FIRST LESSON: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Chapter 1 of the book we know of as Isaiah is made up of a series of small oracles, possibly coming from the prophet we have come to know as Isaiah, who prophesied in the last third of the 8th century BC in and around Jerusalem. At that time, the Assyrian empire, centered on the Tigris River far to the north east, was on the rise and presented a major threat to the peace and well-being of small countries on the Mediterranean coast like Judah and Israel. Early in Isaiah’s career, about 734 BC, he had advised the then king of Jerusalem, Ahaz, on this political problem. Judah’s neighbors to the north, Israel and Aram wanted to resist the Assyrians. Ahaz weighed up this risky strategy with the equally risky one of submitting to the Assyrians. Either strategy could cost his land and his people dearly. On the one hand he could find himself in conflict with his neighbors, and on the other, with the mighty Assyria.
The oracles in Isaiah 1 would seem, however, to come from the very last years of Isaiah’s prophetic work, around 701 BC, when a more faithful king, Hezekiah, is on the throne. The theme is one of judgment on a disobedient people. The Lord has brought up the people like children. And, yet, they do not seem to grasp the covenant. It’s not that they didn’t understand its intellectual meaning. It’s that they did not have a sense of themselves in it. They had forgotten to whom they belonged. But for the prophet Isaiah, judgment and hope are linked. This word of judgment that is handed down to these covenant-forgetting people is also one of hope.
Isaiah calls them to hear the word of the Lord, the teaching (torah) of their God—not just read it but hear it, digest it, make it part of you. The prophet is telling the people to start paying attention to who they are and who they are supposed to be. And this is not just calling for the removal of bad practices, but also pointing to those religious practices that have perhaps become excessive and no longer resonate with who God is and who God calls the people to be.
You can read this as a calling not to be religious people, but to be faithful. And being faithful is about living a life of justice and mercy and compassion for others. It is about rescuing and defending, about being advocates for those who cannot speak for themselves. It is about getting out of yourself and becoming who God calls you to be. The prophet is demanding what is essentially a new reality for the people. It is a call to perhaps admit that we need help, that we need God, that we need a reminder every now and then of who we are and who we should be.
But lest you think this is some sort of colossal game of hide and seek, the hiddenness of God is what draws us in, compels us to move, to change, to follow. If God were obvious, all we’d need is religion to show off to this obvious God. But a hidden God? Now THAT requires real faith. Maybe that’s the whole point.
I love the line in this passage about arguing. You can just hear God. God has had it. “Fine,” God says, “go ahead, argue all you want. You’re going to lose. You’re wrong. You’re so wrapped up in your frenzy of religion and tradition that you have forgotten what it’s about. So, let’s argue. Let’s look at all sides. Hmmm! Sacrifices and perfect worship versus lives of justice and mercy and love…high holy days versus inviting everyone in…meetings versus relationships. Yep, thought so…I win!” (And that means you do too!) Because God wants the best for God’s people. And God wants God’s people to want the best for each other. You see judgment is brimming over with hope!
- What is your response to this passage?
- What is your image of “judgment” or of a “judging God”?
- Why do we shy away from the idea of “judgment”?
- In what ways is judgment a sign of hope?
NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16
Frederick Buechner says that “faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.” Faith is knowing that all the madness of this world will not be the last thing standing. Now keep in mind that this letter was to a faith community that was struggling. It’s hard for us to fully imagine, but their lives were filled with persecution. But the writer reminds them that this suffering is but temporary. The writer is not belittling their suffering; just promising that it would not last.
Now we don’t really know who the writer of Hebrews is. Third century theologian, Origen said that “only God knows” who wrote Hebrews. When you think about it, that’s actually pretty appropriate. The passage reminds us that there is an unseen reality that is greater and beyond where we are. It acknowledges that life is sometimes hard. In fact, that life can sometimes seem almost unbearable. Sometimes our lives just don’t seem to “fit”. We seem to be strangers in a strange land. But we are reminded to look beyond. That is faith. There is always something more, always something beyond what we can see and feel and touch, always beyond even what we know. This is not just looking beyond our sufferings. It is not just looking on the “bright side” of life. It is knowing that there is something more. It is hope.
