Complementary Text: Matthew 5:14
Preaching Text: Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
This week our journey through the Scriptures brings us to the book of Isaiah, probably the most important of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Isaiah, like the rest of the prophets, was called to speak the word of the Lord to people who faced an uncertain future. Last week, we heard from Micah, who warned God’s people about the internal problems that tore at the fabric of society and threatened to bring judgment upon the nation. Today, Isaiah speaks to people harried by an external threat: Assyria, which at that point in history was the most powerful empire on earth and which had its eyes set on the small nation of Judah. We pick up the story with the Assyrian army stationed outside Jerusalem and their commanding officer Rab-Shakeh taunting the people of the city in their own language: Do not let your king Hezekiah, deceive you, and don’t think your God will save you! Sennacherib, the great king of Assyria, will conquer your city! Hezekiah is distressed, but he sends for a word from the prophet Isaiah, who reassures him: Don’t be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me! To a people in fear, the prophet brings a word of comfort and peace, calming the hearts and minds of a war-weary nation.
Brothers and sisters, the world we live in at present can often be a scary place in its own right. There is plenty to occupy our attention, to cause us to worry about the events that are swirling around us locally, nationally, and globally. What makes matters worse is that there are far too many people who relish the role of the Rab-Shakeh in today’s reading, who make their living sowing the seeds of fear and division. Abroad, our nation and our allies face threats from the so-called “Islamic State”, whose actions in recent months have not only demonstrated that there is nothing “Islamic” about them, but have also represented the very definition of terrorism. That they are a very small group of people operating in a relatively small area of the world has not stopped them (and, unfortunately, our media) from magnifying the practical threat they pose. At the same time, the fear occasioned in our country by the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa has in some cases led to responses that border on the absurd: look, for example, to a school district in Connecticut which recently banned a student from school after her family traveled to Nigeria to attend a wedding, despite the fact that Nigeria is over 1,000 miles away from the nearest country affected by the virus. I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that neither of these situations is worthy of a response. Both have led to loss of life and suffering on a broad scale, and there is certainly much that we can do as a nation to address these and other problems that face our global community. But when those responses are provoked by irrational fear rather than initiated by sober reflection and intentional action, they have the potential to cause great harm to us and to others.
There’s a reason, I think, that so many of the encounters between human and divine recorded in Scripture begin with the words, “Do not be afraid.” Ever since Adam and Eve made the choice to trust the word of the serpent rather than God’s word, human existence has been characterized by fear and mistrust. Many of the institutions that human beings have created are necessary because of those realities; in fact, I challenge you to name one human institution that is not firmly rooted in our need to protect one group of individuals from another. But this is not God’s desire for us or for our world. The vision of Isaiah we heard after the story of Sennacharib and Hezekiah is a vision of a shared destiny for all the nations of the world, a vision that tells of an end to fear and division and mistrust and enmity between people:
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:1-4, NRSV)
This is not a naïve vision or a pie-in-the-sky prediction. The word of the Lord that came to Isaiah was a word spoken in the midst of hardship for God’s people, with the threat of violence looming over the nation. It is a word that has persisted, a promise that has endured even as the people who first heard it experienced centuries of persecution and pain. It is a word that cuts through the fear which so often threatens to overwhelm us. It is a beacon of hope, not only for the people of Israel, but also for the church that has been grafted on to that people through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
This weekend, alongside this latest step along our journey through Scripture, we also gather to give thanks for the ministries carried out by the Women of the ELCA. So often we ground our thanksgiving in the faithfulness that God has shown us in the past, and we are certainly called to that sort of gratitude in response to God’s gracious providence. I’d like to suggest, however, that there is another, equally compelling reason for us to give thanks: namely, the hope that sustains us in the face of scarcity and fear. One of the great gifts of this faith is the vision of a world renewed and restored, the promise of a world that is no longer defined by what we lack, but by the wholeness that is God’s will for our world. We are called to be grateful not simply because of what God has already done for us, but because God has given us a glimpse of the world that is yet to be and invited us to participate in it today. And so we give thanks for our sisters in Christ who carry out such incredible ministry with and for us. We give thanks for the blessings and graces that God has poured out upon us in Jesus Christ. But let us also give thanks for the hopeful vision that sustains us in the face of our fears, for the word of the Lord that declares that we don’t need to be afraid, and for the promise of peace that frees us to give as Christ first gave to us. May that vision, that word, and that promise carry us as we go out into a fearful world and seek to walk in the Lord’s paths today and always. Thanks be to God. Amen.
*Note: I am indebted this week to the reflection by Dr. Amy Oden at Working Preacher. For more of her thoughts on this week’s text, click here.