The Days Of Promise - Isaiah 35:1-10

Week 3 – Year A
(Isaiah 35:1-10)

Where do we see the Messiah's promising presence at work in the world? Or do we see it at all? Do we even know what those promises are or where they began? Without the story of God, why do we even question the state the world is in?

In a world where there is always war – how do we know what peace looks like?
In a world always full of suffering – how do we know what to hope for?
In a world of sadness – what does joy feel like?
In a world permeated by hate – what does it love look like?

The promise of Isaiah contrasts the two worlds – one of wilderness and one of life.

We don't live in a wilderness or desert...or do we? Tell people you live in Paulding County and they'll look at you like you're from another planet. Just five years ago, folks in Marietta used to joke about Hiram being the sticks and today you run into them shopping at Wal-Mart and going to Movies 278! Just 5 years ago, Cedarcrest was full of pine trees. Catch up with some of our old time families like the Ragsdales and Austins and Grogans and they'll tell you of the days when Cedarcrest Rd. was a 'pig trail.' For good or bad, we've been seeing a wilderness transformed – if only we have eyes to see.

My description is no where near what the words of Isaiah describe. It is classical poetry structured not merely to relay facts but share a vision. Like good story, good poetry changes minds by changing our emotions first.

It is a foreign desert and while we may never have driven through Death Valley, we've all lived through desert places. Whether we've known weakness or blindness isn't required – the writer paints a description that targets what we've seen or touched. This is one of those breaking away points for us – this poetry, a painting with words of a world that is and one that is not yet.

The structure is called a Chiasm – a pattern that walks us to a central point and then out again. For Isaiah, it moves this way..
Creation – healing
Humanity – healing
God – coming to save
Humanity – healing completed
Creation – healing completed

Consider our days right now. Gone are the greens of summer and even the yellows and oranges of fall have melted away. Consider as you leave today how in a sense, death reigns over the landscape of God's creation. Isaiah is writing to a people who have been dead inside and who are beginning to walk what they expect to be the barren, dead landscape from their exile and captivity in Babylon. They are on their way home...

Isaiah begins by painting a picture with words in his poetic description of the day of God's coming. They are words of encouragement and hope for a weary people on a long journey. Journeys like this aren't always ones in desert lands. Often they are in the desert place of our souls when we lose sight of God. Desolate places are in relationships at times with family and friends, damaged by the past.

But there is healing promised, and it begins in this one key verse of 4: Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."  Now that is the kind of God I'm talking about! At my greatest need – nothing is standing in his way...but it at his time that he is coming not mine or yours and often lost is that God is coming for His people – not just one or the other.
We are a very self centered people after all. It is one of the things which at times makes it difficult for us to read these words and even to live our lives – you and I have a hard time turning the “m” in me right-side up so it says “we.”

Years later, after the Christmas night, Jesus had begun his ministry but his cousin John was sitting in prison waiting to find out his fate. But when in Matthew 11:3, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah, he asks, “Are you the one, or should WE wait for another?” And Jesus pointed to Isaiah 35, verse 5 and after and “... answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers  are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  Matthew 11:4” The waiting for the Messiah was over.

Yet, we are called to wait again, to wait for His coming again.

It was a Sunday afternoon in Seattle when the priest stopped by the home of a member after church. She had a five-year old daughter who had just gotten a new jump rope. Like all of the best clergy, the priest began to demonstrate the finer points of jumping rope. After a while the daughter began to jump. First one time and then two. The mom and priest clapped loudly and cheered her accomplishments. After a while, the girl was doing quite well. She wandered off to practice more on her own and so the priest and the mom began to talk. It was only a few moments before the little girl returned dragging her rope and showing off a very pouty face. “Mommy,” she said, “I can do it but I need lots of clapping (The Spirituality of Imperfection, Kurtz and Ketcham).”

We can wait for the second coming of Jesus but not alone. We can journey the desert paths but we need lots of clapping. You are NOT alone in the desert place. I am NOT alone in the desert place. We have each other and it is together we wait for the coming of God. How much better it is to wait together. This is the promise of Joy on this day – for a day of JOY is coming. I invite you today to a community that waits with hands at work and hands at worship and ALWAYS with hands clapping!

