For the last year, on every important holy day, my sermons have begun in the same way: with a lament for the fact that we can’t be together—I mean physically together—for worship. Today is not going to be different. Once again, I begin by saying how sorry I am that we cannot join in this holy place, on this holy day, for the holy rituals that mean so much to so many of us.
But it has also been true over the last year, and it’s true on this day too, that the strangeness of our pandemic situation can help us to see our holy stories and our holy practices in new ways.
As I prepared for our service this evening, knowing that we can’t gather as a community in this place which we love, I was particularly drawn to our Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah prophesied during a bad time for God’s covenant people. The Babylonians, the superpower of the day, had conquered their kingdom, dethroned their king, destroyed their holy temple, and exiled their leading people.
The prophecy we just heard was addressed to those exiles in Babylon. Like us, they couldn’t get into their building. But in their case, the problem was that they had been forcibly removed several hundred miles away, and that the building had been totally destroyed. Isaiah was talking to a community in serious crisis.
Those Babylonian exiles were deeply distressed, and understandably so. In addition to everything else, they worried that God had abandoned them. “Why do we fast,” they asked, when “you [God] do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (58:3) Where are you, God?
Prophets tend to be a pretty cranky bunch, and Isaiah was no exception. The first thing Isaiah does in our passage is fuss at his discouraged people. Presumably they deserved the fuss, but it seems a little harsh to me.
But after a few verses of cranky fussing, Isaiah offers his people some really good news. Isaiah assures them that God is alive and well. God is active. God’s mission continues. God is still at work in and among them. Even without their temple, even in exile in a foreign land, they have a part to play in God’s plan. That is good news for a people that feels lost. That is good news for us today, too.
Then Isaiah told them what they needed to do to get on board. Speaking for God, Isaiah asked, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Isaiah kept going from there.
In all that, Isaiah is talking about their work, and our work, as God’s people in the world, their role, and our role, in God’s mission, which continues all the time, no matter where we are, and with or without buildings.
And what will happen if and when Isaiah’s people get on board with God’s mission? “Your light shall break forth like the dawn.”
Isaiah was not done. What God’s people do for others, they also need to be doing within their own community. So, says Isaiah, they should “remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.” They need to help each other, support each other, not constantly blame each other or gossip about each other. In their relationships with each other, they need to act right, to live as God’s people united with each other. That’s a really good lesson for us today.
And again, what happens if they get on board? “Your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
In their time of exile, the ancient Israelites were called to continue to live as God’s people, to support God’s work in the world, to be the kind of community God calls them to be, and so to be a light to the nations.
In our time, in our “exile,” which is bad enough but which is kinder and gentler than what the Israelites of Isaiah’s day were experiencing, we are called to do the same: to be on board with God’s mission, and to serve as a light to our world.
That’s the call. There is promise here, too. As God’s people engage with God’s mission, Isaiah promises they will experience God’s presence in new and ever more powerful ways. “You shall call,” Isaiah says, “and the Lord will answer.” As they live more like God’s people are called to live, “The Lord will guide you continually.”
It’s a holy day, and we are not in our building. We can’t receive ashes as we normally would. But we are still God’s people. We can still be on board with God’s mission. And God continues to be with us, hearing our cries and guiding us whenever we have eyes to see. For that, I give thanks.
There is more good news here, although it takes us beyond our passage. Not so very long after Isaiah spoke these words in God’s name, the Israelites were allowed to go home, to rebuild their ruined city and temple, to resume their old life, if in changed circumstances.
Their task, during their time in exile, was to continue to live as God’s people under their current circumstances and, at the same time, to prepare themselves for their return. Thanks in part to Isaiah’s help, they did it. They remained faithful, and they returned stronger than ever.
Our challenge is a little bit like theirs: to be faithful now, and to get ready for when we can return. It’s not clear when that will happen. But we are moving in the right direction. People are getting vaccinated. The pandemic will end.
And here we are, at the beginning of Lent, the great season of preparation in the Christian year. In one of my favorite parts of this service, the Church invites us to prepare ourselves to observe Holy Week and the Easter season. That is true every year. In this Lent, we might add that we also prepare ourselves spiritually for the time when we can safely come back together.
What does the task of preparation look like during a pandemic? In some ways, a lot like other years. The invitation of the Church encourages us to engage in self-examination and repentance; in prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and in reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. It is not an exhaustive list of our options. But those are good practices for us to embrace, as we work at being God’s people in our own kind of exile, as we join in God’s mission, and as we prepare for whatever God has in store for us next.
I pray that we accept the invitation to a holy Lent, that we heed Isaiah’s words about living as God’s people and joining God’s mission now, and that God helps us to use this season to prepare for the next steps in our Christian journey.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan