The Pervasiveness of Death
It has been said that we begin dying as soon as we are born. I don’t know how true that is, but at some point all that God has created eventually slows down and dies. We all begin our life with the limitless possibilities of an open future. Almost imperceptibly each of those open doors begin closing until the last door closes on our fragile existence.
I was once a member of a growing church. The energetic and vibrant younger members where united with the wisdom and guidance of the older members. But death showed up and removed the strongest members one by one. Eventually the loss of life pushed us down the slippery slope towards inevitable death. Today that church barely hangs on in a kind of living death.
Many are in relationships where the storybook ending often written as “happily ever after” has turned into Rodney King’s anguish cry, “Can’t we all just get along?”That hope of a better life together with the one we have chosen has been transformed into a living death that makes us wonder if it was God or Satan that brought the family together.
One need only gaze into our inner cities to see monuments to hopelessness. We see buildings that once housed our great institutions turned into drug hideaways. We look at many of our communities that now give a testimony of death rather than being a witness to the hope that God alone can give.
Some even say that our solar system in which we live is essentially a time clock that is winding down. At some point in the future, scientists tell us, there will be a big dark spot where the Sun once was. The Sun like all stars will one day burn out.
And we don’t have to look outside to see death. In our own life we often see death. And what is so painful is not merely the death that we see, but what is so painful is that death so often comes after a great disappointment that shatters our dreams.
The recipients of our scripture today were intimately aware of these characteristics of death. They were sent to Babylonian captivity, but one hope sustained them. They had the promise of return. Israel would get their time.
Some didn’t want to come back they had a life in Babylon. They had raised families in Babylon. Some were ready for retirement in Babylon. However the dream of going home was still operative within the heart of many. They dreamed of a resurrection of their hopes. These individuals didn’t allow the relative comfort of Babylon to sway them from working to see the promise of return fulfilled. These individuals had a dream of a better temple. They had a dream of a renewed community. Ultimately they had a dream of being home. And just as the Scripture had noted, the time for return had come.
So they began the trek back to Israel. Yes, the road was a little hard on the way to Israel from Babylon, but the time seemed to go quickly as they sang the songs of Zion. I can imagine they sang songs from their history. They sang the songs of God’s exploits on their behalf. This reminded them that God was on their side and that they would see home again. This renewed hope within them. And then they rounded the final corner they found that the home that they left was not the same home that was standing right there in front of them. The Bible told them that they would come back, but it didn’t say that they would come back to such a mess. The lawns hadn’t been mowed in years. The houses were basically rubble. Long decayed bodies and bones were lying around. And even the temple was in terrible shape.
Here they came face to face with death right after so much hope. They saw death in their structures. They saw death in their community. They also saw a death of their hopes and dreams. In the back of somebody’s mind was the Canaanite myth that ultimately death would swallow up everything. Their eyes bore witness to this seemingly accurate prediction.
Somebody must have said, “Oh Lord here we are and we simply followed the Word and look at what the Word got us. Look at what that promise from the past has gotten us. Here we are in the middle of death even though your promise told us to come back here.”
You might be able to imagine the pain and hurt that overtook these people. All of the scriptures promise and this is all there is? You know, some of you may have thought, “Here we are following the word of God only to find that the word of God was asking us to do the impossible, namely bring a nation back from death. Here we are looking at the promise dying right before our eyes.
Here we are years after the promise of gender equality having only to find that women are still fighting just to find someone that will listen to them preach the gospel. The promise is dying!
Here we are years after the promise of racial justice having to look at the death in the eyes of black folks in New Orleans while an administration that can start a war without anybody’s permission claims that the local governments denied them the ability to help. The promise is dying!
Here we are years after the promise of a return to Israel only to see death with our own eyes. I can imagine that some were ready to go back to Babylon. Those may have asked themselves, “Why should we walk in this promise of God when it seems so hard?”
Find the Message
This is the people who went to the book of Isaiah to find a message. They picked up the book of Isaiah and found that some of the book was addressed to those who had not yet gone into exile. They saw that other parts of the book were addressed to those who were in Babylon. But somebody had to wonder, “Where is the message for us right now?”
