Does the world feel chaotic to you? Are things going just a little bit too fast to keep up? In the past few weeks, I have heard at least five people say that they can’t wait until 2019 is over because it has been a ‘bad’ year for them. Unexplained illnesses, deaths of close friends, sick children, unexpected financial issues, misunderstandings at home, and the accompanying loss of sleep and insecurity. We feel a scarcity of time to devote to anything outside of the daily grind. Get up, take the kids to school, go to work, pick up the kids, make dinner, go to bed. Repeat. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s dark at 5:00 pm now that makes us feel the darkness closing in and we don’t have enough time. Into this feeling of chaos, darkness and imbalance come the apocalyptic prophets of our last few weeks of the church lectionary, before we begin again in Advent.
These apocalyptic prophets testify to the ongoing relationship between God and God’s people throughout history and give voice to the struggle deep inside any human heart for a secure future. They bang the drum of our human condition of fleeing from God’s mercy and love, as well as God’s interventions to bring us back again. The OT prophets speak into our anxieties and insecurities because they voice the questions, we want to ask God; the ‘why’ and ‘when’ that plague our understanding of the scriptures and what it all has to do with our lives in the now.
Today we have a reading from the penultimate chapter of the prophet, Isaiah. A little background from the 6th Century BC. Judah, or the kingdom of Israel, is stuck between the two warring powers of Egypt to the south and Babylon to the north. Babylon wins the war and takes Judah captive to live in super-pagan Babylon. The two constant signs of the people’s life with God, Jerusalem and the Temple, are now gone. The Temple is destroyed, and they are far from Jerusalem. Life as they know it has changed forever. The people feel abandoned, confused and weary. “Has God left us?,” they ask.
Charles Schulz, of the Charlie Brown comics, wrote a memorable description of the feeling of abandonment. He wrote, “There must be different kinds of loneliness, but the most terrifying loneliness is not experienced by everyone and can be understood by only a few. I compare the panic in this kind of loneliness to the dog we see running frantically down the road pursuing the family car. He is not really being left behind, for the family knows it is to return, but for that moment in his limited understanding, he is being left alone forever, and he has to run and run to survive.” Like the dog in the story, we are frantic to know that we will not be left alone, and we run and run to survive.
One of the best books I’ve ever read with this theme is Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons. Ten year old Ellen recounts how, despite her efforts to care for everyone, her sickly mother dies and her abusive father drinks himself to death. When her spiteful and mean grandmother also dies, she believes it is her ‘badness’ that keeps her alone and says, “And as I laid out my clothes and folded them to leave, I reminded Jesus that this is not the way a girl needs to be. I told him again to please settle up with me so I could be a pure girl again and somebody good could love me.” Ellen sees a real family she wants to join, so she tries to fool them by assuming their last name and becomes Ellen Foster. The school social worker tells her that the family’s name is not Foster- they are a foster family. Ellen ran and ran until she knew that the family where all the fosters live was now her home– and she would not be left alone.
Ta-Nehesi Coates’ new book, Water Dancer, has many scenes where the main character, Hiram, is scared, abandoned and alone. As a very young slave boy, his mother is sold, and he lives on his own until an old woman, whose children were sold, takes him in. Empty spaces of the heart brought together so that both might be loved.
Where we humanly see a void or space or nothingness—like feelings of abandonment by God, the loss of a dream or relationship, the end of a job, the next step after graduation, retirement— God sees a space to create, to continue to be the Creator. God’s power is in creation out of nothing, ex-nihilo. Spaces that we believe to be empty are full of God’s power and love.
We do not have eyes to see or ears that can hear what Almighty God is doing in the world or in our lives, but in our scripture from Isaiah, God is assuring the exiles, and us, that He is still creating. When you feel that there is nothing left, there is something happening. Listen to the words.
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
Fleming Rutledge writes, “It is the breakthrough from heaven that is foreseen in Isaiah’s cry for help. The heavens are understood not as a place far off in the empyrean, but as the domain of God’s power. This desperate cry is that of those who recognize that they have come to the end of human resources. They cannot feel God’s presence, but they continue to cling to the thought that he is there nonetheless, and that they have no other help… Even when God seems hidden, his power is operative whether we recognize it or not.”
The heavens are not the ‘far off empyrean,’ although I have to admit I had to look up the word, which is the farthest heaven of light. God’s voice in Isaiah reminds us that He is the power who creates our lives. The length of our lives, the places we inhabit, the plants we eat, the children we bear. He is as close as the breath inside of you, which the Spirit breathed into you to create you out of nothing. We owe everything to God, and He is creating your future from the spaces in your life.
Ailyn, one of the girls in the Our Little Roses Girls Home we visit in Honduras, knows about seemingly empty spaces being filled. Before she was taken in by OLR, she had a horrific childhood. She wrote a poem that expresses both her feelings of abandonment and her belief in the Lord who saved her.
Waterfall, waterfall, wash my sins away.
Waterfall, waterfall, make the pain go away.
Waterfall, waterfall, make me forget.
Waterfall, waterfall, make me drown in your precious waters.
Make me drown so I can no longer feel
The ferocity of my flesh being peeled
By the real me that is so tired of hiding inside.
Waterfall, waterfall, have mercy on me. In the darkness of winter and the chaos of life in 2019, God is creating your full and abundant life in the spaces you believe are empty. You matter to your Creator. Your life is a creation of His alone, not of yourself. We have no other help but that which our Creator provides through our Savior the Christ, the Messiah who saves us from our limited and scared selves. You are a new creation in Christ forever and ever. Amen.