2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


We Will Bestir Ourselves

Isaiah 63-64

Sometimes when you fly, and sit next to the window, you think about things. How beautiful it is down there. Patches of trees, newly plowed fields, a pasture turning green, straight roads, meandering creeks, farmhouses, towns, a lake; alabaster cities.

Up here with the clouds, looking down, you feel a little detached. There's not a whole lot you can do about anything, except perhaps think about the world down there. Not about yourself so much. That's what you do when you're down there; you think about what you have to do, how to get someplace, get across streets, be on time, manage things, change things, jog a little, keep your weight down. When you're down there, you think about yourself and what you can do, but up here you feel detached, and you think about the whole world, and how things are going in general.

And it's so beautiful that you wonder how, in general, down there, things could be going so badly. When you're down there, you feel you should be doing something about those mile-long lines of Ethiopians, walking painfully and slowly to somewhere. But up here, looking down, you wonder why it happened. Some of the reasons are clear: Too little rain, too many people, too much cattle, the advancing desert. But why was so little done? Where were all those cargo planes, all the army trucks, all the parachutes; where were all the soldiers who could have helped? Is it conceivable that we just let those people die? It's so beautiful, the land. How could things be going so badly?

Alabaster cities gleaming. So it seems from here. But when you are down there in those cities, walking the streets, it's different. Then you wonder what you should be doing about the rotting houses, the smells, the waste of the water, the yellow smoke from the factories; what you should be doing about the people who beg you for help, for a little food.You see prisons when you're down there, see them from the highway, prisons and jails of all kinds, and still not enough. But up here, detached from it all, you just wonder in general how things could have become so decayed and brightening and unpleasant. It's so beautiful from the air. Why down there are there so many who walk the streets hands deep in their pockets, heads down; so much grief?

Long before the birth of Christ there was a prophet named Isaiah who knew nothing of airplanes, but it was a time when there was time for wondering. Isaiah contemplated his world from the detachment of the desert and he, too, wondered how things could be going so badly. In the sixty-third chapter of Isaiah's book, he offered three explanations for the disintegration and grief which he saw around him. First, Isaiah blamed it on God. "O Lord, why dost thou make us err from thy ways and harden our heart so that we fear thee not?" It was, I think, an honest response. I respect him for saying that he thought it was God's fault. The modern way is to assume that if there are wars and famines, then there must be no God at all. Isaiah was never that lonely, that he could imagine no God at all. "O Lord, why did you harden our hearts?''

But Isaiah had a second way of understanding what he saw around him. He wrote, "Thy holy people possessed the sanctuary a little while; our adversaries have trodden it down.'' As Isaiah saw it, there was a mythic time when all was going well. It was a time when the people of God lived righteously, when they possessed the sanctuary, lived responsive to God, respected what was holy on Earth and in their lives. He was thinking of the Garden of Eden, perhaps, or the days of King David. What happened? Why have things gone so badly? Because adversaries had trodden down what was sacred. The fault lies with them, with the Communists who wouldn't feed their own people in Ethiopia, with teachers who can't teach, preachers who neither pray nor preach. The fault lies with corrupt officials, with all the aliens and strangers who force their way into our alabaster cities. For a while, a holy people, a righteous and God-fearing people, possessed the sanctuary, but now our adversaries have trodden it down. It was their fault that things are going so badly.

Wondering about the why of things in the world? Isaiah comes to still another way of understanding it. His third explanation is simply put. "Behold, we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.''

So does Isaiah trace the journey which many of us have taken. We start somewhere else. Things are going badly because God has hardened our hearts and therefore if we are angry or sad about the brutalities and the harshness of the world. Let us be angry at God, and sad because God has turned against us. But perhaps some of the blame should be laid at the feet of our enemies; it is these others who have overturned what was sacred. Let us blame the Communists, the labor unions, the aliens who flock to our shores. The Klu Klux Klan rides again, and no one who is not one of us is safe. The source of the world's trouble is the stranger. If we can rid ourselves of the stranger, the peace of Eden will be restored.

But, as does Isaiah, we come finally to the hardest truth. "Behold, we have sinned; in our sins we have been a long time.'' We ourselves are a part of the human family. When anger draws the sword, it is our anger. When greed leeches the blood of the weak, it is our greed. When injustice is practiced for selfish gain, that perversion has tenacious roots deep into our own souls. "We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.''

When you're down there, not flying, but walking around trying to keep bread on the table, when you're down there smelling the bad air and watching the houses and the people rot, you wonder what you should be doing. But up here, or in the desert, with a little distance from it all, you wonder how it is that on such a beautiful planet things could be going so badly. Why God so hardens our hearts, or how our adversaries could have so trampled things sacred. Or you wonder about our sins; about leaves which fade and are blown away by the wind.

Being activists, many of us, and accustomed to taking care of things and feeling guilty when we don't, we feel that we should do something about the God who hardens our hearts, or about the strangers who have intruded, or even about our sins. But when you're flying or out in the desert, you know there's not a whole lot you can do.

Isaiah doesn't do much either. He wrote, "O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, and that we wouldst bestir ourselves to take hold of thee.''

As the mountains once quaked at the presence of God, as the fire kindles brush wood, as the fire causes water to boil, so now, with things going so badly, may God do something. Wrote Isaiah, "Return for the sake of thy servants.... We are all the work of thy hand.''

Most of the time we're on the ground, walking the streets, doing things, trying to be moral and responsible. And we'll land again and get on with it. We'll wash the dishes, cut the lawn, go to the polls to vote; contribute to worthy causes, we'll try to raise our children to do what is right. Under the best of circumstances, we'll stop blaming God for the troubles of the world. Under the best of circumstances, we'll be less inclined to blame the unions, the communists, all those people who are different. Under the best of circumstances, we'll acknowledge our own sins, our complicity in earth's grief; put our wills to the task of reforming our lives and rediscovering what it means to love in a world that's obviously broken.

But most of us know that when we have done our best, and all the people of goodwill have done their best, it will not be enough. How large Earth is and how many its people, how foreboding its future, how small we are. "O that thou, O God, wouldst rend the heavens and come down.'' Meet us, O God, and let us bestir ourselves to take hold of thee.

Meet us in Christ where the Ethiopian mother stumbles.

Meet us where the diplomats sit to reason about the future of these fields and forest.

Meet us in the eyes of this person begging food and a place to spend the night.

Meet us at the gate where the imprisoned are separated from the free.

Meet us where the siren sounds, where the telephone rings, when the plane lands.

"O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down.... We are all the work of thy hand.''

Meet us.

We will call ourselves by thy name and bestir ourselves to take hold of thee.

Barbara K. Lundblad Protestant Hour-Lutheran Series

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