Jan. 13 and 14, 2018 The Story: The Beginning of the End
Scripture: Isaiah 6: 1-13
Today we continue our journey through the Story, and I think for the first time in this series, I’m truly beginning to understand the value of holding this entire divine narrative in our heart. We’ve said all along that this story begins like a beautiful dream, a garden filled with God’s goodness and presence; the type of life our hearts yearn for. And then we watched as that goodness quickly crumbled at the hands of human sin, a web of destruction that continues to trap us. But we know the story doesn’t end there. We know there’s more. We know there’s redemption waiting to happen. And that’s important for us to keep in mind because the question of faith we must wrestle with today is this: How do we follow Jesus when everything’s falling apart?
For most of my life, I’ve considered myself to be a pretty positive person. I’m the guy who has trouble simply throwing in the towel because I’ve always believed there’s a way. I grew up hearing things like “where there’s a will there’s a way” or “God will make a way where there is no way,” or “there’s a miracle waiting to happen.” And so when I’ve faced challenges in my life, I’ve always tried to keep one eye on reality and the other one on hope. I still think that’s a pretty good and faithful way to live. But my young faith was challenged about 20 years ago when we learned of my dad’s illness. And I’ll never forget my mom’s words when they sat us down to tell us the news: “The doctors feel they can treat his cancer, but they’ll never be able to cure it.” I can’t remember exactly how I reacted when I heard that news, but I will tell you this: there was a part of me that bristled that day, because I also grew up hearing you should never say never. But they uttered that word and somehow, deep inside of me, I knew what they were saying was real. This was really happening. This cancer was really progressing. This was the beginning of the end. No amount of platitudes or prayers was going to change the situation. And without turning our backs on God, we had to figure out how to have faith when God’s answer was “no.”
It was a bleak reality for the Israelites. Their nation had been torn in two, and recently, the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the mighty Assyrians, and there this vast army, this enormous enemy, stood at the back door of Judah, the small southern kingdom of God’s people. And God’s people began to fret. It certainly looked like the proverbial writing was on the wall. Their national identity was in shambles. Doubt began to creep in, as did second-guessing and some were even questioning their faith. These are all natural responses to tough times. If we could’ve asked those ancient Israelites, they would’ve told us they were living in the end times. But in the midst of this fear and bleak outlook, God continued to raise up His messengers for His people. And a young prophet named Isaiah enters the story.
Now, I’m sure you’ve heard of Isaiah before. He’s probably the most prolific of all the prophets. His book is one of the largest in the Bible and his career of speaking the Word of the Lord spanned 60 years. In Isaiah, we read the famous “suffering servant passage,” where a messiah will come and heal us by his wounds. We read of a future kingdom where the people walking in darkness will see a great light and where wolf will live with the lamb. And of course we can’t forget Isaiah’s words that those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength and will mount up with wings as eagles. But maybe Isaiah is best known by his commissioning, which comes at a time when Israel needs God the most.
As the story is preserved, Isaiah had a glorious vision of God, a beautiful vision that revealed both the majesty and holiness of God and the humanity and sinfulness of Isaiah. And in a wonderful act of grace, God has one of his angels touch the “unclean” lips of Isaiah with a burning coal, as if to purify him and burn away his sin. Now, let me just pause there and say that this must’ve been a tremendous and life-changing experience. Isaiah experienced firsthand the powerful love of God, a God who forgives, a God who makes wrongs right, a God who takes our brokenness and makes us new again. This was transformative! You might say that the love of God was burned into Isaiah’s heart. And so when God says, “I need someone to go. I need someone to do my work. Who can I send,” Isaiah rises up and says, “Here am I. Send me.”
