The Sign Is Us - thrive UMC Official Blog

The Sign Is Us

America is a strange place to live, these days, isn’t it?  I was just reminded of this this past week when I was walking through a parking lot, here in town and a sticker on the back window of a Jeep Grand Cherokee caught my eye.  And I don’t know if a lot of you all are like this too, but I am always transfixed by stickers found on vehicles -because here is probably the second biggest material investment you’ve made as an American, and here some individuals have decided to attach relatively permanent messages onto this second most-expensive material investment, for all to see. To me, a bumper-sticker is very different from, say, wearing a message on a t-shirt, right?  Because you can just chose to not put on a particular shirt if you don’t like it anymore; but to get rid of a bumper-sticker, you either have to commit to like an hour of delicate scrubbing and scraping and cursing; or you have to sell your car. Otherwise you’re stuck with what you decided to put there at one strange moment in time. If t-shirts were like that, you’d see grown adults in their mid-thirties, or older, still wearing ‘Coed Naked’ and ‘Big-Johnson’ t-shirts! Because, really, bumper-stickers are like fore-head tattoos for cars.  So if someone has a sticker on their car, you can safely assume one of two things: either they are a.) intensely committed to the sentiments of their sticker, or b.) they just don’t plan ahead at all.  Which is why you can still, to this day, see cars driving around with bumper-stickers that say “John Kerry ’04.”  And I also like to imagine that, somewhere out there, is a car-sticker boldly announcing the message: “I love my wife” and yet the driver of said vehicle is recently divorced…I like to imagine that because I am a sick, sick human being.

So anyway, I was walking through this parking lot, and a sticker on the back of a newer Jeep Grand Cherokee caught my eye.  And I can’t repeat what it said, because this is church, but try to read between the lines here.  The focal point of the sticker was two words.  The first word, is not church appropriate.  The second word was “Trump.”  Are you with me?  Then, in smaller type, below the two featured words it said, “and [un-churchy verb] you too for voting for him.”

I walked by and I immediately had two reactions.  My first reaction was “wow, who knew a sticker could be so confrontational –so aggressive!” And then I also laughed because I’m trying to picture the person who would put that kind of sticker on a $35,000 vehicle.  Like was this person aware of the fact that Trump will not be our president at some future date?  I mean, by 2025 at the absolute latest, our president will be someone else –and quite possibly much sooner than that. Indeed, the person’s car loan could well outlast Trump’s presidency, which means at some future point, this person will be driving around with an angry sticker about a thing that’s not even a thing anymore!  And from there, my musings only became more hysterical to me, because I then imagined Trump himself placing a similar sticker on his Rolls Royce, only with a different name on it.

I don’t think anyone would deny that such a statement would be outside his purview; and after all, according to Business Insider, he does own this 24K gold chopper:

.  This is our president. Consider his Twitter account.

Now is a weird time to live in America, isn’t it?  We’ve got politics mimicking reality t.v.;  there’s social tension over almost every conceivable aspect of humanity: whether it be gender or sexuality, or religion, or class, or race, or ethnicity, or culture, or rural vs. urban perspectives –and, hey, let’s throw guns in there –because, why not?  After all, we’ve also got people randomly shooting strangers in public. Then on top of all of that, just about every institution I know of, except insurance, is fighting to just keep its stuff together, and all of these new people –whether they’re immigrants or just young people- are changing stuff. Meanwhile technology is creating some really awesome stuff like Netflix and iphone 10s, except somehow better technology doesn’t seem to really be making us better people, where culturally, our mental health is just a total mess, with our best solutions being things like Prozac, Xanax, yoga, and the words “avoid stress.” And then, to cap everything off, you have the guy who gifted the world with the ‘Snuggie’ –who’s worth like $200 million, and inexplicable Instagram celebrities, like the rapper Lil’ Pump who seems to be famous mostly for being completely unintelligible to people over 25 and also, having hair that seems to be inspired by Rainbow Bright’s mop, while kids out of college are struggling just to find jobs that make enough money to pay their loans back!

It is a weird time to be alive.

And this is why I think it’s so important to take a closer look at the writings we find in Isaiah: because just like these ancient Judeans, something is rising for us, up over the horizon.  A new age is dawning –and the heralds of the new age are already knocking at our gates.  Like the rising Assyrian Empire at the dawn of the Iron Age, a new power-dynamic has entered the landscape, and it will inescapably impact all of the structures and institutions that sit here now.  In fact, it’s been changing things for decades or even centuries already now, depending on how you see it.  And the question for us, as it was for them those thousands of years ago is simply this: what do we do with ourselves, now that we know about this new thing?

