Category: isaiah

Becoming Peacemakers In An Age of Chaos

This is the meditation I am giving at the Community Prayer Breakfast sponsored by our local hospital, Danville Regional Medical Center.

A Story of Prayer and Community

We have gathered here this morning because we believe in two things — the power of prayer and our responsibility to our community.  So we have come together to pray for our community, that we can find new ways to deal with old problems, that the promise of Jesus is true when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”  — Matthew 5:9

In a day when violence seems unrelenting, and neighborliness is a quaint sentiment, let me tell you a story in which we might find some hope.

Not far from here, just across the North Carolina line, lies the little community of Cedar Grove, North Carolina.  Cedar Grove is like many of the small rural communities around here.  A changing economy and hard times have reduced the once-thriving crossroads to a couple of churches and a post office.

But Bill King and his wife, Emma, had high hopes for the little bait-and-tackle shop they opened just down the road from the Cedar Grove United Methodist Church.  The Kings had to run the drug dealers out of the cinderblock building they bought.  But gradually business picked up, and families even brought their kids to the little country store for ice cream on hot summer days.

One hot June day in 2004, an intruder walked into Bill’s store and shot him in the back of the head.  Bill died from the gunshot wound, and any sense of security and innocence Cedar Grove might have had disappeared that day.

Outraged, the neighbors demanded that something be done.  One suggested to Grace Hackney, pastor at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, that they offer a reward for the arrest and conviction of the killer.  But Grace had a better idea.  She suggested they gather in front of Bill and Emma’s store in a prayer vigil for their community. Continue reading “Becoming Peacemakers In An Age of Chaos”

Easter Sermon: Feeding Straw To Lions

On this Easter Sunday, Isaiah provides a wonderful look at how everything changes as God’s Kingdom comes.  Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on this Easter Sunday.  I pray that your Easter will be a glorious one.

Feeding Straw To Lions

Isaiah 65:17-25

17 “Behold, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.

18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.

19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.

20 “Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
he who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere youth;
he who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.

21 They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the works of their hands.

23 They will not toil in vain
or bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD,
they and their descendants with them.

24 Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.

25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
but dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD.

Why Are We Here Today?

Today is Easter Sunday, and we have gathered here as we do each year on this day.  But why are we here?  After all,  Easter has become a mish-mash of wonderful, yet often conflicting experiences.

First, we have the word “Easter” itself.  You will not find the word “Easter” in the Bible.  It’s actually not even a Christian or Continue reading “Easter Sermon: Feeding Straw To Lions”

Memorial Day sermon: When God Writes Your Name

This year because Ascension Sunday and Memorial Day weekend are the same, we’re emphasizing Ascension Sunday. But, last year we focused on Memorial Day. Here’s the sermon I preached last year, if you’re looking for sermon ideas. I liked the text from Isaiah and wove the Memorial Day theme around that. The title is When God Writes Your Name.

I’ll have this year’s Ascension Sunday sermon, Telling the Good News, up on Saturday.

Sermon for Palm Sunday: Sustaining The Weary

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Palm Sunday, April 5, 2009.

Sustaining the Weary

Isaiah 50:4-9a

4 The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue,
to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.

Continue reading “Sermon for Palm Sunday: Sustaining The Weary”

Sermon: Your Light Has Come

This is the sermon I’m preaching on Epiphany Sunday, January 4, 2009, from Isaiah 60:1-6.  

Your Light Has Come

Isaiah 60: 1-6

1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come, 

       and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.

 2 See, darkness covers the earth 
       and thick darkness is over the peoples, 
       but the LORD rises upon you 
       and his glory appears over you.

 3 Nations will come to your light, 
       and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

 4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you: 
       All assemble and come to you; 
       your sons come from afar, 
       and your daughters are carried on the arm.

 5 Then you will look and be radiant, 
       your heart will throb and swell with joy; 
       the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, 
       to you the riches of the nations will come.

 6 Herds of camels will cover your land, 
       young camels of Midian and Ephah. 
       And all from
Sheba will come, 
       bearing gold and incense 
       and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.

Epiphany Sunday is here

Well, here we are at Epiphany Sunday.  You’ll notice that all the Christmas decorations are gone today – the Chrismon tree, the candles, the advent wreath, the greenery that represents life even in winter.  And if you are like we are, you have already packed away the trappings of Christmas at your house, including the nativity scenes and the Wisemen.