And we are reminded that we are not the first ones to walk this walk. Those that came before us have walked the same road. We both follow them and journey with them. And this is more than just hoping against hope that things will look up. It is knowing that there is something beyond this. It is not a calling to be superhuman. Life happens. We will grieve; we will suffer; we will wander aimlessly. But trust. Trust that God is there. And dare to hope beyond the hopeless, know beyond the unknown, and see beyond the visible.
The end of this passage speaks of a new homeland. It is that vision of the New Jerusalem. I hesitate to think of it as a “place” but rather a new way of being. Because if it was a place, we would have to wait until we arrive. But a new way can seemingly seep into your life when you let it. That vision of God is already here for the taking—or at least the believing. We’re not just waiting for things to improve; we’re actually letting ourselves believe that this new reality has already begun to emerge. And faith is not blindly following but is itself a new way of seeing this new reality even as it comes to be.
On some level, we live in a world that trains us as skeptics. Now that’s not all bad. Questioning and, for that matter, even arguing with God is what gives us a chance to grow. Faith is not about just accepting something that makes no sense. That’s what the Marxists would call the “opium of the people”; instead, faith is about living a life that is filled more and more with meaning, a life that doesn’t just believe in this new vision, this new reality, but believes it into being. C.S. Lewis once said that “it is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one.” Perhaps faith means that we quit pursuing a dream of glorified self-improvement and begin to see ourselves in this new way of living that is both already and not yet. Because what fits into that way of being is what we’ve dreamed of all along.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does “tradition” mean to you?
- What does “faith” mean to you?
- What does it mean to you to “carry on”?
GOSPEL: Luke 12:32-40
Read the passage from the Gospel According to Luke
Do not be afraid…sell your possessions…get ready…stay alert. Well, that’s enough to stress anyone out! And yet, we are told not to be fearful and anxious. But that is the stuff that our society and our economy is made of! I mean, really, without fear and anxiety, where would we be? What would the stock market do then? What would the newscasters talk about? Who would buy insurance? And, sadly, how would some of our churches sustain their attendance? And, besides, if we quit worrying, we would lose the last bit of control that we actually have! But Jesus tells us not to be afraid, not to worry. Rather, we are to pay attention and stay tuned for what comes next.
Now, of course, there are gobs and gobs of things that are based on the idea that if we’re not good little boys and girls, God will come and take only the good ones and the rest will be left behind. Truthfully, that’s just bad theology. God is not picking and choosing who gets to go live with God and who doesn’t based on our spiritual resume. God is just calling us to be ready, to pay attention so that we don’t miss what God is offering us. After all, God is always and forever dropping into our life unexpectedly—if we’ll only pay attention. God just doesn’t want us to miss the life that is envisioned for us.
This passage comes right after the Parable of the Rich Fool that we read last week. So, now that you know that you don’t need all this stuff to survive, Jesus tells his hearers to let go of their worry and to focus on what is important. In other words, shift your treasure toward God. And if that is your treasure, then what is there to worry about? I don’t think it’s about staying alert, staying focused as you wait for God. I think it’s saying that staying alert, staying focused is the WAY you realize God’s Presence that is right there with you now. In other words, the unexpected hour is now, whether or not you expect it. God is offering home. It is where we belong.
Now notice that Jesus doesn’t say to sell ALL of your possessions. He doesn’t say to give everything away as alms. He really is just saying to pay attention, to shift one’s priorities from worrying about money and stuff and what’s going to happen with our life to realizing that God is offering us life itself. Keep the lamp burning. Keep the vision before you. We’ve been handed a Kingdom. You just have to open your eyes to see it. Don’t worry. It’s there. It is God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. God WANTS to do this, wants to with every essence of the heart of the Divine. Shhhh! Quit worrying. It’s already here! You don’t have to earn it. You don’t have to be someone you’re not. You just have to be. So why are you worrying? So, maybe worrying is the last of the stuff that we need to get rid of.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What is your image of the Kingdom of God?
- What “alternative” to what we know could you imagine?
- What does worry and fear play in your life?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible. (William James, 19th century)
The opposite of faith is not doubt; it’s indifference. (Elie Wiesel)
Faith is taking the first step when you don’t see the whole staircase. (Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century)
God of Revelation and Mystery, You have opened the door of Your mystery and invited us to enter and explore. Open us to your guidance and give us the faith to follow You with the passionate expectation of the wonder you will reveal and the mystery that you hold that forms and feeds our faith. In the Name of the One who opened the door and showed us the way. Amen. (S. Williams)