Oh yes, somebody probably understands this. You were about to give up. And you went to the scriptures and it didn’t seem to have anything to say to you in your situation. You went to the scriptures and it gave a promise to those who were either in something that you were fighting with last week or condemning you for something you did last year.
Well the writer of our text began reading the book of Isaiah and then all of a sudden a flash of light came to the writer. The writer remembered that somewhere there was a promise for the people not just in the past, but at the present time in this present situation. The writer didn’t remember where the promise had been placed. The writer had to go back to the filing cabinet to find that promise. The writer had to go back to the desk to find that promise. The writer had to look in his sock drawer. And finally the writer found that promise. Then the writer wrote that God given promise straight into 1st Isaiah. Right where the pain was the writer applied the promise.
And this promise was not to Israel who was in need of judgment. No. It was not to Israel in the midst of Babylonian captivity, no. It was a promise of hope in their situation. It promised them that the location of God’s inauguration is the same mountain where they are now hurting. Right now it didn’t look like a banquet hall, but it will be. Right now all one sees on the mountain is death, but God is going to ultimately take off the clothes of mourning from everyone and swallow up death itself. Right now everyone is crying, but God will wipe away the tears. All of this will happen right here.
After reading the revised book many of those returned exiles were now ready to continue the fight. After reading the revised book many of those returned exiles were ready to face the obstacles inherent in rebuilding anything. After reading the revised book many of those returned exiles were ready to stay when they formerly felt like leaving. Many of those returned exiles were ready to struggle a little longer. After reading the revised book energy welled up within their being and strength from nowhere came to energize them.
The promise that they just got finished reading suddenly fused with the promises of 2nd Isaiah and the bond was stronger than either this promise or that promise alone. Suddenly it became one big promise of God being with them when they went into captivity, with them in captivity, with them coming out of captivity, and now with them in struggling to rebuild a life in the ruins of a past life. After reading the revised book they realized death doesn’t have the final word.
You Write it Down
It is here where the story meets us. It meets those of us who are faced with the reality of our limitations. Don’t forget God is still on the throne. It meets us who have struggled to bring the promise of God into fruition only to see death come as a result. Don’t forget, there is still another promise. It meets those of us who have struggled for justice only to see injustice reign. Don’t forget, there is another court being seated in the heavens.
It meets those of us who are right now at the place of hurting. I encourage you to look for the promise even in the place of hurting. You may say that you don’t see the promise operative right now. In addition you may say that there is no contemporary promise in my vision right now. All you may have is the promise from the past that sustained you in captivity, but is not helpful to you right now. That’s all right; Isaiah didn’t originally have the promise in there for them at that time either. So just like the writer of 3rd Isaiah, keep on looking for that forgotten promise. And if you can’t find such a promise you might need some help from the Psalmist who said, “Even if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there.” Take your pen, write that down! If you need a little more go listen to the African American slave who sang, “Great Day, Great Day the righteous marching, Great Day, God’s gonna build up Zion’s walls.” Take your pen, Write that down! Don’t worry if you need some more help for Jesus said “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Take your pen and write that down!
And don’t forget our text this evening. The Bible Says, God has a great banquet for all of humanity and you are invited. The feast will take place at this place. It will take place at the same place where you have been disappointed. The same place you have been hurt. And the Bible Says, And God is going to grab God’s handkerchief and kneel down and wipe the tears out of every eye that has been crying. And then God is going to rip those mourning clothes offof the entire world.
So don’t give up to despair. Death will not have the last word. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the sun. I don’t know what is going to happen to the universe. In fact I don’t even know what is going to happen to this city 5 years from now, but I am looking for the promise to apply right now. And as I look for the promise I think I hear someone who has found it saying, “Lo this is our God, we have waited and God will save.”All that person is saying is that I took out my pen and wrote down the promise so now I can keep on struggling until Christ comes. That person is saying, I took out my pen and wrote down the promise so now I can keep on fighting to bring everybody to the table knowing God is going to come to this same table. That person is saying, I was able to keep on fighting the death principle in this life knowing God would ultimately overthrow even death. I think I am seeing the vision now so I can keep on struggling to bring God’s vision into this life at this mountain. Don’t give up, don’t give in. We have the promise.
Take your pen and write it down!