But, if we were a really observant liturgical church, we would recognize this Sunday as the visit of the Magi to the Christchild.  Or, if we were Eastern Orthodox, we would celebrate this Sunday as the Baptism of the Lord Sunday.  We’ll do that later, but today is Epiphany Sunday, which means “appearing.”  Now, it wasn’t that the babe born in a stable hadn’t already appeared, but now it has become apparent who he is.  The Magi – the wisemen – schooled in ancient celestial arts have recognized the star of portent.  A star in the heavens with great significance has heralded the appearance of a new king. 

But, Isaiah over 600 years before speaks of another light.  A light that will shine on all, a light that will bring the nations into its brilliance, a light that will be reflected in the lives of those who see it and understand it.  And as they come to this light, Isaiah says, they will bear gifts of “gold and incense” – a prophecy fulfilled in the gifts of the wisemen.

A Look Back at the Light

But, how are we to understand what Isaiah is saying?  Isaiah, of course, is writing to a people who need encouragement.  The people of God have been defeated, disbursed, taken captive, and are in great difficulty.  To them the prophecy of God comes through Isaiah –

Arise, shine, your light has come!

And, as if to explain what this light is, Isaiah says –

and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. 

In other words, this is God’s light!  God’s light, not just better days.  Not just happier times, but God’s light shining on God’s people, again. 

So, what about this light?  This light is the same light God spoke into existence at creation: 

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.  – Genesis 1:1-3

Into the unformed mass that was heaven and earth, God speaks light.  Not shape, not character, but light.  “Of course,” you’re thinking, “that’s when God created the sun.”

Wrong.  The sun, called the greater light, and the moon, the lesser light, don’t get created until the fourth “day.” 

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, 15and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.  – Genesis 1:14-19

The sun and moon and stars were the physical luminaries, but the light God speaks into existence in Genesis 1: 3 is God’s light.  God’s light that banishes darkness from a chaotic world.  God’s light that sets the tone for all that is to follow – God’s approval that every day of creation is a “good day.”  God’s light that comes into the world, and by its entering the world changes everything.

Now, if all this sounds very mystical and mysterious, it is.  We get the part about the sun and stars, and we know the moon reflects the light of the sun.  But, spiritual light, the light that is the glory of God, we’re puzzled by.  Well, let’s keep looking at God’s light some more.

Light Along the Way

The next time we encounter God’s light is when the people of God are trying to escape the captivity of Pharaoh of Egypt.  Remember the plaques God has Moses pronounce on the land of Egypt?  One of those plagues is the Plague of Darkness.  But, an amazing thing happens; in the homes of the Israelites, they have light –

21 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” 22 So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. 23No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.  – Exodus 10:21-23

Pretty amazing, huh?  Of course, there are lots of folks who might say, “Well, they just lit their lamps.”  And, of course that could be it.  But, the Egyptians also had lamps.  The point the writer is making here is that the presence of God illuminated their homes even amid the darkness of Egypt’s sin.  Sounds very theological doesn’t it?  Which of course, it is. 

God also commands that the symbols of his presence among his people – the lighted candlesticks in the tabernacle and temple – be continually lit, for God is always present with his people. 

We don’t have time to review every instance of light in the Old Testament, but here’s one more.  The psalmist recognizes the continuing presence of God even in difficult times as he writes –

 Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?” 
       Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD. – Ps 4:6

Which brings us again to Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s light is coming, indeed has come to his people.  And, Isaiah tells them they are to be reflectors of that light just as the moon reflects the light of the sun –

Arise, shine, your light has come!  

They can shine because their light has come.  Isaiah had previously talked about a people who walked in darkness seeing a great light.  Now that light has come, and 600 years later, wisemen perhaps riding camels, will bring gifts of gold and incense – frankincense – to this newborn king. 

The light of the star in the east became a beacon to those who sought this newborn King.  And, while the wisemen do not divulge their own theology, they bring the Christchild gifts and worship him.  All because they have seen the light of God in a star.

The Light of the World

It is no wonder then, that when we come to the story of the birth of Jesus, it is attended by light.  Shepherds are dazzled by the light of God, reassured by angels, and then they find the child who has appeared in their midst.

Wisemen see the star, follow it, and recognize the significance of the light of the star heralding a newborn King.

John writes of the appearing of the Light as he mimicks the Genesis account of creation –

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.

 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.  – John 1:1-5

Jesus will teach his followers that they are reflections of this light of God themselves –

14“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.            –Matt 5:14-16

Why does Jesus jump right into this in the Sermon on the Mount?  Here’s why:

·        Until the first century, Jews would have understood the light of the world to be found in the temple.

