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Epiphany 5 B

Returning the Call
(Isaiah 40:21-31)

by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones
 

For the past three weeks the Scripture texts have taken us
deep into a rich Biblical tradition concerning God’s
profligate propensity for calling anyone and everyone
into participation in Kingdom building, Dream weaving,
responding to the world’s great needs with our deepest joys and passions.
 
We’ve discovered that God’s call comes to all of us,
that we were made to be called into partnership with this world-mending God,
we’ve discovered that God’s Dream is often bigger than ours,
that call sometimes takes us places we would never have chosen by ourselves,
that God’s call into world-mending partnership outlives us
because it’s an eternal call which invites us individually and collectively
into a multi-generational, global community of response to
and partnership with God’s Love for the world.
 
To a large degree we’ve focussed our attention these past weeks on God as the caller.
God has your number and mine,
but the question I want to explore today is “Do we have God’s number?”
Is this calling plan of God’s one way only?
Or is God’s relationship with us
one which enables us to return the call, or even to initiate the call,
and to call forth from God precisely that which God calls forth from us
– namely to call upon God to exercise God’s deep gladness and passion
in response to the world’s great needs?
 
While today’s reading is not a ‘call narrative’ per se,
it serves us well enough as a text through which to explore the question.
In fact it takes us quite deeply into it.
 
Let’s remind ourselves again of the context of this passage from second Isaiah.
The once proud, independent, powerful united Israel of David has fractured in two,
and the northern Kingdom, Israel,
has completely been obliterated by the Assyrian invaders,
and now the remnant Judah,
with its bastion fortress city of Jerusalem
has been pounded to dust by a new power, Babylon.
“By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Jerusalem”
is a song of lament composed by these same people carted off ,
exiled and enslaved by this empire.
 
Now, I know the facts of that history,
but I have no clue what that must feel like, to be in exile.
– to have my home burned to the ground, my babies slaughtered, my daughters raped, my sons chained to carts like oxen until they die in the dust.
I don’t know what happens to the soul when
my language, my religion, my hopes and dreams are forcibly forbidden.
But this text gives us a glimpse, refracted window into the desolate soul of a slave people.
Notions of a mighty, beneficent Deity must now seem cruelly ridiculous.
“If such a God exists, why are we in chains?” they say.
“If such a God exists, why are we suffering relentlessly?
Better to give up on God altogether, to “curse God and die” ( to quote Job’s wife),
because our God, Yahweh, if he ever existed, is left behind miles away.
He cannot hear.
There’s no point in calling.
 
This people of Second Isaiah had given up on God, on hope.
Into this despair and abandoned faith
this poet weaves words of such exuberant eloquence, doxology we call it,
that I have to wonder if they laughed at them.
“Who is this romantic idealist, and what God is he speaking of?
Pretty poetry, young Isaiah, but it doesn’t feed an aching belly,
much less a starving soul.”
 
Not surprising that he repeats himself at least four times in the opening stanza:
“Have you not known, have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning,
have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
(Well, patently not. And for good reason they have indeed forgotten).
We would too.
Surrounded on all sides with evidence to the contrary, then and now,
the message of a God capable of mending the world seems
outrageous, far out, far-fetched, outmoded.
If you want to survive the world, keep quiet, and work hard,
depend on no-one but yourself.
Give up on God, throw away the number.
God has disregarded our plight. There’s no point in calling.
 
But, there’s something God-made about the human heart, the soul, the mind, the spirit,
that is “restless until it finds its home in God” (Augustine).
Even more restless is the soul of one who is looking to find
a way through chaos to some sort of redemption
– the parent or child longing for healing for a sick family member,
– the social activist searching for a path through to justice.
 
This restless soul is what Isaiah is appealing to in his original hearers and in us.
 
That no matter what we deal with in this life,
plenty or poverty,
strength or weakness,
even if we are subject to the tyrannies of our modern-day Babylons,
we are part of something vast, and everlasting.
 
We need someone periodically to smack us up the side of the head and say
Have you not remembered? Look up, look around? Can’t you see?
There is something bigger than Babylon, or Rome, or the British or the American empires,
bigger than capitalism, democracy, fascism, communism,
stronger than pain, more lovely than love, more constant than hate,
defiant to all despair.
Whatever name you call this Divine Creative Being,
this Great Thou, this Infinite Heart,
says our poet, call upon it, him, her, God.
Call.
 
Because, says our poet,
God, more lasting than the oceans,
infinitely more vast than the universe,
“gives power to the faint..
strengthens the powerless.”
There are times when we count ourselves in that number,
but there are also times when we find ourselves calling on God
for the sake of others who are flailing, weak, powerless.
 
If you ever fear that God has forgotten you, or this world,
or that you or we are somehow not worthy,
or that God doesn’t hear, or is powerless to respond,
please remember this poet’s soaring promise:
 
When you call on God,
then God reaches into the muck, the mess,
the pains, the troubles, the exiles of body and soul,
and yes, even into the muscle-bound power broking politics of our world,
to lift up the faint, the weary, the powerless,
and to cast them like soaring eagles onto the breath of dawn.

 

© Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones Feb 2012.

 

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