God Seeks: salvation

Isaiah 55:1-11 (Testify, week 3)




This morning we continue to explore the statement of faith of the United Church of Christ. As I’ve mentioned this is not a list of doctrines; it’s a story. It’s even organized and written in story language with God as the main character. This statement is not a fence that defines our boundaries; it’s the campfire that lights our center. This statement articulates the beliefs most commonly held among us. Some folks huddle right up close to the light and the heat and some folks are comfortable standing a bit further off. And that’s OK. Because this statement is designed to be a center and not a boundary, there’s a lot that it doesn’t say. In fact, this morning’s section is the shortest in the whole statement and it leaves a whole lot of room for interpretation. So before we get into it, I just want to remind you that is a good thing. If we wanted to make a narrow list of things you have to accept in order to be right or in or good or saved, we could do that. Others have. But that’s not what we are trying to do. We aren’t trying to figure out who is in and who is out. We are trying to tell a logically consistent and life-giving version of the Christian story that allows each individual the space to listen to the Holy Spirit and discern their own particular convictions about the specifics of that story.

So here we go. 

The statement begins: We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, who is made known to us in Jesus our brother, and to whose deeds we testify: And then we have seven sections about what those deeds of God are. What is God doing? Notice they are all written in the present active tense.

First, God calls the worlds into being, creates humankind in the divine image, and sets before us the ways of life and death. Rev. Marshall Cook shared with us about that last week.

This week, God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin. God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin. 

There’s a lot in those 13 words, and a lot that’s NOT in those 13 words. We basically need to talk about every single word because they are all important. And because I don’t want to end the sermon talking about sin, we’re going to start at the end and work our way backwards.

So first, sin. Sin, singular, not sinS, plural. An overarching concept, not particular actions. This is a classic word in our faith, one that has been used and abused. One that many people are uncomfortable with because of how it has been used, but I still feel it is essential. Very simply, it is our way of saying, “Something is wrong here.” If everything were fine, we wouldn’t need God and we certainly wouldn’t need Jesus. But everything’s not fine. Everything’s not fine with our society. Everything’s not fine with the way our country relates to other countries (except maybe during the Olympics). Everything’s not fine with the planet. Everything’s not fine with me and with my own relationships. Something is wrong here. It includes me but it’s way bigger than me. It’s systemic, and I’m part of it. I can’t fix it on my own, and if we look around we have to admit that WE can’t seem to fix it on our own either.

It’s important to remember that the reason we can even recognize that something is wrong is because we were created for goodness. Remember last week: “God creates humankind in the divine image.” If we did not have goodness and beauty and dignity at our core, we would not recognize that anything was wrong. But we are good so we can clearly see the bad, in ourselves and in the world. 

The statement doesn’t say where sin comes from. There are several ways to talk about that. It doesn’t even say specifically what sin is. But if we need God to save us from it, it must be something that includes us as individuals and transcends us, including all relationships and all systems. Something is wrong, and we can’t fix it on our own.

But according to the statement, sin isn’t the only thing that’s wrong. The other thing God seeks to save us from is aimlessness. Interesting word, huh? This statement was crafted in 1959 and the team specifically chose this word to be a representation of something more personal and less theological than the big concept of sin. Aimlessness. The sense that my life doesn’t have meaning. It isn’t going anywhere. The sense that the whole universe is one big roulette wheel, going around in circles. That life has no meaning. Post-WWII with the threat of nuclear holocaust looming and tectonic shifts in American culture on the horizon, it’s easy to see why this word “aimlessness” would have resonated. But I think it still resonates. It’s still way too easy to feel like nothing matters. The Christian story says that’s not true. Our lives do matter.

We’ve already touched on this, but the statement is specific that “all people” experience aimlessness and sin. “All people” which is not the same as saying “each person.” Aimlessness and sin are universal problems, experienced by each of us individually, yes, but also by all of us together. We are each and all created in the divine image and we are each and all caught in aimlessness and sin.

So what is the solution? Salvation. God seeks in holy love to SAVE all people from aimlessness and sin. In the Old Testament, the concept of salvation includes stories of being rescued, like the ancient Hebrews rescued from slavery in Egypt. It includes being healed. And it includes being victorious over one’s enemies. The metaphors of salvation are rescue, healing, and victory. In the New Testament there are five different metaphors for how God saves us. And none of them can fully describe the mechanics of what happens between God and us. I think that mysterious relationship, that amazing grace, transcends our capacity for language. And so this statement is not specific, but content to rest in the assertion that we are rescued from, healed from, and victorious over aimlessness and sin.

In later weeks, we’ll get a little bit closer to the answer of “how” that happens, but it will never be a technical description. This week we can say that the vehicle for salvation, the way it is accomplished is through “holy love.” Not just any kind of love, but “holy love.” This is helpful because in the English language we ask those four letters L-O-V-E to do some heavy duty lifting, to carry a lot of meaning. So this statement says it is holy love that motivates God. Love beyond friendly affection, love beyond sexual attraction. We could say that this is sacrificing love. I’m sure you all have someone of whom you would say, “I would rather suffer than have them suffer.” I’d rather be sick than have Sammy be sick. I’d rather be sad than have Sam be sad. I’d rather take it on myself. That is holy love. That is love that God has for us.

Because, ultimately, and this brings us back to the beginning of the section, this is about what God is doing. God seeks — in holy love — to save — all people — from aimlessness — and sin. God seeks. God seeks. This salvation is not instigated by us. It doesn’t happen because we make it happen. It doesn’t even happen primarily because we ask for it, but because God offers it. And more than offers it, God comes looking for us in order to give it. 

World history is full of religions that describe how humans can get to God. The Christian story is about how God comes to us. Right from the very beginning. In Genesis 3, God comes to the garden in the cool of the evening because God likes to walk with the humans and when God can’t find them because they are hiding, God starts seeking. “Where are you?,” God says. I’m looking for you. Because I love you. Because I enjoy you. Because I want to help you. Because you are trapped and I want to rescue you. Because you are sick and I want to heal you. Because you are suffering and I want to give you victory. We don’t first come to God. First and foremost, God comes to us. 

These are big concepts and we could have used many scriptures to talk about them because we find these themes all through the Bible. But this morning I want to end with a reading from the prophet Isaiah, an invitation from God. You’ll hear some of the themes we talked about this morning, not all perfectly specifically. But I invite you this morning to let these words and images wash over you. Settle in and begin to listen. You may want to close your eyes or you may want to find something to focus on in this beautiful scene. Release any tension you are holding in your body. Unclench your jaw, let your tongue drop away from the roof of your mouth, and relax your shoulders. Put the soles of you feet flat on the earth. Open your hearts and receive this invitation from the God who seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.

Reflection:

{Isaiah 55:1-3, 6-7}

All of you who are thirsty, come to the water!
Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat!
Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk!
Why spend money for what isn’t food,
 and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy?
Listen carefully to me and eat what is good;
 enjoy the richest of feasts.
Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,

Seek the Lord when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near.

Let the wicked abandon their ways and the sinful their schemes.
Let them return to the Lord so that he may have mercy on them,
    to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness.

My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
Just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
  so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.

Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky
   and don’t return there without watering the earth,
   making it conceive and yield plants
   and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater,
so is my word that comes from my mouth; 
it does not return to me empty.
Instead, it does what I want,
   and accomplishes what I intend.

Yes, you will go out with joy,
    and you will be brought back in peace.
Even the mountains and the hills will burst into song before you;
    and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

In place of the thorn the cypress will grow;
    in place of the nettle the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.

Amen.

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