Sunday, June 25, 2023

Phil Kniss: The soft side of the prophet

Good news for those who have suffered
Isaiah, the Fifth Gospel
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-4

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Isaiah, and nearly every other biblical prophet,
are known and admired for their sharp oratory,
not for their gentleness.
They have a way with words, especially hard words.
Words that cut through the nonsense.
Words that give a clear unvarnished picture of reality.

Prophets are people that
you might like up front in a pulpit,
but not at your beside in a hospital;
you might want to take them with you into the courtroom,
but not with you on a camping trip;
you might enjoy them as your professor,
but not as your therapist.

But even prophets have a soft side.
Today, we see Isaiah’s.
In fact, chapter 40 reveals a side of Isaiah that, I confess,
I had not fully seen before preparing this sermon.
Sure, I’ve always read and appreciated
certain verses in Isaiah 40
where Isaiah paints a picture of God’s soft side.

I’ve always treasured the picture of God gathering up the lambs
and carrying them in God’s bosom
and gently leading the mother sheep.

And toward the end of the chapter, where God
gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.
And where those who wait for the Lord renew their strength;
mount up with wings like eagles;
run and not wear out,
walk and not faint.

Beautiful, comforting words, at the end of a chapter that begins with,
“Comfort, O comfort my people . . . speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”

So there are gentle bookends at the beginning and end,
but in between, looks like we still get a chapter-full
of the finger-pointing hard-truth-telling Isaiah:
The valleys will be filled up, and every mountain be made low.
All flesh is grass.
When God’s breath blows, it withers everything in its way.
The Lord God comes with might,
his recompense before him.
The nations are like a drop from a bucket.
God brings princes and rulers to nothingness.
God blows on them and they are carried off like dust in the wind.

But this past week I saw something new in these hard words,
that I hadn’t fully reckoned with, in 40 years of preaching.
I saw pure, unadulterated comfort in those words.
And overwhelming gentleness. Reassurance. Rest for the weary.
In every verse, including those on God’s hot breath of judgment.

When we lean into Isaiah’s song as a “Fifth Gospel,”
we will begin hearing other notes in the music.
Sweet sounds we hadn’t heard before.

It all has to do with who is listening.
Who is Isaiah aiming these words at?
And are we paying attention to Isaiah’s audience?

Now . . . let me get just a little technical here.
Chapter 40 comes in the part of Isaiah commonly known as
“Second Isaiah.”
Based on the content, tone, and historical references,
most scholars agree Isaiah has different parts,
written at different times.

Chapters 1-39 were written primarily by the historical prophet Isaiah,
whose career spanned the kingship of
Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah,
before the exile to Babylon.

Today’s chapter begins the second part of Isaiah,
and scholars are of the opinion that it was written much later,
like 200 years later,
by the spiritual “descendents” of Isaiah,
or disciples of disciples of Isaiah,
part of the Isaiah school, so to speak.

It was written late in the exile to Babylon, or after their return.
That makes all the difference in how we read these words.
These are deeply healing and comforting words
to returning exiles who have “served their time.”

This is not “more of the same” oracles of judgment against Israel,
like we find in First Isaiah,
or in his contemporaries like Amos and Hosea.
A prophet will speak one way,
when talking to a people enjoying their ease,
living their lives ensconced in comfort and luxury and wealth,
the kind that can accumulate
by oppressing the poor, the alien, the widow, the orphan.
And Isaiah did speak those harsh words of judgment
(albeit, along with the long-term promise of a hope to come,
as we noted a couple of weeks ago).

That judgment, in fact, came to pass.
God’s people were overrun by foreign empires,
and they were dragged off to Babylon against their will.
Their home communities, and their temple and sacred spaces
were left in ruins.

Then 200 years went by—200 years—
without essentially any change in their situation.
The life they left behind in Judah was nearly forgotten.
Their identity as God’s people nearly erased.
And they themselves learned what it was like to live as aliens
in a land not their own,
and be treated as second-class citizens by people
whose culture they didn’t understand.
Many lived as slaves.
Their lives had little value.
They suffered. Deeply. Endlessly. Collectively.

These are the people being addressed in Isaiah 40.
These are people who, the prophet makes clear in verse 1,
need comfort.
These are people who have served their time, and more,
for the injustices done by their ancestors.
These people are now the very ones
God was most concerned about in the first part of Isaiah.
They are the marginalized, the vulnerable,
the alien, the poor, the widows and orphans.
And God’s compassion for them is overwhelming.

