In each generation the church contends with and struggles against its culture. Theologian Karl Barth said we who preach have an “obligation and inability,” to speak of God, which is a polite way of saying those who preach must, yet know enough about God to be dangerous. When I was a newly minted young clergy, doing church seemed easier. People showed up for services. Outside activities never competed. One preached, and people acted like they listened – even if they didn’t.
Today’s culture is different. People can be spiritual, but not religious. Others are religious, but not very spiritual. People know more about the Hunger Games and who’s dancing with the stars than the contents of the Bible. Theology and spirituality are just a Google away. Besides we’re too busy to listen to more than a sound bite. How do we expect people to listen to sermons? Do we even expect to encounter God in the church – or in the world anymore? And what would that be like?
I think about the world of Isaiah. God came with vengeance and recompense, and I confess I don’t quite know what all that is – but it doesn’t sound inviting. First the hammer fell on Israel’s enemies, and then the Lord sends His chosen into exile. Now the prophet proclaims God is coming back to save His children, bring them home. And the Lord will fix the broken – the deaf, blind, speechless – and the lame. And it’s not just people – God will turn dry, burning deserts into lush resorts. Do you think the prophet felt adequate speaking these words to people who thought God had died, or forgotten their names – or they were so bad, the Lord had gone looking for a better nation? The prophets’ words sound too tidy –easier spoken than believed – a prophetic “buck up little campers from your Lord.”
Imagine the abject despair of exile. I think of people whose – homes foreclosed, now sleeping in their cars if they still have one – the jobless, unemployed, underemployed; people who can’t afford both food and medicine. Some people can no longer pray as a person recently told me with death looming for a loved one. I understand. Do we really say to the exiled: “Be strong, do not fear?” We’re not well equipped for long term darkness and exile. But then one day, the exiles did return home. Imagine the joy. Hope bubbles up streams in the wilderness. Deserts bloom into meadows. You’re being saved – that’s what the prophet means. Really – Can we trust the prophet’s words? Where do we find hope? In some unlikely places and unlikely people – in those obligated to speak for God, yet can’t fully comprehend the One of whom they speak.
It’s really extraordinary what God will do to disrupt our lives, get our attention, claim us – save and heal us – God’s will for us all along. Jesus extends God’s promises – to a Gentile outsider, a woman who wouldn’t accept “No.” So Jesus expels an unclean spirit from her little daughter. A deaf and speechless man, obviously a sinner, hears and speaks when Jesus strolls into his life. Jesus points us to a bigger world – one we don’t readily see or hear, our vision is healed and our ears are unplugged. Then we see and hear a God who enters this world, disrupts our lives, wants our attention, comes to heal and bring home to those still on earth – as in heaven. “Be strong, do not fear. Here is your God who saves.”
Is it foolish to believe God will finally rescue – the same God who let His children be hauled off. It’s sort of like Jesus – abandoned, left to hang out and die, then to be saved – raised – brought home. To some this is just foolishness. We say: “Be strong. Do not fear,” when we can’t think of anything else to say. In each generation the church contends and struggles with its culture. In this world, streams can quickly fill with sand. Lush meadows turn into dry deserts. We’re blinded by pain and loss. We no longer hear God’s voice. Our lips will not form prayers. The world says, “I told you so.” And when we have given up hope – a voice comes again: “Be strong. Do not fear.” Dare we trust? Each of us has to decide. Do we trust that the Lord breaks into our hopelessness with prophets’ words, in stories that defy explanation – in eyes that spot hope on the horizon – a larger world than the one we have ability to talk about, in Word finally made flesh. Could that be God?
“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God – a God who turns everything upside down – so that in the end everything will be right side up. He will come and save you.” And if you can’t believe this good news yet – just wait. One day all eyes will one day be opened, all ears unstopped. All will leap like a deer, and silenced voices will sing praise with joy. In God’s loving grace, no one is forgotten, or left behind. Yet we still wonder, doubt, hope and wait. “Be strong. Do not fear.”