This week, I read a short description of the experience Bryan Wilkerson had running the New York City Marathon. Perhaps, it’s a story that might seem far from our current circumstances, with the cold temperatures and snow that we’ve experienced over the last few days. My hope is that you might imagine with me his experience in a time of greater warmth moving around this city.
Bryan describes the first half of the New York City Marathon as a party. The runner is “swept along” by thousands of runners and the many people lining the streets of this city. He or she is able to see the ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. The excitement of beginning the race, the encouragement of the crowds, and the view of the city makes one feel as though she or he could run forever.
At mile 13, however, the runner crosses over into Manhattan and starts heading north and away from the finish line. The crowds are thinner, and the party is now over. At mile 16 or 18, Bryan describes how runners hit a wall and misery sets in. The runner is physically and psychologically exhausted. I suspect this distance varies for people. Not having run a marathon, I fear this might be much earlier for me.
Bryan describes passing one of the first-aid stations where runners lay on cots — “pale and gaunt, with IVs dripping into their arms.” Having dropped into misery, he remembers thinking, “Those lucky dogs.” Despair set in. He imagined having to go home to tell everyone he didn’t finish and questioning why he ever signed-up for the race. That’s when he realized he had to get to Central Park. He had no other means with him — no other mode of transportation and no money. His feet would have to carry him to the finish line. He just had to put one foot in front of the other and make his way there. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot… He was focused not on the miles remaining but on the immediate task — the next step.
Then, he found himself at the finish line and it felt like glory. He had mastered the race!
I imagine the Israelites in the periods of the author of the book of Isaiah felt like they were running a marathon at times. Isaiah, son of Amoz, lived during the later 700s, B.C., and during the time of the Assyrian invasions of Israel and Judah. Assyria had plans to conquer regions west of Assyria including Syria, Israel, and Judah. After the kings of Israel and Syria were unsuccessful at enlisting the king of Judah to go to war against Syria, Israel and Syria went to war against Judah to install someone who would be more willing to pursue their interests. Judah turned to Assyria for help and became a vassal of Assyria as a result. Assyria would become successful in conquering Syria, and even Israel would fall in about 722 B.C. When some in Israel rose up against Assyria, Assyria would take over the cities surrounding Jerusalem. Under Assyrian rule, Israel was emptied of many of its residents. Israelites were taken into Assyria and made captives. They learned to live as members of the communities to which they had been taken.
Assyria would not maintain its power, however. By 612, Assyria would be conquered by the Babylonians. In 605, even Egypt would be conquered, and Judah would be entirely under Babylonian control. After the king in Judah challenged Babylonian rule, Babylon would invade Judah in 586 and destroy both Jerusalem and the Temple. Now, many would be exiled from Judah. Babylon had become the prevailing empire in that day.
Babylon, also, would not maintain its power. The Persian empire rose in power in the 500s B.C., and by 539, Babylon was conquered by Persia. The king of Persia allowed the Hebrews to return to Judah, and they rebuilt Jerusalem, its wall, and the Temple.
This is approximately the period of which this part of the book of Isaiah addresses. Many of the exiles have returned, but Israel and Judah have not been fully restored. It has been, perhaps, roughly a couple centuries since the first Israelites were exiled. Multiple generations have lived in exile, and the Israelites have struggled to remember the stories of what life was once like in Israel and Judah. The exiles who had returned had never known this land or this life. Anxiety was high. They may not have been focusing on putting one foot before the other but upon placing one stone upon another in rebuilding the city. They likely felt a bit like the marathoner somewhere in Manhattan without view of Central Park.
Before this passage, God spoke through the prophet. “Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; but you shall be called priests to the Lord … you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory.” God was promising them that a nation that had been in exile for centuries would be served by others as they took the role of priests or ministers. God still planned to use the Hebrews to reach the nations. The prophet was conveying hope to the returned exiles. God had not permanently turned his back to them.
The message was certainly one of hope, but it was initially only words to a nation that had been living in a different land with other gods. A people to whom God had seemed silent for centuries.
