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“You Are Light”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Matthew 5:1-16
Isaiah 49:1-7

 

Matthew 5:1-16

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Isaiah 49:1-7

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says,
“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.”

Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”


 

Isaiah is a book full of so many things.  But most often I am drawn to passages in Isaiah.  God’s commitment to justice and healing alongside God’s discipline and compassion is moving.  I get a real feel for God’s heart for the people.

The prophet has been addressing the people of Israel in their exile in Babylon.  They are a people fractured.  Hardly set-apart, they are rather smooshed in between the people and gods of a foreign land.  Their whole rhythm of life and faith has been de-railed.  Their culture and heritage is in question as some start to assimilate, others hold to their old ways rigidly, some become opportunists, others writhe in their anger and angst, and others still wither away in despair and depression.  We all respond differently to having our entire lives and worldviews uprooted, and they were no different.

So Isaiah is speaking to a people that run the gamut of emotion.  And their faith – very rooted in custom and ritual, holy sites and holy days – has lost its center.  Some are questioning everything.  Some believe God has turned on and rejected them.  The landscape of feeling and faith is messy, and Isaiah is calling them back to a God who has never forsaken or stopped loving them.  Isaiah is calling them to trust that their lives are not simply at the mercy of whomever has the mightiest army of the day, but that God is working and moving through every event.

And his message is a hard sell.

 

But he is calling them back to trust.

 

And the verses we read today mark a significant change.  Because in this chapter, Isaiah shifts from addressing the people of Israel to addressing the wider community:

“Listen you peoples from far away…” 

Isaiah goes on to speak as a representative of the people of Israel.  He describes how God has called the people from before they were even born and how God has made their mouths like a sharpened sword and their lives like a polished arrow.

Israel

This nation that has been decimated, divided, driven into exile and slavery…  This nation is a polished arrow?  This nation’s words a sharpened sword?

They hardly feel like a mighty weapon.

They feel rather pitiful.

But Isaiah is inviting them to widen their gaze.

 

If they look only on their own misfortunes and feeling of disorientation, estrangement, and dispossession, they feel rather pathetic.  Some would say they have lost the love of God altogether to be experiencing this misfortune.  They feel like they’ve failed, like everything has been in vain.  But Isaiah is inviting them to see how their lives interface with the lives of the nations.  God did not call them and prepare them just for their own people’s sake.  God’s instructions to be set apart was not because God loved them and hated others.  God indeed loved them!  But God also loved the world, and had a plan for the people of Israel, that they might become the Light of God to the world!

God says, “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.”

 

While they are focused on their own misfortunes, they are missing the entire point, because God’s will is still playing out.  God is still on the throne.  God is still working their lives for good.  And God has much higher work for this war-torn nation:  they are to bring light and salvation to the entire world! 

Isaiah invites them to widen their gaze.  The prophet invites them to trust that even this misfortune is within God’s loving hands, and that even though they feel defeated, God is in fact being glorified through them – in all the earth!

Isaiah presents a shocking re-frame of all their suffering, all their angst and pain.  For all their feelings of decimation, GOD is in control, and GOD is working through them still.

While they are the abhorred of the nations now, while they are despised and rejected ones now, while they are the slaves of rulers now,…

“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Because of God’s working in them, because of God’s choosing them, because of God’s faithfulness to them, even though they are despised and hated and enslaved now, they will be revered, they will be honored, they will be respected…because they will bring light and salvation to the ends of the earth.

 

The people of Israel are part of God’s bigger story.

The people have not been abandoned.

They have not been disinherited.

They are not forgotten – far from it!

God is weaving a tapestry of salvation and light for the whole world,

and they are at the heart of the story. 

 

 

And so, for all of you today who are feeling cut off…

For all you who feel forgotten…

For all of you who misfortune, heartache, and headache on all sides…

 

This Word is for you.

 

Like God was working through the chosen people of Israel so long ago, God is working through people all over the world, today.  And it’s bigger than the original people of Israel, for Jesus Christ has adopted us into the family of God, grafting our branches onto God’s family tree.  The family of God is no longer defined by race or nationality.  It is no longer defined merely by blood.  It is defined by God’s love, which broke down every dividing wall and fence.

God is accomplishing what God set out to do all those years ago – to spread God’s light and salvation over all the globe.

And every heart that believes and receives God’s unfathomable love is grafted onto God’s family tree, is adopted into the family.  God’s family keep growing and growing.  God’s light shines deeper and further.  God’s salvation and hope is spreading.  You and I are a part of God’s love in this world.  Like the Israelites long ago, you and I are part of God’s story of unstoppable love. 

