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Sermon for February 10, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-13 / Matthew 11:2-11

Sermon Title: We Belong to God”

“Let’s choose up sides.”  That’s not the suggestion some of us wanted to hear when we were kids.  My friend Barry didn’t want to hear it.  He stood by as the two captains performed a ritual as old as the game he hoped to play.  The two captains went about their work. The obvious picks were made first. No one could protest those selections. The not-so-obvious picks raised a murmur of disapproval among the players still unselected.  From those picked on the third round there was an audible sigh of relief.  My friend Barry remained among the two or three players remaining to be chosen, each dreading that he would be the one not picked at all.

To go unpicked, left out, is not the kind of experience anyone wants to have. Some of us know what that feels like. We have been the last one picked, or not chosen at all.

There is good news planted in God’s word on this topic of exclusion that the Lord wants us to harvest, and the message is this: there are no sidelines in the kingdom of God. There are no outsiders, folks waiting to be chosen. Each and every one of us in this vast world of ours was chosen to enjoy the gift of life, and to enjoy the pleasure of God’s company until the end of time.

We are the beloved of god. One of the confessional documents of my denomination [by confessional documents I simply mean statements articulating what the church believes about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, faith, sin etc..] [one of those statements] is called “A Brief Statement of Faith”. This confession makes a very basic, but profound, claim in one of its sections. It reads, “in life and in death we belong to God.”

This is not radical doctrine for those of us who gather to worship as a Christian congregation.  One might say it is the “bread and butter,” the very substance, of the Christian belief system.

“We belong to God.”  We in the Reformed faith tradition, heirs of Luther, Calvin and that gang, declare that Christians enjoy a very special lineage. We are the elect of God, elect, not in the sense that we are more beloved or worthy than anyone else, but that God working through Abraham and the house of Israel chose a people, and through them, over the course of generations, chose us, to be God’s ambassadors on earth.

God chose, God elected us, and not the other way around.  Out election was sanctified, made holy in other words, in our baptisms. Baptism being the sign and seal that we are members of God’s family over which he graciously presides.

We belong to God.  Trouble is, despite baptism, a lot of folks feel excluded, sidelined. They have been taught through words or neglect that they don’t amount to anything. Others live under the curse of mistakes formerly made, under the curse of guilt that won’t go away. Still others feel sidelined as a result of a grievance they charge against God, a grievance they can’t surrender.

We belong to God.  For many the message isn’t getting through. Yet the God we belong to is very persistent, even when we feel we have stretched his persistence too far, or when we dwell on a grievance that won’t go away.

I’ve made bad choices.  You have made bad choices.  I believe that God regrets our bad choices even more than we do, regrets them so much that he won’t let us forget that, bad choices and all, we still belong to him, and our baptisms underscore that reality with a blessing that endures throughout our lives.

Recall the baptism of Jesus. John the
Baptist was doing his baptizing at the Jordan River when Jesus came on the scene and was baptized himself. Luke tells us that as that baptism occurred the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven was heard to declare, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Do not believe for a second that our baptisms are any less significant in God’s eyes. The sacrament seals our status as the chosen of the Lord, with all the rights and privileges pertaining.

Long before Jesus walked the earth, God was busy at work through his prophets sounding the same refrain as the Spirit did at the river Jordan, though using slightly different vocabulary. “I have called you by name,” the voice of God announces in Isaiah. Slightly later God asks, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”  Pretty profound stuff. “I will not forget you.”

God sent his prophets to remind Israel of that fact in good times and in bad. Bad times sent Israel into a funk, a condition we ourselves experience during our own bad times.

Over the course of time you and I have vicariously journeyed with Israel through her bad times. The Old Testament has reported her travails at length.

Israel was a conquered nation under the thumb of Babylon. The prophet assured his charges that they wouldn’t be forgotten. Unfortunately he wasn’t making a very good job of it.

The sense of hopeless desolation the Israelites were experiencing probably was similar to the experience reported in one of the devotionals I recently read. Author Sylvia Cleland recalls “a period of transition not of my choosing,” God’s absence was keenly felt. She describes reading the psalms and the Gospels “over and over again,” but not finding the comfort she was seeking. “Paragraph slid into paragraph.  I read, feeling empty, remembering nothing.”  Then, she states, “One day a shaft of sunlight slowing penetrated the mist surrounding me, and a few words broke into the foggy silence, ‘I am with you always.’…In God’s promise was a beginning.  Though there would be far to go before my journey through the dark valley would end, I could begin.”

You and I are no strangers to the emotions Sylvia Cleland is describing.  We have felt estranged from our God, from our friends, from our family, from ourselves.

There was a time in my life when I had completely bottomed out.  The day matched my mood perfectly.  It was one of those oppressively dreary March afternoons in St. Paul, Mn.  It was Sunday and I didn’t want to be alone with myself.  It happened that a friend of mine from my hometown in Wisconsin was visiting his sister in St. Paul that weekend.  Without calling ahead of time, I went over there to see him.