Despite this, the prophet finds reason to rejoice in verse 10 saying, “I will rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.” In the Hebrew, it’s actually repeated. One might translate it as “I will rejoice, I will rejoice” or “I will be glad, I will be glad.” It’s not a grudging claim that the prophet will rejoice, it’s with emphasis. As stated, the author’s whole being will participate. It’s all encompassing, overwhelming! It takes over the author’s entire physical body!
The author gives rationale for this feeling, “for [God] has clothed me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” Just as when spring comes, and life springs forth from the garden with various shoots, “so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”
The prophet does not simply wait for God to complete his work. The author’s joy and gladness lead to action: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. Continuing, he notes the nations will recognize this, and the kings will see Zion’s glory. The Lord will even give Zion a new name! Israel will be made new, and the nations will recognize her. Even in the “hand of the Lord,” Zion “shall be a crown of beauty… and a royal diadem” or a royal headband.
The prophet is overwhelmed with exuberance, acts in response and expects Zion will receive the attention and respect of the nations once again!
Israel would not realize this full expectation, however. While Jerusalem and the Temple would be rebuilt, Jerusalem would remain under the authority of the Persians. The Hebrews would have opportunity during this time, but they would not gain complete independence. Alexander the Great would conquer the region around 322 B.C. The Romans would first intervene in the region around 63 B.C. and take control of Jerusalem after a few short decades of independence for the Maccabees.
Under Roman rule, there was great anticipation for a Messiah, and it is during this period of anticipation that Jesus is born and presented in the temple as attested in our New Testament passage. Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple and presented him to the Lord as required by the law of Moses. It was expected that the first-born male would be designated as holy to the Lord. They offered a sacrifice of “two turtledoves or two young pigeons,” which was the sacrifice allowed someone who was poor.
Simeon was “righteous and devout”, the “Holy Spirit rested on him,” and he looked forward to the comfort of Israel in these disappointing circumstances. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and on this day, he was guided by the Holy Spirit to come to the Temple. When Mary and Joseph arrived with Jesus, Simeon took Jesus into his arms proclaiming, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Simeon recognized that Jesus is God’s salvation for both the Gentiles and the people of Israel. The descendant of King David would bring glory to the people of Israel and be a light for the Gentiles. We, as Christians, recognize this as the fulfillment of the prophesy of Isaiah. Through Jesus, Israel is vindicated, and Israel’s salvation shines out “like a burning torch.”
Perhaps, Simeon had begun to doubt at times whether he would see the Messiah. Perhaps he was at mile 16 or 18, and he had begun to wonder whether it would ever happen. But on this day, I imagine Simeon rejoicing as Isaiah had committed himself to do. He had seen the Messiah; the one for which he has been waiting had finally arrived. He could see the comfort to Israel was arriving in these challenging circumstances; Israel would be made known again.
Anna was similarly excited. A widow of old age, she had been worshipping in the temple constantly — fasting and praying “night and day.” As Simeon prophesied of Jesus’ life, Anna came “and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” It seemed Anna could not hold in her joy; she also was rejoicing!
This is the season of the church calendar in which we find ourselves. As with Simeon and Anna and with far more understanding than Isaiah, we have every reason to rejoice! Jesus Christ, the Messiah, has been born! The Divine, something outside this world, outside our imagination, even outside the imaginations of Isaiah, Simeon, and Anna, OUR CREATOR, has broken into this world and become one of us. The Divine can understand our experience and can advocate for us as one of us. We can understand God in ways no one before our Lord walked this earth could understand God, because we have the revelation of Jesus Christ — of God — walking on earth as human! The Kingdom of Heaven — the Kingdom of God — is here!
We could leave this message at this climax, but I think often we hear these words and we celebrate for a time — until our eyes seem to tell us something else. Isaiah writes that as “the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” This idea of righteousness springing up “before all the nations,” might seem hard to imagine when nations are at war, when fire engulfs a five story building in the Bronx taking the lives of twelve, when children starve in South Sudan, when ethnic cleansing happens in several nations, and when the divide between rich and poor seems to be widening in most of the world. How do we possibly reconcile these two concepts?
