How do we rebuild a broken land?

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But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
    and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
    nations in exchange for your life.
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.”
– Isaiah 43:1-7

        Today’s passage from Isaiah is a beautiful piece of poetry. If I didn’t know this was from Isaiah, I might think it is from one of the Psalms, with the images offered and the way the lyrics flow – even though we aren’t reading them in the original language.

        Isaiah is one of the prophets, but prophetic voice is not about predicting the future or fortune-telling. The prophetic voice is about speaking truth to power.

        This passage in particular explores the power that fear and uncertainty can have over us.

        So – let’s set the scene for this text. Jerusalem had been destroyed three generations earlier, and the majority of the Hebrew people taken away in exile to the Babylonian Empire. And at this point, a small remnant of the people is allowed to return to Jerusalem – to resettle and rebuild.

        Now I say “return” – but most the people who returned had actually been born in exile, more than a thousand miles from this homeland they had only known in stories and other people’s memories.

        And what did they find when they entered the area of Jerusalem? The Temple was mostly destroyed, and the city was mostly in ruins. It is important to note that there were people living there – the Samaritans – which might give you some insight about how Samaritans were treated during the time of Jesus.

        And so today’s text – it’s one of promise and comfort during uncertain times. This return to Jerusalem was fraught with danger and uncertainty. It was absolutely a scary time – the people had no idea how things would turn out.

        How do you rebuild a broken land?

        I think many of us have thought these same words this past week, as we marked the one year anniversary of January 6 – a day that armed militants stormed the Capitol – a violent and deadly attack, unlike anything we could have ever imagined.

        In the days after the attack last year, one article that stayed with me was about New Jersey Rep. Ted Lieu, an Asian American man. Rep. Lieu went out to the Rotunda once it was safe – around midnight. He saw the mass devastation. While still dressed in his suit, he quietly got down on his hands and knees, putting the wreckage into trash bags. He worked for an hour and a half, until the House was back in Session at 3am to certify the election.

        Lieu didn’t tell anyone what he did, but a journalist captured a photo – not realizing this was a member of Congress. Lieu was soon recognized in the photo, and people asked why he was doing that – especially when he still had work to do as an elected official. He replied that he wanted to do something to help repair the damage that has been done.

        How do you rebuild a broken land?

        Today’s text is focused on reassurance for people trying to rebuild a broken land. We can think about children when they get scared. When my daughter was little, she seriously did not like clowns or people in costumes, like a mascot at a ball game. If one came near, I’d hold her while she turned her head away and cry. I’d tell her I loved her and that things would be alright. That’s what we do when a child is scared or uncertain.

        That’s essentially what today’s poem is doing – letting the people know that things will be alright. God is with them and will guide them.

        The first verse lets us know that God “created” and “formed” us – the Hebrew words for created and formed are the same ones used in the creation narratives in Genesis. God created humanity in God’s own image, and declared that it was good!

        Let’s remember that when Isaiah is talking about creating and forming – it wasn’t just individuals. The community is also created and formed by God!

        Isaiah continues to say that the people should not be afraid, because God has redeemed them. Here in the Bible Belt, people often associate “redemption” with eradicating sin. That’s not really what this Hebrew word means – It’s about being freed from a debt.

        What kind of things do we want to be freed from? What is weighing us down, causing us to live in fear? What keeps us from rebuilding a broken land?

        The scripture not only says that the people are “redeemed” – freed –  but also “called.” We are God’s children, called for purpose in this world. People often talk about a “calling” – a way of being in that we know there is something beyond ourselves – a mission. The people who heard these words when they were spoken and written – they knew God had called them to go to a homeland they had never known, and to rebuild the Temple and the city around it.

        A calling isn’t usually easy, and oftentimes there are moments we don’t want to answer the call. For those of us in the ministry, we often talk about “call” – God has called us for this work in our lives. And we can’t find peace unless we answer that call.

But this scripture lets us know that God’s calling is a good thing – God has redeemed us – freed us from fear – and we were created and formed as God’s own beloved children. God is always with us.

        Cleaning up a terrible mess isn’t easy. The Jewish people of this time period knew that. I have read words by Rep. Ted Lieu in recent days – that he has spent the last year trying to clean up in a variety of ways.

        How do we rebuild a broken land?

