A sermon based on Psalm 147:1-11 and Isaiah 40:21-31 preached on February 8th, 2015.
Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, tells the story of man named Arlo. Arlo and his wife were married quite a while ago in rural South Dakota. On the day of their wedding, Arlo’s grandfather, a very religious man, gave the newly married couple a bible—one of those nice white leather-bound ones. It was in a box, and it had the newlywed’s names set in gold on the cover.
In its box that bible stayed, and eventually it made its way onto the top shelf of Arlo’s bedroom closet, still unopened. Every time his grandfather saw Arlo, he would ask him how he liked that Bible.
“Oh, just fine!” Arlo lied, “It was such a thoughtful gift.” Arlo said something like this each time his grandfather asked. His grandfather kept asking him about the bible—for years and years.
So, one day, Arlo got curious enough, and he took down that old bible in its dusty box from the top shelf in his bedroom closet. He flipped to the beginning of the book of Genesis and found a crisp $20 bill. Arlo kept on flipping through the pages, and at the beginning of each book—Exodus, Levitus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—there was a bill—a $20 or a $50, sometimes even a $100 bill. Arlo flipped all the way through that old bible and found that his granddad had stuffed over $1,300 into the pages of that bible, knowing that Arlo would never find it.
The book of Isaiah is actually 3 books (1st, 2nd, and 3rd Isaiah). In all, the book of Isaiah, as we have it now, is made of stories that span more than 200 years of Israel’s history.
And here in chapter 40, the book of 2nd Isaiah begins with the Israelites in exile. They’ve been kicked out of the Promised Land—out of their homes and away from their synagogues and everything they knew—and deported to Babylon. They are displaced people. They cry out to God, and they wonder out loud to their faith leaders why, why have these terrible things happened to us? Why has the Land that God gave our ancestors and promised to us—why have we been kicked off of it? Is God no longer God? Has God turned His back on us?
Our way is hidden from the Lord,
Our God ignores our predicament!
They demand answers and they fall into despair.
The people of Israel are crumbling apart, and it is in the midst of this hopelessness that Isaiah speaks.
Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard, O people of Israel? Your God is still with you!
As if to say, God doesn’t exist with you only when your live are comfortable and you have all you need.
God is right here, especially right here, where there is distress and trouble and hunger and sorrow and groaning. In the middle of their despair, God sends Isaiah to the exiles with a message to deliver: the story isn’t over. This isn’t the end of the line. God is much more powerful than you think, and God will lift you up again. Just wait. Have patience. Isaiah delivers this message by asking a series of rhetorical questions, kinda like the ones we hear God ask Job near the end of that story.
Haven’t you understood since the earth was founded? Who is my equal? Who created all of this?
We know the answer to these questions There’s no reason to answer them because they make their own point, don’t they?
People of God, you’ve forgotten your story!
This is God saying,
Have you honestly forgotten all the promises I’ve made to you throughout all those generations? The one’s your ancestors drilled into your heads. All the stories about how I found you, rescued you, called you my own, and gave you an identity? None of that has changed and neither will it ever change. I’ve gone nowhere; I’m still right here! So stop despairing, because your lives are far from over. Remember your story. I’m the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth and I give power to the tired, and I revive the exhausted. I’m not done with you yet. I will continue being your God, so continue being my people, and live your story, the one I have given to you.
One of my favorite authors, Leonard Sweet, tells the tale of a poor man who wanted to go on a cruise all of his life. That’s all he ever wanted to do.
Week by week, paycheck by paycheck, he would stash away a couple pennies. For decades he saved and saved, and when he was old he finally had enough money to afford a cruise ticket. Knowing he could not afford the elegant food pictured in the brochures, the man packed up a week’s supply of bread and peanut butter—that was all he could afford.
The first few days of the cruise were thrilling. The man ate peanut butter sandwiches in the morning, then went up to the deck and spent his time relaxing in the sunlight and wading in the pool.
