A Lectionary Reflection on Isaiah 55:1-9, Lent 3

Image credit: godtube.com

I love the Book of Isaiah, it is so rich in communicating God’s chesedlovingkindness—and grace. Those who believe that the Hebrew Bible and the God described in the Hebrew Bible are filled with doom and gloom, judgement and condemnation need to read the Book of Isaiah. Yes, there are oracles of judgement in Isaiah, however it is also bursting at the seams with messages of lovingkindness and grace.

The Book of Isaiah is a complex one, yet, at the same time, it enunciates the beauty of simplicity. Many scholars divide it into three sections and most likely three different periods of history: Chapters 1-39; chapters 40-55; and chapters 56-66. They are referred to as First Isaiah, Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah respectively. Scholars differ concerning their authorship—e.g., some believe the Book of Isaiah may have been compiled by a group of editors/prophets or ‘school of Isaiah’ so-to-speak, while others contend each of the sections were written by three different individuals, as well as other theories. Our pericope likely dates back to the time of the Babylonian exile (ca. 587-538 B.C.E.), perhaps near the end of it, as the content of this oracle is one of a hopeful future—indeed, the title of this oracle in my Bible is “An Invitation to Abundant Life.”

The oracle begins with a message of God’s grace. The picture is rather profound in that first of all everyone is given this grace-filled invitation without exception; and second, the economy of God’s grace is the exact reversal of all human economies based on a monetary system. The invitation makes it abundantly clear that God’s grace cannot be bought with money—it is free! Therefore the rich have no advantage over the poor, all are equal in God’s eyes. In God’s economy of grace no money is required—rather, God’s banquet feast of food and drink are free and accessible to everyone. What abundance, what generosity God offers here!

Verses two and three continue with this motif of God’s abundant grace, however there is a clarifying injunction, the exilic citizens of Judah and Jerusalem are commanded to “Listen carefully…,” “Incline your ear…,” “listen, so that you may live.” I believe it was Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, who once said: “The first duty of love is to listen.” Listening makes all the difference in the world, it is, or at least has the potential of being, a matter of life or death. Those who listen are often more open to the blessings of what life has to offer them through the multidimensional workings of God’s grace. Failure to listen can, and often does lead to sinful thoughts, words and actions that lead to: self-inflicted suffering, alienated and broken relationships with God and other human beings, divisions, the devastation of creation, evil, injustice, war and destruction.

In the case of this pericope, listening while eating and drinking at God’s grace-filled banquet feast is connected with celebrating God’s “everlasting covenant” now expanding from David’s line to include all of God’s chosen people—verses four and five. God’s chosen people graced with an everlasting covenant shall “call nations that [they] you do not know,” and in response to this “call,” these nations “shall run to you.” They shall do this running because of God’s grace and initiative toward his chosen people.

Verses six and seven shift in their emphasis, inviting people, including “the wicked,” to repent of their sinful ways; which involves returning to the Holy One, the One who created and loved them from the beginning. This call to repentance, to return to the LORD has a profound consequence: “he may have mercy on them…,” and “he will abundantly pardon.” Mercy and abundance are the very attributes of God; they are also associated with God’s grace, lovingkindness/chesed, and God’s fidelity to the everlasting covenant.

The closing verses of this pericope are a reminder of God’s sovereignty, God’s transcendence, God’s ‘wholly/holy otherness,’ and in the presence of God’s ‘wholly/holy otherness,’ our humility—reminding us of our finitude and limitations, which are a message of grace too, since they reveal our need of God, our hunger and thirst for God, our constant state of returning to God in order to live the abundant life. We are graced to share God’s abundance even as we live in our various forms of exile.

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Graveside sermon for Eveline Grymaloski

Open Bible-public domain image

Graveside sermon for Eveline Grymaloski, based on Rom 5:1-5 & Isa 25:6-9, by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson, Camrose Cemetery, July 10, 2018.

As I thought about Eveline, one of the first things that came to mind was that she was a person of character—that reminded me of the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 5:1-5: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Notice that Paul says our life as followers of Jesus is productive. As I think of Eveline, I believe that she was a person of endurance—she had to be, since she lived for 100 years! Now that’s endurance! Her endurance however was not stagnant rather, it produced character, and her character produced hope.

Eveline was a sweet person, and will be dearly missed by you family members, as well as by our residents and staff.

She was an avid reader. On occasion, she would read something humorous, and then she would take it to the staff members of Spruce Cottage and read it for them. After that, she would have a good laugh with the staff.

Eveline enjoyed visiting with her companion, Phyllis, they had many meaningful conversations together.

There was a poem that she liked to recite for staff: “Won’t you be mine, Eveline? Yes I will, yes I will, if you only be still.”