·        A giant menorah stood above the temple compound, all nine branches lit to the glory of God, while inside the temple the sacred candlesticks burned with the light of God’s presence.

But now, Jesus tells his followers they are the light of the world.  Not the temple menorah.  Not the sacred candlesticks.  They are, because they reflect the glory of God in their midst.  That glory is now personal, not symbolic.  That glory is not contained in a person, not a place.  That glory is now Jesus – the light that came into the world. 

On the Mount of Transfiguration, we see the glory of God in Christ.  Some theologians have speculated that Christ’s presence is always radiant as it was on the mountain top.  But, in deference to the limited ability of mankind to stand in the glory of God, Christ cloaked his radiant glory with his human body.  Peter, James, and John – as had Moses and Elijah who were present with Christ that day – got a glimpse of the light of God in their midst. 

The Light of God Looking Ahead

But, our interest in the light of God doesn’t stop with the appearing of Jesus, as significant as that is.  We get another glimpse, this one also from John.  As John was given a glimpse into eternity by Jesus himself in the vision we know as the book of Revelation, here’s how John sees the new heaven and the new earth –

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 5He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

And so the new heaven and new earth appear.  Brand new, just as they had been at creation.  But, now something else appears.  The new Jerusalem.  The new Jerusalem is the throne room of heaven descending to the earth.  It is God with his people again, in their midst.  Just as he had been in the tabernacle and temple.  God with us.  Immanuel.  Comforting, healing, restoring, loving.  After describing the indescribable beauty of the new Jerusalem, John goes on –

22I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Not only is there no more crying, or pain, or death, there is no night either.  The light of God, spoken onto earth at creation, now illumines the new Jerusalem.  Nations will walk by its light – meaning recognize the presence of God.  Kings will bring their splendor to this new city where God is the light.  All of that, just as the prophets had spoken. 

I introduced you to Sundar Singh last week.  Sundar Singh was a Hindu who saw a vision of Christ when he was 14, became a Christian, and then at age 16, set out in the garb of a Hindu holy man to tell his people about his new Master.

Sundar Singh was not only a great evangelist, he was also a mystic.  A mystic is simply someone who sees beyond this world into the world to come.  For Sundar, his visions came during times of extended prayer.  Listen to his vision of heaven –

“In heaven, no one can ever be a hypocrite, for all can see the lives of others as they are. The all-revealing light which flows out from the Christ in Glory makes the wicked in their remorse try to hide themselves, but it fills the righteous with the utmost joy to be in the Father’s kingdom of Light. There, their goodness is evident to all, it ever increases more and more, for nothing is present that can hinder their growth, and everything that can sustain them is there to help them. The degrees of goodness reached by the soul of a righteous man is known by the brightness that radiates from his whole appearance; for character and nature show themselves in the form of various glowing rainbow-like colors of great glory. In heaven, there is no jealousy. All are glad to see the spiritual elevation and glory of others, and, without any motive of self seeking, try, at all times, truly to serve one another. All the innumerable gifts and blessings of heaven are for the common use of all. No one out of selfishness ever thinks of keeping anything for himself, and there is enough of everything for all. God, who is Love, is seen in the person of Jesus sitting on the throne in the highest heaven. From Him, who is the “Sun of Righteousness,” and the “Light of the World,” healing and life-giving rays and waves of light and love are seen flowing out through every saint and angel, and bringing to whatever they touch vitalizing and vivifying power. There is in heaven neither east or west, nor north nor south, but for each individual soul or angel, Christ’s throne appears as the center of all things.” Visions of Sadhu Sundar Singh of India, pg 26.

The light of God, introduced at creation, present with his people, and incarnated in his Son, is the true light that comes into the world.  Arise, shine, your light has come!

A must read: ‘The New Conspirators’ by Tom Sine

Tom Sine’s latest book, The New Conspirators, celebrates the increasing diversity in the church. Sine’s book continues the theme of his classic book, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy, published in 1981. Sine was a ‘red-letter Christian’ before the official group existed, and in this hopeful volume he gives us examples across the spectrum of the 21st century church.

Divided into five “conversations” Sine takes his readers on a tour of real places where real people are living out the gospel as they understand it in communities and congregations around the world. In Conversation One, Sine introduces the unfamiliar to the four streams of the postmodern church — emerging, missional, mosaic, and monastic. Sine celebrates the gifts each brings to the body of Christ, giving an even-handed, generous perspective on each.

