(originally preached at Alger First UMC)
For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still
until her righteousness shines out like a light,
and her salvation blazes like a torch.
2 Nations will see your righteousness,
all kings your glory.
You will be called by a new name,
which the Lord’s own mouth will determine.
3 You will be a splendid garland in the Lord’s hand,
a royal turban in the palm of God’s hand.
4 You will no longer be called Abandoned,
and your land will no longer be called Deserted.
Instead, you will be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land, Married.
Because the Lord delights in you,
your land will be cared for once again.
5 As a young man marries a young woman,
so your sons will marry you.
With the joy of a bridegroom because of his bride,
so your God will rejoice because of you.
(Isaiah 62:1-5 CEB)
Well I don’t know about you, but I had a great time at the Centennial Celebration last week! What about you all? It was a great time, wasn’t it? It was great seeing the church full-I think there were 125 people in worship, and many more who were here in spirit, but could not come because of the weather or various other reason. And Bishop Palmer had a great time meeting all of you, and I think it was just awesome that the bishop of the whole West Ohio conference took the time to celebrate with us here in Alger last week.
Now I do want to take some time to thank the Centennial Committee. If you were on the planning committee for the Centennial, or if you helped in any way with the meal, cleaning and setting up the church, or anything like that, could you stand up so we can thank you?
I want to tell you that I brag to my clergy colleagues about you all and what great leaders we have in this church. I did very little of the work of planning that celebration, and I think that’s just great that we took such ownership of this.
Now, as I sat down to start preparing this sermon last Monday, my thoughts were consumed with the question “Now what?” See, a church can’t just have a special event just to have it, and then move on with business as usual. We have to be going somewhere with events like this.
We’ve celebrated 100 years of ministry in this building. Think about that. That’s a lot of weddings, baptisms, funerals, sermons, sacraments, ministry, a lot of people have heard about Christ in this building and through the ministries that have been offered from this church in the last 100 years. But what do we do now? We’ve passed this great milestone-now what?
If you’re not thinking along those lines, I want you to start thinking along these lines. God still has a calling ahead of us, and if we do not step into this calling that God has ahead of us, and instead just sit back and relax after this great milestone, then God will find others who are willing. If we don’t do our job as the church, as the people of God, then God isn’t going to wait for a day when we feel like working. God will move on. And shame on us if we allow the witness of the past 100 years of ministry in this building to die just because we want to stay here and revel in the past and not look forward.
I, as your pastor, cannot be the only one thinking about this. We must all be asking the question “What now?” Now I think the Old Testament reading for today can help with this.
In the Scripture I read for you from Isaiah, Israel, God’s chosen people, are also dealing with a milestone in their history. But theirs is not nearly as pleasant as ours. Let me give you some background.
597 BC-Jerusalem, the capital city and the crown jewel of the nation of Israel had been shattered by the army of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar took around 10,000 Jews with him into exile in Babylon, and Jerusalem remained a ruin for over a century. The Jews were in exile in Babylon for 60-70 years, so for these exiles, both those who had been taken there and those who had been born in exile, Jerusalem and the Promised Land was a shadowy dream or a fading memory.
But 60-70 years after the exile, the nation of Persia defeated Babylon and Cyrus, king of the Persians, liberated the Jews and asked what they wanted do with their freedom. The Jewish people, full of dreams of a renewed and glorious Jerusalem, like the stories they heard from their parents, said that they wanted to return to their homeland, to Jerusalem. They thought things would go back to the way everything was before the exile, in the stories they’d been telling each other.
So the Jewish people returned to Jerusalem and the Promised Land with Cyrus’ help, but it wasn’t the Jerusalem or the Israel of their dreams. They’d been remembering the past with rose-colored glasses, remembering the glory stories of old. But when they returned, it was not the Jerusalem of their dreams. It was a place of horror. The country was desolate and abandoned, a burned skeleton was all that was left of the glorious temple, and the city was in ruins and inhabited by squatters and scavengers.
The city remained almost uninhabitable until two men named Ezra and Nehemiah, who we’ll hear about next week, returned some time later. The city remained in this awful state because when the exiles returned, factions and divisions began to form and divide everyone.
When Babylon had carried the Jews off into exile, they had not taken everyone with them. The prominent, elite, professional class went into exile, but the poorest of the people had to stay. They became minorities in their own country, they were forced to intermarry with surrounding tribes and nations, they began to worship foreign gods, and they thought that Yahweh, the one true god, had forsaken them and left them, just like the 10,000 of their brothers and sisters who had been carried off to Babylon.
But now the exiles have returned, the ones who were in the prominent, elite and professional class, with all the stories and memories of the old glory of Israel, and they wanted to return to that. Those who had been forced to stay might have felt abandoned and pretty ticked off. “Who are you to come back here and start ordering us around?