By midweek, though, the man began to notice that he was the only one on board who wasn’t eating luxurious meals. Everybody there was eating all the time, no matter what time of day it was, and there was food everywhere. The man had grown tired and weary of peanut butter sandwiches. They never filled him up. And in his frustration he walked up to one of the porters and asked,
Tell me how all these people have enough money to afford to eat all this food! They must be rich!
the porter said,
Don’t you have a ticket?
the man replied,
I have a ticket, but it was so expensive, I can’t afford to eat well while I’m here!
the porter said,
didn’t you realize? Meals are included in your passage. You may eat as much as you’d like! Anything you see, it’s yours!
Friends, God has a story for us. It’s a feast of a story. It isn’t a quick “Once Upon a Time” story. No, it’s a much bigger story than that. God’s story starts this way:
In the beginning…
It’s a tale that began at the very dawn of time and will extend long past our days.
It’s the story of how God has come to us, over and over again, and saves us over and over again. It’s a story about how God relentlessly claims us as His own. It’s the story of how God comes to us just like He came to Abram and Sarai and promises us a future filled with blessing. It’s the story how we’ve all been delivered like the Israelites from Egypt, out from under the heavy hand of bondage. It’s the story of how we’ve been set free in Jesus Christ to live new and ever-renewing lives. That’s God’s story. And it’s ours, too. And like the Israelites, we have a tendency to forget our sacred story, especially when we find ourselves in uprooted places. Just like the old man on that cruise ship, we grow content feeding ourselves peanut butter sandwiches when God has set a feast in front of us.
God has invited us to be a people of a story, but like the exiled Israelites, we forget our story and we settle for much less. Just like Arlo, we have been invited to partake in the huge feast of God’s Word but we never open our invitations.
In his book Tablet to Table, Leonard Sweet says that we the Church suffer from a disease called versitus. (Not bursitis, that’s the painful inflammation of our shoulder joints.)
The bible was written as a whole story. It’s God’s story and our story. It’s about how God creates us, calls us His own, delivers us from trouble, and in the fullness of time sent Jesus to save us from ourselves and to free us to live our lives glorifying God and serving others.
The story is all there for us, not only to read but to experience and to live out in our own lives. This is a story in which we too are characters. But we don’t know that story, nor do we live that story, because instead of feasting on the whole story we’ve tried to satisfy ourselves with crumbs. When we go to the bible, we busy ourselves so often with the verses that we have no concept of the stories.
The story of the bible is the greatest story never told.
Here’s an example of how we suffer from versitus:Let’s all say John 3:16 together:
For God so loved the world that He gave us His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.
Good! How about John 3:15?
John 3:17? Anyone?
Do we know the story from which John 3:16 comes? It’s the story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus at night—the one where they talk about what it means to born anew.
We’ve forgotten our story. Maybe we’ve forgotten that we even have a story.
See, faith isn’t about believing in bullet points. The 5 principles of highly effective faithfulness. It isn’t even about obeying the 10 Commandments. Neither do we have a mantra or an ethic or a couple bumper sticker phrases that sum up our faith in fair ways. All of those are peanut butter sandwiches.
We are a people invited into a feast of a story! And what a feast of a story it is! It’s the story of God’s ever-unfolding pursuit of our hearts and lives! It’s the story of a God of love who’s crazy about the idea of being in relationship with us. Once we start paying attention to God’s story and our place in it, God will use us, thrill us, surprise us, and change how we see ourselves and how we see God, and we’ll start adding our own chapters to this one story. Then we’ll not only be storytellers, but storydoers!
Our passage in Isaiah says “God inhabits the earth’s horizon.” Think about that. No matter how far we travel, isn’t the horizon always in front of us? Our God is forever in front of us.
Let us continue walking forward into the future God has for us. God will be with us as we go, ushering us into the next chapters of this ever-unfolding story.
May we always know our story. May we always tell our story. But most importantly, may we be storydoers!
All praises to the One who made it all and find it beautiful!