Questions and Reflections

Category: Isaiah

Reflection: Jackals and Ostriches and Dragons

One of the difficulties in translating the Bible is figuring out which animals are actually in there. In the various translations of today's text from Isaiah 43:16-21 that I consulted, the animals identified included jackals, ostriches, wild dogs, coyotes, buzzards, and surly birds. My personal favorite is from the King James Version which translated verse 20 as "dragons and owls." There's something very Harry Potter-esque about having a Bible passage with those two creatures in it.

We don't know exactly what animals Isaiah was thinking of (the Arabian ostrich roamed the Near East before being hunted to extinction by the early 20th century). But we do know what Isaiah was trying to get at. The animals in this passage are animals identified as being ritually unclean. There was something about them that did not match God's own reality of holiness. Humans were to avoid eating them or even touching them. Since dragons and owls were unclean, they were unable to honor God because their very nature made that impossible. Yet, when God shows up, that impossibility becomes possible. God, speaking through Isaiah, looks forward towards what God is about to do. The God who led the ancient Israelites out of slavery is the same God who is about to do even more. Instead of asking the community to remain in their past, God invited them to see into their future. Their present situation will not be the limit to what God is about to do. God is with them and that changes everything.

So that means that when God shows up, the unclean wild animals suddenly show honor. When God shows up, the desert is filled with rivers of water. When God shows up, new life comes. If we only look at what God has done in the past, we miss seeing how God who is active in our lives today. The God who loves you is still with you. The God who loves you still has hope for you. And the God who made the universe also made you. You are necessary to do what God made you for: to join your voice with all of God's beloved creation to God's incredible song of love, hope, and a new beginning.



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Reflection: Without Money and Without Price

Now that spring has officially sprung, I long for the new life spring represents.
I look at my garden every day, trying to spot each new bulb as it breaks ground. I stare at my lawn, waiting for the grass to turn from a dried yellow to a vibrant green. I peer at every tree, looking for the buds of new leaves. And I can't wait to hear the song of birds that announce every new day. Spring is a season dominated by nature. But there are other "things of spring" that I wait impatiently for and one of them is the return of the neighborhood ice cream truck.

Ice cream is usually a sign of summer but once the temperature breaks 60, that truck is out and about. I usually hear it circling my neighborhood, with a soft jingle turning loud as the truck nears my home. Before you know it, I'm spending my evenings figuring out new ways to distract my children from noticing the sound. The sound of songbirds and the sound of ice cream trucks is a sign that a new way of life is here.

Today's reading from Isaiah 55:1-9 starts with a jingle from an ancient version of that ice cream truck. The scripture begins like a street vendor would, offering everyone free water, milk, and wine. But this gift isn't a free sample hoping to trick us into buying something expensive. The street vendor of Isaiah 55 is offering a gift of abundant and rich food that will last forever He wonders, out loud, why those around him invest their time, talent, and energy in that which does not truly satisfy. This poetic passage is an invitation for the community to turn away from what takes their life and, instead, turn towards what gives life. And the new free and satisfying life is a life that finds its home in God.

Although written to the community of Jews living in exile, this text also applies to us. Walter Brueggemann writes that these rhetorical questions ask us why we "invest so much in forms of life that cannot work - why work so hard and so long in ways that give no satisfaction; why give life over the demands and rewards of the empire that yield nothing of value in return." We are encouraged to ask ourselves hard questions and to wonder if our way of life is bringing a new life to those around us. What, right now, are we investing in that is taking us away from God? And what are we doing that is taking our life away from us?



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Reflection: Send Me?

One thing I do when I read Scripture is imagine the story as it unfolds. I like to see, in my mind, the entire scene, filling in the details as I go along. Our reading from Isaiah 6:1-13 today is one of those stories we think we already know. In seminary, this story was so central to our identity, the school gave out t-shirts quoting verse 8. Isaiah received a vision of an over-the-top God. God, sitting on the throne, is high above Isaiah and wearing a long robe. The robe is so large; the Temple can only hold its hem. Isaiah was so overwhelmed by this vision of God; he could only confess who he truly was. God's presence was a mirror for Isaiah, showcasing how far from perfect Isaiah was. God, however, had a plan for Isaiah and didn't let Isaiah's imperfection stop Isaiah from spreading God's word. God transformed Isaiah, touching his lips with a burning piece of coal. After God did this, God asked, "Whom shall I send?" And Isaiah responded, enthusiastically, "Send me!"