In Conversation Two, we are reminded of our global culture from massive consumerism to militant terrorism. This is the world in which we all live, and Sine reminds us that there are those who covet our American materialism, and those who despise it. But, despite the negatives of globalization, Sine sees positive things in our shrinking planet, such as the connection young people around the world are making with each other, transcending local cultures.

In Conversation Three, we are encouraged to take the future of God seriously. Sine isn’t talking about “going to heaven when you die” either. After several illustrations of kingdom thinking and acting, Sine weaves a lyrical scene, his take on Isaiah 25 and Revelation 21, where “God’s presence is palpable and we sense his generous welcome.”

Conversation Four reminds readers to take “turbulent times seriously.” Sine pulls takes us below decks in his version of humanity’s “Ship of Fools” examining the stark contrasts between the fabulously rich, the increasingly shrinking middle-class, and the world’s abject poor.

In Conversation Five, we are encouraged to “take our imaginations seriously.” Sine paints new pictures of “whole-life” stewardship, community, and mission celebrating those on the entrepreneurial edge. He states, “we need musicians, poets and artists to create new forms of worship, in which we celebrate coming home as a great resurrected community to a world where the broken are made whole, justice comes for the poor and shalom to the nations.”

If you want a tour of where church is headed in the 21st century, read ‘The New Conspirators.’ If you despair of the future of the church, let Tom Sine fill you with the same joy he shares over the growth of these mustard seeds of the kingdom. If you’re looking for something to give fresh direction to your own life, and form it in new ways, grab a copy of Sine’s book and join ‘The New Conspirators’ yourself. As Shane Claiborne says, “This book is a gift to the church, and to the world.”

Sermon for Memorial Day Sunday, May 25, 2008: When God Writes Your Name

When God Writes Your Name
Isaiah 49:8-16

8 This is what the LORD says:
“In the time of my favor I will answer you,
and in the day of salvation I will help you;
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people,
to restore the land
and to reassign its desolate inheritances,

9 to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’
and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’
“They will feed beside the roads
and find pasture on every barren hill.

10 They will neither hunger nor thirst,
nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon them.
He who has compassion on them will guide them
and lead them beside springs of water.

11 I will turn all my mountains into roads,
and my highways will be raised up.

12 See, they will come from afar—
some from the north, some from the west,
some from the region of Aswan. ”

13 Shout for joy, O heavens;
rejoice, O earth;
burst into song, O mountains!
For the LORD comforts his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

14 But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”

15 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!

16 See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…

The memory is distinct, although I do not know when it happened or how old I was or whether it was one event or the memories of many moments together. My mother was a teacher, and after she and my father married, and I came along, she continued teaching.

When I would come in from playing with my friends and say things I had picked up from them, like “ain’t”, my mother would gently remind me that the proper words were “is not” or the contraction, “isn’t.” And, she continued to correct my grammar and word usage — or at least comment on it — long after I was an adult. She also taught me to read, and some of the earliest photographs in my baby book are of me reading — or at least holding — books, including the bible.

So, I am not sure if this very vivid memory is just one moment in time, or the compilation of many moments like it, but it is distinct in my mind. My mother and are are sitting at the kitchen table, an old wooden drop leaf table with turned legs that we used until I was a teenager. I’m writing on paper, or at least making some marks, so I must be in the first grade because I didn’t go to kindergarten. There was no kindergarten, and so first grade was where you learned to read and write.

We were learning our ABCs — and how to write each one carefully in lowercase and uppercase on broadly-lined tablets made of newsprint. The lined pages were neatly divided into rows of blue lines — the top and bottom lines solid, and the middle line dotted. We were to write the alphabet within the confines of these blue lines, making sure that the letters curved, or crossed, or slanted exactly at the right point on the dotted line. All of this was called “penmanship” and I was not good at it. Still am not good at it, but I get by.

I remember the daunting task of forming each letter tediously, slowly, and with care. But somehow my hand did not do what my brain wished it would, and my letters bore little resemblance to the row of upper and lowercase letters at the top of my tablet.

Frustrated with my slow progress, I remember asking my mother to write my name on my tablet. With ease she took the pencil and with graceful, fluid strokes formed the letters of my name — Chuck Warnock. (My mother was not as picky about nicknames as Pauline was!)

I remember asking, “Is that my name?” She said, “Yes, that’s your name.” And, she pointed to Chuck and then to Warnock, sounding them out as if I had never heard them before. And, there it was. This name that I had been called since birth, this name that I knew as my own, that was a much a part of me as my burr haircut or the “grandma beads” around my neck, there it was written down right in front of me. I remember a sense of awe, at least as much as a five year old can be awestruck, and thinking, “That’s my name. That’s me, right there on that piece of paper. My name.” As though my name had taken on a life of its own.

