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January 2023

Revive the Spirit

Revive the Spirit

Isaiah 57:11-21

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

22 January 2023

               In her book An American Sunrise, recent United States Poet Laureate, and member of the Muscogee-Creek Nation, Joy Harjo, includes this song:

Do not get tired.

Don’t get discouraged.  Be determined.

Come.  Together let’s go toward the highest place.

               Harjo also includes this historical note about the song:

It is said that two beloved women sang this song as their band came over on the Trail of Tears.  One woman walked near the front of the people, and the other walked near the back with the small children.  When anyone faltered, they would sing this song to hold them up.

Do not get tired.

Don’t get discouraged.  Be determined.

Come.  Together let’s go toward the highest place.

               As I was studying the passage from Isaiah this week, one of the themes that stood out is that we as people of faith and hope affirm life, even, and especially, in times of danger. 

               This oracle in Isaiah was spoken to a group of people who had come back to their national homeland, a place many of them knew only from the stories of their parents and grandparents.  A place they had been exiled from for decades, living instead in the foreign imperial cities of their captors.  But now God has fulfilled God’s great promises.  God created a way through the desert, and the people have returned home again.

               Only to discover that restoring and rebuilding their way of life is more difficult work than they realized.  For one thing, they can’t all agree on what their new society should look like.  They disagree about what they are building.  And they are encountering opposition and challenges.

               So, in the middle of these difficult circumstances, the prophet speaks “Build up, build up, prepare the way.”  And what will enable and empower the people to accomplish the work is the presence of God.  God, who is reviving their spirits and challenging the wicked.

               The contemporary theologian Elizabeth Johnson reminds us that the universe is “an open-ended adventure” and that God’s Spirit is what draws us into the adventurous life.  She writes, “The indwelling Spirit of God moves over the void, breathes into the chaos, quickens, warms, sets free, blesses, and continuously creates the world, empowering its evolutionary advance.”

               God is the one present with us in all of our difficulties, helping us to face them with courage and hope.  The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God is the high and lofty one, but this high and lofty one, who inhabits eternity, is also with the lowly.  The high and holy one dwells with the lowly ones.  This is one of the key insights of our biblical faith, that God, the Creator of the universe, is present with us and in us.  And is in everything and everyone we encounter.

               And, so, Isaiah reminds the people, we draw strength and vision from the God who dwells in solidarity with us.  Because God is with us, we are revived.

               But, there are still the challenges, the difficulties, the obstructions.  Not least among those are the people who refuse to participate in God’s covenant.  Who reject God’s vision of the future.  Isaiah calls them “the wicked” and says that they are “like the tossing sea that cannot keep still,” making chaos for everyone else.  What will be done about them?

               This passage from Isaiah speaks of God’s anger.  Not a topic we generally spend much time on, preferring to speak of God’s love and mercy. 

               Recently I read an excellent book entitled The Angry Christian by Andrew Lester, a professor of pastoral care.  Lester includes a chapter of his book on the anger of God and Jesus, and he insists that we understand God’s anger as an expression of God’s love.  In fact, that even for us humans, we should realize that because we love, we get angry.  Lester writes of Jesus, “His experiences of irritation, frustration, indignation, and anger all arise when his values are threatened, and therefore, his anger is in the service of his love and God’s love.”

               Now, in the context of the Isaiah passage, God was once angry with the people for their covetousness, which Walter Brueggemann describes as “destructive acquisitiveness.” A greed that was not life affirming, but actually life destroying, and such was contrary to God’s vision for human life. 

               And God is, now, angry during the time of restoration because there are those who threaten the peace and well-being that God is working to create for people.  Because God loves the people and wants the best for them, God is upset when those dreams are thwarted by those whose values and actions don’t affirm life and well-being.

               I’m upset this week . . .

               But, Isaiah tells us, don’t worry too much about those folks, because God will take care of them.  Instead, you people who are affirming the values of life, who are participating in God’s dream of well-being for all creation, you folks will have your spirits revived and you will experience peace.

