July 19, 2020

Like a Rock

Passage: Isaiah 44:6–8

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Is there any god besides me?
No, there is no other rock; I know not one.
—Isaiah 44:8


The Book of Isaiah is not the work of just one writer. Begun in the 8th BCE, the opening chapters of Isaiah condemn the Israelites with harsh words, linking their aspirations for personal liberty and love of money, to the social and economic injustices within their community, and later the crumbling of life inside Jerusalem. In sophisticated poetry he accuses them of individual and collective sins of turning away from God.

The Assyrians seized on their weakened state and exiled the Israelites to Babylon.

The final chapters of Isaiah, and the short portion of our lectionary reading today, were likely written in the 6th BCE, almost two hundred years later, to prepare that generation to return home.

After all the violence, Isaiah now imagines their future harmony with phrases of a lamb and lion laying down together and the arrival of a savior.

Listen for what Isaiah tells them to remember about God and then what they are to do.[1]

God, thank you that we are unable to save ourselves and that each time we try, we fail. Have mercy on us. Be the strength in our weakness. Clear our heads of the foolishness of believing we can be our own gods. Steer our hearts to utter dependence on you.

Speak to us through these ancient words of the prophet that we might rise, and lead lives offered in pure gratitude for your love. Amen.

Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your seed,
and my blessing on your offspring.

They shall spring up among the grass,
like willows by flowing streams.
This one will say, “I am the Lord’s,”
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, “The Lord’s,”
and adopt the name of Israel.

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel,
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.

Who is like me? Let him call out,
let him tell it and lay it out before me.
Who has announced from of old the things to come?
Let them tell us what is yet to be.

Do not fear and do not tremble;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
You are my witnesses!
Is there any god besides me?
No, there is no other rock; I know not one.

A fter twenty years of working in large corporations, one of the most liberating aspects of going to Divinity School at the University of Chicago was the diverse student body. Not even as an undergraduate at Virginia Tech did I encounter such variety of ages, ethnicities, languages spoken, and imaginations.

The other startling, visual reminder that this is not your corporate world were the number of tattoos I saw. The bare arms and legs of summer shorts and sandals exposed skin and body art I’d never witnessed.

Accustomed to walking into conference rooms and offices filled with suited folks who were dressed just like me, (You may remember the days of dress for success) this freedom at first shocked me. How did I fit in? Then I felt free in ways I’d never imagined.

At school, no one seemed to care what you looked like. Your ideas, your critical thinking, your passion, your dreams—how you were going to live your life—that is what mattered.

Swift Hall, the home of the Divinity School, was filled with Ph.D. students of all faith traditions or no faith, and relatively few of us who aspired to serve Jesus through the ministry.

In a class on the Book of Job, I sat next to a Ph.D. candidate in literature, got to trading notes, tips about papers due, and learned he had no interest in religion. One day curiosity won out and I asked what was inked on the top of his foot.

His face softened to a smile and he said, “it is the last line of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. Do you know it?”

Well, “yes,” I replied, “after it won the Pulitzer.” Then fear crept though my mind that he would query me on some obtuse aspect of this dense post-apocalyptic novel. This guy was wicked smart.

The Road chronicles a future time in which a father leads his son to safety and to find other “good guys” after the country lay in ruin from disease and an environmental meltdown as savages murder anyone in their paths.

After so much death, the son sits for three days to grieve, and then joins a band of “good guys.”

The story closes with an image of mountain trout whose bodies were patterned with the map of the world at its beginning. The final line reads “In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."

My seat mate had shared enough of his life story to hint at devastating loss. He admired McCarthy’s talent to confront the horrors we can make of our world and human lives…and yet still look for signs of resurrection, bound in a mystery, we will never destroy.

One day he would write with such stirring clarity and compel someone else to look for hope amid ruin.

Write it on your hand, your feet, write it into your being. People have inked their bodies or worn emblems throughout time with images and ideas that reveal what they’ve endured and where they are going. These images identify to the rest of us who they are.

Trauma theorists tell us that one of the essential steps for trauma victims is to repair their shattered identity. From fragments of their former life they remember who they were before the pain so they can create a narrative and begin again.

One would think the quest to become independent and move away from relying upon the community would make you stronger. Yet the Israelites’ trauma began by celebrating their self-sufficiency, their wealth, their lives, and ignoring the needs of those around. Such a slippery slope.

