Monday, February 8, 2010

In Storms and Fire Isaiah 43:1-7

Below is the draft text for yesterday's sermon. The message focuses on the assurance that God walks with us in the midst of joy and difficulty. While this is a core faith principle, it seems hard to live out of when we face pain, grief, and confusion. Read on....
A 4- year-old girl was making her first trip to Disneyland, and she couldn't wait to get on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Accompanied by her mother, she was whisked through the crazy rooms, into the path of a speeding train, and through walls that fell away at the last second. Desperately, she clutched the little steering wheel in front of her. When the ride was over, she turned to her mother and said, a little shakily, “Next time, you drive. I didn’t know where I was going.”(1)

I think all of have times in our life when we wished someone else could drive for a little while, when the road proves hard and the journey complex, when we are really not sure where we are going. This is not unique to us or our era. One of the reoccurring themes in Scripture is God speaking to humanity in the midst of our loss, confusion, and misdirection. Over and over again we hear God try to tell us that we do not walk alone. The great hymn writers throughout the ages have seized on this theme. Beyond the hymns and choruses chosen for this morning, in worship planning Bruce and Kim also noted that we could have just as easily included; All the Way My Savior Leads Me, I Must Tell Jesus, It Is Well, Just a Closer Walk, Precious Lord, Jesus Is All the World, Out of My Bondage, I Need Thee Every Hour, Close to Thee, He Hideth My Soul, Praise You in the Storm, Praise You in the Fire, and Shelter in the Time of Storm. I believe the reason that scripture comes back to this theme so often, and the reason the hymn writers draw us to this theme in music again and again, is that it speaks to a heart issue that touches all of us. I cannot imagine that there is a person in this room who has not claimed somewhere in their life a moment of woundedness, a time of grief, a season of brokenness, the cold feeling of isolation and fear, or grip of confusion. In those moments we want to know that we are not alone. In the times of life’s storms and flames, we long to know that God is with us, making a way for us. One of the passages where we hear God’s response with remarkable clarity is Isaiah 43:1-7. In the New International Version it reads;

1 But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. 3 For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush [a] and Seba in your stead. 4 Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.

5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. 6 I will say to the north, 'Give them up!' and to the south, 'Do not hold them back.' Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth- 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."

So, through the voice of the prophet Isaiah we hear God speak into the woundedness, brokenness, and chaos of our lives. We hear the powerful words, Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. God begins by reminding us that we do not have to fear, that we belong to God; that God is in the saving business. Intellectually, even spiritually, we can embrace this core faith concept that God loves us and saves us; the problem is that it is easier to say than to live out. We hear this, even say this, but we still feel wounded, hurt, lost, in grief, or in confusion. God speaks again; When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.

In two sentences God joins us in the midst of the storms of life and the flames of pain. To be honest, most of us would prefer the storms and fires simply go away. We would like God to fix it. Down deep inside we do not want to have to go through the waters, the storms and the fires. The hard reality is that they are a part of the human condition born in the gift of free will born in creation. We know this, but we would like to change the story.

Maybe if we could make people behave like we think they should, the impact of their bad decisions might not hurt us as much. Maybe if we can legislate the moral behavior of others to a point that their way of life makes ours more comfortable? What if we could make people love us like they should maybe they would quit hurting us. What if we could get our parents to finally listen to us, to bless us, and to be the kind of parents we hoped for maybe it would be OK. What if we could make our children love and respect us maybe they would quit hurting us and would love us like they should. What if the irritating co-worker or boss would finally find a heart, or the bully that pushes his or her way into our life might finally find compassion….what if we could cure every disease so we did not have to face our death of the death of loved one…..what if we could learn to control the weather so that people might not die because of storms and earthquakes….what if we could learn to help nations get along and religions stop fighting and killing in the name of God….what if we could control the economy so that there are no more downward swings to destabilize our economic condition…..what if we could look in the mirror and finally be satisfied with what we saw…..what if the pain would just stop….what if we finally felt like we fit in….what if the pain of grief would quit throbbing in our heart….what if….what if….what if? The spiral of the “maybes” and “what ifs” can leave us cynical and lead us toward a crisis of faith. This spiral is made more pronounced because of the preaching that if we only do the right things that God will have no choice but to bless us. This path leads us toward overwhelming guilt, thinking that if we had only done better then storms and fires of life might have been avoided. Equally troubling is its parallel teaching that if we give to God or the ones who claim God's anointing in a particular way that God will have to bless us. These are both heretical. They do not have meaningful grounding in scripture. Those who proclaim them claim bits and pieces of scripture to justify their view, but they fall short of truth found across the breadth of Scripture. Any preaching or teaching that implies that we can make God do anything makes God less than God. God does not promise we will not experience the storms and fires, but God does promise to that they will not destroy us and we will not have to experience them alone. God walks with us in love and strength.

Listen to how Eugene Peterson interprets the first four verses in The Message. 1-4 But now, God's Message, the God who made you in the first place, Jacob, the One who got you started, Israel: "Don't be afraid, I've redeemed you. I've called your name. You're mine. When you're in over your head, I'll be there with you. When you're in rough waters, you will not go down. When you're between a rock and a hard place, it won't be a dead end—Because I am God, your personal God, The Holy of Israel, your Savior. I paid a huge price for you: all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in! That's how much you mean to me! That's how much I love you! I'd sell off the whole world to get you back, trade the creation just for you.

God loves us enough to make the way for us to survive the torrent of life’s waters, the storms of our difficulties, and the fires of our pain. God loves us enough to pay the price that we might find redemption in our brokenness, healing in our pain, salvation in our confusion. The God that formed us, that calls us by name, walks with us – in good day and difficult ones – our challenge is to let go of our fears and our desire to control and trust God to care for us and carry us through.

We hear God speak; 5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. 6 I will say to the north, 'Give them up!' and to the south, 'Do not hold them back.' Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth- 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made." We began this service at the communion table, the visual testimony of God’s grand sacrifice of grace that we might be made whole and find redemption. It reminds us that of the great lengths God was willing to God through that we might find our place again as children of God, children called by His name.

When we see the storms clouds coming or feel the heat of the fire, we do not have to fear. God is there with us. When we feel broken and broken hearted, we do not have to fear. God is there to love us. When we feel wounded and confused, we do not have to fear. God is there to redeem us. When we wonder and we doubt, we do not have to fear. God is there to reclaim us. Yes, there are times when our lives feel like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, but fear not, we can trust God to drive. "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. 3 For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior....

(1) Animating Illustrations tied to “Godspeed Living” referenced online at http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/btl_display.asp?installment_id=93000304

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