Finding Our Place

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on December 14, 2014)

Can there be comfort in something as difficult as repentance?

Oh yes! It seems counter-intuitive in a world where we do about anything to hide our flaws, carefully curating one profile picture out of thousands taken…where celebrities hire publicists to manage their image…where putting on a mask is more normal than airing our dirty laundry.

Repentance raises issues and images for us as we think about God. Is God really loving, if God puts expectations on our behavior? Will I destroy my own sense of worth and value if I focus on sin and the need to repent?

Isaiah chapter 40 is an interesting mix of ideas. God is speaking to the prophet, wanting the prophet to give a message of comfort. The emotional tone is different than Isaiah 64 from two weeks ago, different than the crying out for justice. It is tender, it is reassuring, it is hopeful…but it is not without challenge.

Turn with me to Isaiah 40, and we’ll look at the first five verses, verses which convey to us today the theme of repentance.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 40:1-5, TNIV)

To the people of Israel, who had been conquered and exiled to another country, who believed that these horrible experiences were the result of their sin and wrong choices, these are words of comfort.

Your sentence is completed, your punishment is done. And for us…when we are feeling heavy guilt as the result of our own actions, when we wish we could find a way to pay back for the wrong we have done…in those times, these are words of comfort too.

But there is such a difficult dance to try and do here. Somehow we have to hold on to the idea that we sometimes do things that are hurtful and horrible, but without going too far and thinking we are therefore worthless and unloveable. Somehow we have to believe that God grieves over sin, allows consequences and even disciplines our wrong choices, without going too far and thinking God can’t stand the sight of us and wants to wipe us off the face of the earth.

The pendulum of history and theology seems to swing from one extreme to the other: the “tic” of an always angry God with a world of hopeless sinners, swinging over to the “toc” of a never angry God who always loves without ever confronting sin or wrong.

The book of Isaiah refuses to live at either of those extremes. The prophets will not let sin and wrong and injustice go without being called out out, without saying to king and peasant alike, “make a straight path in the desert” for our God.

The prophets will not let us believe that actions don’t matter, that sin doesn’t have a cost, that God turns a blind eye to disobedience. Nor will the prophets ever give up on hope. Nor will they be silent when they hear God saying, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” or “Comfort, comfort my people.”

The dance the prophets invite us to dance is this: to look at a loving God and yet not deny sin; to look at how loved and chosen by God we are, and yet not deny God’s holiness.

Without specifically throwing any particular one of my children under the bus, I can think of times as a parent that illustrate this dance with God that I’m describing…times where I think I have been so good at this dance, that I’ve communicated my unconditional love for them while at the same time holding them accountable for their actions…yet all they hear is judgment and that they haven’t measured up.

Or to use another example, the idea floating around in our world of the need for a “good cop, bad cop” approach. There’s one who delivers the judgment and the fear and the challenge, shaking someone out of their denial of their wrong; and there’s another, separate one who gives forgiveness and grace.

We have a hard time holding the two together in one person; we have a hard time holding the two together in one God. Yet the very God who speaks tender comfort and hope and forgiveness is the same God who exiled them from the promised land because of what they had done.

I see these first five verses of Isaiah 40 asking us to dance the dance, to wrestle with the tension: God both comforts and challenges, convicts and forgives.

As we get closer to celebrating Christmas, understanding this helps us understand why Jesus is so unique and special.

Where once upon a time in Isaiah 40 Israel could be comforted because they had paid their dues and done the time for their crime, Christmas is the beginning of something new and world-altering. God became human to both demonstrate deep love AND to “pay for our sin.” There is a deep and lasting comfort when we can see in the incarnation, in God becoming human…we see the ultimate dance of love and justice coming together.

When the gospels talk about John the Baptist–the one who went ahead of his cousin Jesus and called people to wholeness and repentance and hope–the gospels connect John the Baptist with Isaiah 40. John, the one who reminded everyone of their sin and their need to repent… John was seen as the “voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.’”

We rarely enjoy being honest with our dark side. But honesty is the way to hope.

John’s message was strong, and it still applies today. Face your wrong choices, your selfishness, your hypocrisy. Don’t ignore it or pretend it isn’t there. Name it, and turn your back on it, because there is someone coming who is going to do something about it once and for all.

I will talk about God’s love until I don’t have breath left in my lungs. I will talk about God’s unending forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ as often as I’m given the opportunity. Yet that doesn’t have to be instead of these words about the consequences of sin. It doesn’t eliminate the need for preparation, honesty, and repentance.

God’s words of comfort are not because God is blind to wrongs and sins in the world! God’s love doesn’t end in the face of sin. The incarnation of God proves that Jesus has drawn near to a broken world and has taken our wounds and sins on his back and healed them all!

These first five verses of Isaiah 40 show us that God is one who comforts AND convicts. The next six verses push us to a similar both/and as we look at ourselves and who we are.

A voice says, ‘Cry out.’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
‘All people are like grass,
and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.’
You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power,
and his arm rules for him.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young. (Isaiah 40:6-11, TNIV)

Here is the pendulum again.

Looking at ourselves in light of the ultimate goodness of God, in light of the eternal God, reminds us that we are temporary and frail and we wither in comparison to the lasting goodness of God.

But before we are allowed to let that totally deflate us, Isaiah gives us another picture: we are part of a flock, we are cared for by God the shepherd. God “gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

We can be tempted to think we are invincible and unstoppable; tempted to believe everything and everyone revolves around us. Here is the reminder that everyone, even emperors and presidents, one day end up in the grave, powerless.

We can be tempted to think we are invisible and unnoticed and forgotten. Here is the reminder that God watches us day and night, gathers us close to his heart, tenderly cares for each one of us.

I came back from sabbatical last year wrestling with identity, thinking often about who we are.

Isaiah 40 is yet another reminder of how important this wrestling is. At our core, we are loved and watched over and valued by God our shepherd, tenderly drawn to his heart simply by being part of his flock, not because our actions have earned it. We are so valuable!

And yet we are not God, we are not perfect, we will not live forever. We are frail creatures full of foibles and failures. We are grass that is withering away.

Oh, that we might hold on to both of those truths about ourselves, just as we hold on to both truths about God!

Because the beauty of all this, the rubber-meets-the-road reality is this: we are loved precisely while we are “withering like grass”. To be loved, to see ourselves as worthwhile, does not mean we turn a blind eye to our frailty and failure. To be loved and to be valuable does not mean lying about our human struggle. God’s eyes are wide open. God’s arms are wide open, loving us in honesty.

We are both loved and frail, saint and sinner. God is both loving and holy. May this Christmas, where the God-child was born into a dirty stable, help us avoid the extremes of the pendulum. Knowing we are loved allows us to admit our wrongs. Knowing God did something about sin allows us to have hope.

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