Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on January 10 2010.
Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17
If you were to write your own obituary, what would you say about yourself? Since our local newspaper charges by the word, many of the obituaries you will find in the Arkansas section simply provide the basic information: where the deceased was born and to whom, the dates of birth and death, those who preceded in death and those who survive, where the service will be and when. If the deceased was active in a particular church or faith community, that information is also generally provided. Employment is usually included as well because much of our personal identity comes from that, don’t you agree?
But say it in as few words as possible. After all, that’s how they charge… by the word.
Others, for whom money may be less of an issue, are depicted in more elaborate ways. For example, there was an obituary from Fayetteville in Wednesday’s paper. Did you see it? The deceased was a professor emeritus at the University who lived a rather long and full life. We are informed that he grew up outside ForrestCity on a cotton farm and began his education in a one-room school. His teacher roomed with his maternal grandmother, and each day his father would drive the family’s horse-drawn buggy to take him and the teacher to school.
But that was just the start. It was quite a long account of the former professor’s life, and revealed much more information than just the basics. If you’ve still got a copy of Wednesday’s paper, you might want to look it up. The obituary reads like a biography, which in reality it is. The deceased professor’s service was yesterday at the FirstBaptistChurch in Fayetteville. Frankly, were I to have been the one to officiate his funeral, I would wonder if there was anything left to tell.
If you were to write your own obituary, what would you say about yourself? In what terms would you want to be identified to the community in which you have lived and worked and had your being? More often than not, that which identifies us, other than our life’s work, has much to do with the times in which we live. The so-called Greatest Generation would identify primarily with their World War II experiences. The generation just before theirs would no doubt describe themselves in terms of the Great Depression. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the word great would define anything about my generation.
And the same could be said about the people of Judah during the ministry of the prophet Isaiah. How would they identify themselves? There is no question about it; they would do so in terms of exile. They have been expatriated from their native land and taken to Babylon, there to live and serve as slaves to those who have proved to be more politically and militarily powerful than themselves.
In the fifth century B.C. this is the way the politics, that led to their terrible situation, were played out… As we mentioned last week, Assyria has become the bully nation of the Mediterranean world. Ahaz, the king of Judah, a weak, pitiful king who couldn’t have carried David’s slingshot, is getting worried. He knows that Assyria can easily run over his little nation, so he decides to do something about it. The only problem is, he decides to do the wrong thing. He goes to the king of Assyria, with hat in hand, asking for protection. If you want an analogy, it’s like the hen going to the fox and requesting help. Not a very smart thing to do.
You’ve seen those old B-westerns where a small town is overrun by the bad guy and his henchmen who demand money from the local merchants as “protection”? Of course, the people they need protection from are the very ones they’re paying money to… the bad guy and his henchmen.
It’s the same thing with Ahaz and Judah. Ahaz is the hen and the king of Assyria is the fox. Before Ahaz can say “Tiglath-pileser,” which is the name of the Assyrian king, Judah becomes a vassal state and everything begins to unravel.
All the while, the prophet Isaiah is telling Ahaz, “Don’t do it. You will regret this. Our God Yahweh will take care of you if you will only trust him. Don’t do this. It won’t work out in the end. Not if you do it this way.” But Ahaz does it anyway, and in response Isaiah tells him that “the faithful city (speaking of Jerusalem) has become a whore” (sorry if that seems a bit crude, but that’s the word he uses). Tiglath-pileser invades the city and takes most of its inhabitants (certainly its youngest and strongest inhabitants) into exile. That’s the kind of protection he provides, because that’s the way politics worked back in those days.
Now, fast-forward fifty years, enough time for many of the original exiles to have died and been buried in the soil of a foreign land. Their children and their children’s children are still in Assyria. It has become the only life they know, one of slavery and servitude, of despair and desperation.
This is what it would have been like: you live among a people who do not look like you or talk like you, whose ways are not your ways, and whose god is not your God. But then again, what are your ways, what is your language, why do you look like you do… who is your God, where is your God? Who are you?
Imagine how difficult it would have been for the people of Judah, living in exile in Assyria, to have any confidence, to find any sense of self-determination. All the while they wonder indeed who they are. You see, their sense of identity had always come from their relationship with their God, and that relationship ended fifty years ago when they were taken into exile.
And don’t you imagine they wonder who their God is? What kind of God deserves their allegiance if he will allow such a terrible thing to happen to them? What they do know is that the Assyrian god is named Marduk. Should they give this god their allegiance? After all, they haven’t heard from their God, not in a very long time. Maybe their God stayed in Judah. Maybe their God is dead. Maybe their God never existed in the first place. Maybe they are left to fend for themselves. Maybe they have found their identity in the wrong place and the wrong God. Maybe they just ought to give up and give in.
But then again, maybe not.
