The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany, February 4, 2018
We are today given words of great assurance, and at the same time words that offer a view to our purpose as the people of God that call us out to engage God’s world. We are challenged not to succumb to the temptation of a passive faith that can end up not transforming us, or the world to which God sends us.
All of us need assurance from time to time. When life around us rocks our boat, whether it be illness, a broken relationship, societal ills, or even a time of transition in the life of a parish or a diocese, we look for something on which we can stand firm. This is Israel’s plight in the 40th chapter today.
The people are in exile. They are outcasts. It leads to the despairing question as to whether God is with them any longer. Everything they thought they knew had collapsed around them. Dynasties were toppling and empires cracking up, even as they were surrounded by the zenith of opulence and power.
Yet stunningly, in the midst of the apparent hopelessness around them, Isaiah dares to bring a word of hope and assurance. Listen: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” Isaiah goes on to say that God is still with them, all encompassing and the earth and all rulers are still subject to his rule, even when it may not appear that way. “To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? Says the Holy One…The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.”
This is the “peace that passeth all understanding.” All the evidence around us may seem to indicate that God is not in control, yet Isaiah dares to speak a word otherwise. For those who might be losing heart we hear, “…but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up like wings of eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah speaks bold and courageous words of assurance. It reminds me of that great definition of faith from Hebrews. It was appointed in the Daily Office just this past week: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The Psalmist today strikes a similar tone as Isaiah, likewise speaking to the outcasts of Israel, possibly in light of the fall of Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E. It was the most devastating event in Israel’s history to that time. Whatever the context, the Psalmist is praising God for a restoration that has not yet taken place. It is still in the future. Everything is still broken.
Even with that stark reality consuming them, Israel is reminded that God is still worthy of their praise. “O Praise the Lord, for it is a good thing to sing praises unto our God.” Their purpose then, as Psalm 147 directs, is to worship. Our central purpose is to worship. Holy Communion, of all places through your rich heritage, is a parish community that I trust is most clear about that.
So what follows worship? Or perhaps better said, what is to flow from our worship as we live in the world as worshipful beings? The post communion prayer gives us a direction. After thanking God for our being fed in the holy mysteries, and again with the assurance of God’s favor and goodness toward us, we continue in that holy fellowship by “doing all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.” When Peter’s mother-in-law was healed, what was the first thing she did? She served others. This is the content of Michael’s vows today as he is received into this Communion – worship and service.
This is of vital importance, for we are well aware of the warning from several places in the prophets as well as from our Lord, who are clear that if our worship does not also bring us to justice, compassion and reconciliation, our worship is in vain and dead. It means nothing. Perhaps most famously we hear from the prophet Amos who declares that God rejects our solemn assemblies, unless “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
I recall a moment some years ago in the parish in Baltimore where I grew up. There had been, shall we say, a major kerfuffle between two prominent members of the parish that had put a strain in their relationship. One Sunday, as the peace of Christ was bid by the priest, we all watched as one of the men got out of his pew, walked around to the other side of the church and extended his hand in the hope of Christ’s peace. I think we were all holding our breath. The good news is that his offer was returned. It was a beginning. Over time healing and reconciliation was realized.
Today our scriptures have given us a portrait of God who gathers, heals and restores. We have the assurance of God’s faithfulness to us. We, by grace, can stand on that good news, knowing that we also have a purpose to be co-creators with God, living out our work to be gatherers, healers and restorers. What we do and prefigure in here, at this altar specifically, is to take shape in the way we live out there for the sake of the world. In a world fractured by conflict within and between communities, even nations, we are called to cast a new vision, like Isaiah did, of a reconciled world – reconciled to God and reconciled to one another. It is the work of Christ that we have been given to do.