Sermon Seed: Love and Mercy
Sunday, January 1, 2023
First Sunday after Christmas | Year A
(Liturgical Color: White)
Isaiah 63:7-9 • Psalm 148 • Hebrews 2:10-18 • Matthew 2:13-23
Love and Mercy
In These Last Days (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Circumstances change. If there is a recurrent theme of the book of Isaiah, that might be among it. The text is one of the most expansive in the biblical corpus. Its historical timeline spans generations, and most scholars agree that it really contains at least two, if not three, distinctly separate narratives. Only the Psalms have more chapters/divisions, and the prophetic words draw us back in season after season to remember, to be aware, and to consider what God has done, is doing, and will do in the future. In Isaiah, we visit and revisit a nation over several cycles even within those distinct collective narratives. This week’s focus passage is part of the last such cluster of chapters.
Context is important because it tells the story in full, forcing us to confront challenging questions, difficult realities, and plaguing circumstances. If we only read the focus passage as the lectionary presents it to us, we could consider this a wonderful moment of joyful remembrance and praise. We would be wrong, because there is so much more than that at work.
These words are situated in the last section of Isaiah. A ministry that has spanned generations, prophesied and endured multiple turmoils, and spoken truth to successive powers nears its end. These should be the glory days. The preceding chapters have resonated with hope, encouragement, and promise.
Chapters 60–62 describe the restoration of Jerusalem and its inhabitants. Jerusalem’s radiant light replaces sun and moon. Daughter Zion’s fortunes are reversed. Violence ceases. Absent from this idyllic picture is any note of the bitter divisions among the community that marked chapters 56–59. The last chapters of the BOI (63–66) return to the somber view of the state of affairs in Yehud with an additional feature. A contrast is drawn between the fates of two groups within the community. Those engaging in illegitimate ritual practices are “destined to the sword,” while God’s servants will rejoice in Jerusalem.
Chris A. Franke
Things are about to change. Without exploring the surrounding chapters, however, the text on its face seems to be a continuation of the celebratory discourse. A contextual reading informs us that these are not the words of an exultant people but a resolute declaration of praise in the midst of despair. The first verses of this chapter contain words of anger, grievance, and condemnation. The question is who is speaking and where is their wrath directed? The prophet is speaking, but who does the prophet represent? At times, in prophetic utterances, it is clear that the messenger represents God’s perspective. At other times, it is clearly the human perspective that is advocated. Then there are times when the point of view is ambiguous.
Chapter 63 begins with the appearance of a mysterious figure whose garments are splattered with the blood of Edom. God is portrayed here as a warrior who has taken vengeance against Edom, a longtime enemy of Israel. A number of commentators, offended by the violent image, deny that the wrathful warrior could be God. However, the motif of God’s wrath throughout Isaiah 57–59, and the warrior image elsewhere in TI (in 59:15b–19 and 66:14b–16), are consistent with God as an angry warrior. A major difference between these passages is that in chapter 59 God’s anger is directed against injustices within the Jerusalem community; in chapter 63, it is aimed at Israel’s enemies.
Chris A. Franke
This section of lament conveys a strong sense of lament, but rather than just the people, it seems that the Holy One also engages in lament. Why wouldn’t God lament? What is lament but an emotional response to circumstances outside of our control? If we have agency and free will, then are not our actions and attitudes outside of God’s control? Would God’s response to our lack of faith, trust, and fidelity naturally turn to words of lament?
The words uttered may seem like promises of judgment and wrath that appear at odds with the character and nature of the Holy One, who is compassionate, loving, and merciful. But a lament is not a promise, it is expression of disappointment, anger, and despair. This again seems at odds with the God who speaks in order to create. Because of that character trait, we may take all divine words as creative words. They are not. Sometimes, the Creator vents.
As do we. The intriguing interplay in this chapter is that it appears to be a joint lament session. In the relationship between the divine and the human community, both engage the prophet in pleading their case.
The words of the focus passage in some ways seem out of order from the classic progression of
Lament. Most lament begin with questioning the situation, follow by complaint, and ending with reminder of God’s faithfulness. This section upends the journey of lament. Assurance comes first.