As I said, I am not sure about the details of that memory. But, I am sure about the feeling I had. A feeling that somehow I was more real, more important, more permanent because my name was written down before me. I am happy to tell you that I did eventually learn to write my own name, not well, but acceptably, and was graduated from first grade with all the ceremony accorded to six year olds. But, that’s another story.

Memorial Day Is About Names
Tomorrow our nation pauses to remember those who have given their lives in service to their country. The President has asked that the entire nation pause at 3 PM tomorrow, in silent tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for duty, honor, and country.

In thinking about this day, and this sermon, I considered reading the names of the 4,000-plus soldiers who have given their lives in the Iraq war. I calculated that even if we read one name per second, it would take us over an hour to read each name. That would put us well past 12 noon, and so that thought was dismissed. And, then it occurred to me that we really do not want our routines changed, even for the time it would take to read the names of 4,000 American soldiers. So, today we are not reading their names, although we should.

I was also reminded that we should read the names of those who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. At the memorial for the dead of that tragedy, I was moved as family members and friends came one-by-one to the podium to speak the name of their mother, or father, or sister, or brother, or nephew, or niece, or friend for all the world to hear. Why? Because we do not want their names to vanish, to disappear from our consciousness, like the dust cloud that hung over New York City on that fateful day. We do not want to “get on with our lives” or “travel and shop” as our government shamefully advised us to. We want to stop, and call the names of those who were lost, and speak their names into our collective memory so that we will never forget them.

Names I Remember
I remember the names of some fallen and dead on this Memorial Day weekend. I remember Sandy Shull. Sandy and I went to high school together, in the same graduating class — the class of ‘66. I went to college, Sandy went to Viet Nam. I don’t remember when I heard that Sandy had been killed there, but the news spread from one class member to another in that informal network that senior classes have, even after graduation. Sandy was a kind of bashful kid, athletic, popular, and well-liked. Sandy’s draft number was lower than mine, so he went, and I didn’t. Which is the way things happened then. I don’t know how Sandy died, or if he received a medal, or if he was a hero. I just know Sandy’s name is written on a gravestone in Nashville, Tennessee, and mine is not.

I remember Monte Nichols. Monte was my boss at the J.C. Penney Department Store in Madison, Tennessee, where I worked on Friday nights, and Saturdays during the last couple of years I was in high school. Monte was a young guy, good-looking, trim and fit, and making his way up the corporate ladder with J.C. Penney’s. Monte was the Men’s Department manager, and I worked for him. I came in after school, and Monte usually was on the floor when I got there. He was a personable guy, and good boss. He and I would eat dinner together some nights on our break. Monte had a dinnertime superstition which I had never seen before — he would never take the salt shaker directly from your hand. If he asked for salt, he would want you to put it down on the table in front of him, before he would pick it up. One night we were eating and talking, and Monte asked me to pass the salt. I did, and he took it from my hand before I could set it down. I said, “Monte, do you realize what you just did?” He looked a little self-conscious, and puzzled, and I continued, “You just took the salt without letting me set it down.” We both laughed.

A few weeks later, Monte was drafted. And then, months later, word came through the store grapevine that Monte had been killed in action. I thought about that salt shaker, knowing full-well that it had nothing to do with his death. But, I thought about it anyway.

In 1990, Debbie and I became area managers for the Baptist Bookstore Church Directory Service. Or, more accurately, the company that provided that service under the auspices of the Baptist Bookstore. One day we had a photography assignment at a church in Sumter, South Carolina. The pastor told me that many of their men had been deployed in the first Gulf War, known as Desert Storm. We watched families file in to have their family portraits made for the church directory — mom and the kids, but few dads. Needless to say, we didn’t sell many family portraits in that church because the family wasn’t all there. Some of those dads never came back, and that family portrait became a lasting reminder of their sacrifice.

So, Memorial Day is about names. And there is one name that I want to mention to you today — Captain Charles Herman Warnock. No, that’s not me, it’s my dad. My dad is 88 years old. He was an Army Aircorps pilot in World War II, flying paratroopers and supplies from England into France, and then in North Africa. It’s only recently that my dad seems to want to tell those stories of flying C-46s and C-47s over Europe and North Africa. Stories of how he and his crew picked up a load of steaks meant for the generals’ mess, and persuaded the quartermaster to look the other way while they appropriated enough for their own use. Same thing happened to a shipment of ice cream, it seems. I’m sure the generals and their staff wondered why their deliveries always came in short the same number each time. Which might also explain why he spent the last part of his tour flying in North Africa!