Or did he? Our translation gives us an exclamation mark at the end of Isaiah's statement because, I think, we want Isaiah's response to be enthusiastic. We want to believe that experiencing God's presence will make us want to say a big "yes" to God. But, as you were imaging this scene, how many other people were in the Temple with Isaiah? We have seraphs flying around, the hem of God's robe, Isaiah... and that's it. In this vision of God, there is no one else present. So when God asked the question, there's no one else who could answer. We could imagine this scene with Isaiah looking around, noticing he's by himself, and saying, "Here am I...send me?" And God, whether Isaiah was enthusiastic or not, still commissioned him to bring God's word to all people.

I honestly believe that we want an experience of God to propel us into a new Christ-like way of life. We want to meet God face-to-face and, without thinking, shout out, "send me!" We want this so badly, we end up using this desire as an excuse to do nothing. If we don't feel this kind of enthusiasm, we assume we haven't met God. Or, if we do meet God but we're left doubting, confused, or worried, then we assume we haven't had an authentic "God-moment." We end up believing that God will always have an exclamation point. Yet we know that's not, necessarily, how God works. God comes to us when we need God. And that experience can feel like a lightning bolt or be so subtle, it could feel like a little wine on our lips and a crumb of bread in our belly. We are called to be aware of the God who is always with us. And since God is always with us, we are also called to bring God's word to all people, whether we're enthusiastic about it or not.



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Reflection: Name-Change

One of challenging experiences I have teaching Confirmation Class is making the Ten Commandments meaningful to a bunch of 7th and 8th graders. We tend to read these gifts from God as a morality check-list, reducing them to ordinances that we try to keep. We might embrace the commandment "do not murder" but shrug our shoulders about the commandment to reserve the Sabbath for God alone. Martin Luther, in the Small Catechism, showed us that every "don't" in the Ten Commandments is connected to a "do." God doesn't want us to only not lie about our neighbor (the 8th commandment); God wants us to use our words to help our neighbors thrive. One of the more difficult Commandments to teach is the second: do not take the Lord's name in vain. God, I think, is asking us to do more than just stop shouting "Jesus Christ" when we stub our toe. God wants us to pay attention to the power of names. And our reading from Isaiah 62:1-5 shows us just how powerful names can be.

The reading begins with the assumption that Jerusalem means something. Jerusalem, conquered by the Babylonians and its people forcefully deported, is now mocked and teased by the nations around them. In the ancient world, wars were viewed as political and cosmic affairs. A war between two nations was also a war between their gods. The destruction of Jerusalem showed that the gods of Babylon were more powerful than the God of Israel. The nations won. Jerusalem lost. In the view of the nations, God and Jerusalem were symbols of failure and defeat. Their names were meaningless and, now, the butt of jokes.

But when the rest of the world assumes God is no longer potent, that's when God renews God's unending promise to God's people. God will give them a new name, a new identity, and "a new chance at life" (Walter Brueggeman's Isaiah). God will act with a new resolve and Jerusalem's new name will be "My Delight is In Her." If the nations thought God had abandoned God's people, God's new name for them will show how God is now with them. Names have power. Names signal our relationships, commitments, and how we viewed ourselves in the world. The names we give ourselves and the names we give others shape our life. The names we give others will reveal exactly how we will treat them. And the names we own for ourselves will reveal exactly what's important to us. Yet, through our baptism and through our faith, we are given a new name that doesn't depend on what others say about us. This name comes from God and God alone. We are Beloved; we are sealed with Christ's cross; we have Jesus' name. And that name changes who we are, who we will be, and who we can be right now.



