Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Today’s piece is excerpted from a sermon preached by Joe Clifford on December 6, 2015 for the second Sunday of Advent at the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas. You will see that it does not directly answer the question that has guided our blog postings this month, but you will also see that question is answered by God’s promises to us in scripture – promises that save us. To listen to the sermon in its entirety, click here. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!
By Joe Clifford
Isaiah 40:1-11 (click for text)
“Comfort, Comfort my people,” says your God.
That is the call God issues to the prophet Isaiah in the midst of the people’s exile in Babylon. No more indictment for idolatry. No more rebuke for ignoring widows and orphans. No more calls for repentance. There was a time for that, but now the call is to comfort. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her time is served, a new day is coming.”
In the midst of our world of exile, a world defined by terrorism, born of a dangerous mix of extremism and distorted religion, a world where in this nation mass shootings have occurred at a rate of more than one per day this year, surely that is the word we are called to offer our world: comfort, comfort my people. A new day is coming.
Cry out! The Hebrew verb there is better translated, “Preach!” That’s what Isaiah was called to do. And that is what we are called to do. Cry out! Preach! The good news. The good tidings.
How does Isaiah respond to God’s call? “What shall I cry?” he says. “All people are grass,” dust in the wind, as the old saying goes. Every Advent for the past twenty years I’ve heard this passage and preached on it. I’ve heard its beauty. I’ve heard its comfort. I confess this year I heard something different. This year I heard Isaiah’s cynicism. What shall I cry? What shall we cry in a world gone mad?
December 2nd, 14 dead 21 injured in San Bernadino. November 29, 3 dead and 9 injured in Colorado Springs. October 1st; 9 dead, 9 injured in Roseburg, Oregon. July 16, 5 dead, 3 wounded in Chattanooga, TN. June 18th; 9 dead in Charleston, SC. May 17th, 9 dead, 18 injured in Waco, TX. Those are some of 355 mass shootings in this country in 2015.
What shall we cry? Racism? Terrorism? Extremism? Gun violence? Mental illness? Xenophobia? Security now? What shall we cry?
“The grass withers, the flower fades,” says the prophet, “…surely the people are grass.” For some reason this year, I know how Isaiah felt. Don’t you?
How does God respond? This is a matter of interpretation, but I believe God says, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.” The word of our God will stand forever. What shall we cry? What shall we preach? What shall we proclaim? The word of our God! And what does this word say in Isaiah? Let me give you a taste.
Later in Isaiah 40, that word says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
What shall we cry? In Isaiah 43, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
What shall we cry? In Isaiah 2, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up the sword against nation…ain’t gonna study war no more!”
What shall we cry? In Isaiah 58: “Loose the bonds of injustice… let the oppressed go free… break every yoke… share your bread with the hungry… bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, … cover them, and do not hide from your own kin…Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”
What shall we cry? Again in Isaiah 58: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
This is what we are called to proclaim. This is what we are called to embody. Or as the Lord tells Isaiah and all the people, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. All people shall see it together. ALL people shall see it together.”
What shall we cry? The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our Lord endures forever.
 Los Angeles Times Staff. “Deadliest U.S. Mass Shootings: 1984-2015,” published in the Los Angeles Times on December 2, 2015. Cited here: http://timelines.latimes.com/deadliest-shooting-rampages/