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The Gospel for our Dark Places

A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on February 27, 2011.
Isaiah 49:8-16

Zion’s Children to Be Brought Home

8 Thus says the Lord: In a time of favour I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people,* to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; ¨9 saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out’, to those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’ They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights* shall be their pasture; ¨10 they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, ¨for he who has pity on them will lead them, ¨and by springs of water will guide them. ¨11 And I will turn all my mountains into a road, ¨and my highways shall be raised up. ¨12 Lo, these shall come from far away, ¨and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene.*13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! ¨For the Lord has comforted his people, ¨and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

14 But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’ ¨15 Can a woman forget her nursing-child, ¨or show no compassion for the child of her womb? ¨Even these may forget, ¨yet I will not forget you. ¨16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;

Lillian Daniel, Senior Minister of First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, shared the following pastoral perspective on the passage we read from Isaiah 49.

When I was visiting a prisoner at the local jail, upon entering I realized that nobody knew where I was.  As I walked down the long hall to the visitor’s booth and was locked in myself, I realized that I was at the mercy of the guards.  They had spoken crossly to me and had chastised me for forgetting to leave my bag behind.  When they barked at me through the speaker in the tinted glass, I was frightened.  I did not want them to be angry with me.  I waited for a long time for the person I was visiting to arrive.  Without a bag, I had nothing to do.  There was nothing to read, no calendar to check—just me, locked up and waiting, with no time line.  Suddenly I realized the obvious.  I was getting the smallest possible taste of prison life.  I felt trapped in darkness, hidden away where no one could see me.  The seventy-two-year-old woman I was visiting told me that that was what she felt every minute of every day:  invisible, bored, trapped, and out of the sight of the world.

There are more than 2 million people locked in jails and prisons across the United States every day like the seventy-two-year-old woman Lillian Daniels visited.  These people live in dark places.  Michelle Alexander has called the mass incarceration phenomenon in the United States “The New Jim Crow.”

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), 12 million older Americans would have needed long term care by 2010.  Most of them received care at home with family members and friends being the sole caregivers.  According to the Agency for Healthcare Policy and Research (AHCPR), four out every ten people reaching age 65 will use a nursing home at some point in their lives, and many will need home care and other related services.   Younger populations will need long-term care services also for conditions such as diabetes, AIDS, mental health problems, disabilities, Alzheimer’s Disease, and other conditions.  People with long-term care needs, like the woman Lillian Daniels visited in her local jail, live in dark places.  So do the people who provide their care. 

We are surrounded by people who live in dark places.  They include family members of military personnel deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, people trying to rebuild their lives after personal losses such as breakup of a marriage or other long-term relationship, and people struggling to make ends meet every day as the nation and world works through the recession.  People struggling with addiction live in dark places.  Many people of various ages, situations, and backgrounds are going through dark seasons of insecurity, fear of rejection, personal doubt, grief, and inner conflict.  

And in every case the same question arises.  What is God’s word for my situation?

God calls and sends people of light and hope to dark places.   The passage from Isaiah 49 begins at verses 8 and 9 with God speaking about answering, helping, and sending a chosen person “…as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”  This passage has traditionally been understood to refer to the ministry of the Suffering Servant, a foreshadowing of Messiah Jesus.  Recall that Jesus announced the beginning of his public ministry by declaring that the Spirit of God had anointed him for ministry to poor, oppressed, bruised, and abandoned people (Luke 4:18-19). 

Jesus was shining the light and hope of divine love on the human situation throughout his ministry.  His ministry of healing and preaching touched people mired in the dark places of chronic disease, social and political oppression, religious insensitivity and hypocrisy, and personal despair. 

God knows we live in dark places.  God knows we need light and hope.  God knows we become prisoners to dark situations, either situations we produce for ourselves or situations that are forced on us.  And Scripture declares that God commissions and dispatches agents of light and hope to humanity in the dark places.  The Exodus reveals how Moses was dispatched to lead the Hebrew people from the dark place of Egyptian slavery, and how Joshua was commissioned to lead the people into Canaan after Moses died.  David was commissioned to lead the young nation to in the face of military threats.  The prophets were commissioned to challenge and encourage the political and religious leaders and the societies they governed during periods of insecurity and exile.   Jesus was commissioned to embody God’s grace and truth and show what it does to transform our world.

The issue for followers of Jesus is whether to obey God’s call and the example of Jesus by becoming agents of light and hope to people in dark places.  Jesus came to our world and spoke to the dark places of our living.  If we are following Jesus, we must go into dark places as divine agents of God’s call, challenge, and encouragement to people.

The call to follow Jesus is a call to be an agent of light and hope in dark places.  That first makes it a call to go to dark places.  We are called to enter into fellowship with people going through dark place experiences.  We are called to journey to their situation and shine God’s light.  We are called to journey into the gloom of their experiences and be agents of God’s hope.  We are called to be present with people in dark places as Jesus was present in our world—as God’s agents of salvation, light, and hope.

