14th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Isaiah 51:1-6
Title: “You Are Who You Were”
I’m probably alone in this, but for me, filling out the 2000 Census was a profoundly spiritual experience. It gave me a chance to answer a lot of questions about myself, and I don’t just mean the questions the government asked.
It’s like this: I’ve known, for my entire life, that I am part Native American. Approximately three and a half percent, according to my dad. My grandfather used to joke that he was just Indian enough to say, “Get off my land!” But I didn’t know much about the rest of my heritage, so I started asking questions and doing research.
What I learned didn’t surprise me as much as I thought it would. I’ve always been surrounded by people who took great pride in their ethnic backgrounds, people who were able to call themselves “something-Americans.” Maybe they were Irish, maybe German, maybe Norwegian, maybe African, but they always knew who they were. And I envied them, because I didn’t really know who I was. I just knew I wanted to be a “hyphen-American” like everybody else I knew.
Turns out that’s an impossibility for me. I am a coalition, in the sense that I can’t claim to be a majority of anything. I’m British, Irish, Scottish, German, Norwegian, Danish, Cherokee, and not just a little bit undetermined. The only accurate heritage I can claim for myself is “American.” I’m not from somewhere else. I am part of so many different groups, I can only honestly claim to be from here.
But at least now I know. There’s a great freedom that comes from having all these questions answered. Learning where I came from gave me a better sense of who I am now. But until I realized that my personal history was bigger than just my own life, I never really felt comfortable in my own skin.
I doubt that I’m alone in lacking a sense of personal history. We live in a culture that, for the last fifty years or so, has taught us to question authority and challenge the wisdom of the ages. But it never prepared us for the possibility that the ages may have been right about a lot of things. The assumption has always been that whatever is old, whatever came before us, is useless. It cannot possibly speak to times and complicated as ours or to people as complicated as us.
Think I’m kidding? Let’s try an experiment. Finish this phrase: “New and . . .”
Now, I know you’re saying, “So what? I’ve heard the phrase ‘new and improved’ in a billion commercials. What does that prove?” It proves firstly that the words are linked forever inside your mind. But deep down, you’ve also linked the ideas. If something is new, there’s a natural tendency to assume that it is also better. After all, we thought of it, and aren’t we better than the people who came before us? I remember an ad for a corn remover which started off with a woman asking “Are you still using your grandmother’s corn remover?” The implication was clear: what worked from Grandma cannot possibly work for you. But here’s something new, and since it’s new, it must be better.
So our sense of personal history is lacking. It seems that we all believe the world never existed before us, and it won’t remain after we’re gone. In all of history, there’s only us, and a bunch of stories about dead people.
Why does this matter? Who cares who we were? I can’t live yesterday, and I’m not sure what will happen tomorrow, so what is wrong with only living for today?
The problem is that living without a sense of history cuts off from something important. More specifically, it cuts us off from God.
Our reading from Isaiah today explains why this is so. The prophet’s words are directed at the people of Israel during the time when they were held captive by the Babylonians. God permitted his people to be carried off as punishment for their willingness to follow other gods. The people in captivity quickly saw their sin and began to despair of whether God would ever be gracious and merciful to them again. Carried hundreds of miles from home and made to act as slaves to a cruel and immoral people, it would be easy to give up hope. And if you became convinced that this was the just punishment of an angry God, that hopelessness would only grow worse.
But Isaiah would have none of that. He brings the word of the Lord to the people in exile, pointing out that their Babylonian exile was only a temporary thing. It’s one thing to proclaim hope, though, and something else entirely to get anyone to believe it.
So how can Isaiah break through the noise and get his message out? How can the people of Israel hear God’s mercy while they are in the midst of experiencing God’s judgment? Isaiah knows the answer: He appeals to history.
“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth.”
Isaiah does not bother explaining who Abraham and Sarah are. His listeners knew who Abraham and Sarah were. They knew they could claim to be children of Abraham and Sarah. They knew they themselves were the fulfillment of the promise spoken of in verse 2 or our reading: “When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many.” (You can read that story in Genesis 12 if you’re not up to speed on that promise.” They knew all these things because they had been taught them from birth. Part of their very identity as people was based on the fact that they were the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham, the promise to make him into a great nation. They knew all this. They had simply become so preoccupied with their own pain, with the unique struggles of their times, that they had forgotten. They had forgotten the great lengths God had gone to in the past to protect and provide for his people: the plagues that struck Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the driving out of the Canaanites from the promised land . . . everything that God had done, the great interventions he made, simply to keep a promise he had made to one man. They could have—and should have—seen from their own history that they were not being abandoned now; they were merely being corrected. By appealing to Israel’s sense of personal history, Isaiah was able to speak louder than the noise of weeping and gnashing of teeth. He spoke loud enough that the Word of God could be heard by people who really needed to hear it.
To be able to use that historically conditioned sense of hope, you need only two things: you need a history, and you need to believe that that history applies to you.
So that may be well and good for the exiles of the Old Testament, but what about us? We barely have a sense of history that reaches back as far as our own births. What are we supposed to do, just remain hopeless? We don’t have a tradition that reaches back hundreds of years before our own birth. Heck, in our culture, anything ten years old is considered to be hopelessly outdated! Where are we supposed to find this great, powerful sense of history that seems to give us so much hope?
How about the same place the exiled Israelites found it—in Abraham?
You see, that promise made to Abraham about a thousand years before the birth of Christ is still being fulfilled today—in us. We, too, are children of that promise. Through faith and baptism, we are adopted into the chosen people. We are part of God’s family. So Abraham’s story is our story too. And the great and mighty acts of God in Old Testament history should give us hope as well. God will do anything necessary to keep his promise to Abraham. And we, too, are children of that promise.
We have to understand, all of us, that even though we seem determined that true wisdom did not exist until we arrived, and may not survive our departure, because of the promise made to Abraham and because of our adoption into God’s family through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, the Bible’s story is our story. The history of what God has done in the past tells us what we need to know about our present and our future. But that can only be a comfort to us if we know that history and claim it as our own. This is why the Bible still matters. This is why we have to have Scripture in our hands, as often as possible. This is why we Christians do not have the luxury of thinking that our wisdom is the last word on all things. God is still acting on a three-thousand-year-old promise, even today. Whatever it is that troubles us, whatever temptations or dangers that beset us, the way out is found in knowing the Bible’s proclamation of hope—hope that is shown by God’s actions and God’s tenacity in keeping the promise made to Abraham. The whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments, shows the great lengths God is willing to go to in order to keep his word—whether we are faithful to that word or not. We can see, by looking at the history in the Bible, that our times are not unique in the sense that God’s promise has not faded, has not diminished, and has certainly not been rescinded. That’s where we can find hope for difficult days, secure in the knowledge that God will always act to preserve his people.
But we have to think historically. We have to be willing to be part of something much bigger and much, much older, than any of us individually. We have to be willing to let the Bible’s story be our story as well. It is only by learning who we were that we can understand who we are—and have a sense of where we’re going. Amen.