She was a very friendly, happy and affectionate person. Residents and staff can remember Eveline holding their hand, kissing it, and then wiping off her kiss with a Kleenex.

For as long as she was able, she participated in exercises. She also did very well in getting around with her wheelchair—in fact, at the blink of an eye, she was half way down the hallway! I teased her about that, and told her she was speeding, and she had better watch out, because she might get a speeding ticket! 🙂

Eveline was a singer, she loved participating in our cottage Hymn-Sings. She also enjoyed attending the Sunday church Services, Wednesday Devotions, and when she was able, the Thursday night Bible studies.

Eveline’s faith was very important to her, and her husband, being a pastor, I’m sure was encouraged by her faith—as most likely were you family members too.

Because Eveline was a person of faith, I’m sure the following words of Isaiah 25:6-9 also apply to her now, as she has gone ahead of us to be with her Lord.

The prophet writes these wonderful words: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Death and the celebration of the final victory over death—that is what the prophet Isaiah proclaims in this passage. His message is one of celebration, hope and comfort. Isaiah reassures his people and all of us here today that we don’t have to be afraid of death, God will destroy death forever.

In verse six, Isaiah pictures all peoples gathering on Mount Zion in the new Jerusalem, where God will act as a host and a chef. God will prepare a huge banquet-feast. In this feast you will not have to worry about diet restrictions or things like diabetes, high cholesterol, or gluten-free foods. Rather, you will be able to eat every food because it is the LORD who will prepare it and he will serve only what is healthy for everyone. So this huge banquet-feast will be absolutely delicious—everyone will enjoy their favourite foods, and there will be such an abundance, enough for everybody.

So the picture of this banquet-feast is one of joy and celebration. Isaiah tells us the reason for such a huge celebration. God will destroy death by swallowing it up forever. No more death.

Once death is destroyed by being swallowed up forever, Isaiah tells his people and us: “Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.” In other words, once death is gone forever there will be no more reason for sadness, crying and grief. God will wipe away the tears from all faces like a loving parent wipes away the tears from their crying child to comfort and reassure them. In this act of God wiping away everyone’s tears we have a picture of God as a tender, loving parent.

So, we wait for the future time with hope, trusting that God is going to do what these words of Isaiah promise he will do. God is in control of your future, my future, and everyone’s future. Eveline knew that, and I pray that you do too. Amen.

Ash Wednesday

AshWednesdayCrossYesterday, Ash Wednesday, marked the beginning of the season of Lent. I participated in an ecumenical service last evening. I was designated to explain the meaning of the ashes and do the imposition of ashes on the clergy, as well as help administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It was a wonderful service held at the local Anglican church, with clergy representing the Anglican, Church of God, Lutheran, United, and Ukrainian Catholic churches.

In dialogue with the Ukrainian Catholic priest prior to the service, I learned a couple of things that surprised me. First, they do not use ashes in their Ash Wednesday services—for them Lent actually begins on Monday two days prior to Ash Wednesday. Second, the colour for Lent in their tradition is not purple, but red, since the latter is regarded by them as a penitential colour.

Ashes in the Western churches are important, since they symbolize our mortality, as well as combined with sackcloth, were associated with repentance in biblical times.

We were blessed and privileged to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed and all baptised Christians were welcome to partake of the Lord’s Supper.

The Anglican priest lead us in the beautiful Ash Wednesday penitential liturgy and he, along with two other clergy—one Lutheran, one Anglican, a visible sign of our full communion—were co-presiders at the Lord’s Table. The Church of God pastor began with an opening introduction, highlighting God’s mercy, and sharing information on a Canadian Food Grains project which our community supports. The United Church minister led us in the offertory prayer. The Ukrainian Catholic priest offered the closing benediction.

It was a very moving and humbling experience to have been there and help with administering the sacrament. It was also a small sign of the unity of Christ’s Body expressed in the rich diversity of our respective denominations.

As the World Council of Churches emphasized years ago, “doctrine divides, service unites,” so in our community, we joined together contributing our offering to the Canadian Food Grains Bank in service of those in need.

We left the worship service in silence; recipients of God’s mercy and grace, and given new opportunities to share the love of Jesus in thought, word and deed with those in need in our community and around the globe.

Sermon 2 Epiphany Yr A

2 Epiphany Yr A, 20/01/2008

Jn 1:29-42

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson,

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Keeping secrets or spreading the word?”

 

Our nephews, Marc and Darrin came to visit us several years ago, when they were quite young, between five to seven years old. One of the first things they spotted in our house was a painting of the crucifixion, which was painted by an artist friend of ours. They were quite intrigued, never having seen such a picture before. They asked a lot of questions, such as: What was that red stuff on his hands? And why was he there anyway?

After our conversation with them, Marc and Darrin tried to draw their own picture of Jesus on the cross.