It is by realizing that we are in the time between the times. The shoots in spring do not grow in an instant. They take time. They germinate, they grow through the soil — hidden from our eyes, and, then, they begin to poke through the soil ever so slightly. We begin to see their presence, and we celebrate. Not all shoots grow at once. Daffodils and tulips come early. Lilacs and peonies come later. Eventually, though, the land is covered with greenery and beautiful flowers. Spring arrives over time and so should we expect righteousness to arrive over time. God has begun God’s work in our world to create the world that will be righteous, and we can find glimpses of these shoots developing. God, further, invites us to participate in God’s work to bring righteousness and to eliminate injustice.
This congregation, though, also finds itself in a time between the times. You have experienced the retirement of a long-time pastor in Rev. Dr. Fred Anderson and you anticipate a new senior pastor. Not unlike other congregations in the United States and in Europe, this congregation has experienced declining membership and income. After seasons developing a mission review and searching for a new senior pastor, many of you here today, the Sunday after Christmas, may be exhausted. You may feel you’ve hit mile 13, and the crowds have diminished, or, perhaps, you feel you’ve hit mile 16. I warn you not to slip into disappointment or despair. As you are here today, you are some of the most dedicated members of this fellowship. Some of you may feel like you’ve been running a marathon through this period!
I’m confident God has not stopped speaking to this congregation. God continues to speak through the scriptures and through the Holy Spirit. In hearing limited reports from the Pastor Nominating Committee, as many of you have heard in the stewardship gatherings, the PNC continues to hear God’s voice as it seeks the next senior pastor. They have expressed excitement about where they are in the process. I have had the true opportunity and blessing to teach children from Kindergarten through Second Grade in our Kids Club program, and their answers assure me that God is continuing to speak to them. This congregation continues to spread the Good News of the Gospel in its outreach programs and African partnerships, and I continue to be excited to see what you will do in the years ahead. I attend Bible studies with some of you and hear your insights guided by the Holy Spirit. I’m impressed by the reservoir of leadership and of scriptural knowledge that you have within this fellowship. I sense that God is preparing this congregation for good work — for big work — here in New York City and in the world.
I, with you, anticipate your calling of a new senior pastor. It will be a new senior pastor led by God in unique ways. She or he will bring new insights, new excitement, new dreams, new discernment, and new practices in time. If this congregation is prepared by God for new things — poised to shoot out from the ground, this transition will bring new things. That will be uncomfortable at times, but God has been working to prepare you for that challenge. My hope is that you start to see the blocks in the approach to Central Park — that the excitement builds and is quickly fulfilled.
Prepare for this, but also prepare for the larger plan of which this congregation is a part. Rejoice, REJOICE in the Lord! Let your whole being show this jubilation even before it is fully realized. Do not keep silent! Do not fall into a slumber! Tell all the world the Good News! The Savior of the world has been born! God has come to earth to reconcile all people to one another and to God! He has begun a new work in this congregation and in this world. The shoots have begun to grow. Righteousness and justice are sprouting into this world! You are invited to be a force of righteousness and justice, and, one day, the work Jesus is doing in this world and the work God has called us to do will be complete. We will look around this world, and it will be a new earth as winter turns to spring!
In the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SIGNIFICANT SOURCES REFERENCED
Bartlett, David L., and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B. Vol. 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 40–66. Edited by Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
Coogan, Michael David, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: With the Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Geldenhuys, Norval. Commentary on the Gospel of Luke: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes. The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952.
Larson, Craig Brian, and Phyllis Ten Elshof. 1001 Illustrations That Connect. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2008.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.
Watts, John D. W. Isaiah 34–66. Revised Edition. Vol. 25. Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2005.
 Larson, 419.
 Isaiah 61:5, NRSV.
 Isaiah 61:10, NRSV.
 Isaiah 61:10-11, NRSV.
 Isaiah 62:1-3, NRSV.
 Luke 2:22-24, NRSV.
 Luke 2:25-32, NRSV.
 Isaiah 62:1, NRSV.
 Isaiah 62:36-38, NRSV.
 Isaiah 61:11, NRSV.