Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

A prayer based on Isaiah 65 and Luke 21

Source of Life,
Source of our lives:
You are the one who makes new futures where none seem possible;
You open a path forward when all we can see are blocked roads.
Your prophets speak hope into our imaginations —
hope for a time of peace;
hope for a time of justice;
hope for joy and delight in the streets of the city.

It sounds like such good news
but you know the ways that we resist
the changes that you bring.

We are afraid of your new futures
that are not in our control.
We find it hard to let go
of the familiar and the comfortable,
the places of privilege we have carved out for ourselves.

Your newness is different than what we had planned.
Yet, we yearn for the life that your presence brings.
Our spirits wither without your breath.

So, speak your world-transforming words
into our hearts and imaginations again.
And send Your Holy Spirit to breathe into us
so that we see You at work.
And seeing You,
we are ready to let go and to take up
and to be your people
even in this newness.

We pray in the name of Jesus
who promised us both trouble
and words and wisdom sufficient for the time.

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A prayer based on Isaiah 42

Justice-bringing God,
Isaiah told us that far-flung ocean islands
wait expectantly for the teaching of your servant.
We wait expectantly too.

Teach us, Spirit-bathed Son of God:
teach us to hear you
though your voice is so easily drowned out
by the roar of nations at war,
by the babel of twenty-four hour news,
by the confusion in our own minds.

Teach us by your attention
to those who are bruised and hurt;
to those who are small and insignificant.

Teach us by your perseverance and steadfast commitment
to the truth of God,
no matter what the cost.

Teach us, Word of God
who has called us into God’s mission.
Teach us what we need to learn
in the cries of the poor in our city;
in the longings and hopes of your children
in distant nations;
in the words of those who speak truth in dangerous places.

We thank you for those who serve you
with deeds and words of justice and hope.
This morning, we thank you especially for the work
that Mary has done in your name among the people of Japan and Korea.

As we share a meal together
and as we hear more about her work,
open our ears to hear what you hear,
open our eyes to see what you see,
open our hearts to break at the the things that are breaking your heart.

Then, show us what work you have given us to do,
in this time,
in this place,
in the company of these people
who are called by your name.
And showing it to us,
bathe us also with your Spirit,
that we may love in the way that you love us,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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It is almost commonplace to acknowledge that it is a difficult time to be the church. The previous ways in which we functioned as the church are inadequate to the challenges that now confront us. We can feel like the disciples did in Mark 6 when Jesus had sent them out onto the lake late at night and they found themselves in the midst of a brutal storm, rowing as hard as they could just to stay in the same place. We want Jesus to come walking across the sea of all the forces arrayed against us. We want him to say, “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Then, we want him to get into the boat with us and to command the winds to cease. We would love to be utterly astounded by the calming of the sea and the presence of Jesus in our midst.

However, when it is not readily apparent that Jesus is on the premises or that the storms are going to cease any time soon, congregations can displace their hopes and longings onto their minister. They want the minister to lead the congregation in ways that will bring renewed vitality, increased attendance in worship and a balanced budget.

We clergy can easily get pulled into those hopes. Many of us went into ministry wanting to do something great for God. We wanted to make a good and positive difference in the world and in the church. We look for some holy task on which we can expend our devotion and courage and gratitude. A congregation calls us and we jump into the boat, joining in rowing hard against the storm.

We want Jesus to show up with a miracle. It doesn’t have to be a ‘walking on water’ kind of miracle. We would be satisfied with something we can point to and say, “Look, the Lord is blessing the work we’re doing.” What we get is a Saviour who seems appallingly unconcerned about such things. Instead, this Saviour summons us into a very different future.

All those things by which we have measured success — attendance, programmes, balanced budgets — are no longer decisive or critical for being the church on mission to the next generation. What is critical and decisive is God declaring, “I have called you by name. You are mine…You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.” What is decisive is that God is summoning us to bear witness to that truth in people’s lives — especially in those places where structures and systems treat people as less than precious, or honoured, or loved.
God summoned the people of Israel to witness to God’s declaration when they were a confused, struggling community of faith, living in exile. They were seemingly without hope against the overwhelming might of Babylon. Israel was summoned to witness to the truth of God’s steadfast love not because she had been particularly ‘successful’, but because God had turned to them in love, and because God’s word had been given to them, and because ours is a God who is able to create new futures where none seem possible.

