[Listen to the sermon here.]
I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Over the course of the past month, it seems like we’ve had a funeral every week. And the persons we’ve lost range from those who have lived long, full lives to those who are too soon gone. The pain of loss and grief has cast a long shadow over St. Luke’s during these past weeks. Not only family and friends of the deceased, but all of us as one family in Christ have been affected.
At the same time, I’ve seen this church family live out our mission of caring for one another and bringing others closer to God through Jesus Christ in simple but very powerful ways. From sending food or flowers, to serving as ushers and lay ministers, to hosting visitations, to offering hugs and words of comfort and condolence, members of St. Luke’s have been the hands and feet and loving heart of Jesus Christ to those who mourn. I can’t begin to tell you how profoundly grateful I am to all of you who selflessly step up to the plate of loving service to our hurting brothers and sisters.
Those little acts of love and kindness are effective reminders that in the midst of death, loss, and grief, we who belong to Jesus Christ have reason to hope. It’s true that we live in a Good Friday world. The forces of death and decay seem to get the last word. But as baptized sons and daughters of God, we are Easter people who know that when those who belong to Jesus die, life has changed, not ended. And we know that God has a vision of transformation, not just for individual persons who depart this life, but for the whole of creation.
Today’s reading from the 35th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah gives us a brief glimpse of this vision of transformation. But to really get the full impact of what we’ve heard our lector read today, it helps to know that the 35th chapter of Isaiah is directly connected to the 34th chapter of Isaiah. And the 34th chapter of Isaiah makes for disturbing reading. As one commentator notes, Isaiah chapter 34 “paints a verbal portrait of despair” “in which the heavens disappear, the land is ruined, streams and soil are poisoned, and only liminal animals and fruitless plants abound.” It’s a vision of utter desolation. It’s a vision of judgment and death that casts a long shadow of fear. It’s a vision of a world without hope.
But then we come to Isaiah chapter 35 and all of a sudden the desert blossoms with new growth and breaks out in joyful song. We’ve moved from judgment, suffering, and death to rejoicing, singing, and healing. It’s a dramatic reversal. And it all hits home with these powerful words:
“Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.’” (Is 35:4)
Say to those whose hearts have been troubled by death, loss, and grief: Be strong. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid. For God is coming to save His people. God is coming to claim His authority as the world’s true Lord. God is coming to bring exiles back home. God is coming to heal the sick and the brokenhearted. God is coming to free those held in bondage. God is coming to bring light into darkness and new life out of death.
Isaiah presents us with a beautiful vision of salvation that is far bigger than saving individual souls. For this is a cosmic vision of redemption. It embraces the entirety of creation.
In the beginning, God created the world and said, “Behold, it is very good.” But then Adam and Eve’s disobedience brought death into the world. God’s good creation was held in bondage to death and subject to decay. God’s people were alienated from the source of life and from one another. But in Isaiah’s vision of transformation, God promises to do something decisive. God promises to set the world right by bringing justice, healing, and peace. God promises to redeem a sin-sick creation by ushering in a new creation.
The promise is there. But it hasn’t fully happened yet. As we know only too well from all the funerals we’ve had lately, we still live in a fallen world subject to the forces of death and decay. We still live in a world in which loss and grief weigh on our hearts and souls.
When we shift gears from the book of Isaiah to the Gospel according to Mark, we see what a fallen world looks like. For in Mark’s gospel the world is a dark place. People are held in bondage to forces beyond their control, including demonic powers that make them hurt themselves and those they love. Sickness ravages and lays waste to people’s bodies. Physical deformities and disabilities kick people to the sidelines of society, marginalizing them and forcing them to live hand to mouth off of the pity of those who might throw them a coin or a piece of bread. Religious authorities categorize people as either religiously pure or unclean, with the clear message to those deemed unclean that they are beyond the scope of God’s love and care.
This is a world in which hope is a luxury for those who are fortunate enough to be healthy, prosperous, and part of the religious in-group. But in the end, even they must go the way of all flesh.
So much has changed since Mark wrote his gospel. We have iPhones and the Internet. We have instantaneous communication with people all over the world. We have medical advances that prolong our lives.
But almost 2,000 years later so much remains the same. We still live in a broken and fallen world.
And yet, our faith as Christians has the power to calm fearful hearts and banish weakness by giving us the strength to face whatever life throws our way. We can live without fear because God has come near to us in Jesus Christ to heal and to save.
We see it happening in today’s Gospel reading. Impressed by the wit and tenacity of a mother pleading for her daughter, Jesus frees the girl from demonic possession. Once there was no hope. But now there is freedom, new life, and a future to look forward to. And moved by compassion, Jesus heals a deaf mute, giving him the gift of fullness of life and the capacity to be a contributing member of society.
Such exorcisms and healings occur throughout Mark’s Gospel. They serve as signs that in and through Jesus, God’s kingdom is breaking into this world. For Jesus comes to heal us, opening our ears to hear the words of life, opening our eyes to see the beautiful truth of God’s love and mercy, and opening our lips to proclaim praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done for us.
Every time we gather for the Eucharist, we say together the following words that sum up the great mystery of our faith:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
These three short sentences sum up the reasons why we can live with confidence and newness of life even in the midst of the most trying circumstances.
For Christ has died. On the cross, he has shared in our sufferings to the point of losing everything, including life itself. He knows what that’s like because it happened to him. And he did it because he loves us.
Christ is risen. Emerging from the tomb, he has triumphed over all the forces of evil over which you and I have no control. And because God raised Jesus from the dead, he has transformed death into a doorway to eternal life. And he did it because he loves us.
Christ will come again. He will never abandon us. He will make sure that all things are put right and made whole. He will take us to be with him and all those we love but see no longer. And he will do that because he loves us.
Even if the whole world feels like it’s falling apart, God is with us. Even in the face of things we cannot understand and that threaten to overwhelm, God is with us. Even when we’re at the end of our rope and we cannot see the way forward, God is with us. For in Jesus Christ, the love of God holds us secure and guarantees that we have a future of abundant life.
God’s love in Jesus Christ is eternal. Nothing we can ever do or fail to do can take that love away from us. Nothing in all creation can separate us from that love. Ultimately, the love of God in Jesus Christ is the only thing that really matters. It’s the one constant in the midst of the changes and chances of this life. And it’s that love that enables us to boldly say with the prophet Isaiah:
“Be strong, do not fear!
“Here is your God.”