January 20, 2013
For some time now the United Church of Christ has been telling people, “God is still speaking.” When the ground isn’t frozen, we put a little sign out in our little front lawn on Sunday mornings telling passersby just that: “God is still speaking.”
It’s a modern way of stating a long-held conviction. Our Pilgrim ancestors were told in the seventeenth century, “God has yet more light and truth to break forth from His word.” A hymn in the old Pilgrim Hymnal sang, “The voice of God is calling.” Now in the twenty-first century we who are the spiritual descendants of this tradition continue to listen for the word of God speaking to us.
It is an old hope: that God will speak and that we will have the ears to hear.
But just as ancient—and just as significant for our contemporary lives—is the insistent declaration of the prophet that we did hear this morning: “For Zion’s sake, I will not keep silent.”
We will wait only so long.
We will wait only so long for God to speak.
We will wait only so long for God to end the silence.
We will not keep silent.
At one time the people of Israel were exiles in Babylon. They looked forward to the day when they would return home and build up the city of Jerusalem once more. When the exile ended, they found themselves back in the city, but it was not the city of lights. Injustice, violence and greed were still found. The people were still hiding from God.
The prophet Isaiah lamented: “We wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.” Still he looked with hope for the restoration of Jerusalem and would “not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”
The hope of light confronts the reality of darkness.
Time and again, the scriptures speak of the cities. Theologians have written of the city of God and the secular city. Most of our urban areas are somewhere in between.
Over forty-five years ago now, Martin Luther King, Jr., in talking about urban riots and the desperation that leads to them said: “Even though most of the people who are in these hopeless situations do not riot, it is now necessary for all to see that a destructive minority can poison the wellsprings from which the majority must drink. And so it is necessary for the nation as a whole to rise up now and find answers to deep social problems. They must be answers that are real and honest.”
We needed then and we need now real and honest answers. All those years have past and yet even now, even in our city there are places that could be called “Desolate,” “Forsaken.”
“For Zion’s sake,” the prophet says, for the sake of the city “I will not keep silent.” Can you hear in this vow a strong sense of the value of the city? The prophet will keep speaking until God redeems the city and its salvation, its wholeness and peace, brilliantly shines.
“I will not keep silent,” says Isaiah. This implies, of course, that silence is an option. It would perhaps be easier to be quiet, to simply wait for an act of God, or to walk away from the problems of our city with a sigh.
Certainly that is the temptation. I mean, we’ve been trying to restore our cities for generations now. And the dream seems no more a reality today than it did 40 to 60 years ago.
And sometimes the church has succumbed to just such a temptation. In the mid-sixties, at the Fifth General Synod of the United Church of Christ, King addressed the gathering, saying: “Although the Church has been called to combat social evils, it has often remained silent…How often the Church has been an echo rather than a voice, a tail light…rather than a headlight guiding men and women progressively and decisively to higher levels of understanding.”
We have the challenge of King. And we have the memory of Isaiah, who will not keep silent. He will continue to remind God that the cities are in despair. We will be reminded and speak as well, if we have the courage to listen.
The prophet is speaking about power. There is a power that can change things. The power of God can rename our cities, reframe our experiences.
Isaiah tells the city: “You shall no longer be called ‘Forsaken,’ or ‘Desolate’ but ‘My Delight Is in Her’ and ‘Married.’” We see a new vision of urban life: God rejoicing in the people.
This is a new way of seeing. It is also a way of seeing the new things that come about because people would speak rather than be silent; people would act rather than sit back; people would live out their commitments each day rather than allow “faith” to be something reserved for Sunday morning.
Real and honest answers will only come as we speak and listen and get new words to describe our experience and what we see.
Listen to Martin Luther King, Jr. again: “God is able to conquer the evils of history. If at times we despair because of the relatively slow progress being made . . . let us gain new heart in the fact that God is able. . . . With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy.”
To speak the good news, we first have to hear the bad news. To see the light we must first enter the places of darkness.
Are we willing to enter into the places of absence and silence and speak? Are we willing to enter places of shadows and light a light? This becomes a challenge to a comfortable congregation and a comfortable minister.
Faith tells of the power of God even when that power seems absent. God is able to act—to act in us and through us. Faith will keep speaking until new names are given.
We are to speak as well. “Take no rest and give God no rest.”
How did Paul put it? “Pray without ceasing.” Talk with God and talk and talk.
In this morning’s lesson from the Gospel of John, Mary comes to Jesus and says: “The wine is gone. Do something about it.” She will not keep silent.
We speak because in speech our hope begins. That is where we will find strength.
Prayer reframes and renames our lives. Much is said about the value of silence, of listening when we pray. It is important. But there is also a time to speak, a time to let God know what you see and feel and think.
There is pain in the world. Tell God.
There is violence in our cities. Tell God.
There is racial fear, racial hatred in our cities. Tell God.
God is silent so that we might speak. God’s hand is stilled so that we might lift our own hands and act.
Speaking will lead to working—not alone but with others. Go. Prepare. Build up. Lift up.
We can wait only so long.
We can wait only so long for God to speak.
We can wait only so long for God to end the silence.
At some point, whether God is speaking or not, we will not be silent. Like the prophet, we will speak.
In these days when the number of people murdered by guns weighs heavily upon our nation…
In these days when global climate change continues unabated and with increasingly rapid speed…
In these days when, as we will hear at the Interfaith Celebration this evening, the alien in Iowa City face ongoing challenges and we remember King’s words that “a right delayed is a right denied…”
We will not keep silent.
We will speak up. We will weary God with our voices.
This is our tradition.
Instead of asking, “How long, O God?” in a timid and despairing voice, Isaiah will give God no rest.
When the wine runs low at a wedding celebration, Mary comes up to Jesus. “They have no wine,” she tells him. She is impatient. She wants something done.
This is our tradition.
We are restless people. We don’t settle for easy answers. We don’t settle for the way things are. We don’t settle for the way we are.
The faith we know is not about adapting and adjusting.
God is still speaking.
Let us continue to lift our voices as well.