Tomorrow I get to declare such gracious words upon four people who will be baptized. As I do so, I know that we shall be gathered as a community that is struggling to find its way into God’s new, but unclear, future. Then again, perhaps there is never an easy time to be the church. Each age brings with it its own challenges. We find God’s gift in such challenges when they force us to turn again to God. The promise is that “those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall rise up on wings, as eagles. They shall run, and not grow weary. They shall walk and not faint.” This is a time for leaning into those promises instead of trying to find our own way through the storm.

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A prayer based on Isaiah 6 and Luke 5

We pray to you, Lord Jesus Christ,
speaker of the Word of God.
Your words
touch the deep places of our souls —
places where we have laboured and come up empty
places where the hunger for holiness
waits for the feast of your promises kept
places where our fears make us small and timid.
Speak hope into our emptiness
and help us hear and believe
Speak truth into our sinfulness
and purify us with your great mercy
Speak love into our woundedness
and heal us.
Catch us in the net of your holy purposes
for our lives, for this city, for the world.
We pray to you, Word of God,
Word of Life,
Word of new beginnings,
LORD. Amen

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“God’s Highway”

A sermon preached by the Rev. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, on December 6, 2009

Scriptures: Isaiah 40:1-9; Psalm 13; Mark 1: 1-8

A few months ago, I told you about a video clip on YouTube which features part of a talk given by the Roman Catholic priest and author Brennan Manning. I was reminded of it this week as I thought about the great love from God that comes to us in the birth of Jesus and about how we prepare ourselves to receive that love into our lives during the season of Advent. This is what Manning says:
“In the forty-eight years since I was first ambushed by Jesus in a little chapel in the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania, and then, in the literally thousands of hours of prayer and meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on Judgement Day, the Lord Jesus is going to ask us one question and only one question: ‘Did you know that I loved you? that I desired you? that I waited for you day after day? that I longed to hear the sound of your voice?’”
At the end of the clip, Manning asks us if we dare to trust that love. Every moment of your life is planted deeply in the love of God. Every part of who you are, what you do, what happens to you, is held in the heart of God. Nothing in all creation could ever separate you from the love. Do you believe that? Dare you trust it?
God asks us that question in all our experiences of living in this world. We give answer to that question at various levels. We learn to answer it at deep levels when we face the loss of people or things that are dear to us.
Loss is difficult at any time. It can be especially difficult at Christmas when there is so much excitement and anticipation. The expectation is that everyone will find this ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’
We have made available some resources for dealing with those expectations when you are grieving the loss of someone you love. They contain suggestions that you may find helpful in getting through the season. It is important to search out such resources because the experience of loss destabilizes us. It takes away the supports we had been counting on to keep going.
“Loss” does not just include the death of someone you love, although that is certainly one of the most significant losses with which people deal. However, other losses can also disorient you — declining health so that you cannot accomplish as much as you once did; the loss of a job that gave you much of your identity; reaching the stage of life where you become acutely aware of opportunities that have passed you by and that you will never be able to get back. All those personal losses get set within the larger context of our time in which there is a pervading sense that one age is dying and another is still struggling to be born. Much of what we have worked for and much of what we cherish is being lost in the process.
The experience of loss can be much like that of the Achilpas — a nomadic tribe in Australia that was described by the cultural anthropologist Mircea Eliade. According to the creation myth of this tribe, their god, Numbakula, made the heavens and the earth. When he was finished, he cut down a gum tree, anointed it with blood, and placed it between the heavens and the earth. Then, he climbed the pole and disappeared into the sky. Following the legend, the Achilpas made their own gum-tree pole. As the tribe wandered from place to place, they chose their direction according to the bend at the end of the pole. No matter where they went, as long as the pole was in their midst, they felt secure in the world. Their lives had direction. One day, however, a tragic accident happened and the sacred pole broke. The entire tribe was thrown into anxious despair. The people wandered aimlessly for a while, but eventually, they just lay down on the ground and waited for the sky to come crashing down. (Craig Barnes tells this story in his book, Yearning: Living Between How it is and How it Ought to Be, p. 19)

We all have some Achilpa pole that helps us get through life. It gives us direction. It provides as sense of security and comfort. When that pole breaks, it can feel as if the whole world has crashed. It can feel as if we have lost the centre that held everything together.

Isaiah 40 comes from a time when the people of Israel had lost their bearings. One hundred and fifty years earlier, the Babylonians had invaded Israel. They had destroyed the Temple, the centre of Israel’s life. They had taken the governing and business class leaders into exile. The Israelites found themselves in a place where they did not want to be. They were far from home and without any real power to change things. For some of them, these losses were followed by a loss of faith in God. As time went by and God did not rescue them, they began to doubt that God cared about them, or that God even remembered them. Worse than that, if God did care and remember, perhaps God was unable to do anything that would make a difference. Perhaps the Babylonians were just too powerful.