Then, after they had visited us for a while, they went to visit another family. Later, they stopped in again to visit us on their way back home. This time, they had a cousin along. One of the first things they did when they came into our house was to take their cousin to see the picture and to try and tell him what it was all about. That was good evangelism; that was witnessing at its finest; that was fulfilling the calling the Lord gives us all to be his missionaries and evangelists.

What about us? Are we better at keeping secrets than spreading the word? In today’s gospel, John the baptizer can’t help himself. He sees Jesus walking by and has to tell everyone within earshot, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” And the next day, he’s at it again, bearing faithful testimony to anyone who would listen, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The words of John bearing witness to the truth of Jesus’ identity were in fact heard by at least two people, who happened to be John’s disciples—one of them is not named, the other is Andrew. Andrew is, in fact, one of my favourite disciples. Why? Because he’s seldom in the limelight, quite content to let Peter or Paul or James or John take on that role. Yet, he is a genuine witness, a faithful evangelist, a willing missionary—spreading the good word about Jesus and bringing others to Jesus—not by the hundreds or thousands mind you, but one by one, so it seems. We can, I think, be encouraged by disciples like Andrew. We don’t have to be overwhelmed by the task of evangelism and mission work. We don’t have to set unrealistic goals and think that we need to bring in hundreds of thousands of people to Christ. Rather, like Andrew, we can invite a family member, a close friend or a neighbour to “come and see.” We do not need to keep secrets; we can spread the word, even if it is in the form of the simplest of invitations. God, through the Holy Spirit can work in you and through your words of invitation and reach people in surprising ways.

Ken Taylor tells the following story: A friend of mine serves as a missionary in a restricted access country. For many years the government of this country has taught the people that there is no God. My friend had the opportunity to interact on a regular basis with a nonbeliever of that country who is a highly educated professional.

After developing a friendship with the professional, my friend had the opportunity to share the gospel story with him. My friend was taken aback by the man’s response: “What you have told me cannot be true. If it were true, it is such good news that someone would have told this to me before.”1

Sad, but too many Christians prefer to keep secrets rather than spread the word. Prophets like John the Baptizer and disciples like Andrew, thank the Lord, were not good at keeping secrets—they enthusiastically spread the word. John and Andrew were sharing the truth about Jesus that had been revealed to them through a direct encounter with him. They were re-telling the story. This is instructive for us today too, since we are called to do the same: share the truth about Jesus that has been revealed to us through a direct encounter with him. Whether that has been some dramatic high, mountaintop revelation; or whether it has been a still small voice; or whether it has been some other way; Jesus has given you that revelation about himself for you to share with others—just like John and Andrew. Are you keeping this a secret or are you spreading the word?

I admit that because of the bad name and reputation that Christian evangelism and missionary work has been given; because of some of the manipulative tactics that have been employed in the past, and perhaps even today; many of us may be sorely tempted NOT to be evangelists or missionaries.

Evangelism is the “E” word; there is something mildly disreputable about it. We feel uncomfortable about the images it conjures up: accosting people on the street and stuffing a tract in their hands; threatening people with the fires of eternal hell like (some are inclined to do) unless they make a commitment; revival preachers interminably imploring “just one more” to raise that hand and make a decision for Christ; folks with bad hair on cable television begging folks to send more money to keep this soul-winning ministry on the air. That is not us. That is not our way of reaching people.

Do you know whose way I like? The fellow we meet in chapter 1 of John’s gospel, Andrew, the apostle with the missionary heart. Apparently, he had always been a religious man—up until now he had been a disciple of John….But one day Andrew met Jesus and Andrew was never the same again. Three times we find him on center stage in the gospel record: John 1, when he introduced his brother Simon to Christ; in John 6, when he introduced the boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus; and in John 12, as he introduced some devout Greeks to the Saviour. Andrew was always introducing people to the Lord. We do not know very much about Andrew other than that, but what we do know is wonderfully attractive…and at the same time, a wonderful model for Christians who desperately need some help in doing “the ‘E’ word.”2

The world needs the Lamb of God who takes away its sin as much today as it ever did; the world needs Jesus the Messiah as much right now as it did back in the days of John and Andrew. We have been given, by the sheer grace and love of God, this wonderful GOOD NEWS. The question for us remains: Do we keep this a secret or do we spread the word? I hope and pray it is the latter—since our lives depend on this; as do the lives of everyone—for God so loved THE WORLD! Like John and Andrew may we be eager and willing to share this GOOD NEWS STORY, and invite others to “come and see.” Amen.

 

1 Citation from: Perfect Illustrations For Every Topic And Occasion, Compiled by the editors of PreachingToday.com (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2002), p. 111.

2 David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit: Series VI, Cycle A (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2007), p. 36.