First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

Connected & Fruitful

I began a preaching ministry with you twelve years ago, with the today’s lectionary readings. Because Easter is a movable feast, in 2003 it was on May 18th. So, today, we begin our fifth cycle through the Lectionary texts. And I for one, continue to find new things in them.

The Book of Isaiah is a difficult book to read and understand well. Today’s Old Testament Lesson comes from Isaiah 35. Up until this point, much of what we find in the Book of Isaiah has dealt with the man after whom the book is named, the prophet Isaiah who lived in Jerusalem in the late 700’s and early 600’s BCE, when the super-power Assyria was threatening to engulf the people of God, along with a vast section of the world. Isaiah chapters 34 and 35 stand aside from this historical context, and, as it were, look behind the curtain at God’s dream and goal for the world that has played out partially through many times and places, including the particulars of Isaiah’s story, and would continue to do so. Chapters 34 and 35 together begin a transition from the time of Isaiah to a time some 150 years later, in which chapters 40-55 were added to this book and in which God’s dreams and values were still playing out. I think they are still. Isaiah 40-55 has been crucial to my own ministry over the years. They propose how God’s people of any age may contribute to the fulfillment of God’s vision for the world by serving one another inside the community of faith, and, empowered by such internal service, engage the world in mission and service. I often return to these chapters.

Chapter 34 speaks of God’s purpose to right wrongs in the world, and pictures what happens to all arrogant power that ignores God’s values of mercy, love, equity, and justice. Such power eventually reaps what it sows. There’s always someone with a bigger, faster gun. Reaping what we’ve sown comes on all of us, including US, God’s people. Most of us wouldn’t like Chapter 34 because it tells the unpleasant truth that God holds people accountable.

Our Lesson today, however, is Chapter 35, which assumes that God holds arrogant power and self-centred values accountable, and will put things right, and, then, tells what comes next in God’s dream for the whole created order, which is growth, abundance, and the ability to generate new and exciting possibilities when arrogant power has been held accountable, and things have been put right. It is important that we read the words of this poem not as predictions of literal things to happen, but as God’s goal for the world, put in poetic form. If it bothers us that such things don’t seem to happen, might it spur us to ask why and what we can do to make these values real today?

The original poem focused on God’s ancient people in Babylonian exile, but we today may see these people as examples of God’s dream for the world. The poem begins, not with the people, but with the land. It has been exhausted and is arid: wilderness, dry land, burning sand, desert. God’s dream and vision is to re-create such places so that, poetically, they become glad, rejoice, sing by blossoming outrageously into such glorious places as the mountains and cedars of Lebanon, the glorious land around Mount Carmel, and the beautiful, productive, and, in a way, forbidding, plain of Sharon along the Mediterranean Sea. Of course we know that can’t happen scientifically, these are pictures of what happens when fruitfulness and abundance are given to land that was desolate and infertile. The poetic vision is of a desert transformed to a garden. You gardeners may appreciate these figures of speech.

In verse 3, we shift from the land to people. These, like the land, are dry, spiritually sterile and infertile. It says their hands are weak, their knees are creaky, and they live with fear in the deepest recesses of who they are. They are those who are silenced and either cannot or may not speak. God’s dream is that such will be transformed, made whole and be able to stop living by fear. It says, Here is your God! Which means “Your God is here among us! At this point there is a reminder of chapter 34 where God holds the people who silence and malign others accountable. There is a time when wrongs will be righted.

If God’s values be followed, then blind eyes are opened, deaf ears are unstopped, those who cannot even hobble down the street will be able to leap like deer, and those who find themselves unable to speak will find a glorious and important voice. The whole earth will rejoice together because it is God’s goal to be generous and to bring abundant life, fertility, and the ability to generate wonderful possibilities together to all the peoples of the world who are open to the values of love, caring, grace, and mercy. It is God’s goal, aim, and purpose to bless the world with abundance enough to share. It as people share God’s values and purposes in the world that God’s goals may become realized among us and our neighbours (even those we don’t know yet), even in little ways. How in the world can such a kingdom come and such a will be done? Have you ever felt lifted above the dryness of life, by God’s life-giving presence? How can this ever happen? Perhaps only by bits and pieces here on this earth.

