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Sermon - First after Epiphany - January 13 2019

Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
January 13, 2019
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I’m going to start with Isaiah today.  I want to point out a couple things there, and give them some thought as to what they might say to us, some 2500 years or so on, in light of the Gospel of Jesus Messiah.

Listen:  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  While still in captivity in Babylon, while still, essentially, slaves, the Lord God has redeemed them.  Already. 

It is done.

While they are still captive.

They are not only redeemed; they are called by name, and they are God’s.

What kind of redemption is this?  They aren’t on the road home – not yet.  They are not free of the chains with which the Babylonians bound them.  They can’t just pick up their bags and baggage and head out.  What is this redemption?

This we know:  they are declared free of any reason to fear, no matter their circumstances. They are free of any reason to fear because the Lord walks among them.  No waters shall drown, no fire shall burn.

This is not a promise that no harm might be done to them; rather, it is a promise that no harm will destroy them, nothing can ever part God from them.

To be with God is to be redeemed.  To be the children of God, the heirs of the promise, is to be redeemed. 

I spoke a minute ago about being freed from the need to fear – Kathleen O’Connor has written that Isaiah’s redemption here is not “from sin,” but rather “from slavery to Babylon, from the sinful conditions of another nation’s aggrandizement.”[1]

They are freed from the sinful conditions that others have created.

They were enslaved by and to others, for the benefit of others, by the force of others, without their own desire.

Did they themselves sin?  Yes, no doubt, but they were enslaved by the sins of others.  Other people’s decisions, other people’s actions, other people’s violence had brought them to this pass. 

Babylon was acting like a colonial power, exercising force and power over others, oppressing them, and they had no say on what became of them, and no ability in themselves to resist or triumph.

Which makes me wonder, to what and by what might we be enslaved, individually, or as a community – what sins of others have thrust us into bondage?

And what sins of ours might have thrust others into bondage at our hands?  Because we have some history of national aggrandizement ourselves. 

God’s act of redemption in this passage, as in so many others, is a clear example of God’s care for the oppressed, of God’s preference for the poor.

Yes, there is a narrative in the Bible that cautions the rulers of the Israelites to avoid oppressing the people – the poor, the widows, the aliens among them, and this prophetic narrative speaks of consequences against them when they place fast and loose with their responsibilities to the people over whom they rule – even being conquered by Assyria and Babylon would fit that role.  And those consequences bring pain to all the people – rulers and ruled, abusers and abused, oppressors and oppressed – alike.

Today we heard the counter-message: when Israel is oppressed, they are redeemed from slavery, abuse, and oppression.

Any political scientist or historian can view these scriptural accounts and pull out the threads of action and consequence within Israel’s history.

We could say that one major lesson to be learned is that oppressive systems always fail at some point, usually with violence, blood, sorrow, and loss.

But even systems initially designed for equity and justice, with the best of intentions for the greatest good for the greatest number, can also fail, often spectacularly.  They fail when the people forget that all of them are responsible to replenish the oil in the lamp, as it were, to keep the light shining.  They fail when some use the power they are given for selfish ends, while others are distracted and don’t notice, or don’t refill the lamps, and slowly or quickly, those who start with less, wind up with even less than when they began – or as Jesus said somewhere, from those who have little, even that will be taken away.

When the system comes crashing down, it must be remade, renewed, reset, rebooted, even redeemed.

In these verses in Isaiah, God is renewing creation – not for the first time, and not for the last.  Remember the story of Noah – everything was reset, and Noah was blessed and told to be fruitful and multiply, just as at the creation God blessed the whole.  Another reset occurred at Babel, another with Abraham and the first hints of a people of the covenant.  Things were reset again when Moses brought the people out of Egypt.  And things were reset in Babylon, as we have read.

And things have been reset again, with the birth of the Messiah.  God’s redemption is continuous throughout the Scriptures.

God remains involved, and committed, and active, and God redeems again and again those who are captive in slavery.

Which brings us back to the question, to what are we captive?  From what do we need to be redeemed?

Every age, every nation, every community, every person should always be ready to answer those questions, and remember that God will and does redeem – us from what enslaves us, and others, whom we in some way have enslaved.

The world is turned upside down all the time.  We can look around us and see the things that bind us, or that bind others.  But it is also true that we can also look around and see God loosening the things that bind.

Today we recalled John the Baptist speaking of the Lord’s winnowing fork on the threshing floor, separating the things that give life – the wheat – and the things that give nothing – the chaff.  And that wheat is our bread, Christ the bread of life. Do you know what I say, ever so quietly, when I’m setting up at the altar? 

“Wheat once scattered will become for us the body of Christ.  Fruit of the vine once crushed will become for us the blood of Christ.  Water from the springs of earth will become for us the water of life.”

God has redeemed, is redeeming, and will redeem the world, as only God can. 


[1] “Exegesis on Isaiah 43:1-7,” Kathleen O’Connor, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1.  Kindle edition 7809.