The prophet Isaiah is still around, you see, and if it isn’t the original Isaiah it is his successor who bears the same name. We really can’t be sure. But if it is indeed a different prophet who has the same name, he certainly doesn’t carry with him the same message. This Isaiah tells his people it is finally time for them to go home, and this is the way he puts it: “… she (referring to Judah) has served her term… her penalty is paid…”
Fifty years of living in someone else’s back yard, doing what someone else has told you do, being at the beck-and-call of someone else. It couldn’t have been much of a life, to say the least. That is the penalty they have endured, and Isaiah is now telling them their debt is paid, paid in full.
It’s kind of hard to draw a comparison with their experiences and ours, isn’t it? Probably, the closest thing to a penalty we have ever experienced is a speeding ticket.
A friend of mine was pulled over by a policeman on NapaValley, soon after the road construction had been completed. He didn’t know the speed limit had been lowered from 35 to 30. “When did they do that?” he wanted to know. Since we live close by I explained to him that the limit had changed several weeks before and that the police were patrolling just about every day. Since it had recently been changed, I suggested maybe he could appeal to the court and at least get his fine reduced. Not only that, I reminded him, he knows the judge. Maybe that would count for something. Perhaps he could get some leniency.
No, he would just go ahead and pay it, he told me. It didn’t really make any difference. After all, he was going 53!
But what if your penalty meant you would be removed from your home and taken to a land that is not your own? What if your penalty forced you and your family into slavery? And what if your penalty was to be a fifty-year sentence? For something you didn’t do?
A lot can happen in fifty years. Don’t you imagine that a sense of abandonment had settled in? Who’s to say that while they were living out their exile in Babylon, God hadn’t gone off and taken another nation to his heart?Who’s to say?
Isaiah, that’s who.
But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you…
he who formed you…
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name…
You are mine.
Boy, that sounds good, doesn’t it? It sounds reassuring and warm. Who wouldn’t respond favorably to such a promise? Well, if you’re a Judean, born in exile who knows nothing but exile, this could easily – easily – come across as empty rhetoric, words that mean nothing, promises about as dependable as the sand that runs through one’s fingers.
If God is with us, if God is for us, then why have we been suffering so these last fifty years? You see, suffering – even suffering without a reason – is one thing. Suffering without God, without hope, is something else. And the people of Judah have been, for the last half-century – without their God… or so they think. For fifty years they have prayed for their freedom, and the opportunity to go home, but the more they prayed the more the heavens turned to iron.1
If you have ever felt a sense of abandonment, that you’ve suffered – for whatever reason – and that God did not respond… first of all, you are to be commended for being in church. Most people would have given up. Then, I would encourage you to put your memory to work. Memory is a powerful gift, given as grace by the One whose absence we so often feel. Memory can often bring us back to God when nothing else does. So put your memory to work.
Remember those occasions when you deeply and profoundly worshiped, and because of it sensed the near presence of the Almighty. Remember that time you lifted the bread and the cup to your lips, and it felt as if you were indeed participating in the sacrifice of Christ. Remember the time you needed someone, and that friend slipped in by your side… to hold your hand, to say the right words, to be the presence of Jesus to you. Remember that time when you were struggling and just the right scripture verse came to your mind and heart. Remember the words of that familiar hymn that meant so much to you. Remember. Put your memory to work.
Janet and I received a Christmas card this year that just about broke my heart. It included the photographs of two beautiful children. My, how they have grown since we saw them last, and how happy they seem to be. But they’re not being raised in church. The sight of them broke my heart because I know what they are missing. They do not receive the affirmation and smiles, the hugs and joy, that come when others touch them and lift them up and become their family in Christ. By their absence their memories are being taken away, and I fear they will suffer from spiritual amnesia.
But then I remembered…I hope Janet McGhee won’t mind my telling this. A few Sundays ago, as she came into the church with Anna Claire – they came in through the back parking lot, and I think Logan had already run in ahead of them – Anna Claire, when she saw me, rushed up to me to show me her new pink cowgirl “shoes.” It reminded me of the recent comic strip Baby Blues where the little girl Chloe has gotten new pink cowgirl boots. She wants to sleep in them, take a bath in them, never take them off. Janet told me Anna Claire felt the same way about hers.
I realized, as we talked, that what we were doing in that moment was not so much to celebrate pink cowgirl shoes – nor even how very cute Anna Claire is – as it was to create a memory… a memory for a little girl who one day may just reach back in the recesses of her mind, and when she needs the promises of God the most, will remember those cowgirl “shoes” and when she wore them to church and so many people made over them and told them how cute they – and she – was. And because of that, I wonder if she might say, “You know, I belong to God. I belong to God.”
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name…
You are mine,
says the Lord.
If you believe that, when you need that promise the most, it will come to you and it will be yours. Thanks be to God who has made us his own.
We pray that indeed, O Lord, you have made us your own. Now, may we accept such grace and in that promise face whatever comes our way. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.