Monday, July 27, 2015

The Comfort in Cataclysm (Isaiah 40:3-5)

Last week, I was in Columbus, Ohio for my denominational General Assembly.  I was honored to be asked to preach in a local church on the Sunday of our Assembly.  The following is the sermon I preached at Karl Road Christian Church on July 19th, 2015.  The sermon text is based on Isaiah 40:3-5, and I tied it into the assembly theme of "SOAR" based on Isaiah 40.

When I was in college, a massive infrastructure project was taking place in Dallas. The 75 Central Expressway and Interstate 635 met in the outer edges of the downtown area and had become choked with growing traffic. There weren't enough lanes for all the cars and traffic was only going to get worse, so in 2002 a 260 million dollar construction plan began. Finished in 3 years, the lanes and bridges that came to be known as the High Five (which topped out at 12 stories), used 2.2 million cubic yards of earth, 350,000 cubic yards of concrete, and 75000 linear feet of drainage pipe. It is a marvel, as all roads are if you consider it. I have a long admiration for roads – my parents gave me a post-apocalyptic science fiction story that remembered our civilization only by the roads we left behind.  And isn’t that how we speak of Rome?  We measure its power in the long-lasting nature of its road-system.  But in every day parlance, the infrastructure, resources, manpower, ingenuity, creativity and sheer might that it takes to build roads rarely get any attention; we are too busy driving on roads to care how they came to be.

But in our scripture this morning, God is in the road building business. The road which God is building is so massive that it will require even more resources and power than any road human kind ever conceived of or constructed. God is going to build a road for his people, but to do so God will need to go to extremes. In fact, this construction effort is going to look much more like an apocalypse than anything else. Comfort, comfort my people, says God, I'm going to tear it all down. 

Since when was cataclysm comforting?

Perhaps because the people had already lived through one cataclysm already.

As we settle into our scripture this morning, one of comfort and provision, we've got to remember how the people of Israel found themselves in need of a road at all. Generation after generation were caught in the throes of worshipping idols, complicit in building up empires on the enslavement of their brothers and sisters. For centuries, God had sent prophets with the message that Israel and Judah needed to repent. But they ignored God's warning cries. The northern kingdom of Israel fell first, and Judah had lasted 130 years more before their enemies came through Jerusalem like a purging fire. The people of God were left wandering dazed in a desert of their own making, their futures reduced to sackcloth and ashes. The roads in the wasteland of their exile lead only to Babylon and into the hands of their enemies.

The song of Isaiah that we heard this morning seems to say that those wandering days are over, but God makes no apology for their years spent languishing in their road-less twilight. Even in the midst of proclaiming that their punishment was at an end is God's unflinching assessment: you are like grass, blown about by the wind. Their sins, their callous exploitation of one another, was the paving on the road that had led them to their present. It was a road that was too corrupted and pitted to lead them back. They needed a road builder to bring them out of this living death.

Those foolish people. Isn’t that usually our response to the text? To distance ourselves in space and time from these fragile and broken tribes, to wonder at how they could have ignored God's cries against their evil? 

Oh, my friends. There is almost no distance between us at all.

The Guardian has begun to keep track of the number of police related deaths in the United States. Did you know we are already at 626? Did you know, just from these numbers alone, that unarmed Black Americans are killed by police are twice as likely to be unarmed as white people? Just this last week, two African American women, Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman, died suspiciously within police custody, their bodies discovered hanging like strange fruit in their police cells. Routine traffic stops don't usually lead to death, but as we are becoming more and more aware, our black brothers and sisters often experience out of proportion violence when they encounter our criminal justice system. 8 African American churches have burned down since the end of June, more than half of them because of arson, and this year alone protests have filled our streets with people who chant #BlackLivesMatter and the names of the dead: Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, John Crawford, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott.

