Why do you say O Jacob, and speak O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?”
I’d like to talk about today’s reading from Isaiah, but first, a little trivia. What is the most frequent command in scripture? I’ll give you a few seconds to think about it. Did you guess to be more loving? Even though love is God’s goal for human life and existence, the command to love is not God’s most frequent instruction. Perhaps you guessed to be more humble? After all, theologians insist that pride is at the root of all sin, but interestingly the Bible’s most frequent imperative says nothing about gaining humility. Did you guess something to do with money or sex or honesty? If so your guess was wrong. The most common command in the Bible is formulated in four simple words: Do not be afraid.
Now, why does God command us not to fear? Last time I checked, fear was not on the list of Seven Deadly sins, and so why does God command us not to fear? The answer is actually quite simple. The words do not be afraid are so common in Scripture because fear is the number one reason that we fail to trust God. Behind every act of disobedience and every failure to trust God fear is always lurking.
Now, I don’t mean to say that fear is always bad. Fear can be quite good, like when a child fears touching a hot stove or when a teenager fears driving drunk. But the problem is that for most of us, fear arrives as an unwelcome guest. Fear can easily become paralyzing instead of motivating, habitual instead of sporadic. In fact, we have a name for people that constantly live in fear. We call them worriers, and people that constantly worry have a hard time trusting God. And for this reason, God’s most frequent command is, do not be afraid.
Today’s reading from Isaiah was originally written to people wrestling with fear, that is Israelite exiles being held captive in Babylon. The Babylonians have overthrown them and the whole nation is in ruin. The people are in exile and surrounded by enemies. And for this reason the people of Israel are terrified. But not only that, they feel forgotten. “My way is hidden from the Lord,” they say, “and my right is disregarded by my God.” And so that’s the background. The people of Israel feel alone, they feel abandoned, and they are terrified.
Now, perhaps we have never had our homes burned and our land conquered, but we all know that we still live in a world where these things happen. And yes, we may be shielded from someone else tearing our homes and families apart, but many of us have experienced homes and families that have been torn apart from the inside. Many of us feel uprooted, uncertain about the future, fearful in the present, and guilty about the past. And so I think today’s reading is incredibly relevant for us all, because not one of us is immune to fear. We all have our moments – our moments when we’re terrified that God is not really big enough to take care of us, or when we don’t really feel safe in God’s hands. We all have our moments when we feel God has left us, or was never with us, and that we have to fend for ourselves. We all know what it’s like to feel fear, and some of us know what it’s like to feel abandoned.
Maybe you feel that way right now here at Holy Spirit. In the last two months you lost two beloved priests and leaders. And yes – you do have a wonderful interim that’s competent and faithful – but Bill’s here for a season, not to do the work of ministry for you, but to challenge you and lead you and comfort you and uphold you as you, the people of Holy Spirit, take responsibility for this Church and proactively step into the future that God invites you into. But that might feel scary. “My way is hidden from the Lord,” you might groan, “and my right is disregarded by my God.” To say you’re terrified might be dramatic, but I imagine there’s a little anxiety, a little fear, and that it has crept up into your life as an unwelcome guest.
Well, in the midst of Israel’s fear, and in the midst of ours, comes the command of the Living God. You see in Isaiah 41:10, when God’s speech actually ends – our lectionary cuts it off prematurely – this is what God says: “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God.”
In other words, God’s word to Israel is “be strong. Be courageous. I actually know what I’m doing here. You can trust me, O my people, for I am with you.” You see it’s not that God takes away all of their problems, and frankly if we keep reading things get worse before they get better; but the message of Isaiah is that God is working in midst of their exile.
And as Christians, we need look no farther than the cross to know the paradox of God’s power. Not only is God able, but God delights in bringing about unimaginable good from what we experience to be exile. The people of Israel experience difficulty and hardship and a whole lot of fear, but Isaiah’s point is that they’re not to be paralyzed by fear. When fear arrives as an unwelcome guest, they are to remember the promise of God. Do not be afraid, God says, for I am with you.
And of course, the promise of God hasn’t changed. When God becomes human in the person of Jesus, you might recall the words of the angel: “and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.” And after Jesus rises from the dead, you might recall Jesus’ final words spoken to his disciples: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The same word God speaks to Israel God speaks to each one of us, and to this parish, at this time, in particular.
Because – frankly, you have work to do. Bill’s work is to support you and equip you in your work. But this is an important time for Holy Spirit. As I said last time I was here, and this is a quote from my last sermon from this pulpit, it’s not a time “to be gloomy or sad or scared. It’s a time to be intentionally hopeful. It’s a time to expect. It’s a time to prepare for the new thing God wants to do in our midst. It’s a time to prepare for the new thing God wants to do in this community.”
And so really quickly, here’s what I’d like to leave you with; 2 challenges, and a word of comfort.
First, resolve to be a leader at this parish, at this time. Get involved. Identify your spiritual gifts, and put them to use! And hold other people accountable for using theirs. As v.31 puts it, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,” but the waiting Isaiah speaks of is an active waiting, a proactive waiting. And so resolve to be a leader in whatever way you know how.
Second, from v.26, “life up your eyes from on high and see.” In other words, pray. Make prayer a part of your life. A lot of unnecessary fear results from where our eyes are focused. Are our eyes focused down below, on our circumstances, on how hard we imagine the road will be, are our eyes focused on “Babylon,” or, are our eyes lifted on high? Think of Peter walking on water. When Peter’s eyes were focused on Jesus, he could do it, but when he looked down and saw the waves, that’s the moment he began to sink.
And so let me just end by giving you a quote from C.S. Lewis. “People do not need to be instructed,” Lewis said, “They need to be reminded.” Today we can all be reminded that God really is big enough to take care of us. Today we can all be reminded that we really are safe in God’s hands. Today we can all be reminded that God has acted through the person of Jesus to restore all things to Himself, and that because of God’s initiative we do not need to fend for ourselves. Finally, in light of these truths, we can all be reminded of our God’s most frequent command to His frightened children. Do not be afraid.