
4Ibid, Taylor, p. 160.