The remaining chapters consist of a lament in which people bemoan the loss of God’s help (63:7–64:12), and God’s response to their desperate pleas (65:1–15). Jerusalem’s destiny is portrayed in chapter 66 in surprising and graphic images of reward for the faithful and punishment for the intransigent reprobates.
In the lament, people again remind God of unfulfilled promises. The tone of their complaints reaches a desperate pitch. They ask: Where is the one who led Moses through the sea? Where is your zeal and your might, your compassion? They blame God for hardening their hearts and causing them to sin. Still suffering from the loss of their nation and their temple, they ask, “Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (64:12). God speaks in self-defense, asserting that though “I held out my hands all day long” (65:2), rebellious people angered God with idolatrous rituals. God warns them that they will receive full payment for their actions and promises to destine them to slaughter (65:1–15).
Chris A. Franke
These few verses provide assurance without current evidence. The prophet looks back to God’s past action, commitment, and steadfastness. The prophet reminds the people and commits to remembering as a faithful response in any and all circumstances.
Most laments hold the question of where is God in the center of their questioning and crying out in hopelessness and distress. Isaiah reminds the people to remember that God is present and empathetic. God shares their distress, which makes this dialogical and shared lament entirely appropriate. The Holy One journeys with the people so closely that they mirror and echo emotional response.
Lament assumes a level of abandonment or betrayal of promises. Isaiah reminds them that the Sovereign One does not function that way. God suffers with them (compassion) because the essence of God is love and mercy.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
God’s Love: A Paradox
–Kelly Brown Douglas, Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter
“Ours is a faith tradition with a crucified Savior at its center. It is time that we take that seriously.” This is a refrain I often repeat in gatherings of white church leaders as they wrestle with what this time of racial reckoning means for them, yet just do not seem to get it. During such gatherings, these leaders often express an uncertainty regarding how to really support the Black Lives Matter protests and the impact such protests have on their communities. They admit to being unsettled by the “unrelenting indignation” expressed by the Black protesters. After all, as one faith leader said, “Jesus calls us to love even our enemies. I’m wrestling with what that means in this time.” He went on to explain that “God calls us to love everybody,” which means, he continued, “that all lives really do matter,” yet he did not know how to express this, for he understood the importance of affirming that Black lives mattered. He was in a quandary.
This particular clergyperson was not alone in his dilemma concerning the meaning of God’s love when it comes to the Black Lives Matter protests. This has been said to me in varied ways during my numerous conversations with white clergy who have invited me into conversation because they do in fact take seriously their call to racial justice. In other words, these are the good white Christians. What I have come to recognize is that their quandaries are rooted in a white gaze that cannot grasp the paradox that is intrinsic to the very love of God.
The love of God as revealed in Jesus, who is nothing less than the perfect incarnate manifestation of God’s love in the world, is a “dynamic transcendent force” that moves through human history. God enters into the “messiness” of human reality to show forth the meaning of God’s love. In a sense, this is the paradox of the divine/human encounter itself—it reflects a God entering into solidarity with humanity—taking on the human struggle in all of its complexities in order to show the way toward God’s just future, what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God” and Martin Luther King Jr. called the “Beloved Community.” This is a way of love. The full measure of God’s incarnate love is found in the cross. It is through the cross that the paradoxes which define God’s love are definitively disclosed. These are paradoxes that maintain God’s utter solidarity with the crucified classes of people. It is these very paradoxes that the binary oppositional white gaze cannot take in—hence the virtual silence of good white Christians when it comes to the complicated issues surrounding the Black struggle.
For further reflection
“I hope you remember that you always have a place to hide, away from the noise of the world, away from all that dares to wound your heart. You can always hide within the merciful heart of God.” ― Jocelyn Soriano
“In times of oppression, bury the quality of mercy deep inside, so that your oppressor’s brutality can never damage it or you. Once free, bring this hidden shard of humanity back into your heart again and live the life denied to you.” ― Stewart Stafford
“Be noble like the sun; let even those who resent you for shinning benefit from your warmth.” ― Matshona Dhliwayo
Franke, Chris A. “Isaiah 40-66.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Engage the faith community in a time of remembering God’s love and mercy through testimony.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Isaiah 63:7-9 • Psalm 148 • Hebrews 2:10-18 • Matthew 2:13-23
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=8