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12.08.19 Where Faith is Hidden Isa 11.1-10, Rom 15.4-13 Sermon Summary

by on December 10, 2019

Sometimes faith is pretty obvious, like when facing illness or misfortune people endure through prayer and vigilance. Or when someone is the victim of a small slight or a major sin, but follow it by forgiveness and grace. Or when someone is the recipient of an unexpected gift and they pass it on generously to others.

But sometimes faith is not so obvious, but rather like the sunlight retreating to the south or the decaying leaves pressed into the gutters. Sometimes faith is so well hidden we wonder if it exists at all. In this situation, Isaiah has something to say.

The glory days of ancient Israel were during the kingdom of David, which lasted from 1025 to 928 BC, at which point the Kingdom divided. In the Northern land of Samaria it was called Israel. In the South it was called Judah which included Jerusalem.

In 722 BC, Assyria threatened and then conquered Israel. The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah were written at this time. The prophecies of warning, of judgment, and of hope were so powerful and enduring that two centuries later, when Judah was threatened and conquered by Babylon, two more authors picked up Isaiah’s spirit and finished the book.

And so powerful and enduring are the images and promises, and so powerful was the experience of first century Jews of Jesus, these words from Isaiah were applied to him. And so powerful and enduring are these two together that we hear Isaiah a lot during Christmas.

The first Isaiah’s career started during the threat from, and continued through being conquered by, Assyria. Isaiah’s words include warnings and judgments but also hope. So much like our experiences.

Isaiah warned that Assyria was God’s instrument. God’s people had been unfaithful so God was about to bring changes. God’s people had committed idolatry, the worship of other gods. They were overly materialistic. They trusted in their own military might and were oppressing the poor. The rich were confiscating the land of the poor and lived in perpetual luxury. Perhaps this sounds familiar?

What made Isaiah’s message even harder was that Assyria was no better than Israel. They weren’t godly or righteous, and Isaiah assures his people that God will prune Assyria when he’s done with Israel. But imagine the thinking: “We, God’s chosen people, are being judged or punished by a nation that is unrighteous! How could God do this?!”

Maybe you’ve felt this way, in your own life or about the state of affairs, that God isn’t making sense anymore; that things keep going from bad to worse; that there’s no purpose to the hardship; that things are being irreparably lost.

Our tradition has an answer. It comes from people far down this path. People who questioned God, who questioned goodness, who questioned faith. Isaiah was one of them. They say to us that such hardships are not God’s punishment. They aren’t there to even the scales.

Instead, such hardships reveal another side of God. They invite us to love God not for rewards or because we’re afraid of punishment, but to love God just for being God. God wanted Israel, and God wants us, to love God first and to love God for God’s sake alone.

Human faith is fragile, and we need help. God knows this and so does Isaiah. So we are given signs to help our faith. One of Isaiah’s signs is the stump with a new shoot. Only after Assyria is cut down, only when the forest of hardship is over, is this stump visible. It is the stump of David’s kingdom, the stump of David’s father Jesse. Isaiah sees that it has a new shoot growing out of it.

A new kingdom with a new king is coming, Isaiah says, and God’s Spirit will be upon him. He judges in righteousness, not impressed by appearances or corrupted by bribes. The world will be like the original Paradise with peace and harmony. Concern for sustainability replaces co-existence with co-thriving. Intimacy with God will cover the earth like the oceans.

The Hebrew word for this is shalom. This sign begins to transform darkness to light, despair to hope, sorrow to rejoicing, and scarcity to generosity.

There are three ways to wait when you’re on a long ride. One is to check out, to sleep, to pretend you’re not waiting. Another is to complain about how long it’s taking. The third is to sit on the edge of your seat, rehearsing in your mind what you’re going to do when you arrive. It’s the difference between passive waiting and active vigilance.

Signs of faith can transform passive waiting to active vigilance. Paul, like Isaiah, describes active vigilance in Romans 15. To a mixed congregation of Jews and non-Jews, Paul writes, “Things written in former days were written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify God.”

Paul then quotes several scriptures to urge harmony—not just tolerance, which is passive waiting—but harmony. Tolerance is like two songs playing at same time. You let the other person play her song while you focus on yours. But harmony—which is active vigilance—is listening to the other, tuning and adjusting your song so you can play together.

And the final verse Paul quotes to this end is our verse from Isaiah: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule also the non-Jews; in him also the non-Jews shall hope.” Paul then expands Isaiah’s vision to reveal the most secret place that faith is hidden. When our faith is no longer apparent, so hidden as to be forgotten or lost, Paul says this: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The most secret hiding place of faith, the place we can look for it when every other place is empty, is the God of hope. God has hope, and that hope is in us. That God has hope in us leads us back to joy and peace, and back to our own hope and faith. Hear it again: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Scripture, and especially the prophets, loves signs. Some signs remind us of the past, some signs remind us of a promise. Past reminders push us to the future, promise reminders pull us to the future. Isaiah’s sign of the branch in the stump is both. The stump says both “remember David” and also “a new king is coming.”

God gives us the signs, and we bring our faith. Jesus gave us a sign at his Table. Communion is a sign of past remembrance. “This is my body; this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus gave his life for the life of the world. But it is also a sign of future promise. “I will not drink of this again until I do so anew in the kingdom of God.” That kingdom decisively began in Jesus’ resurrection. It is now the risen Christ who is present to us by the Holy Spirit in God’s kingdom whenever we gather at this table.

When faith is hidden from us, and we have nowhere else to look, the mystics invite us to love God for God’s sake alone. And as we do so, we discover that faith is hidden in God’s hope for us. And God has hidden this hope in signs—a tree stump with a branch growing out of it, the bread and cup of Communion, and the birth of a child in Bethlehem. May the Spirit prepare us to receive faith and hope this season. Amen.

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