Second Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), January 19, 2014
Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:111, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Those of you who came to Bible study last winter may remember that parts of Isaiah were written while the Jews were in exile in Babylon. Their tiny country had been gobbled up by the Babylonian empire. Many had been killed, and a large portion of the survivors had been taken to Babylon in chains. You can read about what that was like in the book of Daniel. The nations of Judah and Israel had been flattened. The Temple, the heart of Jewish worship, was destroyed. The land God had given to their ancestors was taken away from them, and they had to live in a foreign land, surrounded by pagans who mocked their faith, eating food unlike anything they knew. And they were slaves, owned by Babylonian lords and subject to whatever their masters wanted to do to them. The people of faith—God’s people—had been utterly flattened. Nothing was left to them. Imagine what that would be like. Imagine how afraid they must have been, how lost, how homesick, how hopeless.
Imagine how incredulous they must have been when they heard the words of the prophet that we just heard. “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” First of all, they were the servants of Babylon, now. They were slaves! They weren’t free to serve God. And even if they had been free, they were pretty pathetic. Even before the Babylonians came, Judah had been a pretty small country. Now they had nothing. Not even themselves! They were worthless slaves. How could God possibly be glorified in them?
So they said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever felt that all your hard work was for nothing? Have you ever felt useless, like everything you could possibly try would go wrong? Think about what that felt like, and then imagine what you would think if God told you that you were still his, and he was going to do something great through you that would glorify his name. Pretty unbelievable, huh? How much faith, how much courage, would it take to say yes, to open yourself up to God? How hard would it be to say, as they did, “Surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”?
The people of Judah had every reason to believe that God had abandoned them. They had every reason to believe that it was the end of the road for them. But God said otherwise. They weren’t abandoned; even in slavery and exile, God was with them. God knew them, and claimed them. The same God who called them and named them before they were even born was with them in Babylon; he was giving them strength when they thought all hope was lost. And more than that, he had a mission for them, a call. The promises God had made to their ancestors would be fulfilled. They would have a land of their own, and that God would always be their God. Their nation and their home would be restored.
But that wasn’t all. God wasn’t just going to restore what had been before, God was going to do something even greater through them. The Jews, the people of Israel and Judah, that despised and broken people, would become a light to the whole world. They would spread God’s salvation throughout the nations, to all the ends of the earth. They were slaves, they had nothing and nobody cared about them; as far as the world could see, they were on the trash heap of history. But God saw differently; God still cared for them and claimed them as his own; God had a mission for them. The LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, had chosen them.
That was the comfort and promise that God spoke through the words of the prophet Isaiah. And it came true: after about sixty years in exile, the captives were allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild their nation. And around five centuries later, a young Jewish woman named Mary, a descendant of the ones who had been in exile, gave birth to a son, named him Jesus, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger. That Jesus was God’s son, the Lamb of God, who came to earth that the whole world might be saved.
But here’s the thing. God’s promise didn’t mean that everything would magically change overnight. It didn’t mean that the problems would vanish. The people who heard God’s word spoken through the prophet still had to wait in slavery for their exile to be over. Some of them died while they were waiting, and never saw the end of the exile. And when they were allowed to go home, they found their cities in ruins and foreign people living there. It took time and effort to rebuild their nation, faith lived out through hard times and hard work. And the nation they rebuilt wasn’t the same as the one that had been destroyed; they couldn’t turn back the clock. The world had changed, and they had to change to deal with it. It wasn’t smooth, and it wasn’t easy; there were lots of arguments and disagreements and setbacks. Yet even in the midst of all that turmoil, God was working in them and through them.
None of the ones who heard the prophet speak would live to see the final fulfillment of his words. But through all the struggle, the waiting and the work, they kept the faith. They did the work God called them to, they adapted to their new situation, and they passed on their faith to those who came after. They remembered that their cause was with the LORD, and their reward was for God. Their success or failure wasn’t measured in the way the world measures things. Their success or failure wasn’t determined by the lavishness of the Temple they built, or the power of their new nation. Their success was in God; their reward was with God. God’s judgment was the only one they had to worry about, and in God’s eyes they were holy and beloved.
As I first read this text, it seemed to speak to Birka’s situation. Particularly verse 4: ‘But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”’ There’s hopelessness in those words, a sense of the inevitability of failure. Birka’s members are getting older and fewer, and that is glaringly obvious at every worship service, every church event, every time someone tells a story of what things used to be like in the good old days. If nothing changes, Birka will eventually have to close.
And yet, if God was with the people of Israel in exile when all hope seemed lost, surely God is with Birka now. If God can work through exiled slaves, surely God can work through us, too. And we, too, were called and named while we were still in our mother’s womb; we, too, are precious and beloved. Our cause is with the LORD, and our reward with God.
I am not a prophet. I know that God could turn this congregation around and give us new life, as he did to the Jews in exile, but I don’t know if that’s what God has planned for us. I have a feeling that if God were to do so, it would mean hard work and change on our part as it did to the people who returned home from exile. But even if God doesn’t have Birka’s re-growth in his plans, that doesn’t mean that Birka is a failure. Our success or failure is not determined by the size of our budget or the number of people sitting in our pews. Our success is in God, and in the ministry we carry out in God’s name.
Ministry like our caroling trip to Bismarck in December. Those of you who were able to come along saw the joy of those we visited, the tears of thankfulness. We do ministry together when we worship, and when we invite friends and loved ones to worship with us. We do ministry together when we come together to Bible study, and we do ministry when we pray. And our generosity to organizations like the Food Pantry and Camp of the Cross and Lutheran World Relief enables those ministries to do great work in the community and throughout the world.
Birka has been here for over a century, and done a lot of ministry in that time. None of it was in vain. If we were to close our doors tomorrow, the things that we have done would still cast ripples of God’s light throughout the community, and the resources of our congregation would go to the larger church to support a new generation of ministry in God’s name. But I don’t believe Birka will be closing tomorrow, or the day after, or any time soon. I believe God still has ministry for Birka to do.
After worship today we’ll gather for an annual meeting. We’ll discuss the budget, the roof, and other issues. Some of it may be hard to think about, and some important decisions will need to be made about what kind of ministry God is calling us to. But never doubt that our cause is with the LORD, and our reward with our God.