2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Preaching: Isaiah 40:1-11

For one sermon, the preacher might draw an analogy between Israel in exile and the church in exile in contemporary North America. Only a generation ago, North American culture had an informal alliance with the Jewish-Christian tradition in which the culture supported many values and practices of the church, and the church reciprocated. In many circles, to be a good Christian was to be a good citizen.

This alliance had many problems. Chief among them was so close an identification between the church and the culture that it was often difficult for the church to recognize disparities between genuine Christian values and secular values. The church often accommodated its message and life so much to the culture that Christian witness lost its distinctive identity. The Christian community did not exercise its role of prophetic criticism with sufficient force. Christians were sometimes complicit with injustice.

However, despite such difficulties, the former relationship had some positive qualities. The culture fed the church a constant stream of members because it was socially beneficial to be a Christian. The culture contained much language and symbolism that reflected the Jewish-Christian heritage. In many communities, church steeples were the tallest and most visible landmarks.

Today, however, North American culture is pluralistic and diverse. The church no longer enjoys favored status. The long established churches—which were most closely identified with the culture—are losing institutional force. For example, my own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has declined from 1.7 million resident members the year I was born (1949) to 580,000 participating members today. There are as many Muslims in the United States as Episcopalians. A lot of people in the long established churches feel estranged from their new cultural setting. Many Christians are confused about how to organize the internal life of the church, about how (or whether) to promote evangelistic witness, about how to engage in prophetic critique.

This text speaks a word of encouragement to a church in exile. God has not abandoned the Christian community. God proves faithful. Presently, it is not clear how the church should organize itself or exercise its vocation in the world. This is a highly experimental time in which the church is feeling its way—trying new forms of life, evaluating them, and trying other new forms. It is not even clear that Christian community will continue in denominations and congregations as we have known them. Isaiah reminds us that whatever happens in our common life, we are carried in the arms of a shepherd.

Indeed, some Christian leaders today believe that the loss of the church's favored status and its new cultural voice as one among many will actually enhance the freedom of the church to speak the word of God more forcefully, and with less compromise, than before.

Another sermon might focus on the call of the community to make a way in the wilderness. Isaiah makes use of an image from an annual Babylonian rite: they decorated highways for sacred processions of their deities. The appearance of the deity along the highway meant continued blessing and salvation. In the days of Isaiah, the desert was a potent symbol of chaos. Israel is to make such a way for God through the desert wilderness. Israel is not called to remake the wilderness into a place of habitation and shalom. Within the desert, the community is to witness to the divine sovereignty. God will refashion the wilderness by lifting the valleys, reducing the mountains and smoothing the rough ground.

Our world is a wilderness: random natural disasters, drugs, broken homes, violence on the streets and overseas, firebombing African-American churches, corruption in political office, the idolatries of the marketplace, the decline of the long-established churches, the growing popularity of churches with limited views of God and rigid piety. Not long ago, I heard a middle judicatory official say, "Today's church is not the church I agreed to serve when I was ordained in 1959. I don't even know how to work in this church."

In this wilderness, the church is called to witness to the divine presence and the divine promise that justice will come in all relationships and all life situations. God will restore the world to its intended purposes. In the midst of chaos, the church speaks this word, and testifies to it by carrying out actions that demonstrate God's purpose. For instance, we run a shelter for the homeless in the church basement in part because the homeless need a shelter, and in part because sheltering the homeless witnesses to God's desire (and promise) for all to have shelter.

Still another sermon might help the congregation gain confidence in the trustworthiness of the word of God in contrast to the empty words that are spoken by the idols of the world. Some commentators think that the withering grass in vv. 6-8 refers to the words, values, and practices of Babylonian religion. They fade in the presence of God, but the promises of God endure. The preacher might look for the grass in the culture around us. How does it fail us, especially when push comes to shove? The preacher would then need to identify the content of the word of God. How does that word stand?

Ronald Allen