Readings for the day (2nd Sunday after Epiphany – Sunday, January 15, 2017):
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Around 600 years before Jesus was born, an outside group, a group of foreigners, came in, captured the Israelites, chained them up, led them off to a far off country, and completely ransacked Jerusalem. Homes were destroyed. The city walls were damaged. The temple that King Solomon built (essentially their church) was completely destroyed. The Israelites were hauled off into exile, away from their homes, away from all of their things, possibly even away from their family and friends. And on top of that, their place of worship was desecrated and destroyed. Can they worship God in a foreign land? Can they worship God in another place other than their building? This is an important question for the Israelites because the temple was where God told them He would be; they could find Him there. And now without the temple, can they still worship God? If so, where?
That question is maybe a little easier for us to think about with many churches in the area. And yet, when we spend much of our lives going to Sunday School and Luther League in this place or all of the Christmas Eve and Holy Week services over the years, it still can be hard to think of our future without this church, without this building in our lives. Could we even possibly join another church if our church was no longer here?
While in exile, the Israelites were not only dealing with the loss of their church building, but they lost everything. And regardless of what the loss is, when we lose something, a void is created in our lives that needs to be filled, but it can be rather challenging to accomplish this and actually fill the void, especially when the void is big.
For the Israelites the future is so uncertain. When will they be able to return home? Will they be in exile for as long as their ancestors were in Egypt? The future always carries with it a certain level of fear and anxiety because we don’t know what that future holds. Now we aren’t exiled to a foreign land. We still have our homes and our families, our jobs and our possessions. But we still have no clue what the growing season will look like this year, nor do we know what the crop prices will do. We finally know what is happening to the health insurance premiums this year, and it’s anything but good news. And as of Friday, we have a new president. For some, this news brings hope for a better future. For others, this news brings great worry and anxiety since no one truly knows exactly what our new president will do in the next 4 years. It could be good. It could be bad. It’ll probably be a little bit of both.
Now the job of a prophet is to first tell God’s people what they have done wrong that has upset God, but also to tell them what God is going to do for them in the future – giving them some hope.
In our story with the Israelites being hauled off to Babylon, they have no clue how long they are going to be there, if they will even be able to return home. And now in comes the prophet Isaiah who has predicted many things. Isaiah prophesied that Babylon (the place where the Israelites were exiled to) would be overthrown, allowing for them to return home someday. And he also prophecies that a Messiah (God’s anointed One) would soon arrive.
Isaiah knows what he is supposed to do. He knows that he is to deliver God’s Word to His people. God says, “You are my servant…in whom I will be glorified.” But Isaiah responds, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…” Isaiah feels like he isn’t getting anywhere with God’s people. He says that he has labored in vain, spending all of his energy for nothing. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt as though you have tried really hard at something all for your efforts to seem useless and all for nothing? It’s like when you are trying so hard to teach your child or a student something and they just aren’t getting it. Many times it even appears like they aren’t even listening. But then there’s that moment. That moment when they surprise you and you realize that all of that hard work has finally paid off.
Sometimes it can feel as though we have labored in vain; that all of our efforts, all of our work and dedication to our church, in our homes, in our community, on our farms and in our businesses, that all of our efforts have been for nothing. But have we tried everything we could? Is it time to give up and throw in the towel? Have we labored for nothing?
Or do we do as the disciples did and follow after Jesus whatever the cost? Now following Jesus takes work. Having a relationship with God takes work. In fact, any relationship for that matter takes work. If both parties aren’t good about maintaining the communication lines, then the relationship weakens over time. The same is true with our church, if we just passively enjoy the reality that our church is still around but don’t lift a figure to help it, then it is all for nothing. It takes work. Just as Nathanael asks Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I ask you, “Can anything good come out of Waverly?”
Isaiah’s prophecies were not only promises from God, but they were intended to give the Israelites some hope. Hope that someday things would get better. Hope that someday they would be able to return home. Hope that someday they would be free again to worship their God in their own building again.
The future of our world certainly is uncertain. We don’t know what the future holds for us. We don’t know what health care or crop prices are going to look like in the future. We don’t know what the weather will do or what our new president will do. For all of this and more, we put our faith and trust in God that He would continue to provide for us for as long as He feels that there is work for us to do for the sake of God’s kingdom.
So regardless of what happens in the future – whether it rains or not, whether President Trump’s leadership is good or not, whether we live or whether we die, know this: know that you belong to God. Your labor for the Lord is never in vain. He has chosen you. He has called you by name. You are His. And nothing, absolutely nothing in this world can ever take that away from you. Amen.
© 2017 Anthony Christoffels. All rights reserved.