Hello-Goodbye Sermon series - May 9, 2021

Isaiah 43What do you think of when you hear the word discipline? Is it a positive thing? Or a negative thing? Or a neutral thing? It likely depends on how you were raised. Was discipline a threat? “Just wait ‘til your father gets home.” A spanking or a belt? Added chores? Lost privileges? Time out? Being grounded? It’s likely that among us we represent all those things and more. And it’s likely our notions of discipline probably carry a negative connotation, which then influences how we hear this passage about God’s discipline. It’s also likely that whatever church we grew up in (if we grew up in one) influenced how we understand God (did they talk about God

as loving and caring, or angry and vengeful) and what we then assume about what kind of disciplinarian God might be.

Which is the long way of saying, most of us bring a good bit of baggage when we come to passages like this one. It’s hard to hear through the filters of our upbringing and faith traditions. But we’re going to try.

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the Old Testament in general or the prophets in particular there is a certain pattern that happens within both. God gives directions--laws, instructions, and guidance about how the Israelites should live. The Israelites are more or less receptive and then follow accordingly. And yet, even when they have submitted to the laws, in time, they eventually veer off course. They begin acting out of selfishness, greed, or pride. They disregard issues of justice or care for those in need. And in those times God sends a prophet--a messenger-- to say, in essence, “Hey, listen up. Knock it off. God told you what you needed to do and you’re not doing it. And if you keep on that path it’s not going to end well. There’s going to be famine, there’s going to be war, you might suffer in exile.” And usually...the Israelites don’t listen. So they get another warning. And eventually, they suffer the consequences that were foretold--which are more like natural consequences than imposed ones.

Now, before we get all high and mighty thinking the Israelites were so foolish and unfaithful and we are so much better, let’s be clear we get it wrong as well. God sends people as messengers to us too--warning us about systems of greed and violence that operate out of pride and fear and selfishness. And we’re called to greater faithfulness ourselves--we’re called to live differently and warned that if we don’t, greater harm will come.

And ironically, when the destruction or rebellion or suffering comes, we blame God--why are you doing this to us? Why have you forsaken us? Have you seen that pattern before? We create our own mess, but then somehow find it to be God’s fault when we suffer the consequences of our actions. It seems to be human nature--this way of going our way, often refusing to heed warnings about what might come of it, and then struggling to make sense of how awful it all is.

Enter our text for today. The Israelites are in that suffering time--that living with the consequences of their actions, and they are not ok with it. And, frankly, God lets them sit in it awhile. God doesn’t just swoop in to rescue them from it. After all, God had sent prophets to warn them, and redirect them, and call them back to a path of righteousness and they refused to do it. So….God lets them live in it. Which we hate when we are the ones suffering, right. But...when we are the one who gave the warning, there’s a little bit of righteous “I told you so.” Right?

Today we’re celebrating mothers, but it’s also fathers, and aunties and uncles….enjoy this privilege (grandparents too, though they certainly seem a bit softer and more compassionate from my side of life). How many of you have ever warned your child that what they are doing is unwise or unsafe? Everyone, right? Unless you only have a baby who is still too young to move off the blanket...you’ve given a warning...if you pull on that you’ll knock it over, if you dump out your cereal for the dog you won’t have any left to eat, if you pull the cat’s tail you’re likely to get scratched, if you don’t take a jacket you’re going to be cold...the list goes on and on and only gets worse with more responsibility. Right?

And initially, we hurt with them when the thing we warned them about actually happens. But with time...and lots of these incidents...we become a little more calloused in the process. We don’t want our kids or nieces and nephews or grands to hurt--that’s not our will for them, but….we do want them to learn and when we warn them over and over again that something is not a good idea and there are likely significant and undesirable consequences for those behaviors and they do it anyway and then suffer said consequences, it’s hard not to shrug and say, “I warned you.” Right? Or is that just me? (Judge my parenting if you will….) =)

What we see in this section of scripture (it’s far more than just this one chapter) is that it’s kind of like that for God too. God gives instructions. The Israelites don’t follow them. God sends a messenger to let them know it’s a bad plan and there are better ways to do things. The Israelites don’t listen. Bad things happen. And God kind of shrugs and says, “I warned you.” I mean really, what else was God to do? Is God supposed to swoop in and save us from our willfulness? I don’t think so. And that part stinks.

And that’s when we hear from God in our passage. God acknowledges that it’s been rough. Even having watched the suffering. God isn’t glad for the pain but is hopeful for the lesson. And God starts with this beautiful reminder that God loves them and cares for them.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

Since you are precious and honored in my sight,
and because I love you,
Do not be afraid, for I am with you;

I absolutely love this. God could have started with “I told you so”, but instead God starts with, I love you, and I know it’s awful, but I’m not going to let the awfullest awful overtake you. You are precious, honored, and loved. Man, if we could just hear those things over and over again, you are precious, honored, and loved. You are mine. If we could hear those things and believe them, what a different world we might live in.

And then the prophet, as the voice of God, calls the Israelites to a time of remembering...remember what God has done in the past. There’s an acknowledgment that things are awful right now...God is not dismissive, but they are also reminded that God has brought them through worse...and if God can do that, then God can do this.

And I think we need that reassurance too. Things are looking up in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways, there’s still a lot of suffering. This disease is still wreaking havoc, putting people in the hospital, killing people, and changing and presenting new dangers with the variants. We aren’t through the current suffering. And the pandemic of racial violence isn’t over either. Hate crimes are still happening across the country daily. More people are seeing it. More people are aware of the issues. More people are taking ownership of their role in making a lasting difference and that difference only happening if they make a lifelong commitment to change and the work of anti-racism. All those things are good and happening. And...there is still tremendous pain and suffering, hate and indifference, willful ignorance and woeful neglect. We aren’t through it yet.

And God says, I can get you through this. Remember, I have done even greater things and if I can do that, I can do this.

And most of us would like to stop there. God loves us. We are precious and honored. And God has the power to do even greater things. And we’d like to move on--get back to normal. But the story doesn’t stop there. God, after reminding the people of God’s great love for them, and God’s ability to work through the most impossible of circumstances, then calls them back to accountability--now….remember...you are in this place because you didn’t listen. God is willing to do a new thing--wanting to do a new thing--but we have to be willing to change and do a new thing if we want things to turn a corner and be different. That’s the kicker. If we don’t want to keep suffering these consequences of our actions (personal actions, cultural actions, institutional actions--they all apply), if we don’t want to suffer this way--then we have to be willing to change to live into God’s “new thing.”

Right? We can’t keep doing the things God warned us about. We can’t keep doing unjust things, we can’t keep ignoring the personhood and needs of all people, we can’t keep living in ways that make our comfort a greater priority than someone else’s right to live. We have to be willing to change.

The good news is, we aren’t asked to change on our own. We aren’t asked to envision a new way by ourselves. God gives us a plan. God gives us the means. And God is there to love us through the hardest parts. But we have to be willing to live differently--for some of us REALLY differently. That commitment can be really challenging. And, it’s also really promising.

Let us pray.