This morning I wanted to read just a very brief, but powerful, passage from the eighth chapter of Isaiah.  Isaiah is in the middle of a much longer testimony about the future, where he’s spilling way too many beans about how he impregnated a prophetess –presumably his wife- and the LORD tells  him to name the child “spoil hastens, plunder hurries (Maher-shalal-hash-baz –which I’m sure will be the new up-and-coming baby name any time now), which again, doesn’t sound like great news for Judah.  But then, starting in verse 11, it says this:

11 The Lord spoke to me, taking hold of me and warning me not to walk in the way of this people: 12 Don’t call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy. Don’t fear what they fear, and don’t be terrified. 13 It is the Lord of heavenly forces whom you should hold sacred, whom you should fear, and whom you should hold in awe.

14 God will become a sanctuary— but he will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on for the two houses of Israel; a trap and a snare for those living in Jerusalem. 15 Many of them will stumble and fall, and be broken, snared, and captured.

16 Bind up the testimony; seal up the teaching among my disciples. 17 I will wait for the Lord, who has hidden his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in God. 18 Look! I and the children the Lord gave me are signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of heavenly forces, who lives on Mount Zion.  

And this, I believe, is fitting advice for us here today too: “don’t call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy.  Don’t fear what they fear, and don’t be terrified.  It is the LORD of heavenly forces whom you should hold sacred, whom you should fear, and whom you should hold in awe.”

There is a great and courageous miracle in these words of the prophet Isaiah that most of us will miss because we don’t know the courage to see it.  The miracle of Isaiah’s announcement is not that he sees the future, as many a new Bible-reader might presume, but the miracle is that Isaiah spots God in the most unlikely of all places.  Somehow, by a powerful and courageous insight, Isaiah recognizes God at work in the Assyrian army.  Isaiah sees God in the enemy, and in the doom of his own people.

Now let’s be clear: the Assyrians were not wonderful, moral people.  I listened to the audio of a college lecture course on the history of the Near-East in my car over the last few weeks, and in one of the lectures the professor read an expert of the official policy the Assyrians had toward those who rebelled against them.  And here is an excerpt from that policy:

“I built a pillar over against his city gate, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, . . . and I cut off the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers who had rebelled. . . . Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their hands and their fingers, and from others I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers(?), of many I put out the eyes. I made one pillar of the living, and another of heads, and I bound their heads to posts (tree trunks) round about the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire . . . Twenty men I captured alive and I immured them in the wall of his palace. . . . The rest of them [their warriors] I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates.

Even Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsey Bolton, from A Game of Thrones, weren’t that creatively cruel!

And Isaiah, who would have likely known something of what the Assyrians were like and what they did, went: ‘and God is sending them to us!’

At which point, all of the people of Jerusalem put angry stickers on all of their donkeys –explaining how they feel about Isaiah and the people who voted for him.

Can you imagine that?  Can you imagine someone getting up and announcing that some catastrophic event was brought about by God?

Of course you can! Because you can still find Christian preachers who say stuff like that all the time –and it always sounds revolting.  And to me it always sounds like the opposite of helpful –to my ears those proclamations sound like violence. Sometimes I’m tempted to say ‘evil.’

But I want to point out one very significant difference between what Isaiah was saying, and what many of our self-saying prophets of today tend to say: here Isaiah was speaking about something that was happening to him, and to his people.  He wasn’t making this announcement as some happy outsider; he wasn’t pronouncing judgment on an enemy, peppered with ‘I told you so’s –this was a message for an audience of us.  He was right there in the middle of it. He spoke not as one outside or above the verdict, but his testimony was given as one of the indicted. And as a temple prophet –as an elder of a nation prepared to fight- his was likely to be among the first skin flayed, his was to be a first head at the bottom of the pile, his would have been among the first bodies to hang impaled on a tree.  In short, the doom his spoke was his doom.

And yet, somehow, Isaiah caught a whiff of God’s presence in his own looming destruction. Can you imagine that?  Can you imagine recognizing God in your own worst nightmares, coming to life? Can you imagine being confronted with the impending loss of everything you love and hold sacred, yet still clinging to the possibility that God is still somehow there, right in the midst of it? That somehow, beyond your own immediate terror and despair, there is some divine justice unseen, hidden even among the flagrant evil?

“God will become a sanctuary…” Isaiah announces, “but he will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on for the two houses of Israel; a trap and a snare for those living in Jerusalem.”

