A Favorite Prayer..., Proper 16 (C) - 2004

August 22, 2004

A favorite prayer for “birthday blessings,” in churches where people’s birthdays are publicly celebrated, begins: “O God, our times are in your hand …”( Prayer #50, BCP p.380) Isaiah would recognize the phrase, and being a daring and confrontational prophet, he would no doubt ask if we lived, not just on our birthdays, but every day of our lives as though that were the truth about ourselves. All the prophets in Hebrew Scriptures were bold and confrontational; but at his particular moment of history, with his peculiar discernment about life with God, Isaiah had good reason to voice deep concern about the times he was living in. He carried the Word of God to Judah and Jerusalem during, or just after, the period when the Assyrians invaded and annexed the northern kingdom of Israel. This event left the rulers of Judah panic-stricken that they might be next. In Isaiah’s view; the whole trouble with the kings of Judah was that they forgot that their times were in God’s hands.

In thundering forth, passionately and vividly, against the “covenant with death” Isaiah is referring to the diplomatic treaties and military preparations that Judah was making with its neighbors, including Egypt. Isaiah knew full well that an Assyrian invasion was a real threat, which would amount to an “overwhelming scourge.” But he seems to use the word “covenant” quite deliberately, in order to make the point that Judah’s leaders, the “scoffers who rule this people,” have abandoned their own covenant tradition with God and left God out of their foreign policy equations. The rulers in Jerusalem are not heard singing the refrain of today’s Psalm 46, “the Lord of Hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” And in Isaiah’s view, this is a serious omission on their part.

Ancient Israel’s prophets were not impractical dreamers, given to happy slogans about peace-making. They stood firmly in the context of Torah and Covenant. Central to the whole literature of Torah is the conviction that the Covenant made through Moses was something that bound and bonded God and the People of God together in a particular relationship, fleshing out God’s promises made long before, to Abraham and Sarah. The covenant relationship joined the word and power of the all-holy God with the words and lives of his people at all times and in all places, in such a way that the relationship would be a blessing, through them, to all the peoples of the earth. The bottom line in this covenant relationship is not: should we prepare for war and make expedient alliances with stronger nations to ensure our own survival? The bottom line is: survival as what? Survival for what?

We are so used to thinking of Torah and Covenant in terms of rules, regulations, and laws, we forget that relationship lies at their core. The covenant joined heaven to earth in a conversation that was intended to be ongoing. In the covenantal dialogue, God’s people would talk to God about their hurts and hopes, their fears and dreams for the future, their private sorrows and public danger. And while God did not talk back to them in the same way, God could be counted on to give the sort of response, by word and deed, that always opened up new possibilities for them. This is the real significance of the Exodus story: this God can make a way when there is no way, and can bring new life and times into a situation which to all intents and purposes looks like a dead end or a disaster.

What makes Isaiah so angry is that the rulers of Judah have forgotten that their identity, even in times of war and invasion, lies in this covenant relationship. As Isaiah sees it, the name of the game is not how to survive invasion, but how to live life with God. Forgetting this, they have stopped the conversation, abandoned the relationship, and therefore lost the life giving, new possibilities that lie only in God’s power.

Living faithfully with God never precludes the common sense needed to live life on earth. We may indeed have faith, trust, and hope in the Lord, but we will still put our seat belts on when getting into the car. It is not in an “Either/Or” situation, but a “Both/And.” To live life on earth as it is in heaven means keeping the conversation going and trusting that God’s new possibilities will emerge over the course of the times we are living in.

The people who ask Jesus in Luke 13, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” are also conscious of living in critical times. They receive an answer that is no more reassuring to them than Isaiah’s picture of the overwhelming scourge about to descend upon Judah was to his hearers. The questioners betray the fact that they, too, have lost track of the conversational dimension of living with God and live only in the two-dimensional reality where “the many” and “the few” make sense. Jesus’ answer indicates the consequences of this in very vivid terms: when they show up on God’s doorstep and say, “Hello! It’s us!” they will evoke the response: “Us? Who “us?” I don’t know you!” It is not that God develops amnesia if we don’t check in with God from time to time. It means that the salvation that comes from God emerges in the context of a living relationship to God and conversation with God.

It is typical of Luke that the picture of salvation, which Jesus goes on to describe, involves a gathering of people feasting at God’s table in God’s Kingdom. The new covenant made in Jesus’ death and resurrection is the “new possibility” that God has opened up in the dialogue with the People of God. Fulfilling the promises made to Abraham and Sarah, the covenant conversation now brings others, “from east and west, and from north and south,” as companions—literally, those who break bread together—in the salvation picture. God’s new possibilities include recreating the covenant relationship with many different voices at the same table, not all of whom claim Abraham or Moses as blood relatives.

Torah was always intended to be open-ended, moving the People of God towards the horizon of God's future for them and with them. God’s new possibilities include recreating the covenant relationship with many different voices People of God towards the horizon of God’s future for them and with them. But we simply cannot know the hope of that future if we do not stay faithful to the conversation. And for us, staying in that covenant conversation involves more than showing up in church on Sundays. The kings of Judah presumably kept the Sabbath and made all the right Temple sacrifices, but they were still not in living relationship with the God of Torah and Covenant. The living relationship involves, as Eucharistic Prayer “C” puts it, opening our eyes to God’s hand at work in the world around us. It involves growing in knowledge of God’s character and ways, in “thought, word and deed,” so that we are capable of seeing when God tilts our future in a new direction. This is open-ended, risky business in the same way that any other relationship is risky business. It was so for Abraham, it was so for Moses, it was so for Jesus, and—when we are faithful, and we know who we are and whose we are—it is so for us.


Christopher Sikkema

Editor, Sermons That Work