For hundreds of years we enslaved God's children, and even after Emancipation crafted a system of rule and life that disenfranchised and belittled the lives of African American people. And now, now a for-profit prison system makes money off of the imprisonment of a disproportionate portion of the African American men of our country. Doesn't that sound like the sins of Israel? Exploitation, marginalization, enslavement. As a denomination we gather together and wonder at the decline of the Christian sphere of influence, at finding ourselves in a road-less desert. But have we ever stopped to consider that we might have paved the road that led us here? That perhaps our silence about the evils of slavery, that our complicity with systemic racism, our marginalization of and violence against women and LGBTQIA people were the stones under our feet to this place of fear and confusion? Did it ever occur to us that we may have earned our present?

But wasn’t I supposed to be comforting you?

Comfort, comfort, God says. And despite the fact that the previous 39 chapters of Isaiah have been anything but comforting, these words truly are. God, despite the sin of Israel, despite the knowledge that people are inconstant and as fleeting as grass, has decided that reconciliation is possible, that re-creation is possible. Just as once the people were lead from Egypt through a desert and into life, they will be lead through this desert of their desolation.

But this time, God isn't using the same road as before. The road that God is building them will not be like the road they walked on the way into Babylon and Exile. It will not be created by the might of Nebuchadnezzar or Cyrus of Persia. No great work-gangs will pull stone from the earth and construct routes around mountains and through valleys.

God is the foreman of this new road and isn't going to put up with all of the complications of changing terrain. God has decided to make a way for the people out of their suffering and sin and this is how God does it - God heaves the valleys up, God smashes the mountains low, God smooths the terrain in front of them, God mixes the elements of space and time, laying out the foundation of the greatest path ever made.

Can you imagine standing by as God worked? You would watch as God destroyed everything you ever knew, and created a landscape totally new. It’s the first disaster movie!  I love disaster movies, the terrible writing and the fast-and-loose maneuvering around science.  The best one is still 2012, because it managed to encompass every possible disaster.   To my delight, the first disaster movie can be found in scripture and its screenwriter is Isaiah. This is the promise God gives to the people: I’m making a way for you, but to do so I will take away what you knew, what you recognized, what you relied on, what you felt comforted by. I’m making a way in the wilderness, a highway. But to gain life, you must lose the life you knew. God can always make a way for his people, but that way comes at a cost. As I think, it should. How comforted do you feel? 

God's solution seems to be a Divine Riot: God will make this better by bringing it all crashing down.

Do not misunderstand me: I believe truly and deeply in God's gracious love, that God is more than able to redeem us from the worst of ourselves. I also believe that God lets us walk by ourselves, in our own direction if we set our minds to it. Even when that journey take us into painful places. Into desolate places. I think that is where we find ourselves as a denomination, as Christians in America. Firmly we have made our way, racist step by sexist step by hetero-sexist step by exploitative step and we cry out to God to make us a new road because the one we followed has betrayed us.

I think much like in our scripture, God says: be comforted, oh you disciples. I'll build you a road out of the wilderness. But to do so, I've got to knock it all down, change it all. You will lose your bearings, you will lose your footing, you won’t know which way to turn. The way forward will be unrecognizable, the path forward will require sacrifice and trust and faith that what you are leaving behind is nothing compared to what God can do. 

I know this journey because I have been on it before.

I have been through my own desolation, the cataclysmic destruction that left me horrifically betrayed, to raise a 19 month old child on my own. And God made me a road out of the desert but only by sweeping the horizon clear of anything I’d known before. Sometimes the greatest comfort God can give us is the unknown before us, the past a wreckage un-traversable. Isn’t that the story of Easter? Our King on a cross, who's defiance of death was heralded in the mouth of a tomb?

Comfort, Comfort my people, says God. I am building them a road. A mountain leveling road. A horizon clearing road. And all the people shall see it.

Stand with me friends as we watch the end of all things, the leveling of that which we know, of the dismantling of all the evil we have let fester within us and around us. I am afraid to witness this alone. Without you, I would tremble in the maelstrom of God's apocalyptic power. But if you will stand with me, here on the edge of something new, then I think I could bear the loss, bear the desperate hope for a new road. With you, I think I believe that God will give us the strength to run and not be weary, to walk and not faint, to fly...

maybe even to soar.

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