Is the question of clergy health the concern or should it be clergy holiness?

Dumped out for the world to see was the reporting by the New York Times of recent studies chronicling the struggles of modern day clergy. Studies and interviews from a number of denominations and from Judaism and Islam were noted in the article. Additional articles came out and the blogosphere lit up with more opinions and thoughts from clergy and laity alike.

The United Methodist Church led the way in most of these reports. As in most studies, there is certain biases that are brought to the forefront. Issues of obesity, hypertension and depression were among the noted items of concern in the NY Times article. But blogger Tom Nees took an alternative route and began to question myths about clergy burnout. To do so, he went to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and its director Joseph Arnold and found another side of the story.

In his blog, “Five Myths About Clergy Burnout,” Nees notes his conversation with Arnold that what is really happening is that clergy are sliding into the norm of society. On top of that, job satisfaction still remains high compared to less than 50% of the general population.

In a large part, I think Nees is right on target on questioning these findings. While I think he is right in questioning (I don't agree with all of his myths), I don't thing he has gone far enough. What has been even more greatly compromised may well be our very integrity as clergy for neglecting our very calling. It maybe different in each tradition so I cannot speak for them all, but certainly, the more we have tried to be like corporate America in the Church, we have certainly succeeded in sliding into being more like the world than like Jesus.

The core issues of preventing stress and burnout are, I think, being woefully ignored. Anne Dilenschneider's article on “Soul Care and the Roots of Clergy Burnout,” hits much closer to the reality. She addresses pointedly the “...deeper “disease” of the soul that has plagued clergy...” for it is an issue of our souls which is truly at stake.

In his research for the book Spirituality for Ministry, Urban T. Holmes interviewed clergy across denominational lines. Holmes noted, “The pastor or priest is rooted in a world of symbols and takes on the character of his environment (Holmes, 34).” One of the priests in the study delved further into the implications of this noting that, “the priest can live the lifestyle that most people in the parish cannot and wished they could (Holmes, 31).” Maybe so, but the tragic reality our current studies show is that we obviously all are now living the same lifestyle

In 1786 John Wesley shared what was arguably his greatest fear namely, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” At least, as it pertains to my tradition of the Wesleyan heritage, I think the loss of the power is precisely in our spirituality, namely, our doctrine of entire sanctification – the way of holiness.

If it true that the people who call themselves Methodists are to be the “Grand Depositum” of this doctrine (Wesley's term - not mine!), then I am inclined to ask the question again of our clergy that was asked at our ordination, “Are you going on to perfection?” Oh, surely we all say “yes” but what if I asked:

By what means are you getting there?
By what practices and habits are you nurturing your soul?
On the journey toward holiness, where do you think you are?
How are you nurturing others?

I once talked with a United Methodist pastor about whether he spent anytime reading Wesley's 52 Standard Sermons. His response was to blow it off, “Oh no. It is good theology but terrible preaching.” I challenge any laity of any tradition to ask a United Methodist Clergy, “Do you own a copy of Wesley's 52 Standard Sermons?” If it is good theology and terrible preaching then we must be far worse preachers today for who of us has had the impact in the world like Mr. Wesley?

I am writing out of concern as one in the trenches, one who knows full well in my life what these studies represent. It is all well and good to do studies and research to identify the problem but I can tell you in a nutshell what the “problem” is – we're human beings. Even us clergy. We're finite and fallible. From the largest churches to the smallest. From bishops to lay speakers – we believe there is a spiritual side of this life which will not pass away yet we treat our days as if this mortal body is all we have been given.

Clergy must do more than take a day off. Clergy have to do more than use their vacation time. Clergy need guidance in the way of their own soul care. We need to stop doing and start being and we need this to take place throughout our systems and structures. The systems aren't the pieces to blame – it is the two legged mammals with opposable thumbs who God has been gracious enough to love and redeem – we've done it.

We clergy cannot care for the souls of others if we cannot acknowledge the despair in our own. As United Methodists, it is past time we put aside worrying about our dying sect and consider instead that gospel message that gave birth to a movement that changed the world. It is time to return to that message and the methods – not worrying so much (at the start) our churches but our lives – which is the way of sanctification – the way of holiness.

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