“God will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:4)
When the prophet Isaiah promises salvation to the people, people who are “weak, feeble and fearful” (Is 35:3-4) what does he mean? What does he mean when he says: “God will save you”? Does he mean, the promise of heaven? Does he mean, remission of sins?
In the news this week we have seen images of desperate people risking their lives to escape the dire situation in Syria. Refugees are literally dying for the sake of finding a better life for themselves and their loved ones.
The prophet Isaiah spoke to a people dispersed from their homes. He spoke to a people who were displaced for political reasons. Emerging empires, such as Assyria, Babylon and then the Greeks, swept through the region in the centuries before Christ leaving those without power or privilege to fend for themselves in foreign lands. Sound familiar?
The Bible gives us Christians a broader perspective on ‘Salvation’. Because when we look carefully at texts such as Isaiah 35, salvation is not about heaven and remission of sins. The people who are exiled, lost and experiencing the worst circumstances of life, will be saved from those circumstances. In real time, earth-bound, flesh and blood realities.
From the perspective of Jesus Christ, of course, we can express, in all truth, the promise of heaven and remission of sins. For sure. And yet we cannot, if we engage the bible honestly, limit the concept of salvation to these albeit abstract notions of faith. Salvation in Christ has just as much to do with our lives on earth, and the lives of others, “in the flesh”.
We may despair, watching the news. What can anyone do to make the situation right for the millions of refugees now flooding Europe? How can there be a happy ending, in this mess? We can be paralyzed in our fear, and look away, despondent.
And yet we have this fantastic story of restoration. We know how the story ends for the remnant of Judah in Babylonian exile. We know that their earthly suffering ends happily. On earth. They eventually return to Jerusalem and restore their fortunes. We can get giddy with faith at this happy ending. Surely, this is the promised outcome for all who suffer in any way!
Listen to how Professor of Old Testament, Patricia Tull, writing in workingpreacher.org, expresses the puzzling truth of this story:
“Events as deeply woven into our history as Jerusalem’s restoration take on for us an air of inevitability. Yet they cannot be taken for granted. Other nations destroyed by great empires — including Aram, Moab, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel — failed to reestablish when their crises passed. We have Judah’s story only because it transcended destruction. Every time our scriptural reading brings us to Jerusalem’s phoenix-like restoration 2500 years ago is a moment to stop for gratitude and wonder. As Isaiah 34 and 35 vividly show, reversal of fortune isn’t guaranteed. But it is possible. Judah’s success story sets a precedent for hope, showing that happy endings have occurred and can occur.”
The first prime-minister of the modern state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, said, “Anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.” To be hopeless, however grave the circumstance, is unrealistic. It works both ways: To believe that there is a happily-ever-after for each and every person in every situation imaginable is unrealistic; we know that’s not the way life works. At the same time, to dismiss altogether the possibility of happy endings and miraculous turn of events is unrealistic as well. For God, all things are possible.
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Some people see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ Others see things as they could be and ask, ‘Why not?’
As Christians, as people of faith, aren’t we a people of a ‘Why not?’ -capability?
Why not be grateful at the start and end of each day — grateful for all things that have gone well in life?
Why not focus on the blessings and abundance rather than the scarcity?
Why not celebrate the victories of God that you see in the world in the lives of others even if those victories don’t benefit you personally?
Why not rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep?
Why not sing a song of gladness when the underdog takes it all?
Why not see the face of Jesus in the stranger, the immigrant, the Muslim neighbour, the un-churched youth and mid-lifers?
Why not envision a future for your life and the life of the church that is better than what it is now? Why not? Why not? And then, see where that leads …
We are not in the business of faith for what we make of it or get out of it. We are in the business of faith for what God has done, and continues to do all around us, and even despite us.
We can be strong and do not need to fear because God keeps promises. God keeps God’s word. As Isaiah foretold, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped … the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:5-6).
In the Gospel today we read about Jesus doing precisely this: Jesus brings miraculous healing to the lives of those distraught and torn apart by illness and disease (Mark 7:24-37). Jesus is the glory of God shining through the brokenness of our lives. Jesus is the majesty of God embracing the sweat and tears of our lives. Jesus is the active presence of God working in us and through our poverty and pain, amidst the blood and grit and earthy, daily activity of our lives.
The story of the Quilt Holes inspired me recently at a funeral I attended. The preacher told the story of one who faced God at the last judgement, as spoken through the first person: “I knelt before God, as did everyone else. Our lives lay before us like the squares of a quilt in many piles. An angel sat in front of each of us sewing our quilt squares together into a tapestry that is our life.
“But as my angel took each piece of cloth off the pile, I noticed how ragged and empty each of my squares was: They were filled with giant holes. Each square was labeled with a part of my life that had been difficult, the challenges and temptations I had faced in every day life. I saw hardships that I endured, which were the largest holes of all.
“I glanced around me. Nobody else had such squares. They just had a tiny hole here and there. Their tapestries were filled with rich colour and the bright hues of worldly fortune. I gazed upon my own life and was disheartened.
“Finally the time came when each life was to be displayed, held up to the light, the scrutiny of truth. My gaze dropped to the ground in shame. There had been many trials of illness. I had to start over many times. I often struggled with the temptation to give up. I spent many nights in tears and on my knees in desperate prayer, asking for help and guidance that took a long time coming.
And now, I had to face the truth: My life was what it was, and I had to accept it for what it was. I rose and slowly lifted the combined squares of my life to the light.
An awe-filled gasp filled the air. I gazed around at the others who stared at me with wide eyes. Then, I looked upon the tapestry before me: Light flooded the many holes, creating an image, the face of Christ. Then Jesus stood before me, with warmth and love in his eyes. He said, “Each point of my light shone through the holes, the rips and ragged, empty squares of your life. When you were down and out, and honest and still trusting, my light continued shining through you.”
At the end of it all, we may be threadbare and worn. It may look like a failure, a sad ending. And yet, Christ in us is the end of the story, not us.
Why not, then, just be the Body of Christ in the world today? Why not be, together, the hands and feet of Jesus? Holes and all? What do we have to lose? Why not be the answer we are waiting and hoping for — for others who have no hope, for the refugees of the world?
I recently read the story of a woman who had walked seven hundred miles as a refugee to escape a violent war. She was finally able to cross a national boundary out of the war zone. She walked all that way and brought with her an eight-year-old girl, who walked beside her. For seven hundred miles, the child held her hand tightly. When they reached safety, the girl loosened her grip, and the woman looked at her hand: It was raw and bloody with an open wound, because the little girl had held tightly in her fearfulness. This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. (Walter Brueggemann, “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now”, WJK Kentucky, 2014, p.88-89)
God’s hands do not let go of us, even though we may fear, even though we may be scared to take the risk and do the right things. This is the promise that God will never break.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) was onto something when in convention this past summer we adopted the Reformation challenges — one of which is to sponsor, by 2017 (the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses, or arguments, on the doors of the Wittenberg Church in Germany thereby launching the Reformation), 500 refugees coming to Canada.
We are the people we are waiting and hoping for. We have a responsibility, in faith, to be grace, forgiveness, mercy and compassion to those who are unloveable, undesirable, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the refugee, the marginalized. Can you imagine what a show of grace might do in the lives of those to whom the unexpected is given?