That being the case, it dawned on me
how the metaphors of God’s power and judgment
that we see in this chapter,
can be read differently than we might imagine.
Different, even, than John the Baptist might have been reading them,
when he quoted Isaiah in his harsh condemnation
of the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jesus’ day.

So let’s scan down the oracles in chapter 40 to see what we find.
After the prophet opens with this announcement
that words of comfort are due, and overdue,
and that God’s people have already paid double for their sins,
here is what we find . . .

V. 3 and following (the part John the Baptist quoted)
“Make a highway in the desert for God.
Every valley will be raised up,
and every mountain and hill made low.”
I’ve always read this as a cataclysmic shaking of the earth,
when God would turn our world upside down,
reorient the landscape,
and forcibly reverse the inequities
(low raised up, high brought low, etc.).

I wonder if it wouldn’t be more accurate, in the context of comfort,
that God is telling the exiles,
“I am paving the way for you.
No longer will life be a dangerous obstacle course,
with ups and downs and twists and turns.
No, I will bring you with me on the road home,
on the smoothest and straightest of roads.
You’ve had enough of potholes and sheer cliff drop-offs.
The road home is a highway.

And verses 6-8 . . . all this stuff about flesh being like grass,
and God’s breath withering everything?

I wonder if we shouldn’t understand that
as a reference to Babylon, to their captors.
All these generations, God’s people were subjugated
by a nation more powerful than they.
They were suffering from severe collective low self-regard.
Here’s a comforting prophetic word,
that those human powers that held them down all these years,
their wealthy Babylonian owners,
were like grass before the breath of God.
Their power, which used to be intimidating,
is now withering away under God’s breath.
So Judah can come home without fear of retribution
from their former enslavers.

And in v. 10, this image of Yahweh coming in power,
his “recompense accompanying him,”
sounds pretty daunting.

I wonder, here, if recompense
does not refer to any punishment they have coming,
but the reward they have coming,
which God is bringing, in love.
And the sting of Yahweh’s power will be aimed at the oppressors,
not the oppressed.

I need not go over every verse in detail with you now.
Because once you begin reading Isaiah 40 this way,
as comfort for the suffering,
as God unmasking the powers of the oppressor,
drawing a line in the sand, and telling them, “No more,”—
then the rest of the chapter opens up in beauty before us.

The challenge for us, is to properly place ourselves in this oracle.
The returning exiles knew where they stood in this image.
In contrast, we today have a choice where to stand.
If we are on the side of the oppressed—
if we are advocates for
the poor, the alien, the widow, and the orphan,
and all those who otherwise are suffering
from the natural sorrows and losses of life,
or from being actively pushed down by society—
if we are on that side,
then there is nothing to fear from God’s power.
Because God’s power is used to comfort and heal the suffering,
and to put an end to the damage done by the oppressor.

But if we are in cahoots with the oppressor, then beware.
Our flesh is as grass.
One breath of God could undo us.

The comfort of these words depends on where we place ourselves.

The systems of injustice in our world today
do need to be confronted, resisted, unmasked for what they are.
But if want to receive Isaiah’s words as words of comfort,
then we need to move toward
those being oppressed by these systems.
We need to find ways to be in solidarity with.
Even, to share their suffering.
That is how we receive the comfort God wants to offer us.

Join with me in a prayer of confession, if you are willing.
one God of all comfort,
your heart beats with compassion for all who suffer,
for all who are pushed aside, pushed over, pushed down,
made to believe they are less than they are.
all Loving Creator,
when we diminish others, or diminish ourselves, 
we diminish you. Forgive us.
one God of all comfort,
you lead us to revere all your creation,
you lead us to embrace all your human family, 
including ourselves.
all Gentle Shepherd,
when we lose our way, or lose our love,
we lose our very selves. Lead us home.
one The God of all comfort, the God of everlasting love,
calls us to walk the road home,
the level road that God has prepared,
and on which God will accompany us to a place of shalom.

—Phil Kniss, June 25, 2023

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Sunday, June 11, 2023

Phil Kniss: When it dawns on us...

Good news for those who have walked in darkness
Isaiah, the Fifth Gospel
Isaiah 9:1-7; John 8:12

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The book of Isaiah has had a nickname, for a very long time:
The Fifth Gospel

That phrase, Fifth Gospel, is sometimes applied, controversially,
to early writings about Jesus that didn’t make it into our N.T.
The four Gospels that made it into our Bible
were the ones that held up under scrutiny,
and over time became authoritative.
But there were other collections circulating
in the early years of Christianity.