Into that emptiness, Isaiah spoke: “Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Then, Isaiah takes us into what seems to be divine council chambers. We hear God commissioning a messenger to thunder in the desert, “Prepare for God’s arrival!” The God who had seemed so absent and powerful was now on His way. God was about to act on Israel’s behalf. The people were to get ready to welcome God.

The messenger is skeptical. He knows how transient human life is. “What am I going to shout?” he asks. “That people are nothing but grass that withers? That their love is as fragile as wildflowers? What’s the use?”

The response he gets from God is a peculiar promise. “The valleys shall be lifted up. The mountains and hills shall be made low. The uneven ground shall be made even. Then, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” God is on the move and that means that new possibilities are emerging. Those new possibilities do not depend on whether or not the people of Israel are able to do the right things. They do not depend on whether or not powerful Babylon will cooperate. God is constructing a highway so that God can get to God’s people. That decision changes everything. New life is coming.

There are some things that we can do for ourselves that help us get through times of loss. Then, there are times when we cannot do any more. Our work in those times is to wait for God to come to us. Most of us are not very good at waiting. We like to take charge. We like to be in control. We want to do something that will make a difference. We are better at grasping than at waiting.

However, waiting is also an essential part of living in faith. The promise we are given is that our waiting is not just an empty space. It is not just a waste of time. In that time of waiting, God is still holding us in God’s love. Somehow, this God who loves us is at work in hidden ways, working all things together for good (Romans 8:28). We might not be sure what God is up to, but we can choose to believe that, whatever is happening, it is permeated through and through with God’s love for us and God’s holy purposes for our lives.

Several years ago, Ben Weir was a missionary in Lebanon. One day, he was kidnapped near his home in Beirut. He was stuffed into the trunk of a car and driven away. The next morning when he woke up, he was blindfolded. He was chained to a radiator in what seemed to be a very small room. This was the beginning of 16 months of captivity. That morning he began to do something that he repeated often throughout those sixteen months. He practiced remembering who he was. He would say to himself, “I am the same person. I am a child and missionary of the same God. I am the husband of the same wife, the father of the same children, the professor to the same students…I am the same person I was yesterday. I was not a captive then. Today I am. But that is the only thing that is different.” (This story was told by Mark Labberton in The Dangerous Act of Worship, p. 88) That assurance that his identity was determined by God in Christ, not by his captors, helped him through.

The Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, used to wake up every morning and trace the sign of the cross on his forehead. He would say, “I am a baptized person.” Whatever happened that day, whatever challenges he faced, he knew that nothing could change God’s love for him. Whatever the powers that opposed him tried to do to him, they were not more powerful than the God whom he served. Luther lived each day by the promise of God.

The promise of Advent is this: the God who loves you with unimaginable love is building a highway into your life. There is more going on than you know. Somehow this powerful love is working God’s purposes in your life, giving it direction, leading you into deeper communion with God.

The invitation of Advent is to trust that promise given by the One whose ‘Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

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How Long, O Lord

A sermon preached by the Rev. Christine Jerrett on November 30, 2009, at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario.

Scriptures: Isaiah 64: 1-9; Psalm 13

Blaise Pascal was a mathematical genius who lived in France in the seventeenth century. Among other things, he invented an early digital calculator and the syringe. Late in the evening of November 23, 1654, he had a profound, life-changing experience of the presence of God. When he died eight years later, a servant who was sorting through his clothes found a piece of paper that had been sewn in the lining of his jacket. On the paper, he had written a description of his experience:

“…From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve
God of Abraham, God of Jacob, God of Isaac, not of the philosophers and scholars…
Assurance. Assurance. Feeling. Joy. Peace…
God of Jesus Christ…
Joy, joy, joy, tears of Joy.”

We are a community in whose midst there are people who have had such a profound, intimate, immediate experience of the living God that it changes their whole lives. It reaches into every future experience they have. Whatever life sends them, both the good and the painful, they know that God is there for them. God is holding them up, guiding them even in the darkness. God is ‘working all things together for good’ (Romans 8: 28), even if they cannot perceive how that is possible.

Those kinds of experiences do not come to all of us, but we worship a God who does make Himself known to people like us. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob does not remain distant from us. Our God is not remote, unconcerned about our lives.