My dad, thankfully, did not die in World War II, or else you would have a different pastor today. But, he gave 4 years of his life for the cause of freedom, not only for America, but for our British friends and other allies as well. He gave a paratrooper his .45 sidearm before a jump one day, because the trooper asked him for it to use in close fighting. He replaced it with a German Lugar that he carried until the had to turn in his weapons and uniform when he mustered out. Amazingly, the Air Force never charged him for the .45, but did send him a bill for a uniform sweater he failed to turn in. My dad said he never got a sweater, so military mixups can go both ways.

Whose Names Do You Remember Today?
Now that you have given me the privilege of sharing some names I remember, would you like to do the same. Some of you served in World War II, some in Korea, some in Viet Nam, some in other arenas. Do you want to call the names of those you remember on this Memorial Day? (Allow time here for members to share names and stories.)

God Knows Our Names
This passage from Isaiah came at a time of great difficulty in the life of the nation of Israel. So much difficulty, that the nation thought God had forgotten them. So, God speaks through Isaiah to remind them that God has not forgotten them. Indeed, God is leveling mountains, raising highways, making the path back to God safe and level for His people. And then, God says, “I have inscribed you on my palms.”

Do you ever remember writing something on your palm? You did it because you wanted to remember. God did it because He can’t forget. But, how does God write our names on his palm, you might wonder? We have to look at the Gospels for the answer. Thomas had not been present when the risen Christ had appeared to other disciples. In grief and disbelief of their story, Thomas says —

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”

26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Jesus was saying, “Thomas, your name is written on my palms. Written in these nail prints, written in my own blood. Thomas, I haven’t forgotten about you.” And in the palms of Jesus’ hands are written all of our names. And Sandy’s and Monte’s and my dad’s and your friends and family members. For Jesus died with us in his heart, with our names engraved on his palms. Engraved by nails. Indelible reminders that our names are important to God.

‘A Highway for God’s People’ podcast

A Highway for God’s People podcast, Isaiah 35:1-10.  I preached this sermon on the third Sunday in Advent, December 16, 2007. 

A Highway for God’s People

A Highway for God’s People

Isaiah 35:1-10 NRSV

35:1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus

35:2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.

35:3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

35:4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

35:5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

35:6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;

35:7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

35:8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

35:9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

35:10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

An American Story of Exile

In Pasadena, California, in 1905, several churches in the area began to minister to recent Japanese immigrants. The churches established housing and a night school, as well as spiritual guidance, to help these newcomers to America adjust to their new surroundings. By 1913, 23 people chartered the Pasadena Union Church. By the 1930s, over 200 people were attending. The future of the church looked bright for these newly arrived Americans and their growing families.

These Japanese immigrants, arriving on the shores of the west coast of the United States, came with few possessions, and fewer skills. But they learned quickly, adapted to American life, and became successful business owners within a few years. Children were born to these families, and because they were born on US soil, were themselves citizens of the United States of America. The American dream of freedom of religion, prosperity, and self-determination seemed to become a reality to these transplanted Japanese families.

But, on a Sunday morning in December of 1941, all that was to change. When the imperial nation of Japan staged a surprise attack on the home of the United States Pacific fleet at anchor at Pearl Harbor, Haiwaii, the lives of all Japanese-Americans would be forever altered.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 9066, which stated in part —

NOW, THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such actions necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commanders may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with such respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary, in the judgment of the Secretary of War or the said Military Commander, and until other arrangements are made, to accomplish the purpose of this order. — Executive Order No. 9066, FDR

With that order, large areas of the United States were declared off-limits to Japanese-Americans. The forceable removal of Japanese-Americans began in what would become a dark chapter in American history. Fear and politics won out over commonsense and compassion, and Japanese-Americans were rounded up and shipped to internment camps for the duration of World War II.

The churches in Pasadena rallied to the support of their Japanese Christian friends at the Pasadena Union Church, but to no avail. Long-term residents, many natural-born US citizens were detained and relocated to internment camps. These Japanese-Americans were removed from the homes they owned, and from their church they loved. With only enough time to lock the doors, and carry a bag or bundle of personal belongings, they were forced to leave behind all they had worked for, and all their families before them had worked for over 35-years. Few expected to see their homes or their possessions again. And the land that they hoped would provide freedom became instead a place of exile.

