11th Sunday After Pentecost; Year A; August 24, 2014
Isaiah 51.1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One whose salvation is forever, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
During the summers of 2003 and 2004 I spent a lot of time on the North Fork of the Flathead River in Northwest Montana. I was a camp counselor at Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp and was trained to be a white-water rafting guide. Throughout those two summers I took a number of high school youth rafting down the river for a week at a time.
The North Fork of the river divided Glacier National Park and Flathead National Forest. The beauty of the towering mountains, the clear blue and green glacial water, the diverse wildflowers, the looming pine trees, and the wildlife was enough to take my breath away.
At the end of my first summer in 2003, Northwest Montana was ravaged by wildfires. Smoke and ash were thick in the air. We had no more rafting trips the end of that summer because the fires engulfed portions of the west side of the river, burning nearly everything in its path.
I returned the following summer and on my first rafting trip down the river I was devastated. Whole sections of the landscape I had come to love and treasure were charred black. Ash covered the ground and once majestic trees were burnt down to stumps or petrified because of the intense heat of the fires.
I stood among the ashes and thought: this once vibrant landscape has been made into a waste place almost over night.
In verse 3 of our Isaiah reading, we hear of waste places: “For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places…”
For us to understand what is meant by “waste places” is to remember that their Zion, their land and homes, were taken over by the Babylonians, the dominant world power at the time. Many people were driven from their homes, buildings were destroyed, even their temple of worship laid in ruins.
The people cried out in Psalm 137 verse 1 – “By the waters of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” Their home and all they knew lay in waste.
Knowing this, now imagine the words of the prophet Isaiah, perhaps even spoken to people a generation later standing among the ruins of buildings: God “will comfort all Zion’s waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.”
Should the people believe these words they hear when all they might see is devastation?
What about us here today? What does a “waste place” look, smell, and feel like in your own life? What have you seen or experienced in your life that has made you want to give up hope, not believe in a good future, or sit down and weep?
Here are just a few more of mine:
I once walked through a certain street of Nicaragua in Central America and could hardly breath because the stench of garbage was so strong it choked me. It smelled like a waste place. Then I saw two boys who looked to be between the ages of 7 and 10, totally high from sniffing glue out of glass jars, lying down on old wooden boards in the street.
I have a friend I grew up with my whole life who started using in high school. He became addicted to all kinds of different drugs, as well as alcohol. He started lying all the time and stealing from all the people who loved him most. He had made his life into a waste place.
I have watched four grandparents and two uncles slowly die from incurable diseases. Their bodies almost became like a waste place, ravaged by cancer cells or Alzheimer’s.
Standing at the graves of loved ones, and even a mass grave from the Haiti earthquake, have seemed like waste places at times as I have struggled to hear and believe, “joy and gladness will be found, thanksgiving and voice of song.” My heart felt like a waste place.
I know you have your own stories of waste places, some worse than the few I have mentioned. All of us have experiences in life that leave us wondering: Why this? Why me? What could or should I have done differently? Where is God in all this? Is there a God? Does God care? How can God possibility work with what has become of my life? What does new life look and feel like when I hardly have a thread of hope?
How are we to hear God’s voice when standing among these waste placesGod says through the prophet Isaiah: “Look!…Listen to me…Life up your eyes. Stop looking down at the rubble, or the ruins that may have become your life. Comfort, comfort my people. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, look to Abraham and Sarah, your ancestors. I will give you joy again no matter has happened in your life. Yes, the heavens will vanish and the earth will wear out like a garment, and all will die; yet, my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.”
Ephesians 3.14-15 says: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.”
When we are told to look to the rock from which we were hewn, the quarry from which we were dug, it means to remember our foundation in our Creator. God has knit you together in your mother’s womb. You are intricately made with love and given your life by God who continues to sustain you to this day.
When we are told to remember Abraham and Sarah, we are to remember that it took over 25 years for God’s promise of a son to come true. Even when God said they would still bear a child and have many descendants they laughed and did not believe God because they were way to old even have children. Yet, the promise came true despite their disbelief. We are to understand that the promises of God do come to be, even if it takes what seems to be a human lifetime (or even more in some cases).
When we are promised joy in our waste places by the God who died and rose from the dead for you and for me, we are to cling to that hope with all our strength. In the Isaiah passage we hear the truth of death, and yet the truth of what new life is in God. Because God lives, we shall live and all our waste places be made whole.
I’d like to take us back to the ashes in Montana. As I felt my heart sink looking at the charred earth, I began to notice a vibrant green color poking up through the ashes. I knelt down and brushed away some ash from a little tree that was starting to grow. As I looked closer at the ground around me I noticed more and more green, more and more new life pronouncing its way up through the ash and towards the sun. I smiled knowing that God was making all things new in that place.
I do not know about the particular street in Nicaragua, nor do I know what happened to those 2 boys, yet I am confident that dancing and singing have happened in that street I walked down, and I know God loves and cares for those boys.
One day my friend from high school woke up and could remember nothing from the night before. There were many mornings he woke up like this because of drugs and alcohol, but for some reason this particular morning scared him, scared him enough to put himself into rehab. He went through treatment, reconciled with his family members, and started working construction and running marathons. He eventually met another friend of mine and they got married. They now have 2 boys and he is a lawyer. His life is not perfect, but he is happy and believes in a God of love and forgiveness.
For some things I, and we all together, wait for the joy and singing that is to come with a God whose salvation is forever. I feel this way with devastation that is caused by war or catastrophic natural disasters. I also feel this way with people I love who have died. Even though verse 6 says those who live on the earth will die, which we know and have already experienced, God has promised a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 20 & 21) and life eternal.
I can now stand at the foot of graves, knowing that those I love are with God and that God will one day raise them up from their graves and breath the breath of new life into them once again.
We are not called to forget, but to remember. We are not called to be numb, but to experience new life in our waste places right here and now. We are not called to wallow in misery, but to hope, believe, and expect that God is bringing about our promised future where all things are being made right.