A Sermon based on Isaiah 6:1-8
Today my job is harder than at any other time since I have been preaching. I have written and rewritten this sermon so many times, yet the right words continue to elude me. Many of you are suffering right now, and to say that everything is going to be all right seems trite. Some of you may be celebrating, and it is not my place to discount your joy. But somehow I have to speak to all of you; somehow I have to honor all of you, and somehow I have to offer us something to hang on to – all of us – because regardless of your election choices, we are a nation that is deeply divided right now; and that is a pretty scary place to be.
If anything, this election has exposed just how deep those divisions run; it has shown us the power of fear and how that fear can be used against us. It has shown us the damaging effects of not listening to each other, of polarization, of becoming stuck in our own ideas of right and wrong to the exclusion of all else. And it has exposed a major chink in American unity that has sent cracks running in every direction.
Today our reading shines the spotlight on one of the most famous biblical prophets of all time who could probably identify with much of what we are dealing with. Isaiah’s ministry happened during a period in Israel’s history when the kingdom was literally falling apart. The year was 739 B.C.E. and there was a massive and terrible force rising on the Eastern horizon. The Assyrian Empire had set its sights on the West, and within a few years they would be marching into the Northern Kingdom of Israel to completely destroy them. The Assyrians were ruthless conquerors; the type that would impale the bodies of their victims on stakes and line the road leading into the defeated town with them. When King Uzziah died, Assyria went on the offense and the whole world went on red alert.
With everything going on in the world today, it kind of feels like it’s all falling apart for us too. We are surrounded by suffering and despair – refugees with no place to go, natural disasters on the increase as our planet heats up; people as targets of brutality for any number of reasons be it religion, skin color, the person they love, the gender they identify with, or any other division created to divide humanity into “us” and “them” categories. We long for a better world, but we just can’t seem to come to a consensus on what that is or how to get there. True, it might not look quite as brutal as the Assyrians, at least not here in our country, but when you have a target on your back that’s not really very comforting is it?
In the Old Testament, God ordained prophets to shake people out of their complacency. Today most people seem to think that the role of a prophet is to predict the future, but the true role of a prophet has always been to tell the people what they need to hear, even if it’s not what they want to hear. The things Isaiah had to say were not things people wanted to hear. His messages were aimed at Jerusalem where he was desperately trying to get the people of that city to see that the reason for their situation was because they had strayed so far away from God. They didn’t trust in God; they didn’t obey God. They worshipped pagan idols and made alliances with all the countries surrounding them in order to fight against the Assyrians. They were greedy; with the haves demanding even more from the have nots. They did not care for the widow and the orphan; nor did they welcome the stranger. Isaiah’s message could be summed up like this, “Jerusalem, if you don’t wake up and repent, we’re all going down.” Eventually, that’s what happened, but not before Isaiah was sawed in half for his efforts.
Hardcore biblical prophecy always seemed to land on deaf ears and that still holds true today. A lot of us might be able to see that we are flirting with disaster; a lot of us might be able to see that our greed, our idolatry, our fear, our hatred and our mistrust are tearing us apart, but what happens when we point to it out loud? We get sawed in half don’t we?
Thankfully the story doesn’t end there though. Thankfully we are not bound to Old Testament prophecy because we have the living prophecy of Jesus Christ. We have hope in the form of a living flesh and blood God who chose to speak to us directly, and show us what it means to be free. And that message struck a chord because even after all the bloodshed and the trail of tears leading up to today, we are still able to hear his message of hope, reconciliation, peace, and love.
Jesus was put to death because that’s what those in power do to those who rock the boat, but he showed us something we had never seen before. Through his resurrection he showed us that our story is not about reviving the old but about something new emerging from death. He showed us that we don’t have to be afraid of death because our souls, our lives, our communities, our country – even the universe itself is infused with a mysterious and merciful God who is forever finding new form and forever unfolding into what has never been before. And if we don’t have to be afraid of death, well, then we don’t have to be afraid of life either.
I am a great believer in signs. I think that we are surrounded by signs that point us in the right direction, but we have to pay close attention. I’m getting better at paying attention. I hear something more than once and I take heed. I am also a great believer in modern day prophets. Not the kind who threaten dire consequences, but ones who truly point to God. Signs and prophets, both still exist, and on Thursday, two days after the election, while many cheeks were still wet with tears, we lost one of our greatest prophets – Leonard Cohen – and to me that was a sign. Leonard Cohen once said: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” and what I saw when he exited, was that he had left the door open just a crack for those who felt themselves to be sitting in total darkness.
Leonard Cohen had a way of speaking a quiet yet incredibly powerful truth through his songs and his poetry. For our centering I played for you his most famous work, “Halleluiah.” I played the song for myself the other day as I was writing this sermon and I just sat there and cried and cried because it cleansed my soul as he sang, “There’s a blaze of light in every word; it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy, or the broken – Hallelujah!” “A blaze of light in every word.” Every word, holy or broken, there is a blaze of light! “And even though it all went wrong, / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah! “ Like everyone who has gone before us, all the way back to the biblical heroes and antiheroes, we will be hurt, tested, and challenged. Love will break our hearts, music and art will offer solace that we may or may not hear, and we will be faced with joy, pain and death. But Cohen is telling us, not to surrender to despair or nihilism, because Holy or broken, there is still hallelujah.
We’re broken human beings, all of us, and our world is full of conflicts and things that appear to be irreconcilable. But there is forgiveness and grace, and as Cohen says, “there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’ That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say, ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is thy name.’…
And that is the prophecy I want us all to hear today. Just simply Hallelujah. We are raw; we are afraid; we don’t know what is going to happen next, but we can still say hallelujah. Defiantly, boldly, bravely…hallelujah.
My friends, I know for sure and for certain that every single person here today is a good soul who wants only to live in, and leave behind a better world. And I know too that in this darkness light will shine forth into a new form that is amazing and beautiful for us all. Without Good Friday, there can be no Easter, and what is the first thing we say come Easter morning? We say hallelujah. As the Israelites watched their nation being taken from them, as the disciples watched Jesus being nailed to the cross, no one could yet see the resurrection; all they could see was the hatred and horror that surrounded them. Yet as forgiveness and grace was freely extended to everyone, past, present and future – the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, the executioners, the judges, the inciters, the followers, the families, and all of us yet to come – it drew from the lips of countless generations – hallelujah.
Forgiveness and grace turned something ugly into something new and beautiful, and this same forgiveness and grace have been freely extended to us all; because we all need it. We all participate in the brokenness of our world, but as followers of a beautiful and forgiving Christ, “it is our call, our shared mission, to work to repair damages of this deeply wounded and fiercely broken body. Our core values of love, hospitality, and justice for all must be fully embraced in the days to come. In fact, it could well be that we were called into being for just such a time as this.” (Taken from “A Pastoral Letter to a United Church in a Divided Country”)
We have a long road ahead of us, and no one knows what the future holds. But I do know that along that same road there will be many Hallelujahs; I hope you will stop at each one and savor it.
And now I will leave you with some final words from Leonard Cohen:
The birds they sang
at the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.