But Isaiah is another story.
As early as the fourth century,
St. Jerome suggested Isaiah could be counted as an evangelist—
like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—
as much as a prophet.
Jerome saw lots of connecting lines that could be drawn
between the writings in Isaiah,
and what we affirm about Jesus.
And he was right.
Ideas central to the prophet Isaiah
have become central to Christian faith,
and reflect our understanding of Jesus.
It was Isaiah who introduced us to,
“beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks”
“the wolf dwelling with the lamb”
“a voice crying out in the wilderness”
“the suffering servant”
“the man of sorrows”
“a light to the nations”
“good news to the poor”
“Prince of Peace”
“a new heaven and a new earth”
and of course,
“the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son,
and shall call him Emmanuel.”

But even apart from these words and phrases,
we can think of Isaiah as a “Fifth Gospel,”
simply because of the persistent message of hope
that comes through,
despite the presence of evil and darkness
and suffering in the world.
This is what we’re reflecting on these four weeks in Isaiah.
Isaiah brings us good news!
A bona fide Gospel word for a seemingly hopeless world.

Today, it’s good news for those who walked in darkness.

But first let’s remind ourselves.
Isaiah’s good news was written to, and intended for,
an entire peoplehood.
It was not aimed at separate individual believers.
Sure, we can all find personal encouragement here. And we do.
But the strength we gain comes from being part of a people,
with whom God is working to shape into something new—
a new people, for a new day, in a new creation.

So with that, let’s look at chapter 9.

I’ll admit, I’ve often read this encouraging word in verse 2—
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,”
as if it were aimed at me personally;
that my personal short-sightedness or spiritual blindness
is being transformed by the light of Christ.
I’ve read it as personal enlightenment.

But that’s not what Isaiah had in mind,
when he wrote down this oracle, this word from God.
The first 12 chapters of Isaiah are a wake-up call
to all of Israel, and specifically to Jerusalem,
the seat of Israel’s political and religious power.
Israel has rebelled against the covenant they have with God.

God’s arrangement with Israel
was to bless them so they would be a blessing to all nations.
They were to worship Yahweh alone,
and not be drawn into unholy political alliances
with idol-worshiping kings and peoples,
which undermined their covenant with God.
They were to treat the alien, widow, orphan, and the poor,
with high regard,
with compassion,
and protect them from being taken advantage of.
In return, Yahweh would be their defender.
And they would flourish as a people.

But they turned their back on the covenant.
The charges are many,
spelled out in the opening chapters of Isaiah.
1:23 for example:
They ignore the plight of the orphan and widow.
And instead take bribes from the rich and powerful,
and steal from the poor.

The end result,
is that Yahweh withdraws,
is no longer their defender,
which opens the door
for the natural consequences of their rebellion
to unfold before them.
They suffer defeat at the hands of Babylon and Assyria,
eventually leading to the shame and suffering of exile.

But this oracle of Isaiah in chapter 9 is not more doom and gloom.
It’s a surprising announcement of good news.
Dawn is about to break over them.
Verse 1: there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.”

We are tempted to read this and jump to Jesus right away,
and jump to personal salvation and enlightenment.
But Isaiah was speaking to the people right in front of him.
Yes, in Jesus’ day, 700 years later,
people were still drawing inspiration from Isaiah.
And 2,700 years later, we still are.
But Isaiah was focused on his own audience,
and the most likely reference point,
in this Good News word to the people,
was the comprehensive national reform that took place
under King Hezekiah.

When Hezekiah saw the mess they were in,
he instituted religious reform, and economic and cultural reform.
He had shrines and sacred pillars and other objects of worship
taken down,
ordered the worship of Yahweh alone.
He righted the economic wrongs that had been done.
He got them realigned with the covenant.
This was in Isaiah’s lifetime, during his prophetic ministry.
So Isaiah wrote,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

So when we use Isaiah to shed light on Jesus, as well we can,
or to help us hear Good News for our time, as well we can,
we dare not ignore what Isaiah was actually referring to in his time:
which was collective repentance,
cultural and economic reform,
widespread restoration of justice for the most vulnerable.
This was a whole people finally recognizing,
that for many generations
we have done wrong collectively, systemically,
and we are still paying for it.
And then working together to repent, that is,
change direction and live differently together.