Judah in Isaiah’s Time

In the passage we have read this morning, Isaiah is preaching to the nation of Judah, a nation that has made a bad alliance with the Assyrian king against their own kinsmen, Israel. Isaiah is preaching to a nation that has turned from following God to following the gods of foreigners, if any god at all. Mostly, they are a nation who has forgotten who they are, who has forgotten the story of God in their midst.

But this passage from Isaiah 35 sounds hopeful —

  • v1 — The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and bloom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly;
  • v2 — the glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty Carmel and Sharon, they shall see the glory of the Lord and the majesty of our God.
  • v4 — Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.’
  • v5 — Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water..

So, this doesn’t sound so bad. As a matter of fact, it sounds absolutely wonderful. Can you imagine the desert blooming like a crocus? Or desert sand becoming pools of water? Or blind seeing, deaf hearing, the speechless speaking, and the lame leaping like a deer? It was a wonderful vision of what God’s people could experience.

But, Isaiah 35 — this glorious vision of God in the midst of his people, of creation as God intended it — this chapter comes after Isaiah has some other things to say. And they aren’t pleasant or promising.

In Isaiah 13, Isaiah proclaims an oracle against Babylon, the nation that would eventually take Judah into captivity —

v19-20a — And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans, will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them. It will never be inhabited or lived in for generations.

  • In Isaiah 15, there is a oracle against Moab.
  • In Isaiah 17, an oracle against Damascus.
  • In Isaiah 18, an oracle against Ethiopia.
  • In Isaiah 19, an oracle against Egypt.
  • In Isaiah 21, more oracles against Babylon, Edom and Arabia.
  • In Isaiah 22, a warning of the destruction of Jerusalem.
  • In Isaiah 23, an oracle against Tyre.
  • In Isaiah 24, impending judgement on the whole earth.
  • In Isaiah 28, God’s judgment on corrupt rulers, priests, and prophets.
  • In Isaiah 29, the future seige of Jerusalem foretold.
  • In Isaiah 30, the futility of an alliance with Egypt and judgement on Assyria.
  • In Isaiah 34, judgment on all the nations, with these words…

    For the Lord is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all the hordes; he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter. Isaiah 34:2

The Exile Comes

And, then comes Isaiah 35, this glorious vision of what creation and the nation of Judah will be like once all this is over. But, sadly, no one listens to Isaiah. And so less than a hundred years later, the Babylonians will overrun Jerusalem, sack the Temple of God, level it to the ground, and take captive thousands of Jews, leaving only the poorest in Jerusalem amid the rubble.

These defeated, captive people are herded like cattle 700-miles across the desert to live the rest of their lives in exile. Along the way, hundreds die. But worse than the death and long march into captivity is the humiliation. The shame. The loss of life as they knew it. The loss of who they were as the people of God.

Like the Cherokee nation of the southeastern United States, the nation of Judah was forcefully relocated along their own “trail of tears” into a land of exile. A land in which they were strangers and aliens. A land in which they mourned,

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.

2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,

3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land? — Psalm 137:1-4 NIV

Eugene Peterson says that when the Jews arrived in Babylon, the contrast between their failed religion and the conquering religion of the Babylonians was stark. Peterson says of the Jews —

“They had left behind a city in rubble, a temple in ruins…. They were now living in cities that made Jerusalem look like the country town it was. Wealth and temples now marked the skyline, far surpassing anything of Solomon’s that the Queen of Sheba had marveled at…Just what place was there in it for Yahweh, the erstwhile protector of a ravaged petty state whose ruined temple gaped to the sky on a mountain in Judah?”

Back to Pasadena

Remember our Japanese friends in Pasadena, California? Well, let’s check in on them, again. When Mark Branson and his family joined Pasadena Union Church, which had now become the First Presbyterian Church in Altadena, in the fall of 2000, he found a church that was not flourishing. The church had declined from a high attendance of 600 in the 1960s, to less than 100. Leaders were confused and frustrated. Young families had left the church because larger churches provided more programs for their children. Children of long-standing members were no longer active in the church, even though they still lived in the community. And the community itself was changing. No longer a predominantly Japanese community, other ethnic groups had moved in and this conservative, Japanese Presbyterian church with members who averaged 70-years old did not understand how to reach them, and weren’t sure they wanted to.

