This is the text of a sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas this year. I had been invited to be a guest preacher at a church not my own, on the occasion of a significant family in that congregation (and to me) having their last Sunday there before leaving to move interstate. For privacy reasons I have obscured the personal details in this post. The Scripture text it references is Isaiah 63:7-9.
This morning I’d like to look with you at the reading from Isaiah. Although it’s quite brief – just a few verses – I think it has some significant things to say to us in times of transition.
The section we heard today, praising God and recalling his graciousness, favour and mercy, is the beginning of a much longer piece of poetry (or perhaps song). It continues on from where we finished, to talk about the times that Israel had felt distant from God, or even felt that perhaps God had become their enemy. It reaches its height of emotion with the words “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” – so strong was their sense of abandonment, and longing for the presence of God.
This points us towards something important in the spiritual life. God is constant; but our sense of God is not. Sometimes God seems far away. Sometimes God seems to even be against us. Sometimes we’re driven to begging in our anxiety and sense of loss. And this can be even more to a grief of us when we can look back and remember times of past graciousness, when God seemed close and hearts were at peace. We can easily find ourselves getting bent out of shape at “what went wrong?”
So even though it seems almost out of place straight after Christmas and our celebration of the time that God did “tear open the heavens and come down” – as we prepare for new beginnings it’s worth being reminded that, human nature being what it is, these times of distance will come, and considering how we might be prepared for them.
Because – although it might not be what they want to hear right now – I can assure this couple and their family that however much they believe they’re following God’s leading; however much right now it might feel like being set free and everything is for the best, there will come a time when they will look back on this decision to move with doubt; they will face difficulties they have not foreseen or planned for, and the gloss will wear off the new reality. That’s part of what it is to be human.
But what this text says, that makes it worth reading and reflecting on this morning, is that God is steadfast. Unlike human moods and emotions, God doesn’t change. God’s attitude towards us is the same, in our past, our present, and our future. So if we know who God was yesterday, when he showed us great favour and mercy, then we know who God is today, even if on the surface life doesn’t seem that way. So we can look at this text as a living promise, one in which we can anchor something of our spiritual identity, amidst the ups and downs of life in this world.
And that’s important, because we don’t want to fall into the mistake this passage stands against, of thinking that God has given up on us, doesn’t care or isn’t involved in what’s going on. You might think that Christmas would be the ultimate sign of God’s intimate involvement with us, but since Christmas is behind us now and so much work is in front, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded again.
So, as this family make their final preparations to leave here and begin afresh somewhere else, I’d encourage them to take to heart God’s graciousness to them, not just in a general way but in a very personal way. That’s something a preacher can’t do for you, really; but as I look around and see so many members of family, both blood family and church family; as I remember other days in this place – ordinary Sundays, and feast days, and wedding days, dedications and even funerals – I know that within the walls of this church alone, and our collective memory – let alone how God has been with you in the rest of your lives – is an enormous resource for keeping in your hearts a great sense of God’s graciousness, which can be a spiritual anchor to you all as you go.
But of course, what I’m saying, while it has a particular edge for these people just now, is relevant to all of us. Some of you will know that I recently finished five months working as part of the pastoral care team in a major hospital. And I’ve lost count of the number of Christians I sat with who were sick, or injured, or caring for loved ones, whose sense of God and of their own faith had been knocked out of whack by what had happened to them. When push came to shove, they didn’t have the spiritual resources to be held stable. What that tells me is that it’s a good idea to consciously build those resources during the good times, when we are well and strong and have the leisure to do so, so that they are there and in place when difficult times come and we need them.
So how do we do that, build that kind of spiritual resilience? I’d suggest that the text from Isaiah this morning sets us an example which we can follow, in this way.
Imagine that your life, from its beginning to its end, is a journey you undertake, with the Lord as your companion. Take some time to review your life, your journey, so far. If you can, it’s worth taking the time to make that review a serious exercise; find some quiet and solitude in which you can really think in peace! But even if you can’t do that, take what moments you can get to pay special attention to the blessed moments of your life, the times when God seemed especially close. Think about those moments as time when your story became not just yours, but the story of you and God together, as a way of helping you to know God better and respond with loving openness.
Think about the blessings in your family background, childhood, and school years. Note the blessings that have come in the world of work, and any growing sense of the strengths of your own gifts, personality, and the things you are passionate about, those things which really bring you alive. Remember the people and places who have been deeply significant to you. Perhaps choose a particular memory, sit with it and savour it, and let its meaning sink deep into your own heart and mind.
If there have been times – and let’s be honest, for most of us there will have been – which have been puzzling or have left you wounded, don’t be afraid to question God about them and persist in trying to make some sense of them, because there can be hidden blessings in those times as well.
And when you’ve recalled all of these very deeply personal riches to mind, find a way to express to God both your appreciation for what has been, and your anticipation for what will be.
This is really a form of meditating on your own life as a sacred experience, and if you make a point of doing this kind of thing regularly, it sinks in to your own mind and heart and shapes your ability to respond to what life throws at you, building what I described earlier as spiritual resilience.
And I might add, too, that although so far I’ve been talking on a very individual level, there’s a communal dimension to this as well. We have this piece of Scripture remembering God’s graciousness to Israel because it was written down, circulated, and used as a corporate exercise in calling to mind the truth of who God had been for them; how he had been “their saviour in all their distress.” This gave them a sense of corporate identity and provided strength in challenging times; it’s no coincidence that this piece of Scripture probably dates from the Jewish exile in Babylon. Far away from home, with things looking pretty bleak and God seeming far away, reminding one another of God’s history with their people became a crucial part of surviving, and would have been important in their eventual ability to return from exile and re-establish themselves as a unique people living in covenant relationship with their God.
Christians since the earliest times have known the importance of this kind of corporate remembering as well; it’s part of why we gather around the Lord’s table week by week, and why we have a calendar of regular commemorations through the year. Because remembering who God has been with us, gives us our sense of identity and provides strength in challenging times.
That’s true for the church as a general principle, but it’s also true for specific communities. This community here has its own unique identity and history; its own memory of God’s graciousness and its own unique strengths. That, too, needs to be called to mind, nurtured and held in trust for the future if this community is going to be all it can be, all God has called it together and gifted it to be. I suggest to you that being conscious of this, and keeping it a central part of your life together, is an important part of having a strong and clear sense of identity, and is going to provide direction and strength in pursuing your mission, your own corporate journey with God.
Even as you say goodbye to people who have been such an important part of your community, and you learn to adapt, to find new ways of relating and doing things, as the mix of gifts and personalities in the church changes – and of course will continue to change in the future as people come and go – those indelible memories of God’s graciousness and presence are going to continue to be important in this place.
So I commend to you this morning not only the truth which Isaiah expressed; the truth that God is gracious, merciful, and steadfast in his love, carrying his people all the days of old, but also the example that Isaiah set in putting these words to paper, and the use that has been made of them by faithful communities ever since. I encourage you to take the time and effort to be conscious of your own personal experience of God’s goodness, to recall it to mind, to make it part of who you are, and to talk about and share it with others as part of the mutual building up which is part of life in the church. And I wish you every strength and joy as you continue to walk with the Lord, wherever He journeys with you.