This story, of course, is the basis on which the old hymn, “Here I Am, Lord” was written. It’s always a crowd favorite because it speaks to that hope we so desperately want to hold on to, a hope that we firmly believe God can initiate in our world. Every year, my colleagues and I gather for what’s called the “Executive Session” where we vote on official pastor matters, and every year, we finish our time together with that song. It’s a powerful reminder that we are loved, that we’ve been called and that we’ve been sent by God (as have each of us). Those annual moments are hard to leave because they’re small slices of heaven on this side of eternity. For those few hours, there are no funerals and no overdoses; no emergencies or budget crises; no worries about bills or heat; there’s just a tremendous and overwhelming sense that we are in the presence of a God who loves us so much. For that brief moment, the eternal clouds out the present. Yet the present is where we’re asked to live out our calling.
If Isaiah was anything like most of us, I’m sure he wanted to fix things. I’m guessing this is why he so quickly offered his services to God. When you have the love of God burned into your heart, all you want to do is fix the world’s brokenness. But Isaiah isn’t going to be able to fix Israel’s reality. I don’t know if Isaiah’s answer would’ve changed had God offered the job description before the job, but that’s not what happened. God simply said he had a job to do, and when Isaiah offered his services, God said, “Good. Now go and tell the people that the end is near. Go and tell them that they’ll hear but never understand, they’ll see but never perceive, that their cities will lie in ruin, their houses will be deserted and their fields will be ravaged.” In other words, there would be no cure for Israel. There was no miracle on the horizon.
If I can be honest with you, those words trouble me. They trouble me because we have a God who can do anything. We have a faith in a God for whom nothing is impossible and who sometimes goes to great lengths to save us. And the reality is that sometimes God tells us no. And sometimes God says there won’t be a miracle. That’s hard to reconcile, isn’t it? I don’t know why some prayers are answered with miracles and some with silence. I don’t know why some house fires lead to death and others do not. I don’t know why some illnesses can be cured and others have no answers. But what I do know is that this current reality, however it’s defined, is never the end. And somehow we must cultivate a faith that looks reality in the eye and stands firm, because giving up and just living are not faithful options. But how we do that remains the question.
I don’t have any easy answers for you today, but what I do have for you is a story. And I think this story might help us learn to persevere in our faith. I had the privilege of preaching a funeral during Christmas week, and it left me with a blessing that I’ll never forget. This man had no church affiliation and no pastor, but what he did have was a small gathering of friends and family who grieved. Their world had just come crashing down. I knew that evening there would be no miracle, at least on this side of heaven, no chance of this man coming back, no hope that this situation would have a different ending. In those situations, I only know how to do one thing: proclaim the story of Jesus and his love. And so that’s what I did. I told the story of creation. I shared with them the reality of sin and the fall. I told them that in the midst of the world’s brokenness, God appeared as Jesus and paved a way of redemption. And I told them about a promise, a promise proclaimed by God that one day all things would be made new.
As I proclaimed this story, I began to notice a change in the room. You could hear a pin drop. Distractions gave way to attention. Wandering minds and eyes that just a few minutes before could’ve cared less that I was there were now hanging on every word. And as that story of Jesus and His love was proclaimed, there was no doubt that God was in that place. In that place of suffering, in that place of ending, in that place of death, God was still there. And as the service ended, a young lady came up to me, and with tears in her eyes said, “I’ve only ever read four chapters of the Bible, but I think I’m going to go home and read the whole the book.” In that moment, I remembered the words of Jesus “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” And it struck me: It wasn’t a miracle God wanted to give that night; it was a seed.
Nobody likes endings. And if we had our way, we would just keep things going the way they are. But some endings have a way of making room for new possibilities, new opportunities and new life. Isaiah’s call story ends like this: But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land. Do you know what that seed led to? It eventually led to a Savior. You see, a miracle was not what Israel needed. They had experienced plenty of God’s miracles, and very little about their way of living had changed. What they needed was a new beginning. So friends, stand firm and keep on believing. Endings will happen, but so will beginnings. It is, after all, the story of our faith. Chaos leads to creation, suffering leads to glory and death leads to resurrection. God’s story continues to march on, even if our stories seem to be falling to pieces. And THAT, friends, is good news. Amen.