The First and the Last
A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
August 16, 2020
Main Idea: God is all.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In the month of August we are exploring the world and words of Second Isaiah, the prophet to the exiles in Babylon. Although Isaiah and the exiles lived long ago, their worries, concerns and hopes resonate with us, for like us, the exiles yearned for certainty and hope. Isaiah proclaims to them, and to us, that God is our rock. There is no other.
Throughout most of the Hebrew Bible, God is lifted up as a powerful redeemer and sustainer of the Hebrew people. God, who’s personal name is YHWH, (I am who I am) chose a motley crew of people from the slave quarters of Egypt and formed them as a people through the experience of the Exodus. YHWH would be their god and they would be YHWH’s people. The first of the 10 commandments is “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other god before me.” (Ex 20:2) As the people wandered in the wilderness, as the nations of Israel and later Judah were established, it was understood that YHWH was on their side as their particular god and that YHWH fought on their behalf against the gods of other peoples. As long as the people remained faithful to God, their lands and their lives would be protected and safe. If they were unfaithful and did not follow God’s commandments, God would punish them with disease, famine, and war. But as little nations sandwiched between the mighty empires of Egypt, Assyria, and later Babylon, Israel and Judah at times made choices to appease those powers instead of honoring God and God’s commandments. First Israel fell to the Assyrians and then, the unthinkable happened. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and many were taken into exile. These devastating events caused deep religious trauma for the people because it meant either one of two horrible things that ripped out the foundation of their faith; Either God had chosen to reject and abandon God’s people because of their sins or YHWH was not the powerful redeemer and sustainer they had thought God to be but rather a weak demi-god who was defeated by the powerful Marduk of Babylon. Either God had left or God had been defeated. In either case, the people were without protection or hope. Into this desperate situation Second Isaiah makes an astonishing claim. YHWH had neither abandoned them nor been defeated. In fact, YHWH was the only divine reality, all other claims of allegiance were overthrown, all other gods were illusions. In all of Scripture, more than half way through the book, Isaiah is the first to claim that there is no other god. For us today, this idea doesn’t shock us, but for the exiles, this was mind-blowingly revolutionary.
Our text for today has two distinct parts. The first part is words of comfort and reassurance, much like the texts we explored last week and the week before. God speaks directly to the people, claiming them from before their birth and telling them not to be afraid because God will provide for them. That which had seemed dead and hopeless will be renewed and restored like water poured out on dry land, like willows growing by a flowing stream. The people who felt punished and abandoned will know that God has not forgotten them, that they are loved, and blessed, and named. They will know this so deeply that they will be able to claim it for themselves.
After reassuring the people, the second part of the text makes claims upon them. “Thus says the LORD, (God’s personal name), the King of Israel (since there was no human king in Israel anymore), the Redeemer (who brought them out of Egypt), the Lord of Host (Creator and Protector), “I am the first and the last; besides me there is no god.” (gesture of MIND BLOWN) God asks, “Who else knows what I know, can do what I do, cares as I care? Nobody. So, do not be afraid, you are my witnesses. I am your rock. There is no other.”
So what does all this mean to us? Who and what do we worship? God, of course, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, who are part of God. The three in one. Now we may not think about this much but, the God that we worship is the same God of the Jewish people and the people of Islam. All three of these very different faith communities worship YHWH, the God of Abraham and Sarah. They are our cousins in faith. How does this realization change how we think about our Jewish and Muslims neighbors? Their worship practices may be different from ours but their commitments to God and to love and justice and peace are the same. Some of them may look unfamiliar to us, we may disagree with them sometimes, but they are part of our family. A family that encompasses 56% of the world population – 4 billion 2 hundred 15 million people.
But Isaiah’s declaration takes our understanding of family further. To understand God as the ultimate divine reality is to recognize the unity of all people of faith, and people of no faith, all around the world. There are no other gods to be opposed or defeated, just different manifestations of the divine reality. All of humanity, all 7.8 billion of us, is included in the family of God. That is good, yes? There is no them, there is only us, all children of our creator, redeemer, and sustainer God. This profoundly broadens our care and concern to people around the world. The child in Brazil, the old woman in Russia, the old man in Iran, the young man in Rwanda, the young woman in China, they are all part of our family. Our community encompasses the whole world.
Now by declaring that God is our rock and there is no other, Isaiah challenges us not only to reconsider who is in our family but also to reconsider where else we put our trust. Right after today’s text, Isaiah mocks those who build idols of gods out of the same piece of wood they use to cook their supper. So today’s text challenges the idols that we hold onto even as we declare our whole allegiance to God. So let me ask you a few more questions. In what do you trust? Money, banks, the government, yourself? What makes your life successful? Your job, your status? To what do you give devotion? Your political party or your favorite sport team? What shapes your identity? The media and society at large? These questions point to the idols we have in our lives. We have established that there is no other god than God but just as the ancient exiles were tempted by idols, so are we. And why not? It is always nice to have reassurance in our pocket.
We are always tempted to try and put God in a box; “God’s on my side not yours.” Our society is overrun with idols all claiming to make our lives perfect. Advertising is overtly based on idolizing – “This product or program will make you beautiful/happy/successful. Without it, you are less than you could be.” Our political process is overtly based on idolatry. “Only we can keep you safe and successful. We know the truth and everything else is lies. Our opponents are evil.” These idols count on our fears and insecurity. They count on our mistrust of others and of God. Just a short time on social media reveals the idols that we have embraced, their claims and promises amplified over and over. Our idols have warped our responses to the crises with which we are dealing; how seriously we take Covid-19, whether we see the protests this summer as either long-over due demonstrations for racial justice or lawless rioting, even the very history of our nation is seen through the lens of idolatry. Our idols lead us to see the world as the survival of the fittest, every man for himself, us against them. These idols lead us away from God, our rock, the ultimate divine reality. As much as they promise the world, these idols lead us to despair and disappointment.
But God says “Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.” When we recognize the idols in our lives, we can put them aside and reorient ourselves toward our God who created us, redeems us, and sustains us. We can approach the crises of these days as problems to be solved together rather than battles to be fought against each other. We can work for the health and prosperity of all people. We can let go of our fears and insecurities that idols exploit and instead rest in the love and grace of God.
Let us pray,
O God, our rock, on you we depend, on you we build our lives. Help us to clear away that which distracts us from your love and call. Empower us to work with you for love and justice and peace for all. Amen.