May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
Hearing certain scripture passages often reminds me of major life events or sermons of the past. Our first lesson from Isaiah 35 reminds me both of a major life event and a sermon from my past. It was September 10, 2000 – the first Sunday following the birth of our daughter, Hannah, on the 7th (yes, tomorrow is her 15th birthday!) – and I was scheduled to preach at the congregation I served in Oak Harbor. It must have been the 15th Sunday after Pentecost in year B then since the exact same scripture lessons were appointed for the day. Just a few days before I had spent a difficult 20 hours alongside my wife as she endured a slowly progressing labor. We were impatient, not happy with the doctors, and Lucy was miserable. Finally after about 19 and three-quarters hours, her water broke. After that labor sped quickly along, and after only about 15 minutes of pushing, our beautiful daughter was born. New life had come into our lives, and the tears that flowed were no longer tears of pain and endurance but tears of joy.
So for my sermon on that next Sunday, I couldn't help but identify with the promise of Isaiah of waters breaking forth in the wilderness and new life coming forth. For us, even though it was a strange connection, it was something that we literally experienced, for in the water breaking during delivery, new life came quickly and joyfully.
It was a joyful time for us for many reasons. One of the major reasons was that in the five years since Colin was born, we had tried to have our second child sooner. When Colin was about three, Lucy got pregnant and we were excited…until, for no explainable reasons, she experienced a miscarriage. Not only was it heartbreaking but it brought back memories of a miscarriage she had shortly before Colin came along. In the months to come there was disappointment as we tried for our second child and it just wasn't happening. We decided to make an appointment to talk with our OB/GYN about fertility issues. It seems like no sooner was the appointment made than we found out that Lucy was pregnant. This time there was no miscarriage, a full term and healthy baby girl was the outcome!
The passage from Isaiah is about hope. It is about looking forward to God's intervention into our lives when things look bleak – when we lose control or don't see any way out of something. God's people were in exile in Babylon and so many years had passed that people were giving up hope. As a matter of fact, many people had gotten rather comfortable in their new nation and had assimilated into Babylonian lifestyle. But there was a remnant still looking for deliverance. God promises that it is coming – like water bursting forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. God always desires joy and life for us. When that has been lost, God seeks to restore it in any way possible.
I have told our story of having our kids to many people as a sign of hope and blessings – of the disappointments followed by unexpected good news. Some people with whom I shared my story have told me theirs…and they are not always as happy as ours. Some have never had the chance to bear children because of infertility. Some have gone through excruciating procedures to try to conceive to no avail. And yet what I have seen in them is a blessing which, even though it is not what they may have wanted, as in the ability to bear a child, they have been blessed in others ways: serving as foster or adoptive parents to kids who otherwise would have no home; being the special aunt and uncle to their siblings' children; having the time and resources to take care of parents in their older age. Hope is something that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord, but the joy that hope brings doesn't always follow our prescribed manual. There is still the cross before the empty tomb. There will still be tears and pain and maybe even death before there is joy and healing and new life. Vaclav Havel, a Czech dissident and the first president of that country following the ouster of the communist rule, said it so well, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it will turn out.”
So what are we to do with this concept of hope and this promise from God in the midst of the reality that things don't always seem to end joyfully or on the side of new life? We keep telling our stories of hope in the midst of our grief or pain or disappointment and our surprise when God makes new life come forth in places and times when we did not expect it. In addition, we follow James' admonition to show no partiality to people because of their class or race, their appearance or social status. So many folks who live with little to nothing experience disappointment, and we know that maybe God's hopeful promises are fulfilled by faithful, grateful, generous Christians like you and me! It isn't easy – it looks like Jesus even struggled with this same issue as he refers to this strange gentile woman as a dog in our Gospel reading. It is she herself that reminds him that God's blessings fall even to those who some consider the dogs of society, and Jesus admires this about her and heals her daughter.
There are undeniably so many issues and challenges in our country and in our world that we pray to God in hope for intervention. On this Labor Day weekend, we think about those who are unemployed or underemployed; the challenges of balancing living wages with costs of living, and the issues dealing with the availability of health care. We seek peaceful relationships with our global neighbors. We want to preserve our natural resources and live in good relationship with our earth and its ecosystems. We seek ways to be good neighbors to those on our streets. We want to encourage police officers in their difficult jobs and we want to deal with the reality of racism which is still present in our country. We shudder at words like ISIS and terrorism, national debt, cancer, AIDS, dementia, and barrenness. It is in relation to all of these things and so many more that we cling to hope in the God who promises to make waters burst forth in the wilderness and springs gush in the desert.
And most importantly, it is in the reality of the presence of death that we cling to the hope of the resurrection. On Thursday in a country cemetery in Brookville, Ohio I spoke these words: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God Dorothy Blackburn and we commit her body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her; the Lord's face shine upon her with grace and mercy; the Lord grant her peace.” Much like Dorothy, all of us will have those words spoken over our gravesite. And much like Dorothy's family, ours will hear them and be reminded once again of the promises that are ours because of the one who healed the daughter of that strange woman in Tyre of Sidon; the one who broke down the barriers of hatred, illness and death; the one who sprang to life after people had given up hope for him. As the waters burst forth in our wildernesses may we drink from God's goodness and share that goodness so that the hope that we have in Christ may be the basis for everything that we do. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.