February 27, 2011
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
“Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people.” I have answered you. I have helped you. I have kept you. Thus says the Lord: I have answered you. I have helped you. I have kept you. It is a familiar refrain. When you spend time with the prophet Isaiah, it’s a familiar refrain, a consistent theme, a recognizable tune; the Word of the Lord and what God has done.
“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you….Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…You are my witnesses…and my servant whom I have chosen….I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed…I am the Lord, your Holy One…who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters….I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” I will make a way. I formed. I declared. I saved. I proclaimed. I redeemed. I honored. I loved. I have called. I have taken. I have answered. I have helped. I have kept. Thus says the Lord that they might declare my praise.
Here in the 49th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, it is a familiar song that is playing. It is the prophet’s song to the people of God in exile; far from home, far from all that God has promised. It is the song that trumpets a return. It is the tune that tells of a restoration. It is the word that proclaims a rebuilding. It is the melody that sounds God’s promise. “Yes, I have answered you. I have helped you. I have kept you. The captives shall be set free. Those who live in darkness will come to the light. There will be no hunger, no thirst, no scorching heat. Mountains will turn into roads. Highways will rise up along the way.”
Thus says the Lord. And all God’s people know the refrain. Like when Mary sang of all the great things the Mighty One had done for her, and the proud scattered, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with good things. She knew the tune. Like when Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah about good news to the poor, release to the captives, the blind having sight, the oppressed going free. Jesus knew how the song went. In the Apocalypse to John, another riff on the song as John sees a new heaven and a new earth and God dwelling with God’s people; God wiping away every tear, death shall be no more; mourning and crying and pain no more. Since the days of Abraham and Sarah, when God said to Abraham, “I am God Almighty ; walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous,” ever since the people of God have been learning that refrain about all that God has done, that they might then declare God’s praise.
With the refrain, with “thus says the Lord”, with I have answered you, I have helped you, I have kept you; with that then comes our praise. As here in Isaiah 49; “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on God’s suffering ones.” With the theme, with the refrain, comes praise. Like “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” The call of Isaiah. Like “glory to god in the highest heaven, and one earth peace among those whom God favors”. The song of the angels in the sky over Bethlehem. And the psalmist “O give thanks to the Lord, call on God’s name, make known the Lord’s deeds among the people. Sing to God, sing praises to the Lord; tell of all God’s wonderful works.” And the heavenly chorus for all eternity “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!” I have answered you. I have helped you. I have kept you….and a people formed to forever sing praise.
But right here a hand goes up. “Excuse me?!” The hand of Zion up the air. Zion. One speaking on behalf of God’s people or perhaps speaking just for the one. But a hand goes up that pretty much interrupts the song of praise. Singing. Exulting. Heaven and mountains fall silent. And all of creation, all of the people, all turn to the one whose hand is up. The one waiting to speak. The one not offering praise. There’s a hand up in the room. “Excuse me? The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” There’s always one, isn’t there? Like the one with the hand up in the air.
The language here is not of skepticism or cynicism or doubt. Forsaken. Forgotten. It’s not the tone of intellectual superiority or disdain. The interruption is not to question the existence of God or launch an existential debate. The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me. The voice speaks of abandonment. Suffering. Alienation. Distance. Forsakenness. Forgottenness. There always one, isn’t there? I don’t mean it with a snippy tone, like “there’s one in every crowd.” No, I mean there’s always one, at least one, probably more than one experiencing, living, expressing God-forsakenness whenever God’s people gather to proclaim what God has done and to join that neverending song of praise. There’s always one. Holy, Holy Holy. Lord God Almighty. Excuse me? Glory to God in the highest! Ah, over here, God. Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth! Um, hello, the Lord has forsaken me. Of course it was Jesus, when he was on the cross, there quoting the psalmist, when he asked, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
The cycle of proclamation and praise broken by lament. The two-step of affirmation and adoration interrupted by a broken heart up held up in the air for all to see. There’s always someone. Like the people of Christchurch, New Zealand in the aftermath of an earthquake. Like people trying to survive in Libya and not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Like the Amish family whose children were swept away in a raging creek. There’s always one. At least one. Someone. Forsaken. Forgotten. Proclamation. Praise. Forsaken. All wrapped into one. Affirmation. Adoration. Forgotten. All wrapped into one. It’s sort of what it means to be God’s people, really. What it means to be the church. Because every time we gather here, every single time we gather here to worship; you sit there, and I stand here, every time it is as if someone has their hand up in the air, maybe not there, hanging up there like in a classroom, but someone whose burdens are wrapped in your songs of praise, someone whose wounded heart is wrapped up in your affirmation and adoration, someone whose longing for comfort and healing is wrapped in your prayers, someone whose sense of being forgotten and forsaken by God is lifted here among us as our proclamation, our praise, our lament is all wrapped up and anointed by the very Spirit of God. Every time we gather. Yes, there is always one. “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”
And there has to be a long pause, a silence; not an awkward silence, a downright painful one. The truth is, words don’t do much in the face of forsakenness. There’s not much you or I can say when someone is expressing divine forgottenness. It really is the epitome of words that fail. In Isaiah 49, if you’re reading it, you have to stop and wait after Zion expresses her forsakenness. If you were singing Isaiah 49, the conductor would have you mark the score here at v.14, after “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me”. Break. Breath. Stop. Creation’s song of praise comes to a sudden, dead stop after Zion speaks. It would have to be like the sheer silence that the prophet Elijah heard up on that mountain after the wind and the earthquake and the fire. When the Lord spoke in a still, small voice.
Notice for the prophet Isaiah, notice here in the text, notice that any painfully real silence is only broken by the word of the Lord. It had to have come in a still small voice. The Word of the Lord breaking the silence of forsakenness. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palm of my hands.” Greater even than the love of a mother is my love for you. I will not forget. I will not forget. See? It is as if God knows that words fail when the deepest part of your being feels abandoned. There’s no litany here of all that God has done. There’s no argument like the one with Job. There’s no fresh parting of the Red Sea, no water coming up from a rock, no manna from heaven. Now it is the Lord who raises a hand. See? See? And God shows the inscription. God’s people inscribed. The indelible mark of God’s children. See? See? The people of God, the cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints, you, me….forever etched into the being of God. Our baptism. God’s inscription. I have answered you. I have helped you. I have kept you. I will not forget you. See?
My guess is that some of you will think I’ve fallen off the deep end; all this anthropomorphizing of God; God’s hand, God’s palm. Some may find themselves a bit distracted with a good old brain teaser about whether God can have a hand big enough to fit all our names. But if you’re the one this morning? If you’re the one, or someone you love is the one? Forsaken. Forgotten.With heavy burdens, or a wounded heart, or longing for comfort and healing. If you are the one with your heart in the air feeling forgotten, forsaken by God? Words will never do. But here all wrapped up in our proclamation and praise, here surrounded by our affirmation and adoration, here together with the people of God, I pray that God’s Spirit and God’s grace will be present to you. Like a mother who surrounds her nursing child with love, protection, and nourishment, that God will cradle you, draw you close, and hold you tight….until you know that you are etched into the very heart of God, forever.
I have answered you. I have helped you. I have kept you. I will not forget you. See?
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