In other words, God will be a sanctuary –but not for us.  The safety God brings will be for others; but for us God will be a trap.

This morning I wanted to ask all of you: has God ever been a trap for you?  Have you ever found yourself in a situation where it just doesn’t feel like this is a thing God should have let happen? Have you ever found yourself in a community or a relationship –and everything started out so blessed and good that you were absolutely convinced that this was the thing to enter into –but then, somewhere along the line the good thing went sour?  You used to talk with that person about anything through the deep morning hours, but now all you ever do is yell –and no matter how loud you are, you never seem to be heard?  Have you ever found yourself caught in a swirl of events so strange and overwhelming that it seems like the only choice you have is to try and keep your own head above water as you drift helplessly toward some dark oblivion?

Have you ever found yourself in a setting of such appalling politics that you felt the only power you had was to put an angry sticker on your middle-class fancy SUV?  A sticker that names an offense with an offense, and that blames everybody who voted for him, but fails to acknowledge our own responsibility for the circumstance we find ourselves in?

For you, Isaiah has a revelation.  Listen closely this time, so that you might hear.  He says: “16 Bind up the testimony; seal up the teaching among my disciples. 17 I will wait for the Lord, who has hidden his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in God. 18 Look! I and the children the Lord gave me are signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of heavenly forces, who lives on Mount Zion.”

Here Isaiah acknowledges the sense that God has turned away from them –away from their entire people, but yet he still clings to a hope founded in the one who’s turned away.  And there is a sign that they’ve not been forgotten or abandoned.  ‘Look!’ he says, ‘look at me and at the kids the Lord gave me –we are signs and wonders in this place, from the Lord of heavenly forces.’ So watch us and share in what we have.  In your despair, borrow my hope.  For I, at least, haven’t given up yet.  Though the enemies gather outside these walls, I still have the courage to bring children into this world, and to raise them.  And I will not give up my teaching nor the testimony I’ve received –indeed I’ll even need your help to ensure that my students will receive them and keep them. For soon they will become the bearers of this blessing for a future that will not be our own –but it will be for others.

Brothers and sisters, the world is indeed a strange place to live now.  Like the ancient Judeans we read about, we too know something is coming. Something is rising.  We too hear the tremors of fear and the desperate cries of conspiracy rising from voice-boxes gasping with impotence.  Take care not to join in on all of their anxious spirits.  Instead, you and I, as we’ve looked upon the movements of history, and as we’ve beheld the legacy of God in the past, we possess a great and saving revelation: that destruction is not the last word, but that even through death God brings new life. We have it bound in nice little books, and even on apps accessible from any smart phone –if only we’d open them and wrestle with them.

“Behold, I am creating a new heaven and a new earth,” says the Lord in the 65th chapter of Isaiah.  Though this moment of change and suffering may feel like destruction, it is only a new beginning –of something greater than you can imagine! This is great good news –so long as you’re open to joining the revival.

Just look at what happened in Judah –as long as Isaiah kept preaching doom, it never came.  Because his offensive proclamations reminded them of what was worth holding on to, and what was worth letting go.  Our pride, usually, is a small price to pay for a future for our children.  Our egos and our stubborn politics and our claims to power and superiority are cheap admission tickets into a greater connection among a wider community.  Better to be rich in faith and love, and the courage that accompanies it, than to have wealth and comfort so that you spend your whole life fretting over all the people who want it, and what they’ll do to get it.  And it’s better to make room for the new people and the new things that might come our way, because such a refused welcome just may bring about the end of us.

Therefore, I invite you all to welcome a renewed life, which starts with a renewed vision.  There’s something to see that you haven’t seen yet.  Something to know about God and God’s ways that you’re not yet learned. There are things for you to do that you’ve not yet dared to try. So be open.  Look.  Listen.  Seek and knock. Remember that you’re not alone in this.  God is present and active here –though we may not be able to recognize the divine work as it unfolds.  But you have signs and wonders too. There are yet people of hope.  People who haven’t given up yet.  People who are driven and inspired with power.  These are living reminders of hope for us.  Dwell with them.

This is why we’re bringing you the 40 hour challenge.  This is just one small, but powerful way that we can renew the world.  For what the world needs now is connection and humanity.  We need to encounter one another face to face in order to be renewed. We need partners and to share in one another’s received revelations.  And the world needs our collective service.  We –you and I- and our children, are the signs and wonders proving that God has not abandoned us.  So share yourself with the world as a living gift of hope and love.

Let’s pray.