So you can probably see how power struggles began in this kind of environment. And these power struggles were massive and they were poisonous. God’s fidelity and faithfulness was called into question as they tried to rebuild their life and live together again, but they kept failing.
While they were in the midst of that, the word from Isaiah that you heard earlier came to them. Even in this awful situation, God still promised amazing things to Israel that you heard about in the Old Testament reading.
God says things like “your righteousness will shine like the dawn, you salvation will blaze like a torch, nations will see your righteousness, you will be a splendid garland in the Lord’s hand.” Do you see the disconnect here, between God’s promises and what the present reality actually is? It’s a pretty big disconnect.
But it seems that God doesn’t notice how far off God is from what the present reality is for the Israelites, because God keeps going. God starts talking about how their name will be changed. They will NO LONGER be called Abandoned, NO LONGER be called Deserted. God says they WILL BE called My Delight Is in Her-Hephzibah in the Hebrew, and they WILL BE called Married-beulah in the Hebrew.
Now those name changes are significant. Think of when someone’s name might change in today’s world.
When a husband and wife hyphenate their last names or the wife changes her last name to her husband’s it symbolizes a new relationship, a new future together, right?
When a neglected child grows up in the foster system, but is then adopted by caring and loving parents, they change their last name to their new parents’ last name. And this name change signifies the priceless gift of love and a new future.
Isaiah uses the imagery of God changing Israel’s name to say that God is still delighted in Israel. God still wants to be in relationship with Israel, even after all these years of exile and unfaithfulness, even after it felt like God had abandoned them.
Again, notice the disconnect between these promises of God and their present reality-they’re sifting through the rubble and ashes of a ruined city, trying to live together peacefully and failing. What does this mean?
What I think it means is that God has new work for them, that there is always newness ahead, that their future is not defined by their present or their past. Pay attention to all of the future-tense in this passage. “Nations WILL SEE your righteousness…You WILL BE called My Delight Is in Her…because the Lord delights in you, you land WILL BE cared for once again.” The future tense matters. All of those “will-be’s” matter here. They mean that they still have a future as God’s people. God still has blessings ahead for them. God has future work that God wants to do through them yet. And for these divided, squabbling, abandoned, and rejected people, that is a much-needed word of hope. Almost too good to be true, too good to believe.
Now what if these words applied to us? What if these future blessings applied to us here in Alger First UMC? God says “You will no longer be called Abandoned or Deserted.” In what ways have we or our Village been called Abandoned or Deserted?
Let’s be honest, Alger is kind of in the middle of Nowheresville. It’s not really close to anything of note. And let’s be honest again-the village itself is shrinking. Their once were shops, there was once a lot of life in this town. Now there’s a lot less.
A lot of us remember the glory days of this church. But now a lot of strong church members and faith mentors have died and left us. We as a church are not as big and strong as we once were. Families have left. Young people have left.
Maybe you yourself feel abandoned and deserted-you’ve lost loved ones, relationships have ended.
But in the midst of this, God says “I’m not done with you yet.” Just like the Israelites, God is always in the process of changing our name, which means there is a new relationship, a new future ahead of us. It means the priceless gift of love is always given to us.
This is the beautiful truth that I read in this passage: God. Is. Delighted. In. Us. In Feasting on the Word, one of the commentaries I use, it says “God has not turned reluctantly to face us; God comes toward us with all of the delight and joy that a bridegroom has for his bride.” There is always a newness ahead, there is always future-tense. There is always a “you-will-be” for us to live into.
Now what is this future work? Just as God wants us to flourish, God wants our village, our country, and our world to flourish. As God’s Delight, we have a part in bringing that about. There is more work for us to do here, to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to our village and to bring about the New Life that Jesus promises to those who live with us here in the Village of Alger.
God delights in us. God was celebrating with us last week with our Centennial Celebration and God continues to celebrate with us today. But God calls us forward even now. When we just want to put our feet up and take a break and bask in the afterglow of this celebration, God still calls us forward to the new work God would have us do.
What if we all took ownership of this church? What if we all said “This is MY church that’s been in this building for 100 years”? What if each of us said “I have a significant part to play in bringing this church into its next 100 years”?
What if we all asked “What now?” about this church? What if we all thought about and really wrestled with that question: “What does God have for Alger First UMC to do now?” It might not seem like much, but God has a good future ahead of Alger First. God wants us to lean forward into the next 100 years. How else are we going to do that if we don’t take some time right now to ask ourselves and ask God “What do we do next?” If we had a whole church praying that prayer and asking that question of God, “What do we do now?” and pleading and waiting and really listening for an answer, if we had a whole church doing that, there is no telling what would happen. The gates of hell would shudder. So let’s be about this work.
Could you pray with me?
Whose son, our savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world;
Push us into the future and keep us asking that question, what now?
So that we, Alger First UMC, might live into what you have in store for us for the next 100 years.
Through Jesus Christ, the brightness of God’s glory, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.