Tonight, I preached at our regular Wednesday-night service. It's a pretty low-key thing; 15 people is a big crowd. Anyway, when I met with Mac about two weeks ago, he shared some of his sermon-writing strategy with me. I used it for this one, and I felt pretty happy about it. Let me know what you think. Sermon is after the jump.
August 10, 2011
I believe that most adults can point to a major event, whether tragic or celebratory, that defined and unified their generation. The event that, if you ask, “where were you when______”, they not only know what you’re referring to, but they most likely can remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news about what happened. For my grandparents’ generation, that event was probably Pearl Harbor Day in December 1941. For my parents’ generation, it was probably President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. It’s August 10, 2011, and in exactly one month and one day, we will observe the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, which I would say would be the event that defined and unified my generation, those of us who call ourselves Generation X.
In September 2001, I was in my second semester at Asbury Theological Seminary. I had a class at 9:30am on Tuesdays, and I was on my way to that class, taking a shortcut through the student center, when I saw a huge crowd gathered around the TV in the lobby. The first tower was burning, and as I stood watching the news with everyone else, I saw the second plane hit the second tower. I went on to class, and then to chapel, where I heard about the attack on the Pentagon, about Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania, and where we prayed for our nation and all those affected by the attacks. In the days, weeks, and months following September 11, there were really three distinct responses that I heard: there were people who were seeking God and God’s comfort in the midst of the crisis (some for the first time), there were people saying that the attacks were God’s judgment on a sinful nation, and finally, there were people who were angry at God for letting this happen and refusing to believe in God or trust in God because if God really was good, how could all those people die? Yes, some people were saved from the wreckage of the towers and the Pentagon, the attacks happened before 9am in a city that is still very much a 9-5 operation, and you heard story after story of people who were late for work or who missed their flight…and whose lives were therefore spared. Some people were rescued. Some people were saved. But not everyone was rescued. Not everyone was saved. God did not meet our expectations. And that was the crux of the matter in the aftermath of September 11, and is something we face every day of our existence, especially in the hardest times: we expect that a God of infinite love, infinite power, and infinite knowledge would prevent disasters large and small from occurring. But that just doesn’t happen, does it? God does not meet our expectations. Even when it seems like we’re doing everything “right”, even when we’re perfectly in line with God’s will, bad things still happen in the world. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and flooding still destroy cities, homes, and lives. People still get cancer and die. We lose our jobs. Friends betray us. We expect that if we love God, if we follow God’s will, if we put our faith and trust in God, that everything will be fine…and so often it isn’t fine. God does not meet our expectations.
The key words are “our expectations”. Because that’s exactly what they are: our expectations for who we expect God to be and what we expect God to do versus what scripture tells us about who God is and what God does.
If you look carefully through scripture, you certainly see many, many stories of God intervening on behalf of God’s people, both groups and individuals. However, you also see many times when God appeared not to intervene, or waited a while to intervene. And most of the time when God did intervene and heal the sick, raise the dead, win a battle, not everyone was spared. There were still casualties.
So, what do we do with that? When we continue to look at scripture, we see one consistent theme throughout the Bible: God promises to be with His people, and fulfills that promise, whether or not we are aware of it, or even whether or not we believe it. That’s the promise we hear in today’s scripture reading, from Isaiah 43:
Isaiah 43:1-7 But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6 I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth-- 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."
This passage was most likely written during a time when the bulk of the population of Israel was in exile in Babylon, a land far, far away from Israel. God’s people had been unfaithful, had broken God’s laws, and had paid for it by being conquered by a foreign army and deported to Babylon. That’s the simple story. The Israelites had been through a difficult time, were going through a difficult time, and were facing difficult times ahead of them. This part of Isaiah is speaking hope to them…and speaks hope to us in the 21st century.
Listen to the language of the passage: do not fear…when this happens…when that happens…when the other thing happens…God knows that these things will happen, that tragedy and pain and suffering will come into our lives. But listen to the words in between…I created you…I formed you…I redeemed you…I have called you by name…you are mine…I will be with you. I love you.
The promise contained in these words is twofold. First, there is the promise that God is with us through thick and thin, that God will never leave us or forsake us, and that God is walking with us and giving us His comfort and peace through even the darkest night and lowest low. Second, there is the promise of redemption…which is a fancy church word meaning changing something for the better. God takes the pain and suffering of our lives and of this world and redeems it…makes something good out of what was bad. It’s the message of all of scripture…Adam Hamilton, who is the pastor of Church of the Resurrection, a United Methodist church in Kansas City, says it best: “The overarching message of the Bible is that God brings life out of death and good out of evil.”
I’ll give you a personal example…I’ve shared with some of you the devastation and pain I experienced in my first pastoral appointment, and the struggle I had with healing from that. It’s been three years…and there are still times I feel the wounds and see the scars. I imagine I always will feel some sort of pain this side of heaven. However, I can clearly see the ways God was with me through that experience and the ways God has, and is continuing, to redeem that difficult period in my life. I now know how important it is to rely on God and pay attention to my spiritual life…I am more sensitive to the pain of others…I have learned important lessons about leadership…and I have a much more realistic view about being a pastor, just to name a few. Most importantly, I can see clearly how God was with me through that entire experience, and the ways God worked to bring me grace through the pain.
God does not live up to our expectations…our expectations that everything will be fine, that we will not suffer, that we will not experience pain…but God does fulfill His promise…that He loves us, that we are his children, that he will be with us, holding us, and loving us through every moment of our lives, giving us strength, giving us wisdom, giving us peace. We can go through life being frustrated that God does not live up to our expectations…or we can go through life being thankful that God always lives up to his promises to redeem us, to be present with us in our struggles, and to bring hope out of even the darkest times.