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Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany February 8, 2015

I was driving down I-95 recently and I got lost. I’ve driven that road countless times, but I got off on the wrong exit. I was stunned to find myself looking for a place to ask directions to get back on. I am directionally challenged, and I always leave extra time from the Mapquest suggestions to get lost, but this time I hadn’t because it seemed so obvious and I arrived late.

Last month, I forgot to pay my bills. I just didn’t get to it. I found myself one night calling companies frantically to see if I could pay over the phone to avoid interest charges. If I don’t make lists things slip from my mind, and they do anyway. It is a common human condition – forgetfulness.

The Israelites have forgotten too. They have forgotten who God is and who they are. They are in exile in Babylon and despair and doubt have begun to creep in. Will they ever get home? Are the Babylonian gods greater than their God? Where is God in their plight? Has God forgotten them.

Second Isaiah, which begins with chapter 40 is repeated words of hope to the exiles that they will be released and soon. They have paid double for their sins and have served their term. Isaiah seeks a way to help the Israelites remember their God and their relationship to God by offering images of God as incomparable creator, by reminding them how God intervenes in human history and by letting them know what God will do for them.

God is infinitely more than we can know or understand, the prophet says. God has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, marked off the heavens and enclosed the dust of the earth. There is no one who came before God, no one who gave God advice, no one who taught God anything. God sent God’s spirit over the waters and the world was created by God’s Word.

Isaiah calls the Israelites to this recollection with questions: Have you not known? Have you not heard? Haven’t you known this from the beginning? Of course they have, but they have forgotten. God is the One who sits transcendent, far above the circle of the earth, so far that human beings are like grasshoppers. God has stretched out the heavens like a curtain and spread them like a tent to live in. Even God wants to know who is like God. God is not an idol, made with silver and gold and wood. God is Creator, not created. And God has power over everything because God knows their names. The Babylonians invested stars with divine powers, and God is greater than stars.

All of this talk of a transcendent God may help some people remember how great their God is, how much God has done in creation, but it may not do much for their particular plight. But wait, says Isaiah. God the omnipotent is not content with making the world and then leaving it alone, God intervenes in human history. Even though the nations are as a drop in the bucket and dust on the scales, God intervenes in their futures. The Israelites are under the oppression of Babylon and may think their rulers are so powerful they will never get out of there, but God destroys princes and brings rulers to nothing. They have just begun their power hunt when God blows on them and they are like stubble that withers. God is more powerful than the rulers they are afraid of.

The God of Israel is the one and only God, who created the earth, who gives life to everything and knows each one intimately. Even though human beings appear as grasshoppers and are ephemeral beings, withering and fading quickly, God cares for them. And God cares especially for the people of Israel, says the prophet. God will save God’s flock. God will feed them like a shepherd, This image signifies the tender care that God will take personally of the people.

Yet Israel is still questioning the presence and power of God. Their troubles are unknown to God, they say, and God does not look upon them with favor because they have not been released. But again Isaiah says, “Have you not known?” “Have you not heard?” God is tireless in God’s work for you. He does not faint or grow weary while you do. But that will soon be no more. If you wait for God with faith and hope, God will renew your strength, though you are powerless now, even your youths. You shall mount up with wings like eagles, you will no longer be weary and faint. God will do this for those who wait for him.

Through Isaiah, God calls the people to remember who they are and whose they are. They are so prone to forgetting, not only during the bad times, but during the good times, when things are going well and they forget they need God’s help. They need constant reminders of their history to remain a cohesive group – to be God’s people.

Memory is important. 250 years after the death of martyrs in Nagasaki, Japan, when the west was allowed to enter again, there were still Christians there. Even without services and clergy and the culture of a “Christian nation”, they were carrying on their faith. How amazing is that. They preserved their story through memory (Br. James Koester).

It is easy to doubt God’s power in a world where there is still violence, abuse, and all kinds of social ills. Sometimes the God of creation, whose handiwork we see all around us, is overcome by the God who allows all these things to go wrong. Sometimes the God of human intervention to care for a people is overcome by our doubts about a God who uses kings to punish Israel for their sins and then destroys those same kings when they no longer serve God’s purpose. Is this the kind of God we want to belong to, we say. Isaiah says God’s ways are unsearchable, but that is not a very satisfactory answer. The only satisfactory answer is Jesus, who revealed God as a loving, caring parent, concerned about the healing of the nations and the reconciliation of humans to God. All people are important; all of creation matters. Instead of violence against us, God allowed violence against Jesus to show the extent of God’s love.

God still works in the world. A Washington Post article details the freeing of a man from the freezing waters of the Potomac. That they found the man at all was God’s doing, and that the man was able to climb into the rescue basket on his own was another miracle. Another article detailed a group called FOCUS ((Families OverComing Under Stress), which is designed to give military families a chance to recover psychologically from the traumatic effects that could result from a parent’s deployment. God was in those details too.

The message to us in Isaiah is that God is a powerful God. God is powerful to create and God is powerful to redeem. Our problems may seem insurmountable, we may feel weak and powerless, but we can turn to God for help and salvation. We may not see a way out of our situation but God does. It is hard to hold on to this when so many seem to be hanging by the edge or have fallen off God’s radar. But we are called to remember who we are and whose we are. The Christians in Japan kept their faith alive through memory even in times of hardship and we can too, through the blessings of our community – a community that helps us express our skepticism and our thanks, that welcomes our doubt and encourages our faith, a community that together waits on God for release from our particular captivity.

All of us are God’s people. We are all God’s favorites. Our task is to wait with faith and hope, serving our neighbor with compassion, knowing God will be merciful to us in God’s time and in God’s way. Hold on to that certainty with a firm grasp in the midst of the world’s power and remember our heritage.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
Brother James Koester, the Society of St. John the Evangelist, “Faith”, blog post, Feb. 5, 2015