I cannot help but notice
there might be a message here for the Christian church
in today’s politically polarized age.
In many parts of the church we have lost ourselves
to the culture wars.
Instead of noticing who is suffering or excluded,
and moving toward them gently and compassionately,
we instead notice those who make us afraid,
who threaten our preferred way of life,
or disturb the status quo,
or challenge our place of privilege,
and we act and re-act against those things,
as a means of self-protection.

I wonder what Isaiah would have to say,
if he were listening for the voice of Yahweh today . . .
a day when Christians get more upset over so-called “woke politics”
than about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
Or when Christians are the loudest voices
trying to forbid educators to talk to our children
about our collective sins of slavery
and systemic racism and white privilege,
or lobby aggressively for laws that result in increased suffering,
and endanger the lives of those
already marginalized and demeaned?

Whether we’re talking about sexual minorities,
or women in poverty with unwanted pregnancies,
or people of color being shot or beaten by law enforcement,
or people running for their lives
across borders without proper paperwork—
even without assuming any particular position, right or left,
on these obviously complex
moral and political and cultural issues,
why aren’t Christians known first and foremost
for their gentleness and compassion for the vulnerable,
instead of for loud angry rants at school board meetings?

Isaiah condemned his own people, with graphic language,
for their lack of compassion
for the widow, the alien, the orphan, and the poor.
“Your hands are full of blood,” he said.
“From the sole of your foot to the top of your head,
there are bruises and sores and bleeding wounds.”

If we took Isaiah seriously in his context,
we people of faith would be known for embracing those at risk.
We would be at the forefront of
of any national movement of racial reckoning,
instead of pushing hard against it.
In your wildest imagination,
can you see Isaiah, or any biblical prophet for that matter,
supporting a state law to prohibit
someone from saying things that cause discomfort?
Yet, state and local authorities are doing exactly that
all over our country, while Christians cheer them on!

I may already have made some of you uncomfortable this morning . . .
I love you. But I’m not sorry.
Mostly because, I’ve made myself uncomfortable saying it.
It’s not in my nature to be a trouble-maker.
But one thing I’ve learned in life,
is that being authentic, and being comfortable,
don’t always go together.

Having said that, let me return to my comfort zone as a Gospel preacher.
There is good news here in Isaiah,
and we should embrace it.
Good news for us in power, and for those who are vulnerable.

The good news is that God is light.
And light is healing.
And light is restorative.
And that light is dawning on us—in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit.

Wherever God’s light shines in the darkness,
there is new life to be had, if we, collectively, turn and repent.
When this light dawns on us,
we will not continue walking in darkness.
We will see the path in front of us,
instead of fumbling in the dark.

I’m not promoting any sort of national political movement here.
I’m promoting an honest self-assessment
and collective reckoning for us as a church.
If God’s light is overcoming the darkness,
and if God’s light aims to restore
a flourishing life to widows, orphans, aliens, and the poor,
then I think we as a church know where to go.
The path is clear in front of us.
We should walk in the light of God.
We should walk in compassion and kindness to all,
especially the marginalized.
We should make extra effort to stand up for those
who have no one else standing up for them.

God’s light is dawning.
And when it dawns on us, we will know how to walk again.
God, give us courage.
God, shine your light.

Join with me in a prayer of confession.

one God of steadfast love, God of persistent light,
you embrace us as your people, even as we walk in darkness.
We confess we are complicit in systems that perpetuate injustice,
promote idolatry, and deepen the darkness.
all Forgive us. Dawn on us with your restoring light.
one Give us the courage to trust your judgement.
Give us the wisdom to receive your restoring work.
all Give us the love to remain in your light.
one God is here. God is light.
We who once walked in darkness
are now invited to live in the dawning light,
and to walk the road of restoration.
God will walk with us. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, June 10, 2023

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Sunday, June 4, 2023

Maren Hange: At the Threshold of Wonder

Good news for those who admit their need
Isaiah, the Fifth Gospel
Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:8-10

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Maren Tyedmers Hange and her husband Roy have been co-pastors of Charlottesville Mennonite Church for 23 years. Maren joined Roy as a Harrisonburg District Co-Oversight Minister in 2021. She joined the interim Conference Leadership Team (iCLT) for Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) in the summer of 2022. Maren and Roy have 3 adult children. One of Maren's many gifts is watercolor painting.

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