His sister came to the door announcing that my friend wasn’t there.  But she asked me if I would like to come in.  Three hours later, having unburdened myself of all the stuff that was bothering me, I left her house.  For three hours, this woman with whom I hadn’t had anything more than the most casual conversation before, gave me her undivided attention, and braced me with words of support. To quote my friend, Sylvia Cleland, “Though there would be far to go before my journey through the dark valley would end, I could begin.”

I do not believe for a moment that my meeting with Margaret Forman was a matter of blind chance.  Instead I believe that the Lord was there to remind me that he is always with me. That caring person was God’s outstretched hand to me.

Israel was languishing just as I was, and she needn’t a serious jumpstart to get her up and running again.  That jumpstart came in the form of a prophet sent by God, “Do not fear [Isaiah announced], for I will bring your offspring from the east and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created from my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Note those words: “Whom I created from my glory, whom I formed and made.” There’s that affirmation from the confession again, “In life and in death we belong to God.”

My friend Kerry stood on the sidelines feeling completely marginalized, alone, left out, the last one to be picked, and then only grudgingly.

Exclusion and marginalization are not in God’s plan for us.  God wants us to experience the full cup of blessing our baptism guarantees.  God wants us to experience wholeness, happiness, and the joy of belonging to him.

Referring to the prophet Isaiah’s prophesy, scholar Steve MacArthur writes, “Isaiah celebrates a joy that comes from God to those who have just about lost all hope that they will ever be happy.  Joy is a superlative happiness.  Given-by-God happiness.”

Presbyterian pastor and author Frederick Buechner speaks to this when he writes, “Joy is home…God created us in joy and created us for joy, and in the long run not all the darkness there is in the world and in ourselves can separate us finally from that joy, because whatever else it means to say that God created us in his image, I think it means that even when we cannot believe in him, even when we feel most spiritually bankrupt and deserted by him, his mark is deep within us.  We have God’s joy in our blood.”

Joy is the path God takes when assuring us that we have not been sidelined or forgotten. It is to experience joy, this essential union with God, that we were created.  Joy, not of the fleeting variety we experience for an hour or an afternoon, instead God created us to be connoisseurs of joy, people who can apprehend the gift in its true dimensions and power.

We belong to God. And for what? To experience the joy of communion in his presence. Some of us can’t really bring ourselves to believe that we have been chosen, that we are part of the team.  We feel relegated to the sideline, remote from the action.  Yet things don’t have to be that way.  In fact, things aren’t that way, for God in Christ Jesus has redeemed us from alienation for good.  There are no sideline standers in the kingdom of God, for all were invited to the party, all were created to experience God’s joy.

Joy may be muted for a time, war and upheaval gaining the upper hand, personal setbacks gaining the upper hand, but friends, joy is of God and that joy will never ever be suppressed.

In life and in death we belong to God, it is both our destiny conferred upon us in our baptisms as the chosen of God, as well as a perpetual source of hope and joy. Even today God is opening new vistas on God’s kingdom in the making. And each one of us has been chosen to participate in the kingdom in the making. He will show us where that action is if we take time to look.

AMEN

PRAYER
Today as we worship, O God, we remember with thanksgiving the prophets whose faith and commitment to you has passed to us generation to generation. We acknowledge a debt that can’t be repaid, even as we attempt to live by faith after their example. Having heard your word read and proclaimed may we claim for ourselves the truths contained therein, and with gratitude apply ourselves to live our lives based on those truths.

O Christ, you are the source of meaning and joy for our lives, refresh our spirits in this worship. Prepare minds focused elsewhere to accept a new challenge in servanthood.  Be patient and forbearing for we are but children in matters of faith, people who struggle for direction apart from you.

O God, we remember the baptism of our Lord, and by extension our own baptisms. Others were baptized before us, others called to serve. The path we are traveling is well marked, O God, generations of people having traveled before us, yet you have reserved new discoveries for us alone.  Help us to make them.  Help us to find new things in familiar stories and familiar songs, that through the lens of tradition we may make a new acquaintanceship with Christ, one that will strengthen and sustain us for that portion of our journey yet to be taken.

O God our God, we fret over what is missing from life, seldom pausing to account for what is present.  For the present, this hour of peace, our friends with whom we worship, the ability to draw breath unimpaired we give you thanks.  Slow us down that we might live in the moment for our thoughts and aspirations are often linked to what might be or what will be to the neglect of is.  O God, whose Spirit is with us every moment, may we live conscious of your nearness every moment.

You summon us to peace, not as the world gives, O God, but the peace that passes understanding; the peace that is Christ’s to confer.  Make us instruments of your peace, O God, proclaimers of your gospel of hope.  We are living through a difficult, exasperating period in our history, the stress of a divided government breeds anxiety and rancor. O God, we depend upon a wisdom much greater than our own to resolve the great challenges we confront.  Be our wisdom, our ears to hear, our eyes to see.

Sovereign God, whose sovereignty extends over all you have made, hear the prayers we have spoken, and the prayers welling up in our hearts yet to be spoken, for we pray in the confidence that you are near, always near at hand.  Heal us where we are broken, support us where we are weak, and above all forgive our sins.  These things we ask in Jesus’ name…