The simple act of forgetting who they were and to whom they belonged, weakened them individually and as a people, led to their demise at the hands of the Assyrians, and ultimate exile in Babylon. Theirs was a self-inflicted trauma.

During the exile, fear became ingrained in their way of life, fear of what’s next, fear of the stranger, and very likely an anxiety of their ability to restore a community that would survive any future threats.

Survivors who endure the loss of everything but life itself learn to harden themselves against the dangerous sound of hope. They learn not to trust the lies of others, but can they trust the promises of God?[2]

Isaiah speaks for God, “do not be afraid.”  Again, “do not be afraid and do not tremble.”

God turns them towards life by promising to this generation that future generations will flourish “I will pour my spirit on your seed and my blessing on your offspring.”

Clinging to that hope, one man takes a new, yet ancient Hebrew name, Jacob. And another writes “The Lord” on his hand. He writes “The Lord” to remind him of the first command: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land Egypt. You shall have no other God’s before me.”

God alone is the first and the last, or the alpha and the omega as the writer of Revelation will express many centuries later.

The rhetorical questions that Isaiah asks on behalf of God of who can you really trust, ends with, “Is there any other rock?” Can you find any other sure foundation on this earth, the earth that I created? Is there any other place upon which you can stake your lives that will not shift underneath you?

The answer is no. God is the rock. Steadfast. Unchanging. When you begin life anew, build upon the rock of your foundation—God.

As Christians, we believe Jesus fulfills the long-awaited messiah Isaiah also promises.

Jesus heals us, teaches us, saves us.

He knew joy and celebrated in feasts. He promised to give us life and life abundant.

He experienced temptation, suffering, and grieved the death of those he loved. There is no aspect of life, no pain, no suffering, no loss, not even death, no road that he has not walked.

When we seek to repair our broken lives, he is the one to guide our steps with nothing other than love as the goal. When we write on our hands, hang a cross around our necks, or etch it into our hearts the image of Jesus, we remind ourselves to pursue love for others.

There is a downside to following Jesus’ examples. All those attachments that you thought defined who you are and all those desires you ordered your life around will be exposed as consuming, not giving you life.

The lives of those who apprenticed themselves to Jesus were characterized as confronting the accepted norms. Jesus’ followers don’t always fit in but they remained close to God.

How we live each day witnesses to the god we worship.

Our lives are the final answer to who we think God is.[3]

Mary Daniel is the chief executive of a small company that helps patients with health-care bills. At 57 years of age and with such professional accomplishments, she never thought she would return to an entry-level, unskilled job again.

Her husband of 24 years, Steve now resides in a memory care facility near their home due to advancing Alzheimer’s disease. After he moved in, Mary visited each evening to help get him ready for bed and remain with him until he fell asleep.

On March 11 she learned like so many others that the health risks of COVID-19 required all visits to cease immediately. It was akin to exile. Mary tried to “see” Steve through a window, but it caused her anxiety. He cried.

Not denying the deadly nature of COVID-19 and the needs to shelter residents from infection, she relentless pursued some type of access. Idea struck. She interviewed, completed the drug-tests, COVID-19 test, and took a part-time job in the facility.

After 114 days of separation, she now washes dishes, scrubs the grill, and mops floors. And when she now finishes her shift, she may see Steve, greet him, touch him, and hold him.[4]

In her choices about life after devastation, she became a servant to work on behalf of everyone’s benefit. Her work witnesses to a love stronger than disease, love stronger than pride. Her shriveled hands and weary feet witness to living with a hope.

[1] Jewish Publication Society, The Jewish Study Bible, Ed Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) and The Hebrew Bible, trans. Robert Alter (New York:  WW Norton, 2019) both informed this translation and the exegesis.

[2] Juliana Claassens, “Commentary on Isaiah,” Working Preacher, July 20, 2008, accessed July 6, 2020,  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=95

[3] Adam Neder, Theology as a Way of Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic 2019), 73.

[4] Syndey Page, “An assisted-living facility is not allowing visitors. This woman becomes a dishwasher there to see her husband,” The Washington Post, July 13, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/07/13/covid-assisted-living-rosecastle-dishwasher-husband-mary-daniel/