This is not an exact copy of my sermon from this morning. I preached from a series of notes and included some improvised reflections based on conversations I'd had with people prior to the start of the service. But as I noted on Facebook, I was mainly preaching to myself today - thankfully, the folks to whom I was preaching seemed to be in a similar state of being.
As you know, it’s been a bit dry around here lately. Last night I got our sprinkler out for the first time this summer and gave the backyard of our house in Ames a good thorough soaking. If it doesn’t rain today the front yard gets one tonight. When it’s been scarce, rain is a good, good thing. My dad is a third-generation corn and soybean farmer in Nebraska. I know what it means to get the rain you need, the rain that can do exactly what the prophet says it will do in our Isaiah text this morning. “…the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater…”
I wonder how this text is being received in Minot, North Dakota this morning.
The rain and the snow came down. Kept coming down. So much so that the Souris River Valley is flooded and continues to be flooded. Approximately 5,000 homes and hundreds of businesses have significant water damage. Four ELCA congregations and ten ELCA pastors’ homes are flooded. The rain and the snow came down, but instead of bringing forth food, they brought forth destruction. This morning, as the people of Minot gather for worship, they will gather in deep sadness. Some have lost homes in which they raised their children. Some have lost churches in which they, their children, and their children’s children have been baptized. Will they feel the deep disconnect between the prophet’s words of hope and the world in which they currently live? The prophet exclaims, “you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands;” will they have the capacity to believe this could be true? Will they think it’s a fairy tale? If so, they won’t be the first, and they won’t be the last, either.
But we don’t even have to go to Minot for heartbreak, do we? Pain and sorrow have their ways of finding us wherever we go. We lose jobs. Friends break our hearts. Marriages seem perfect one day and crumble into dust the next. Those we love die. What seems certain and sure melts away into nothingness and we are left wondering, “How did I get here? This wasn’t supposed to happen!” When this is the place where we stand – when all that seemed right and good and fair is lost – when we can’t imagine that God is even remotely concerned with us - we stand in the historic footprints of the people to whom Isaiah was preaching.
The book of Isaiah is generally believed to be three separate books from three separate prophetic voices. First Isaiah, chapters 1-39, is called pre-exilic. First Isaiah is the prophetic voice speaking to God’s people in Jerusalem before they were conquered by the Babylonians. Second Isaiah is the prophetic voice speaking to God’s people in exile in Babylon. Third Isaiah is the prophetic voice speaking to God’s people after they returned from exile. Our text today comes from the end of Second Isaiah, the end of the exile in Babylon. These people had lived with no hope for years. These people believed God had abandoned them. These people were ripped away from their homes, forced to watch their beloved city and temple burn to the ground, then marched to Babylon, where they lived as slaves. These are the people to whom Isaiah says “you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace.” From ancient Babylon to wherever this text hits us, this word of prophecy is meant for those who are struggling to find hope in the midst of life-shattering circumstances.
You’ve been there, right? You know how it feels to have your life totally out of your control, to be faced with a mountain of misery and know that it’s not going to get better quickly. Here’s what I want you to do right now: turn to a neighbor and talk about that time with them. You don’t have to spill all the gory details, but sketch in the situation – tell your neighbor what was wrong, how it happened, and how you felt as you were dealing with the worst of those times. Now, tell that same neighbor how it felt when people would tell you that God is good and all would be well.
Living in the exile of broken dreams and uncertain faith is one of the hardest things we have to do as people of faith. It’s easy to believe when you live in “Jerusalem,” when the promises of God’s presence and blessing surround you and define the life you live. But when you live in exile, when you’re forced to answer the hardest questions about who you are, when the world in which you live seems hostile, unforgiving and merciless, that’s when faith gets hard. It’s easy to believe you will go out with joy and be led back in peace when it’s actually happening. When it’s not – when your daily existence is a hard walk of sorrow and confusion, hearing from God that “the mountains and the hills will burst forth before you into singing” sounds like a fairy tale. Yet this is the word Isaiah proclaimed to a people in exile – and thus it is also a word God would have proclaimed to us when we live in exile as well.
Ask yourself: are we in a state of exile these days? Our economy continues to struggle. People are losing jobs. Our church has spent the last two years tearing itself to bits and is only now starting to heal – but at the same time, our capacity to do ministry is hampered by limited resources. Our churchwide office has gone through two rounds of layoffs and may not be done yet. Those who are still employed in Chicago have taken on the work of three or four people in addition to their own portfolios. In campus ministry, where I work, we are reeling under funding cuts and an increasing requirement to spend time raising money instead of doing ministry. Our family moved to Ames with great hopes for what a bright future doing campus ministry at Iowa State – now I’ve been cut to half time and will likely stay there for the foreseeable future. I know some of you here this morning have lost jobs. I know you’ve lost friends in the struggle that has held our church captive since 2009. I know you’ve watched parents, siblings and friends die, sometimes far too soon. On Tuesday you’ll say goodbye to a beloved son, and you’ll need to be there for his grieving father. These struggles aren’t signs that any of us have been poor Christians – this is what happens when the illusion of control is ripped away from us, and we’re left to realize that life can be painfully unfair, that exile is never easy, that faith in exile can seem impossible.
Into that state of exile, however, God speaks a word of promise: you will go out with joy and be led back in peace. This time of exile will not last forever. God reminds us that though we are not in control, neither are we abandoned – that God’s word will accomplish all that it promises, no matter how unlikely that may seem. The struggle to believe in the state of exile isn’t a sign of poor faith – it’s a sign that we know the world in which we live, yet we believe more in the God who makes promises to us. One of the most painful psalms of lament, Psalm 130, begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you.” One of my seminary professors changed my whole understanding of that psalm when she said, “The psalmist cries out for rescue because the psalmist believes someone is listening.” If you and I did not believe in a loving God who intends joy and wholeness for all of creation, we would not struggle in times of exile – we would accept our fate, lower our heads and trudge on towards whatever comes next. But because God promises joy, we look with hope toward the day when that joy will become real, will become the reality God delivers rather than the hope God offers. Above all, we believe, with the prophet, that God’s word is not done until it has accomplished the fullness of what it promises – and that means that God’s living word isn’t done with any of us, either.
How shall we live, then, we who walk in exile? We shall live together. We shall form communities of faith to strengthen and support each other in this walk of faith. We shall practice forgiveness, reconciliation and peace with one another. Before we worry about programs, worship style or any secondary thing, God calls us to faithful community with one another. The prophet didn’t direct his word of promise to a group of individuals – he literally said “All of you will go out in joy, and be led back in peace.” God makes this promise to a community of people who desperately need faith – and in making the promise, God creates a stronger community who can look to the future with hope, even as they live in the hard present.
The word of promise is hard to hear in times of exile. I’ll be honest – it’s hard to speak as well. Reading this passage from Isaiah along with the Parable of the Sower makes me wonder what kind of ground I might be right now. Most likely I’m a thorny mess. Maybe you’re rocky ground, or thin soil, or maybe, if you’re lucky, you could be described as good soil right now. Whatever you are, know this – the Sower continues to scatter the seed, even if it may appear unlikely to take root. That seed is God’s word, not ours – and we trust that it is true, even when all evidence may suggest otherwise. You will go out in joy, and be led back in peace. You will see the fulfillment of God’s promises – and until you see it, friends, know that the Sower continues to sow, and that in your struggle you will bear fruit, even in the midst of exile. As you live, as you walk, may the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, and may God create faith in you to believe God’s unlikely promises. Amen.