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Declare It: God's Cute Aggression

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”​

Isaiah 43:1-7

Pastor Marc's sermon for Baptism of Jesus (January 13, 2019) on Isaiah 43:1-7. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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It’s a bit scary to be a newborn...

Because you enter the world exactly as you are. You’re small, defenseless, and a little bit confused because you’re now “outside,” away from that precious inner sanctum where there was warmth and food. A newborn might spend its first few moments being poked and prodded by strangers who are wearing white clothes and shining bright lights in their face. Some newborns enter the world with a cry and a scream while others are completely silent. Every newborn goes through their own unique experience when they enter the world but one thing unites them: they come completely vulnerable. A newborn needs to be taken care of - and that’s, sometimes, a frightening way to live. But newborns, of course, know no other kind of existence. They just...are. And God willing, a community of family, friends, medical professionals, and others commitment themselves to do for this newborn what this newborn can’t do for themselves. A newborn needs a community but that community can be a bit...odd. Many, when meeting a newborn for the first time, can’t help themselves but say “awww.” Some feel an incredible urge to pinch their cheeks while others want to tug at their toes. Still more, without even thinking about it, say frightening things like “they’re so cute - I could just bite them.” Being a newborn isn’t scary only because they need to be taken care of. Being a newborn is scary because so many people in the community around them all seem to come down with what scientists call “cute aggression.”

Cute aggression is pretty common and it’s the catch-all term for when we want to “bite, nibble, squeeze, or smoosh the face of something completely adorable.” Studies show that when people look at photos of tiny and adorable things, we often react with pretty aggressive language. If we suffer from cute aggression, we might find ourselves being flooded by an incredible amount of positive emotions whenever we see a newborn baby or videos of baby otters having fun at the zoo. That feeling of wanting to bite a baby’s thighs doesn’t mean we’re suddenly becoming cannibals. It’s a trick used by our brains to help regulate, release, and moderate those moments when we’re flooded with “positive emotions and caretaking desires.” This experience is pretty much universal and some languages even have specific words to describe it. If it’s cute, a little furry, and a bit helpless, we can go over the top with our feelings of compassion, love, and care. It’s a reaction that, for many of us, is just built into who we are. And that’s okay - because, as we see in our reading from Isaiah today, God sometimes does the exact same thing.

God, in these seven verses, expresses God’s “defining and uncompromising love” for God’s people. Written while a large part of ancient Israel was living in exile, this text affirmed God’s “profound commitment…[a commitment] that persists… and is undisturbed by any circumstance.” God’s words began with a very simple but also very overwhelming command to “do not fear” because God is God - and God’s people will belong to God forever. We can imagine the community who first heard these words being a bit… confused. Because they were living in Babylon, having been forcefully deported by the empire that destroyed Jerusalem and burned God’s Temple. They were far from home and had no idea if they would ever return. So the community was spending a lot of time asking themselves “why?” Why did God let Jerusalem fall? Why did God let their loved ones be hurt, killed, and driven far from home? Why did God, in the face of struggle, fear, doubt, and worry, seem to abandon them to their fate? The community felt, at that very moment, as if they were nothing because everything they held dear - their wealth, their power, their homes, their health, their well-being, and their identity - all of that was basically gone. They weren’t only asking themselves why they were living in exile; they were also wondering who they actually were. They were a community that had lost - and they were now tiny, miserable, and insignificant. Yet it’s to them, to those who are nothing, that God does something that happens no where else in the Bible. God says, forcefully, and explicitly: “I love you.” It isn’t to the mighty or powerful or faithful or perfect that God says these words. Instead, they’re delivered to those who are broken, confused, questioning, and doubting. God declares, vividly, that they have an “intimate and nonnegotiable relationship” with God. God’s promise is that no matter where you are, no matter what you’ve experienced, no matter what you’ve gone through, you are God’s. And God’s love, commitment, and devotion to God’s people will be what defines them. It’s not their doubts, troubles, or circumstances that make them who they are. Their identity is centered in the God who loves and claims them. That love is God’s promise made real and for us who are Christians, that promise is made publically and explicitly in our baptism.

