Weekly Sermon (18)

Sermon – February 4, 2024

The ‘constancy’ of grace…

February 4, 2024

Scriptures: Isaiah 40:21-31

Who is it…in whom I believe?  Who is this one who reaches out to me in the quiet of a dark night? Who is this one whose insistent attempts to comfort or reassure reach deeper into my soul than any other?

Today’s reading from Isaiah truly is one of my bedrock assurances of God’s everlasting love and care over my soul. It is written as though to a people deeply conflicted by the seeming distance between the promises of God’s love and care, and the circumstances of a deeply troubled life and times. In those times, not so different from our own, God is speaking clearly of his love for his people, seeking to assure Israel that no matter what things may look like, no matter the circumstances of their situation, that they should never feel as though they need to cry out, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God’.

Our reading from Psalm 147 also seeks to reinforce that assurance when we hear, ‘His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner; but the Lord takes pleasure in those who stand in awe of him, in those who hope in his steadfast love’. And actually it was that last word that caught my attention this week as I searched through the week’s readings for some point of entry into what the Spirit was seeking to share with us. I recalled from my studies in Seminary that the phrase ‘steadfast love’ is a close translation of the Hebrew word chesed, which actually doesn’t have a direct translation into the English language, even though the word is used many times throughout the scriptures. 

As such, it is a word that has long troubled translators as to its exact meaning, causing many of them to settle on ‘loving-kindness’ or ‘steadfast love’, both of which fail to grasp the magnitude of what the author is seeking to convey. For the context within which the word is found also seems to imply a keeping of the covenant God made towards humanity. Chesed speaks of God’s covenant to love, to forgive, and to cherish no matter what…a promise from one who can be trusted with all the circumstances we may find ourselves confronted with. Both of these readings speak of a Lord who loves us no matter what…even when…or perhaps especially when we are not sure we have heard God’s voice…even in those times when the ‘noise of life’ seems just too insistent to be silenced, depriving us of the quiet we may need in order to hear that whisper of the Holy Spirit within.

And then, there are those times, perhaps times similar to those which inspired the words Isaiah felt compelled to write, when our God seems to be silent…when the Lord seems to be so far away from our need, or our hurt, or even our fears. However, times of seeming silence do not necessarily mean that God is not near or not hearing the cry of our hearts. The lack of an immediate answer to prayer, or the assurance that God is near, does not mean he is not actually communicating directly with our hearts. 

Times may be hard or situations tough, and try as you might there may be no obvious course of action before you, and you are just not sure how to move forward. And yet, if you become as quiet as possible within, and stop for just a minute to try and reflect on what we know is the true nature of our God, then you will be filled with a sense of peace, followed by the courage needed to take that first step in the direction that seems most right, most helpful…and most holy.

For indeed God fills in all the spaces…God is all, and is in all…and never farther away than our willingness to look for him. And in all those moments when you wonder which way to go, which side is up, or which answer is good and right, most assuredly there are answers right in front of you. At times perhaps more than one, but at least one from the Spirit of God for sure, an answer that waits only on one’s willingness to step out in faith.

Remember, God doesn’t need a ‘reason’ to love us, or to endlessly extend mercy towards us…the chesed of our God is not something we ‘earn’, and even less something we deserve. For at the end of the day, at the end of every day we are simply, gloriously, and forgivably human.  In truth, we each have few if any completely good or ‘holy’ days. In fact, spending a day from sunup to sundown without thinking ill of someone or something, without thinking poorly of someone or something probably never happens. But that does not deter God for even a second…our God loves us, just because that is who our God is…

And I…I depend on this God. This is the one I have followed for so long…this is the God I need to be God…this is the God that I find in the bible, and perhaps most importantly, the God I see embodied in the form and person of Jesus. This is the God evidenced in the ministry and compassionate loving care that Jesus extended to everyone willing to truly see who he was…this truly is the God whom I follow.

Now some might struggle with what seems like a simplistic explanation or description of our God, with what they see as a limited view of the majesty and glory of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Some might struggle with how ‘human-like’ I portray the love of God and the nearness and availability of this one who came to live amongst us. Some might even say I am making God over into my own image…into what I feel a good God just has to look and act like, rather than vice versa. Some might say I am irreverent and speak heresy when I insist that God loves more than we could ever imagine, and that his forgiveness and loving-kindness far exceeds our ability to let him down or to continue to act in ways unloving and unkind.

And to them I say they are probably right…in that I do not conform to a lot of what orthodox theology tries to tell us about God and God’s nature, with what orthodox theology tells us of sin and judgment, and what it is that God expects of us.

But the life I have lived, is the only one I know…it is the only one I have, and continue to live. And my own experience of this God who reached out to me and found me, and in fact continues to find me in all of the places of my need…this same God who came as a man, that I might see that in fact he does know what it means to feel as I do, to struggle as I have, to hope as I so fervently do, and to love as I have been blessed to be able to do…this God of whom I speak in quite human terms, through the lens of my own human experience, is the one I have come to know and to love with my whole heart. 