               Elizabeth Johnson declares that “the Creator Spirit dwells at the heart of the natural world, graciously energizing its evolution from within, compassionately holding all creatures in their finitude and death, and drawing the world forward toward an unimaginable future.”

               God is there, present with us and in us, compassionately holding us in our sufferings and losses, and working with us to move forward, to build a better future.

               “Build up, build up, prepare the way” the prophet declares.  People, peace, to the far and the near.”

               And so when our Spirits are revived, we are capable of building a new community of well-being and peace.  The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes, “Thanks to hope, we reach into the realm of that which does not yet exist and bring that which is future into the present.”  We draw inspiration from our dreams and visions of a better future and work right now to make the present more like that.

               I have to tell you that I feel very excited about our ministry here at First Central.  In my almost thirteen years, there have been many moments of excitement, full of vision and opportunity, and right now is at the top of that list.  Why?

               We’ve come through great challenges and difficulties, and we did so with integrity and care.  But those difficulties were also opportunities for growth and innovation and change.  And now there’s a vitality in the congregation that is palpable.  Worship attendance, in person and online, is very strong.  We’ve got so many children in Sunday school.  We draw and keep new visitors. 

               I’m excited by what our To Be More capital campaign envisions for our future.  Remodeling various spaces in our building so that we can improve our programs for kids and families, invite more people into the building to use it, and even hopefully generate income from rentals to help fund our programs. 

               I’m excited by the skills and vision of our young adults.  And feel that in the decades ahead, we will continue to be served by smart, capable, effective leaders. 

               I’m excited by all the children and their families and am confident that now is the time for us to focus our attention and resources on developing and strengthening the ministries and programs that help to nurture them.

               I’m excited by how the challenges of doing hybrid (on-line and in person) worship well has opened up new opportunities for creativity, for God is clearly doing a new thing in the life of Christianity.

               And while there are certainly new post-Covid challenges to how people want to volunteer and commit their time, I believe this too creates a chance for us to refocus on how we help people create and cultivate their spiritual path.

               I’m going to have more to say about all of these things in my State of the Church address next Sunday during the Annual Meeting and in the months to come.

               But the key takeaway is that God has been present with us, reviving our spirits, healing our hurts, and empowering us to move forward in courage and hope to create the community we’ve envisioned.

               God’s light has come and is shining upon us.  Let’s join God in the work of building the future we’ve dreamed of.

               And, so, I want to return to that Creek song I opened with, and let it be a rallying cry:

Do not get tired.

Don’t get discouraged.  Be determined.

Come.  Together let’s go toward the highest place.

IRL: Finding Our Real Selves in a Digital World

Irl: Finding Our Real Selves in a Digital WorldIrl: Finding Our Real Selves in a Digital World by Chris Stedman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"At its best, our online play can give us the tools we need to become fuller, more complex versions of ourselves. To discover who we are and remember it."

This is simply one of the best books I've read on the internet and social media. The focus is whether our online selves are our "real selves," and Stedman thinks they are. Our use of social media allows us to explore and experiment with our identity. Yes, there are dangers, and we have to cultivate better online habits, but he reminds us that we are still in the early years of learning how to do all of this well.

I also appreciated the queer aspects of this reflection and analysis as well.

View all my reviews

The Angry Christian

The Angry Christian: A Theology for Care and CounselingThe Angry Christian: A Theology for Care and Counseling by Andrew D. Lester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"I believe that our capacity for anger is one of God's good gifts, intentionally rooted in creation and serving important purposes in human life."

As a pastor, I've had quite a few congregants come to me over the years wanting help with their anger. And I too, especially in the couple of years after my divorce, have wrestled with the healthy expression of anger (my therapist and I were just discussing it yesterday even).

This book was excellent. Smart, well-researched, compassionate. You come away with both a better intellectual understanding of anger and tips for pastoral care and counseling. Now, I only wish there were a shorter, more popular-style version that I could recommend to laypeople.

View all my reviews