Filed under: Sermons
As a child, the thing that most terrified me were thunderstorms and tornadoes. They were the epitome of destructive power beyond my control. I’d be ready to grab a blanket and hunker down in the basement at the first warning beep through the radio or TV. I’d want to close my eyes and pray that nothing bad would happen. So far, I’ve been lucky.
Have you ever seen a town after a tornado? Or a flood? Or a fire? Maybe you’ve walked where the path of destruction cut through homes and businesses?
(image by Laura Griffith http://www.freeimages.com/photo/tornado-1245789)
I can’t recall walking through recent devastating damage. I’ve seen plenty of pictures, but I’ve never had to stand in a driveway and look at the collapse of someone’s entire world, a home turned to a heap of ruble, a bustling downtown razed to the ground.
The Israelites, God’s chosen people, are not a people who have a sustained, independent kingdom for long. The Old Testament contains plenty of stories of victory as the Israelites enter the Promised Land, but once the reign of kings is in place, it does not take many generations before there is a division, a collapse, and the kingdoms are conquered.
The part of Isaiah we read this morning is written after the Israelites have been conquered. They have watched their temple destroyed. Many of the important people and leaders were taken away into exile in Babylon so that the empire could place its own chosen rulers in power. They are a people broken and defeated.
Their homeland is a place of desolation. The way the Babylonian Empire did things, they would destroy places of power and disperse the powerful so that they could set up their own power while receiving goods and taxes from the ongoing production of the communities and farmland. So the Temple, where the God who sustained and protected the people dwelt, is destroyed, because this conquering empire wouldn’t want the people to have hope that their God might still be powerful enough to save them. The kings and the prophets are killed or captured, brought far away, so that they cannot rally those who remain to rise up and fight. The writings of this time tell the story of a people taken away from their homeland, trying to remember who they are and cling to their identity and their God even while being pulled to assimilate with the culture around them. When a new Persian empire rises and defeats Babylon, God’s people see this as God’s saving action. They are able to return to their homeland. But it is not the same homeland they remember at its height. It is a place of destruction, rubble overgrown with recent growth.
The thing is, the destruction itself is not all so recent. It’s about fifty years that people are in captivity in Babylon. But the people who remained in the Promised Land haven’t been able to completely restore things.
It might be more like what I’ve seen, years after damage, when you know something isn’t right with the scenery, but can’t quite put your finger on what it is. I visited a college campus a year or so after a tornado swept through. All the buildings and landscaping looked pretty enough. But there was something strange feeling about all the green space. It wasn’t until later, when someone told me about the tornado, that I realized what it was- all the trees were saplings, there were no great oaks under which to study. All you could see was the beginning of new life, so fragile and young, covering up the stumps and scars of the damage.
Many of us live in homes and communities that look safe and secure. But we may carry the scars of destructions in our hearts and minds. Those are less easy for people to see, and sometimes less easy for people to understand or know what to do about. Most disappointments won’t be fixed with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, breakups aren’t healed with a night on the town, and grief doesn’t stop when the sympathy cards do.
Other people may not know the hurt your carry, but God does. Our God doesn’t shy away from suffering. God doesn’t need you to heal any faster than you’re able to.
When you grieve a loved one, most people will give you a timeline; they think you should keep your grieving to a set schedule. For a few weeks, maybe months, people will be understanding if you suddenly cry or you feel down. But eventually, people start to forget, they expect you to move on, and they feel awkward when you’re still suffering.
It’s like it’s up to the grieving or hurting person to do what’s most comfortable for everyone else, so you’re told to keep smiling or to get over it.
Faith isn’t about being happy all the time. God makes holy your times of sadness by being willing to be with you in grief and struggle, for as long as you are there. God continued to sustain the laments of the people of Israel for generations, even as God also gave them songs of hope and visions of a new future.
Because we have a God who does not shy away from suffering, even to the point of entering that suffering fully by dying on the cross, we can also accept the God who creates joy, with greater abundance than we could hope for. Because God does not cover up sadness or gloss over grief, the joy God gives is likewise not only at the surface level, but goes deep. It is real, not another mask to put on.
God gives you God’s full presence in the midst of struggle, and God gives you an overflowing measure of joy.
God promises the Israelites joy, even as they are struck by the destruction before them and wonder how life could ever regain its color and vibrancy again.
God provides the wedding guests joy, creating high quality wine in ridiculous quantities. This is the first of Jesus’ signs in the Gospel of John. The story opens with the detail about it being the third day. The third day is a sign of the resurrection, when death will be transformed into the portal to greater life. The wedding and Jesus’ rising are tied as Jesus’ work is shown to be about gladness, abundance, and lavish giving so that all might have joy.
God raises the dead into life, finally stomping out all pain. The surest fact of life, that it will end, is destroyed by the power of the life that we are given. This life from God is so much that it cannot be contained in our span of life, but draws us ever forward into eternity.
As we gather in worship, we are given an opportunity to receive this joy God creates out of and in the midst of suffering. This central experience happens when we celebrate communion. When we come to the communion table, we come to a feast. Here at Cross, we just finished a yearlong study of Holy Communion. As we went around our group, sharing what Communion means to us, forgiveness of sins was the most common answer. That’s a fine answer. But it isn’t all. This is a feast of joy, meant for all people.
There are two tables around which my understanding of communion was formed. The first was at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Racine. This was a mission church, a small church, in which everyone was important and necessary. Every Sunday, we stood up and gathered around the table, and we really gathered around it. We wouldn’t all fit at once, but the circular shape and continuous serving helped us practice the open and ongoing nature of God’s invitation to the table. We were all invited and we would all need to return again and again to receive this gift of life, this gift of joy.
The second was the larger circle of the table at St. Olaf College. As my home church also had, this table showed me the continuous welcome of Jesus. The table was set with a huge, fresh and fragrant round loaf, and as communion was served, wine was ever ready in full pitchers. There was always more than enough of the really good stuff. Overflowing feast, open welcome, abundant joy.
When I hold up the bread above your outstretched hands, and meet your eyes, what will I see there?
It’s not often I see a smile.
Usually, if anyone comes to the table smiling, it’s the children. Sometimes my heart is broken because it’s the children who won’t be welcomed who are the ones who are most eager and excited to come to the table. They know what it is to be a part of what everyone else is doing, they know what it is to open their hands and ask for something long before they can vocalize their desire, and they look forward to the feast. What happens that so many of us lose this joyful eagerness as we grow older?
When we come to this table, sometimes kneeling, we place ourselves in a downcast position. Certainly, we do come to the table undeserving of the gift we are about to receive. There is a place for recognizing our sin, our brokenness, our inability to do it all on our own. But there should be a turning moment, when you recognize that this gift really is for you, and it is given to you out of God’s great love, so that you might grow in joy. “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you”- this is good news of Jesus’ great love for you, the you that you bring up to the table: faults, failures and all.
Here at worship, we practice joy. It is true joy that doesn’t come out of pretending we are happy, but that acknowledges our suffering and our brokenness with hope that it will be transformed.
We do not need to cower in fear or give up in the midst of destruction. Our God is with us in suffering, empowers us to hope, and brings us to a new future full of joy. As the Israelites looked forward to rebuilding the temple, as Jesus transformed the water into delicious wine, as God comes to us today at Jesus’ table, God provides the means for our abundant joy.
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