Mark began asking questions. Questions about the history of the church. Not the history of dates and buildings, but the history of the people now known as the First Presbyterian Church of Altadena. Mark learned several things, among them —

  • The story of how the California highway department condemned and took the church’s property in the early 1960s for a new highway. Because the church had become a gathering place for the entire Japanese-American community, non-members responded to the church’s need to find new property. Within 10-days they raised $220,000 — quite a sum in the early ’60s. With that money, they bought new property and moved to their present location in Altadena.
  • The story of how their parents, the original founders of the church, used to meet for prayer meetings that lasted hours. Now hardly anyone talked about their faith, even at church.
  • The story of the fall festival, started as a way to unite the community, but which in later years had languished and grown stale. “Not enough people to help,” was the reason given by members.

But in the asking of questions, and listening to the responses, something else was happening. Mark tells the story of how his teenage son would go with him to one of the elder’s homes to talk. This elder, named Jim, was dying of cancer. Mark said Jim would lie on the couch, and tell stories about the congregation in the years long past. Stories that would be lost if there was no one to hear them and pass them on. Stories of how immigrant Japanese who spoke no English, became a community of successful business owners, and contributors to the society that had welcomed them at the turn of the century in 1905.

One day, Jim asked Mark’s son, “Why do you come to hear an old, dying man?” To which, Mark’s son replied, “Because I like your stories.”

The Stories of God

And so in exile, in Babylon, the people began to tell the stories they liked, too. The old stories of God creating the world. The old stories of God calling Abraham. The old stories of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt. And they reminded themselves of the words of the prophet Isaiah —

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.35:9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

35:10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

A highway. A highway back to Zion. A highway back to Zion where they would go singing, joyful to be returning home. With joy, not ashes, upon their heads. With sorrow and sighing gone and forgotten. And so, after they mourn by saying,

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,

3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?

They go on to say —

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill .

6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

They remember their stories.

And that is why we have advent.

So we can tell again the story of the coming of the Christ, the saviour of the world. The Messiah, the hope of the people of God. For the stories of God’s creation are always coupled with the stories of God’s salvation. The stories of God’s judgment are always followed by the stories of God’s mercy. The stories of need and want are always answered by the stories of God’s provision.

We are today’s people of God and the stories we tell are not of long ago, but are of today. Of now. Of God present with us, Immanuel all over again. They are stories of God’s presence in the past, of God’s presence in the future, of God’s presence with us now.

There is a highway for God’s people, a way back to all that we have forgotten. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” Now some have a problem with that statement because they don’t believe that Jesus is the only way. Well, he is. He said so himself, and if we believe the other things Jesus said, we have to believe this, too. But, what does Isaiah say about this highway,

no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

Now that’s the kind of highway I need. One that I can’t get lost on. One that takes me to my destination. One that brings me back to the promised land. A highway for God’s people.

The People of God Find a New Future 

And what happened to the Japanese-American members of the First Presbyterian Church, when they were taken away into the internment camps, forced to leave their homes and church behind?

The other churches in the community came together. They protected the homes and the church building that belonged to the Japanese-American Christians. They watched out for the material possessions of their brothers and sisters in Christ. And when the war was over, and the Japanese-americans returned home, they found their houses and their church building safe, preserved by friends and neighbors.

And what about the church today? Through a series of conversations, and remembering and retelling their stories, the church has regained it’s identity as a people of God. They even developed what social scientists call “provocative proposals” of the future they saw for the church. Not things they ‘hoped’ to do, or would ‘try’ to do, but their vision of what the future will look like. A new future, a future as the people of God once again. A future where they envision the desert blooming like a rose, the sand becoming pools of water, the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, and the speechless singing. A future that can only be brought about by God. But they, the people of God, participate with God in creating it.

So far they have reinstituted the fall festival with help from the community. They spread the word of their found hope, their new vision for the future. The buzz in the community has grown, as have the number of new families and children. They are on the holy highway, walking together with joy down the highway for the people of God.

What is our vision for the future? What do we see as the work of God in our church, in our community, in our world? Do we see the unlikely event of deserts that bloom, blind people that see, lame people that leap? Do we see God making all things new? And, most importantly, do we see ourselves as the people of God walking down our own holy highway, singing with joy on our heads? Because that is what Advent should do for us.

[ The story of the First Presbyterian Church in Altadena was compiled from Mark Lau Branson’s book, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations, published by The Alban Institute.  Details not found in the book were from my notes in the DMin seminar at Fuller Seminary where I heard Mark tell these stories. ]

“A Dwelling Glorious” podcast

A Dwelling Glorious podcast, based on Isaiah 11:1-10 for the second Sunday in Advent, December 9, 2007.