No matter how desperate things get, God is always at work.
As we delve deeper into our lesson from the prophet Isaiah, let’s first set the historical stage. Starting back 150 years, in 824 B.C., the Assyrian Empire spread from modern-day Turkey eastward through Syria and Iraq, all the way into Western Iran. By the time we reach today’s lesson, they have been on a course of rapid expansion, moving westward into Egypt and southward into the Arabian Peninsula. The mighty Assyrian Empire, under the rule of King Sennacherib, now encompasses much of the region, with the exception of Judah.
The Assyrian army has laid siege to Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, and is calling for the citizens to surrender peacefully. They know that, if they do, their fate will be like that of so many others who have fallen to Assyria: carried off and repopulated into other parts of the Assyrian Empire. King Hezekiah is brought so low and so fearful that he sends his advisors to the prophet Isaiah for a word from God.
The situation is, in a word, desperate. And yet, Isaiah remains calm in the eye of the storm. What it must be like to have that kind of peace when the world is raging all around you…
Have you ever felt that kind of desperation? Have you ever been in the midst of a situation that feels utterly hopeless, unsure where to turn? Our faith is supposed to be one that provides hope. After all, our story culminates with a crucified Messiah rising from the dead. No matter how desperate the world seems, we are supposed to be a people of hope, a people of faith, a people of promise, right?
When Elizabeth and I moved to Atlanta a little over nine years ago, we did not own a TV. We made the decision not to purchase one, either. Don’t get me wrong: we’ve got subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon prime. I watch mind-numbing shows on Hulu and sift through cat videos on YouTube.
But there is a difference between doing this and having an infinite number of channels right in my living room. I notice it when I’m out – the car is in the shop, I’m early for my flight, the restaurant has been wallpapered in televisions – and I’ll catch myself sucked into the 24-hour news cycle. Even when it’s on mute, there’s the persistent scroll at the bottom. And no matter what channel it is, suddenly my worldview darkens. My pulse rate quickens. My heart climbs into my throat. And I’m convinced that the end is nigh.
It’s not that I don’t follow the news otherwise. I will listen to current events on the radio. I will catch up with podcasts or read articles online from various sources. But when I am face-to-face with the breathless, relentless pace of CNN/Fox/MSNBC, I find myself feeling like the little kingdom of Judah, besieged by a hostile army ready to storm the gates.
There is plenty in our world to give cause for concern. The two wars our nation set out upon at the turn of the century seem to have made for little lasting change in those regions. While we have at least scaled back our military deployment, we have now embarked on a new conflict. Climate change has gotten to the point that the Pentagon is making plans for the political and military conflict that will come as a result of the chaos; meanwhile, we have no energy policy that recognizes we are living on borrowed time. We are now fifty years on from Dr. King’s dream, and in the wake of the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, race continues to be our society’s primary lens through which we continue to see the world.
To say that things are “desperate” may be underselling it a bit. Assyria is at the gates demanding our surrender. And Isaiah…remains as cool as a cucumber. “Don’t worry,” he says. “God will take care of all of that. Assyria will leave, and Sennacherib will die as he lived: by the sword.”
And this, indeed, is what happens. Assyria retreats. Sennacherib ends up getting murdered by his two sons. And little Judah remains independent for another century or so. No matter how desperate things might get, God is always at work.
As a pastor, I find myself invited into intimate moments with many at times when things seem most desperate. You have honored me by welcoming me into those moments of birth and death and everything in between. And what I have learned about us as a community in those moments is that I am rarely the only person in this congregation to connect with you, to be with you or reach out to you and let you know that we are together in this faith thing.
On this Stewardship Dedication Sunday, when we ask members and friends of our church family to make financial commitments and commitments of time and gifts for the coming year, this is the thing I want to share with you today. Among the many things that our commitments do is make it possible for me – not just me, of course, though I can speak most authoritatively about myself – to bring this reminder of God’s abiding presence into even the most desperate of times.
What has been remarkable about all of this for me is not only the intimate moments into which members of Oglethorpe Presbyterian have invited me. In some ways, you expect those, even though you never quite get over the power of those moments. The surprise has come when I have been invited into those moments in the community that stretches far beyond our doors. When a beloved student at Oglethorpe University died in a terrible accident a few years ago, we opened our doors to the community for prayer and support. When a young man at Chamblee High School tragically killed himself, I was invited to lead a prayer vigil, and many of you came out in support. Through personal connections, you have invited me to connect with those whom you love who are hurting. And because of the fact that I wear this robe and can represent this congregation, others have reached out to me at times when they are hurting, too.
This past Spring, I got a call from the Brookhaven Chief of Police. Our paths had crossed at various community gatherings, and had talked about their desire to set up a chaplaincy program. They had been called to a house where a grown son had gone to check on his mom, only to find her unresponsive on the floor. He called 911. The police came, but there was nothing to be done except to call for a chaplain. That’s where I came in.
I spent the better part of two hours with this man, as family members arrived and took in the reality of what had happened. We prayed together and worked through the details of what to do next. And I did all of this…because of you and the faith we share, a faith that reminds us that no matter how desperate things might get, God is always at work.
You see, that’s the thing about our faith, about our lesson from Scripture this morning. It’s not the empty promises of a “happily ever after” fairy tale. In fact, Judah may remain safe for the time being, but soon, the kings that follow forget about God and God’s faithfulness. In a few generations, Babylon comes calling, levels the Temple, and takes the people into exile. And even then, in the most utterly desperate of times, despite the faithlessness of the people and their leaders, God is still at work!
And so, as our reading in Isaiah moved around from one part to the next, it ended with the promise that starts Isaiah’s prophecy: that the destruction and hopelessness and desperation of war will be replaced with growth and promise of hope and faith. It will happen. It is already happening, if we turn off the relentlessness for a moment and recognize that God has always been at work in unexpected, surprising, gracious, merciful, glorious ways. And our calling is to recognize these places and line ourselves up with God’s desires!
Friends, whatever the case, no matter how desperate the times may seem, no matter how besieged you might be, God is still there. God is still at work. And God still has much more to do with you, with us.