 

So if you find trouble closing in all around…  If tears have been your food…  If you’ve lost too much, and hurt too badly, and suffered long, hear these words of Jesus from his sermon on the mount, the Message translation:

You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all.
God’s kingdom is there for the finding.

You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry.
Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal.

You’re blessed when the tears flow freely.
Joy comes with the morning.

 “Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me… You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.

 

You, dear ones, are in good company.  For God’s people through-out history have known trial and tribulation, yet none of that has de-railed God’s redemptive work, God’s light and life.  And none of that will separate us from God’s love.

 

You are loved.

God is with you.

You are light.

“Rescue by Invitation. Are You Ready?”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 3:2b-6
Malachi 3:3-7a

Luke 3:2b-6

…The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Malachi 3:3-7a

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.  Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.


 

When Isaiah made this prophesy that we hear John the Baptist later quoting, what do you imagine Isaiah thought of it?  How did he see this playing out?  All those years later when John begins quoting Isaiah in the desert, did John have a vision of what God was doing?

How did the people of Israel hear this prophesy?

 

I hear it in two ways, and I wonder what we are to take away.

First, I hear this call to each of us to prepare the way of the Lord by making the Lord’s paths strait.  In this I hear that familiar call and caution:  to be ready so I do not miss God, when God comes.  We human beings are notorious for cluttering up our hearts and lives with lessor things.  We are notorious for our mistakes and errors.  We insulate our hearts from the touch of of God, shut our ears to the voice of God, close ourselves off from the light of God simply in our stubborn willfulness to go our own way.  And the more we sin, the more we insulate ourselves apart from God.

This is the tragedy in which we find ourselves crying out to God, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!  For indeed, we need God to come and rescue us.  For we are captives to our own sin and the sins of one another.  Against all our better judgement, again and again, we find ourselves in the same spots:  broken and distracted.

 

And so the prophets Isaiah and later John both call for us to wake up to God’s presence.  For God is coming.  The Savior is coming!  And we do not want to miss out, distracted in sin, blinded by defensiveness, numb to God.

Make God’s paths strait.  Prepare the ways of God into our hearts and lives.   Be ready!

 

In the second half of this prophesy, however, I hear a shift.  Instead of hearing it as a directive to us, the listeners, I hear a shift as the prophet begins to state what will happen, what God shall do.  They say,

“Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

It is as if to say, that God is removing every kind of obstacle SO THAT all flesh shall SEE the salvation of God.   God is doing it, and the prophet speaks to this radical coming of God in which every obstacle shall be removed.

 

Do you hear the relentless love of God?  Do you sense the lengths to which God is going to so that ALL will know God’s salvation?

 

And our second scripture reading today speaks to what shall happen when Christ comes.  It speaks out this truth that none can stand on the day of our Lord – since all have sinned and fallen short – and that Christ will purify and refine us, with fire.  Christ will bear witness against all who do not fear God but rather persist in sin.

But Christ’s fire will purify us until the offerings of our lives and labors to God are presented in righteousness.

I love this verse.  Though the thought of the fire of God is a scary thought, I invite you to entertain another way of imagining it.  The image here is not a raging wildfire.  It is not a firey furnace.  No, it is the refiners fire.  It is fire for a purpose.  The object being refined is not consumed and no more.  Rather it is made more pure.  The excess is burned away.  What remains is fine and beautiful, pure and useful.  In this image, God’s fire is not to smote us from the earth, but to heal us – doing what we cannot do on our own.

And this image shows the persevering love of our God.  It is not a persevering love that tolerates evil and injustice.  It is not a perseverance that sits passively by, ignoring all that steals, kills, and destroys.  No, it is a fierce love.  It is a purifying love.  It condemns sin and evil, all that wounds and breaks.  It is a love that will not let us go and tolerates nothing less than holiness.

 

And God is making a way,

Removing every obstacle,

That ALL might know God’s rescue.

 

But our loving Lord does all this through a vulnerable, little child.

Our loving Lord does all this through a humble carpenter from the back-water town of Nazareth.

Our loving Lord does all this through the invitation, “Come, and follow me.”

 

We are invited.

Not controlled.

Not wiped out.

Not kept down.

…Invited. 

 

“Come, and follow me.” 

 

And yet another invitation comes to us in this scripture verse from Malachi:

“Return to me, and I will return to you.” 

 

God is assuring the people that GOD WILL DO IT.

God will make the paths strait and the mountains level.

God will eliminate every obstacle.

GOD will make us righteous before the throne.

GOD WILL DO IT.

 

Our job is to return.

Our job is to follow.

 

 

“Prepare ye, the way of the Lord.”

The Lord comes. 

Are you ready?