This call is central to the vocation of following Jesus and the role of the Church.  As followers of Jesus, we are to be present with people walking through dark valleys of sorrow and grief.  We are to be present with people struggling through the pain of broken relationships.  We are to be present with people who care for loved ones with long term care needs, and we are to be present with the long term care patients.  Jesus made this mandate to be divinely present clear in Matthew 25.  We are called to be divine agents of light and hope to people in dark places. 

God calls and sends us to help move people from dark places.  The passage from Isaiah also shows that God calls us to do more than be holy sympathizers with people living through dark place experiences.  Verses 11 and 12 of Isaiah 49 speak of God changing mountains into a road and highways that people in dark places can travel. 

Exiled people live in dark places, and the people of Israel had been living as exiles away from their homeland.  God’s promise was that they would return and that God would create avenues for that return.  This is the meaning at verse 11 where we read God speaking about turning “…all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up.”

God has not merely promised personal salvation to us in our dark places.  God promises to transform the terrain that separates us from where God would have us dwell.  We must not forget that many people are trapped by systemic roadblocks and mountains.  Their dark places are made more oppressive because systems exist to block their way out.  People who have been convicted of felonies find it extremely difficult to get out of the shadows of a system that denies them the opportunity to live in public housing or obtain public financial assistance to attend school. 

God calls us to be divinely present with people in their dark places, but we’re also called to be part of God’s plan to bring people out of those dark places.  We’re called to be mountain movers and road makers.  We’re called to knock down obstacles and smooth out rough areas and systems and policies and practices that hinder people from coming out of dark places and into God’s light.  We’re called to be more than sympathizers.  We’re called to be activists! 

Sadly, too many people seem unable or unwilling to accept God’s call to become activists on behalf of people living in dark places.  And when some activists show up to challenge and restructure systems that keep people in dark places, religious people are often found defending the oppressive systems rather than helping dismantle them.  Religious people defended slavery, fought efforts to secure voting rights for black people and women, and are fierce opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment.  Religious people are largely responsible for preventing same sex couples from having their loving and committed relationships recognized by civil unions or marriage.  Whereas God speaks in Isaiah 49:11 of turning mountains into a road and highways on which people in exile can return home, often people in dark places find their paths blocked by people who claim to be acting in God’s name to keep them living in the shadows.

God has not simply called us to be prayer partners with people in dark places.  We’re also called to be social, political, economic, and cultural activists who change the terrain that defines their living.  We’re called to be bridge-builders, mountain movers, and road makers.  We’re called to be systemic activists because systems operate to keep people in dark places.

God calls and sends us to declare that people in dark places are part of God.  Verse 14 of Isaiah 49 reads:  But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”  As the woman Lillian Daniel visited in prison indicated, living in a dark place carries a deep sense of being alone, ignored, neglected, deserted, forgotten, and trapped.  People in dark places feel trapped in their circumstances of their poverty and trapped by the systems that support those circumstances. 

And if we’re honest, many of us have lived through moments when we thought we had been forgotten.  And sometimes we are forgotten.  Sometimes our loved ones get tired of the darkness.  Sometimes they decide to move on without us.  Sometimes they decide they don’t want to keep struggling with us.  They’ve been disappointed too many times.  They decide not to invest their hopes and energies in us anymore.  They decide to leave us in the darkness, move onward, and forget about us. 

God knows this is true.  So we read at verse 15:  Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.God knows, as we do, that a woman can forget her nursing child.  God knows, as we do, that a woman can show no compassion for the child of her womb.  Sometimes our closest relatives are un-loving, spiteful, and cruel.  Sometimes they just get tired, give up on us, and decide to move on. 

But God will not forget us.  God will not abandon us.  God will not give up on us.  At verse 16 we read, See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.  God has marked Godself with us!  God has made us unforgettable with God.  God will not forget us no matter how far we fall, how dark the places are that we inhabit, or how long we’ve been there.   God knows our uprising and our down-sitting.  God knows when we’re tired of being tired and everybody around us is tired of us.  God won’t forget us when loved ones become too busy to phone, write, or visit us.  God won’t forget us even when we can’t remember who we’re supposed to be, who God wants us to be, or who we hoped we’d become.   I will not forget you, is God’s Exclamation Point for our dark places.

The God who didn’t forget the descendants of Abraham in Egypt won’t forget us.  The God who didn’t forget Jesus on Calvary and in the tomb won’t forget us.  The God who doesn’t forget will send agents of hope and light to our dark places.  The God who doesn’t forget will send activists to remove mountains and build highways out of dark places so we can return to God’s fellowship.   The activists and social justice reformers in every age prove that God will not forget us.  They show that God will not abandon us.  Yes, they show that God will deliver us.  And God calls us to join Jesus and them with God in delivering people from dark places. 

This is why St. Paul (who knew a thing or two about dark place experiences) could confidently say “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”