When we pass through the waters and when we hear our name on God’s lips, that’s when we discover exactly who God is for us. In the words of Walter Brueggemann, we read these verses from Isaiah as  “illuminations of baptism, a sacrament of relationship whereby we are inducted into the protective and sure care of God.” This claim of relationship doesn’t eliminate the promise first made to the Jewish people. Rather, the words first written for the Israelites in exile are a reminder that God’s faithfulness towards us doesn’t depend on anything we do. Instead, God comes to us first because we are precious in God’s sight. We are, through God’s promise, brought into God’s beloved family through God’s Son, who was born, lived, and who knew what it meant to be broken. When confronted by the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the lost, God could only do what God always does: and that’s just love. God’s love for us ends up being more than just an affirmation of who we are. God’s love also challenges, changes, and transforms us so that we can take seriously what it means to be God’s beloved. If we are loved, if we are claimed by God, and if we truly believe that we are precious in God’s sight, then we are invited to do more than just live our lives; we are invited to discover what it means to live out our identity as the beloved. God’s cute aggression towards those whom God loves is not the limit of God’s relationship. Rather, God keeps telling us over and over again “I love you” because God knows that love is the one thing that will change us into who God knows we can be. We are, no matter our age, always a newborn. We need care. We need attention. And we need love even though we spend much of our lives pretending like we don’t. Yet in our baptism, in our worship, in our faith, and at Jesus’ table, we are reminded that God will never stop saying, “I love you” because God knows that that promise is what will carry us through.

Amen.

 



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Reflection: A Multitude of Camels

As a person of below average physical stature, I'm not entirely sure I would appreciate being covered by a multitude of camels. When I'm playing hide and seek, two little kids and two cats jumping on me is about the only amount of covering I can take. Yet in our reading from Isaiah 60:1-6 today, being covered in camels is a good thing. The author of this part of Isaiah was inspired by God's own voice to bring to God's people a divine promise. This promise offered the Jewish people and the people living in Jerusalem a vision of what their future with God would look like. The author's use of the word "you" didn't imagine to be writing to individuals 2500 years later who happened to be reading this book. The "you" here is plural and directed towards the city of Jerusalem. Ever since that city was conquered by David around the year 1000 BCE, the city had experienced a large amount of challenge, prosperity, hardship, and calamity. The city watched David's kingdom split in two and survived when 10 out of the 12 tribes of Israel were lost during an invasion by the Assyrians. Jerusalem survived through God's help and by playing the local political powers against each other. The kings of Judah sent a ridiculous amount of money, gold, and other resources to other political kingdoms as tribute. By this point in the book of Isaiah, the Babylonian exile was already over and the returning community were looking to rebuild the Temple. They were still under control by another nation, the Persians, would who still demand their own kind of tribute. For centuries, Jerusalem sent its resources away on carvans of camels, trying to save themselves from destruction while fueling the lust for powers that others had. But in the future, this would be reversed. All the wealth and abundance of the nations, the best they have, will come to Jerusalem. This is the queen of Sheba story (1 Kings 10:1-13) but on overdrive, pointing to a future where current expectations are replaced by God's great reversal.

On this Epiphany, we are drawn to the verse about gold and frankincense because these are two of the three gifts the magi brought to Jesus. As Christians, we see the great reversal expressed in Isaiah 60 as bearing fruit in the birth, life, and death of Jesus. The magi offered extravagant gifts to an infant who had no army, no sword, and who couldn't walk. Yet they saw who Jesus was, is, and will be. They knew that a relationship with Jesus, rooted in God's love, grace, and faith, would be the one thing no empire could ever take from us. During this life, we will probably never be covered by a multitude of camels. We will wonder why the exploitation by the rich seems to be growing in intensity. The world does not  match the future God has in mind. Yet God has laid out, for each of us, a different way of life that notices who we give our gifts too. And once we see who we give our gifts to, we can embrace a new way of life that lives into the hope when every vulnerable community will know that their light has come. 