Indeed, during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, we speak and sing about Jesus being Emmanuel, which means God-with-us. “God’s word became flesh and dwelt among us,” writes John in his gospel. (John 1:14) “He moved into the neighborhood,” is the way Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message. Ours is a living God who intrudes into people’s lives — not just in the past, but here and now, in our present time as well.

We witness to that conviction in every worship service. We take a book that is filled with ancient words. Someone reads some of those words and then says, “The word of the Lord.” The congregation replies, “Thanks be to God.” In doing this, we are not just saying that God spoke to some people long ago and, since we find some good moral principles in them that we can apply to our lives, we are reading the words again. We are saying that we have set ourselves before these words expecting to hear a fresh word from God — a word that God will speak into our lives and into our world. A word for our time. “Is there a word from the Lord?” is the weekly cry of God’s people.

I do not know why, but, much of the time, God does not yield up such fresh words easily or casually. Recently, I was listening to a podcast (which I cannot find now) of William Willimon speaking to a gathering of preachers. He talked about how hard it is to take these ancient words and to hear in them a new word from God to give to God’s people every Sunday. We wrestle with the scriptures all week long. Yet, on how many Saturday nights have those words mocked us, saying, “Just try to preach me.” Everyone in the room laughed because they had all been there more than once.

This doesn’t just happen to preachers who need a word from the Lord for Sunday sermons. Every person of faith, at some point, craves fresh words from the mouth of God and all he or she hears is silence. The experience is so common that there is a phrase for it. St. John of the Cross called it ‘the dark night of the soul’. ‘The dark night of the soul’ describes those times when you experience God being silent or absent or hidden. Those are the times when your prayers seem to go no higher than the ceiling above your head, and all you know is the ache in your heart. Or, you have been through some event so shattering or painful, that you are driven to ask deep, difficult questions, and you discover that there are no answers. It is not just that there are no answers that satisfy. It is that there are no answers at all.

In today’s First Testament passage, Isaiah prays his way through an experience where God is silent. It has been a long time since God has done the kinds of mighty deeds that are told in the community’s stories. Isaiah notes that God’s absence is having a devastating effect — not just in people’s spiritual lives, but also in his society’s public life. People have grown weary and discouraged. They are feeling hopeless and overwhelmed by the challenges they face. They have given up even trying to listen to God. They have abandoned the hard, patient work of waiting on God. They have stopped wrestling with God for a word that will give their lives hope and direction. Instead, they are chasing after cheap substitutes. They are seeking out gods who are more readily available. They want gods who are accessible, who will promise to meet their needs and fit their agendas.

As a result, says Isaiah, they are spending their lives in trivial pursuits. They are giving themselves to such unsubstantial passions that they have “faded like a leaf, blown about by the wind.” Isaiah cries out in desperation, “Tear open the heavens, O God, and come down! Come with such unmistakeable power that even the mountains will tremble and melt. Come with fire, the kind of fire that makes pots boil.”

Have you ever prayed such a prayer? I find myself praying it more and more. I watch people, who have spent their whole lives in the Church, wander into all sort of strange spiritualities, searching for something bigger than their own lives. I listen to the challenges facing people who work in our health care systems and educational systems and social welfare systems and hear them overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of those challenges as societal supports disintegrate and collapse. I watch the effects of climate change and hear government leaders struggle to come to any kind of agreement around the issues. Then, I pray, “God, won’t you tear open the heavens and come down. We could use a few really impressive miracles here. Could you open minds and hearts to the treasures that are in the scriptures but that seem so obscure that most of Your people miss them? We could use an experience or two in our midst of Fire, of the ‘God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, not the god of the philosophers and scholars’. We could use assurance, and peace and joy, God of Jesus Christ.”

Like Isaiah, I tell God, “Until You do that, people are not going to change. They are not going to pay attention to your Way. We shall not turn and be saved, ‘for You have hidden Your face from us’”.

There is a recurring theme running through the scriptures that God waits in silence until we have made such a mess of things on our own, until the ache in our hearts grows so insistent, that we finally turn away from our busyness and our distractions and our lesser gods and reach out for Him.

“Tear open the heavens and come down.” I pray that prayer, but I am not sure that I really want that prayer answered. Every time God shows up in the Bible, God disrupts things. God turns everything upside down. God expects people to change. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” writes the author of the letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 10:31). I suspect that he was speaking from personal experience.

I am not sure that I want the prayer answered, but I keep praying it. It is the only hope we have. We pray it during Advent in order to train our hearts and minds and eyes to receive God’s answer when it comes in the quiet birth of a baby born in a stable.

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