This is the God I wake up to, and to whom I turn and speak freely and openly, knowing that my thoughts and words do not fall on empty and uncaring space, but rather are heard and acknowledged by One of endless love. Every thought, every prayer both formed and unformed flies on wings as of eagles directly to the heart of my Lord.

And sometimes…sometimes the answers come quickly and are easily recognizable…while at other times it seems as if God remains totally silent even though I know that he has heard my call and knows my need. And it is in those times…those times when God seems silent…that I must wait until my heart is ready to receive the answer that eventually comes. It is in those times, that I must wait in the silence, knowing that God hears, but also realizing that the Holy Spirit may have more work to do in preparing my heart, or perhaps even the circumstances of life I must still travel through. It is in those times of silence that I must not, like the writer of our scripture, go to a place of feeling that surely ‘my way must be hidden from the Lord’. Even so, times such as these can be difficult nonetheless.

When my mom and dad had their auto accident in 1971, I was young and nowhere near fully formed in my love of God…even though I believed. And when it became clear that my mother’s paralysis was going to be permanent, and that she would forever be confined to a bed or to a wheelchair that someone else needed to push…when the only thing I could possibly hope for was a miracle, I began to make that my constant and fervent prayer. 

And great was the outpouring of love and care upon my family by this church…so much so that I personally began to hope for and even to believe that such a miracle of complete healing was not only possible but perhaps even God’s will for my mom. And so I waited and I hoped…for thirteen long and trying years in which my brothers and sisters and I all grew up and began to live life as children of a mother in great need, but one also who was filled with a love that went far beyond anyone’s understanding…a love that accepted all, loved all, and forgave before even being asked…a love which cared for each one of us as only a mother could, even from the cruel confines of her situation.

And over those thirteen years I too grew to be an adult…I got married and settled into life as one looking forward to all of the promise life could offer. But I never lost sight of the deep conviction that at some point God was going to answer my prayer, and that my mom would one day walk again, and be able to experience the wonders of life I was sure she was missing out on. I never let God off the hook, reminding him each time my mom became ill, each time she again battled respiratory illnesses that were so incredibly difficult for her to fight off. Each time death seemed to be knocking on her door, I looked to God and breathed a sigh of relief when my mom’s condition improved and she made it through yet another battle…my prayer may have been as yet unanswered but it was still out there. 

And patiently I waited. I waited on this God of whom I had read, this God I had come to know and to trust in, this God who had convinced me that his love for me knew no bounds. I had come to know that there was nothing I could do to turn him away from his forgiveness and compassion on my seeking heart…this God who healed so many who came to him, this God for whom stepping out and countering the force of nature seemed so second nature…this was the God that I waited on for an answer to my prayer.

And then, one hot and sunny day as I worked at my job, dealing with the many details and needs of multiple employees over whom I had responsibility, I was informed that my Aunt Betty, my mom’s older sister, was on the phone. A lump rose in my throat, somehow I think I knew that this was it, that try as I had to ensure a healing for my mom on this side of Heaven…it was just not meant to be.

And as I listened to my aunt tell me that my mom was just too tired to fight off pneumonia for a fifth time, that she was ready to finally let go, I found myself numbly and quietly telling my aunt thanks for calling me and, that I understood…

And yet as I hung up I knew that in fact, I didn’t  understand. I was not ready to let go of the promise I thought God had made to me so long before; I was not okay with what seemed to be almost a betrayal of some sort from this God I loved and sought so diligently to serve…I was not ready…for this answer…

And as I went back to God over the next few days I realized I had two choices…I could turn and walk away from God, convinced that my prayers were not answered as promised, Or I could wait, I could wait on an understanding as to why such an angel had been allowed to suffer so patiently and for so long…

And I must admit I wrestled for a while with this choice. I just could not get my arms around why what I had so strongly believed for so long, just seemed to be all for naught. But eventually I turned back to God with tears in my eyes, and no understanding in my heart whatsoever.

And over time…over a long time…I began to realize that my understanding was not only clouded by my own desire, but by my lack of understanding that my mom was only able to be the angel she was…was only able to minister to so many who came to her bedside, or who watched in amazement as her smile never once faded from that face…that she was only able to be who she truly was…from a place of serving within the confines of total paralysis. 

It took a while to come to know, to understand, and to accept that the work of love that our Lord had asked of my mom, required that she love from right where she was. Which is never to even suggest that the accident was somehow divinely inspired, but rather, to say that no matter what we give to the Lord…no matter how it is that we come to him…no matter our situation, our story, or our physical abilities…if we come with a willing heart, even a heart or body that is broken…if we come willingly…then the life we have offered, can be used in incredible ways by our Lord of love…not one life given over unto him goes to waste…no matter what…

So…this…this is the God whom I love. The one who sometimes answers my heart in the moment, sometimes even before I call…and sometimes only after the Holy Spirit has done extensive work in preparing my soul and understanding…

But no matter what, I know that the answers will come, for God’s grace is constant, and never leaves us.

Who is it…in whom I believe?  Who is this one who reaches out to me in the quiet of a dark night? Who is this one whose insistent attempts to comfort or reassure reach deeper into my soul than any other? It is my Lord…


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