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Reflection: Eat It Up

How do we visualize goodness, grace and extravagance without using money? Money might have showed up around 5000 years ago and, by the year 700 BCE (BC), some communities were regularly minting their own coins. The Bible is full of early examples of money. Abraham buys land with money in the book of Genesis but when the Bible talks about his wealth, it points to the number of sheep he has. Solomon gives twenty cities in Ancient Israel to the king of Tyre in exchange for the precious material needed to make the holy Temple. Gold is, by this point, measured (in talents) but only a limited number of people had access to it. There's a chance most people in Ancient Israel rarely saw money. The few coins they collected were probably used to pay certain taxes to religious and political authorities. For the common person, money was around but it wasn't an everyday item. It rarely enticed the imagination of the people and wasn't something they were emotionally invested in.

People might not have cared about money but they did care about wealth. And wealth was something they wanted. Wealth, on one level, was about having enough resources to gain a bit of control over their lives. Instead of a living a life that depended on how good the harvest was every year, wealth allowed a person to survive regardless of the harvest. A wealthy person wasn't only someone who had 120 talents of gold in their house. A wealthy person also had sheep, goats, and storehouses filled with grain. A person with abundant and extravagant resources was able to feed themselves and their family year after year. So when Isaiah 25:6-9 tried to describe what living with God would be like, he wrote about a feast of good food that never ends.

Isaiah's feast, of course, is no normal feast. The drink is fantastic, the food is rich, and we are invited to even gnaw on the bones. That might sound a little excessive if we're vegan but that's sort of the point. What God offers to us is a connection to the source of all life and that connection will be over the top. This connection is also designed to feed and sustain us. Faith isn't abstract. Faith feeds, nourishes, and shows us how much God loves us. And this love, no matter where we are in our life, is abundant, over the top, and delicious. In the moments when we feel separated from God and that faith is meant for other people, Isaiah reminds us that God is always for us. And God's love is extravagant, over the top, and will sustain us through all things.



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Reflection: Buried with the

When my great-uncle died, I discovered my mom's family has a family graveyard plot. It's located in the middle of an old graveyard covered in tombs, tombstones, statues and monuments. The family plot surprised me because a 12 foot obelisk was erected on it. The obelisk is covered and is overflowing with names to the point where the last few were added on a separate stone so that they can lean against it. Compared to the tombstones around it, this monument is actually pretty modest. But compared to today, it's a little over the top. Large stones can be a sign of a family's wealth and status even if they didn't have much wealth or status. There's no history in my family of any incredible wealth but that tombstone tells a different story. It's safe to say that this family plot is located in the "rich" part of that old cemetery. In our context, that is seen as a good thing. But as we see in our first reading, Isaiah 53:4-12 being buried with the rich is a complicated metaphor that we need to unwrap.

This reading from Isaiah is one of the texts described as "The Suffering Servant." The Suffering Servant was the name given to parts of Isaiah 52-53 in the 19th century. They describe a "servant" who is caught in a cycle of humiliation and exaltation. For our Jewish friends, the servant is typically identified as Israel (or an unnamed one at work in ancient Israel). For Christians, we identify the Suffering Servant as Jesus. In Jesus' time, Isaiah 52-53 was not considered a prophetic text describing the Messiah (the one who would restore Israel's power and glory). But once Jesus died and rose from the dead, early Christians saw these texts as one that described Jesus' life and ministry. The Jewish and Christian interpretation of these texts are different but "both Jews and Christians have seen in their own history, in quite particular ways, the capacity and willingness of . . . God to do something new through suffering" (Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, page 144.) The Suffering Servant texts are poems inviting us to discover the God who is at work in our world. Death, suffering, and vulnerability are not dead ends. We are, through our baptism, living into the new future God is bringing about.


