Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Through It All

Through It All
Isaiah 43:1-7[1]
If you’re like me, when “all’s right with the world” it seems to be a lot easier to trust in God. When life is relatively stable, when the family is whole and healthy, when we find joy and meaning in our daily activities, it’s not hard at all to see God’s hand of blessing at work in our lives. But when you take all that away, it’s also fairly easy to believe that God has abandoned us. When unexpected change hits us squarely in the face, when our family is fractured by the challenges and changes of life, when life itself seems to lose its joy and meaning, we may wonder whether there’s even a God at all. Let alone one who actually cares for us.
This problem isn’t unique to us or to modern life. Throughout the ages, people who have faced tragedy and hardship have questioned the love of God. And many have questioned the very existence of God. For those of us who may have made it through life relatively unscathed, we may have a hard time understanding this. But I would say that most people suffer some kind of heartbreak at some point in their lives. And when we do, it’s a very natural thing to ask the question, “Why?” It’s even a biblical question. From the Psalms to the Prophets to Jesus on the cross, the question “Why?” echoes throughout the Scriptures.
Unfortunately, the Bible never gives us an answer to that question. What it does is to assure us over and over again that, in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves, God’s love for us never fails.[2] That is the message of our Scripture lesson from Isaiah for today. If we look at these verses by themselves, we may find them comforting to some degree. But I think the real impact of any passage like this comes when we understand the situation of the people to whom these words were originally spoken. They were living in forced exile, far from anything familiar. They were people who had lost everything—homes, lives, land, and even in some cases family.  They had gone through the worst catastrophe imaginable.  They had gone through the flood, and felt overwhelmed.  They had gone through the fire and felt burned.[3]
Into this situation of devastation and brokenness, the prophet declared God’s unfailing love. This is no mere glib promise. The language of the Scripture lesson makes it clear that God’s love for his suffering people is set in the context of Creation and Redemption, the actions that define God’s character in the Bible.[4] When the prophet says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isa. 43:1), he is speaking of the love that constitutes who God is. For him to stop loving them would mean that God would stop being true to himself. For him to stop loving them would mean that God would have to stop being God.[5]
This is the basis for the prophet’s assurance to the people: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isa. 43:2). Now, I think we sometimes have a tendency to read too much into promises like this. From a real-life perspective, you can’t go through a flood without getting soaked through.  And you can’t go through a fire without at least smelling like smoke, and maybe even getting singed.  But the promise is not that we will never suffer, but rather that these hardships will not consume us. And the reason for that is that God promises to be with us and to sustain us with his unfailing love.[6]
And in case there is any doubt about whether this promise has any teeth to it, God stakes his reputation on it. Through the prophet, God makes it clear that the basis for the promise of his unfailing love is the essential nature of who God is: “I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isa. 43:3).[7] No matter what might come their way, God assured the people that they would always be surrounded by his loving presence: He says, “Do not fear, for I am with you” (Isa. 43:5). That, too, is an admonition that echoes throughout the Bible. From Moses to Revelation God is continually reassuring his people that they do not need to be afraid of what life may bring their way, because He is with us through it all.[8] And he always will be.
In contrast to those who may think that our faith is unrealistic, time and again, the Bible promises us the support of God’s loving presence in the midst of the worst that can happen to us. Our faith is not naïve to the fact that there is a tragic dimension to life.[9] Think of it: at this very moment, how many people on the planet are suffering—suffering the loss of a loved one, suffering the lack of basic necessities, suffering because they have been displaced by disease or war, suffering because of the cruel and inhumane way in which we can treat one another. A faith that promises “everything will be just fine” without taking full account of the hardships of life would be worse than naïve; it would be obscene.[10]
But that is not the nature of our faith. Right in the midst of the worst that life can throw at us, the Scriptures promise us over and over that God’s love for us will never fail. They promise that no matter what may come our way, God will sustain us with his presence. They promise us that even if we have to go through the flood and through the fire, they will not destroy us. And the basis for that assurance is the very nature of who God is: a God whose love for us never fails, a God who is our Savior in all the circumstances of life, a God who is with us no matter what.[11] In all of life, we can trust that God’s love will sustain us and bring us through it all.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/10/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltman, The Crucified God, 243, points above all to God’s presence at the cross, where he says that God “suffers the death of the Son in the infinite grief of love”; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 172-78; cf. also Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 126: “The God embodied in Jesus suffers not only for the victims of the world; this God suffers like them and with them.”
[3] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 62, where he says that the people “needed a word of assurance, a promise that there was a future beyond the baffling suffering and shame they had suffered.” Cf. also Mary W. Anderson, “Who is Like Thee?” The Christian Century (Jan 26, 2000), 87, where she says, “in the midst of their captivity the people are wondering how their God can be omni-anything when they are so miserable.”
[4] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 61, where he observes that creation and redemption go together in this text: “the Creator God is the God who enters history to establish a relationship with human beings and to heal their brokenness.”
[5] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 61, where he recognizes the tension between the expression of God’s “wrath” in the judgment the people have undergone and the affirmation of God’s love here. He says, “Contradictory as they may seem on the face of things, expressions of divine anger, as genuinely as affirmations of divine steadfastness, reveal the commitment of God to authentic,  reciprocating love.”
[6] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1:39, where he refers to the assurance of the the Heidelberg Catechism (ques. 26) that “whatever evil he sends upon me in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful Father” (cf  Book of Confessions 4.026).  Cf. also Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI: 381.
[7] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 64, where he says, “only one word could satisfy the deepest yearning of the fearful heart, a word of assurance that the Creator of all, …, loves radically and unconditionally. The reason this defeated people could hope for a future beyond tragedy is a remarkable promise, a promise filled with the creative power that belongs exclusively … to love.”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 24-25: “Neither in presumption nor in despair does there lie the power to renew life, but only in the hope that is enduring and sure.” For him, fear is hopelessness that expresses itself either as presumption or despair.
[9] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 118. He says that “the love of God” is distressed by the question raised by that which is “loveless” in this world: “Does anyone know or care that we are here?” He puts it more clearly when he asks (p. 119), “Is there nothing beyond the heartless and unrelenting cosmic rhythms, nothing loving, kind, or fair?” Ultimately while he recognizes that he cannot make this “tragic sense of life” go away, he will not agree that “the tragic is the real truth” of our lives. In fact, he insists that “faith is faith precisely in the face of the facelessness of the anonymous” and is always “haunted” by “this specter of a heartless world of cosmic forces.”
[10] See Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, 61-62: “Anyone who claims to believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God without taking into account this devastat­ing evidence [i.e. the Holocaust] either that God is indifferent or powerless, or that there is no God at all, is playing games. … If Love itself is really at the heart of it all, how can such things happen? What do such things mean?”
[11] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 123, where in the face of the prospect that all that really exists is a heartless, tragic world of anonymous cosmic forces, he affirms, “The name of God is the name of the One who takes a stand with those who suffer, who expresses a divine solidarity with suffering, the One who says no to suffering, to unjust or unwarranted suffering.”

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