Our Gospel Lesson in John 15 is also a picture-passage that gives a vision of the way followers of Jesus may respond to and share in this goal of God as local down payments on that global vision, purpose and dream of God. It, too, begins with a picture. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Of course that’s a picture for Jesus isn’t a vine and we aren’t branches, and, yet we are like them. As the branches of grapevines cannot produce grapes, or even exist, when they are cut off from the main vine, so we, who claim a spiritual loyalty to Jesus and follow him as best we can, cannot bear fruit or even continue to exist if we are cut off from Jesus. We must understand that we cannot fulfill the divine goal of joy and fruitfulness alone, apart from God and one another. Now, I have to be honest with you. In this world it is both dangerous and incorrect to claim that there is no way to love God apart from Jesus. But, if we intend to be Christians, we must remain connected to Jesus just as the branches must remain connected to the vine. What Jesus said and did is ground-zero for us. We must think about and act on who Jesus is and what Jesus does as we look at his life in the New Testament. We must be united with him as we attempt to imitate his actions in the world. In doing so, Christians believe that we are – in reality – imitating the actions of the God known from Isaiah 35 in the world. The dream of fruitfulness and abundance comes true in small, local ways as we bear fruit that includes love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). As this fruit grows in us, we begin to look more like Jesus, which Christians believe is more like God. The fruit that we bear is, primarily, not drawing new converts, but is the fruit of new values and new ways of valuing people. The longer we remain connected to Jesus and one another, the more we are enabled to see others through the eyes of the God whose goal is a world of abundant joy and new life. We recognize in ourselves that we need to let go of self-centredness and being “in control,” recognizing that we are the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the speechless of Isaiah 35 who need to be connected to God, first of all, and enabled to invite the world to participate in celebrating the reality of divine-human partnership. The actuality of that divine-human relationship is one meaning of the Communion meal into which we will soon enter. The context that John’s Gospel gives us for these words of Jesus in chapter 15 is the last night he spent with disciples before his death. As their teacher, John said, he washed their feet as their servant, giving us a picture of our service. The other Gospels and Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 tell us that these moments were also those in which Jesus shared bread and wine to aid in disciples “remembering” him.

To the Hebrew, “remembering” wasn’t a mental or emotional image of Jesus flitting through their minds or hearts from time to time. Rather, it is a real and visceral way of making who Jesus was, who Jesus is – real to the core of our lives today…of remaining in Jesus, and becoming a community of abundant welcome to others, thus sharing God’s goal of abundance and belief in endless possibilities. This we celebrate in bread and cup. In them we make God’s vision and dream in Isaiah 35 real.
All this is clearly counter-cultural. We have been taught “us” against “them” in sports, in business, in school, alas, even in family and church. All of us can busy ourselves identifying “enemies” out there. We’re good and it and well-taught. We’re, frankly, afraid not to find enemies – we even sometimes say that they’re Jesus’ enemies, showing how much we live in fear.
It is interesting that we should get to this word “fear.” The most common command in the Bible is “Don’t be afraid,” yet few of us seem able obey that command. Our world is full of the results of fear. But here’s a contrast. In our Epistle Lesson this morning we read that “perfect love (which mean “mature love”) casts out fear.” Those addressed In 1 John are called “beloved.” This word means that they are loved by God in a way so as to make their love not turn in on themselves, but be perfected, or made actual, real, and mature, in community, and for the world.

I’ve told you before that one of my beloved teachers used to say that, although we think of the polar emotions as being love and hate, the opposites are really love and fear. Fear leads to hate, greed, violence and all the rest. And as we think about the present world into which we’re called to go, and how dangerous it can be, it is those whom we fear that we are likely to hate, and against whom we wish violence (or even perpetrate it) – alas sometimes even in the name of God.
God knows all things, and so knows that such fear is common, and not fearing is hard. It is much easier to fear others, and so hate them. Such action does not further God’s dream and vision for the world in in Isaiah 35 and John 15. I remind you that “love” in the Bible is not an emotion or feeling, but an action. We love those we embrace, support, and with whom we associate. We can say we have warm feelings for them, but if we do nothing to show that we embrace them, then, the Bible does not call that love, but, in fact would call it hate. We hate whom we do not embrace. It’s radical. Last week’s Epistle said: “Let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and truth.” How do we act in the world? God’s goal is that we act to embrace the poor, the lame, the deaf, those who are, in reality more like us than unlike. For it is God’s dream and goal that the world be a place of fruitful abundance and possibility. It is God’s goal for the world that those who are not able be enabled, for it is in enablement, that we see and appropriate the glory of God into our lives and show Jesus’ love. To do this, as Christians, it is vital to remain connected to Jesus, his values, his teachings, and his person. This community needs to be a little foretaste of God’s generosity and abundance. Following Jesus must be central to what we do. As we do, we’ll find, more and more that the more we love the less we fear, until we learn that mature love casts out fear and forwards God’s goal of abundance, fruitfulness, and generativity for all. Then, the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.