        I don’t have all the answers for that – whether it is our country or brokenness in our own lives. But I do know that God is always with us – loving, guiding, supporting. God journeys with us. Rebuild….

(sermon preached on January 9, 2022)

The Flight to Egypt

low angle photo of coconut trees

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My sermon from Sunday, December 29, 2019….

Matthew 2:13-23

2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

 

This passage from Matthew is the lectionary reading for today – this first Sunday after Christmas Day. The Wise Men had come from Persia to visit the baby Jesus – and this visit happened some time within the first couple years of his life, even though we tend to place the Wise Men at our Nativity scenes with the shepherds and the newborn Jesus. You might recall that the Wise Men had sought information from King Herod when they were following the star to look for Jesus, and Herod wanted them to tell him where the infant “King” was once they had found him. Being wise in many ways, they returned home by a different way.

So once Herod discovered he had been tricked, he decided to have every child under age 2 executed in the area of Bethlehem. An angel spoke to Joseph to warn him of the upcoming murders, so Joseph took Mary and Jesus to seek asylum in Egypt – and there they stayed until Herod died.

It’s not easy to hear this text immediately after Christmas Day. We are still in the Christmas season, and we have sentimentalized this season in recent decades to the place that it is only about being happy. We even sing, “It’s the hap – happiest time of the year!”

We place a great deal of pressure on ourselves to be happy at this time of year, and to do everything we can to ensure happiness for others. And studies have shown that it is actually a very depressing time for a significant number of people. Happiness doesn’t come with the season for large numbers of people.

Our society has done an amazing job of setting up Happiness as our primary goal in life. Americans talk about one of their inalienable rights being the “pursuit of happiness.”

But this Christmas season we don’t celebrate the Prince of Happiness – we celebrate the Prince of Peace.

Happiness is a superficial veneer – Peace is something different and much deeper.

It’s important for us to hear this passage from Matthew today, often entitled “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”

We can’t really be happy when innocents are slaughtered – when children die every day in this country from gun violence, when people of faith are in danger simply for worshipping as with the violence facing our Jewish siblings in New York, when hundreds of thousands of children around the world are seeking asylum or living in camps in terrible conditions, when there are children within a few miles of here who go to bed hungry every night, when there is the greatest income inequality that our nation has seen in almost 100 years and the vast majority struggle just to get by.

Any feeling person can’t be always happy if they are really paying attention to what is going on in the world.

But we can have Peace. We can have Peace if we follow in the steps of Jesus and work towards justice.

That is what the Christmas season is truly about– not attempts to “feel” happy or insulate ourselves from the bad tidings of the world around us – it is about accepting the peace we find when we truly follow this baby in the manger – as he flees to seek out political asylum in Egypt – as he lives in the forgotten backwoods in poverty – as he loves every person he meets, especially those outcast by society – as he loves people in such a radical way that the people in power decide he must die.

Our scripture for today reminds us that Jesus is both, and always, a beacon of hope, and the constant irritant for those in power, even as an innocent baby. This passage reminds us that Jesus entered a real world of pain, brokenness, oppression – a world where the killing of infants and the easy ability to forget and not care for the children of our world exists.

This is how we celebrate Christmas – eyes and ears wide open – loving others – looking for the moments of joy and happiness when they come – and knowing that true Peace comes from following the Prince of Peace, the light in the world, wherever it may lead us.

Pastor David Lose shared this story – “When I was ordained, a retired pastor and parishioner gave me a print made from a woodcut depicting the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. What made this particular rendition distinct is that they were not alone. Instead, they were surrounded by a group of refugees, reminding us that in this story of forced flight, God-in-Christ identifies with all who have been driven from their homes by the threat of terror, all who are displaced by violence, and all who flee in fear with hopes for, but little assurance of, a better future.God is with us, even in the darkest times. And God is also for us, promising not only to accompany us through difficult times but also to bring us to the other side that, in time, we might know the fullness of joy that is life in Christ.”

Happiness can and will elude us during this season of Christmas, but Peace remains. We know that we are not alone – others are with us, physically and spiritually, during the challenges we face – both individually and as a society.

And the Christ Spirit of Peace remains with us always, and will empower us to work towards justice in the world which cries out for it, just as Rachel cried out in Ramah for her children. Peace be with you, and with the world around us. Amen.