The Suffering Servant is utterly rejected and that rejection continues from life into death. His burial among the rich is a negative thing. The people writing these words viewed the rich as those who took advantage of others. The Suffering Servant "is grouped with despised ones whom the world thinks have succeeded" (page 147). The Suffering Servant is a nobody who is the only one who can break the cycle of violence that exists in our world. But this violence – exploitation, hatred, anger, physical and mental assaults – can't be broken by force. Violence, according to scripture, only begets more violence. Instead, the Servant, must break this violence by embracing what makes them vulnerable. It's through weakness that God's power is made known. Your hurt or weakness isn't the limit of who you are. God knows you, including what makes you vulnerable, and loves you fully. We don't know exactly how God's power will be made real through us. But I trust that we'll finally see God more clearly when we embrace what we try to run away from: our vulnerability. Then God is inviting us to change.



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Holy, holy, what: is our vision of God as strange as it should be? [Sermon Manuscript]

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah 6:1-8

My sermon from Trinity Sunday (May 27, 2018) on Isaiah 6:1-8. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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What does heaven look like?

I bet if I handed out a piece of paper and some crayons to everyone, each one of us could dream up some far out visions of what heaven might look like. Several of us would color pictures full of blue skies with white fluffy clouds floating by. Others might include some pearly gates, roads covered in gold, and angels flying everywhere. More might decide that heaven needs people. So we’d include pictures of loved ones, making sure each person looked their best. We might want to include images from nature, like mountain ranges with amazing vistas and tropical paradises with white sandy beaches. Each one of our pictures would be different but I’m pretty sure all of them, whether we can draw or not, would be something beautiful. Heaven, I think, should be beautiful. It should be almost indescribable. Because when we imagine being with God, basking in God's perpetual light, there’s no one word in the English language that can fully describe what we’d actually see. Heaven is more than just a place that looks good. It’s a reality that gives us a sense of wholeness, comfort, and peace. Heaven should feel like we’re finally home because heaven is beauty, peace, hope, and love made real. Heaven, in other words, should be gorgeous. But what if it isn’t? What if heaven is very strange? What if heaven isn’t only blue skies and white fluffy clouds but is more like the image described in our first reading from Isaiah today?

Isaiah, in this passage, is experiencing a vision. He meets God in the place where God promise to be, and all Isaiah can initially see is the very bottom of God’s robe. God, it seems, is sitting on an elevated throne, high in the sky. And hanging down, filling the entire space, is God’s massive robe. Now, imagine, if you can, the hem - the very bottom of a robe - filling up the this entire church. But don’t stop there. Also imagine that this robe engulfs the parking lot outside, the housing subdivisions all around us, and it covers the reservoir and even fills up the sky. This is the massive, gigantic, and overwhelming reality that Isaiah has to grapple with. Yet this vision of heaven, of the Temple, of hanging out in the place God promises to be,  doesn’t end with only this overpowering picture of God. The vision continues with these strange flying creatures called seraphim who are like flying serpents filling the sky. These creatures who are tending to God each have six wings. Two cover their eyes, shielding themselves from looking directly at God’s face. They use two more wings to cover themselves, keeping everything discreet. The other set of wings are the ones they actually use to fly. And as they fly, these strange creatures begin uttering a phrase we are familiar with: holy, holy, holy. Yet the seraphim are probably not singing these words in a beautiful and melodic way. No, these “holies” are harsh, loud, and downright terrifying. They shake the very walls of this version of heaven and fill the place full of dense smoke. This vision is downright terrifying. And it’s one where every one of our senses is overpowered and where all our expectations about God’s house is undone. The beauty of heaven as we imagine it to be runs head first into the reality of who God is. And it’s at that moment when Isaiah does the only thing he can do: he admits exactly who he is. And then a seraph comes down, with a piece of red hot coal, to cleanse his words by burning his lips.

I don’t know about you but this vision of God’s holy house doesn’t really match up with my own understanding of what being with God is like. But - maybe it should. Because our image of who God is influences what we expect God to be. And if our image of God, of this Father and Son and Holy Spirit; if this image is soft, and beautiful, and very peaceful - then we might not be seeing how incredible God actually is. God should do more than inspire our sense of peace. God should inspire our wonder. God should do more than meet our expectations. God, instead, should make our mouths hang open in awe. And once we finally get it, once we finally realize how indescribable and unimaginable God actually is - it’s then when we realize a fundamental truth about who we are. God is strange and terrifying and loving and peaceful all at the same time. Which means there really is a God and we’re not it. We are not the center of the universe. We are not the ones in control. We are just us: human beings that are imperfect, small, and sometimes broken. The God who we worship and celebrate and who connects with us each and every day is a God that is so vast, so massive, so indescribable that even the prophet Isaiah only got a hint of just how incredible our God actually is.
 

Now, our vision of heaven, of what it’s like to hang out with God, should, I think, include blue skies, angelic beings, and every beautiful thing we can imagine. Because this is the image of God’s kingdom that we see expressed in the garden of Eden. This is the image of God’s realm that Jesus’ ministry pointed to and what he worked to bring about. The golden roads, beautiful scenery, and a heavenly city full of people is the vision of what forever looks like in the book of Revelation. Our relationship with God is an honest-to-goodness treasure and our faith is a beautiful jewel that will hold us forever. But this God who is our treasure is also a God full of strangeness and awe. And that’s a good thing. Because it takes a strange kind of God to do that very strange kind of thing and decide to become like Isaiah, small and human and cowering in God’s throne room. It is the God who is beyond measure who chooses to become just like us. Because the only thing that can match God’s indescribable reality is God’s indescribable love. We are not the center of the universe but God has decided that you are the center of God’s. And so God doesn’t wait for us to be ready for heaven before God shows up. Instead, Jesus comes down and through his life and cross, we see what God’s kingdom of hope, love, and mercy looks like. And then, through our baptism, through our faith, and through the simple act of being fed at the Lord’s table, we discover just how central all people are to God. The heaven we imagine will never be as strange as we need it to be. Because it’s only a strange kind of God who would decide that each of us, as we are, are necessary for the new reality that God is bringing about.

 

Amen.

 



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Did God root for the Eagles? And what kind of transformation does God offer to us?

Some of my favorite Super Bowl memories are centered around the church. I remember a former bishop giving me a pep talk from the pulpit that the Denver Broncos would do well right before the Broncos lost 43-8. I remember someone sneaking in a prayer request for the NY Giants that surprised the assistant minister reading the prayers out loud. I remember swapping finger food recipes during coffee hour and arguing which puppy would be the MVP of the Puppy Bowl. When we think of the Super Bowl, church isn't usually on our minds. We, instead, daydream about nachos, TV commercials, and silver plated trophies. Even though the Super Bowl doesn't start until this evening, we might be focused on this big event that's about to come. Today's text from Isaiah 40:21-31, when read with football on the brain, might make us wonder if God is an Eagle's fan because the faithful "shall mount up with wings like eagles." I don't know if God roots for the Eagles but I do know, like many of us, this text is focused on the next big thing that's coming. But it isn't focused on a human event rooted in the spectacle of competition. Isaiah is instead looking forward to the day when everything changes. 

To hear the hope in this passage, we need to remember who Isaiah is talking to. Isaiah is surrounded by a community wondering if they should return to Jerusalem. For 70 years, the people have lived in Babylon (in modern day Iraq) after the Babylonian Empire destroyed their nation. Babylon was recently destroyed and their new emperor, Cyrus the Persian, wants to send the Israelites back home. But is Jerusalem still home? The people hearing these words grew up, started families, buried their loved ones, and created new homes in Babylon. They land of Israel is a place they only know about from stories told by their grandparents. They wonder if God, who appeared to be defeated by the armies of Babylon, is even paying attention to them anymore. Isaiah responded by inviting the community to remember who God is and what God has done for them. God is inviting them to return a homeland they do not know but one that gave their ancestors life. God isn't asking them to go back to what they have experienced. God is, instead, inviting them into a new adventure to create a new home in the place God promises to be. God is giving them a new life. 

Verse 31 is beautiful but our translation doesn't capture what Isaiah is saying here. The faithful will not do their best impression of the Lord of Rings and mount eagles that will fly them into the sky. The faithful will, instead, be like a "molting eagle who exchanges old wings for new." (Charles Aaron Jr, Working Preacher.com). What God invites us to do is to look forward to our transformation into who God is calling us to be. 



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