This morning we have another reading from the prophets, this time the prophet Isaiah, first a story and then a prophecy. In order for it to make sense, let me give you a little background. After the kingdom split into north Israel and south Judah, things continue to degrade until 721 BC when Assyria invades the northern kingdom of Israel and destroys it. After that the southern kingdom of Judah pays tribute to Assyria so they don't get invaded. Eventually they get tired of that and make a pact with their old enemy Egypt and rebel against Assyria. Now Assyria doesn't want to lose all the money and benefits they get from Judah so they come back to make it clear they are still in charge. They destroy many of the small towns in Judah, and eventually wind up coming to Jerusalem. The story this morning is what happens when the commander of the Assyrian army arrives in Jerusalem. Spoiler alert: the Assyrian army doesn't succeed in capturing Jerusalem. Now if this sounds confusing and depressing to you, you're in good company. It was confusing and depressing to the people then as well. You might be able to imagine it: threats to national security from without, and turmoil within. Rural areas and urban areas with very different opinions on how the country should be managed. Making dubious alliances with foreign countries who have been enemies in the past. And a parade of national leaders who take the country in wildly different directions. Use your imagination. And into this mess, the prophet Isaiah speaks a word of comfort and hope and promise for a bright future that seems almost unimaginable in the current context, a future where things are turned right side up. Can we possibly still hope for that?
Scripture Reading: Isaiah 36-37 and 2
Narrator: A story from Isaiah 36 and 37:
In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, King Sennacherib of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them.
2 Then the king of Assyria sent his field commander with a large army to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. When the commander stopped at the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Joah the recorder went out to him. 4 The field commander said to them,
Commander: “Tell Hezekiah: ‘This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.’”
Narrator: Then the commander stood and called out in Hebrew so that the people of Jerusalem who had gathered on the wall could hear him,
Commander: “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! 14 This is what the king says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you!
15 Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord. 16 “Do not listen to Hezekiah. This is what the king of Assyria says: Make peace with me and come out to me. Then each of you will eat fruit from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, 17 until I come and take you to a land like your own—a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards.
18 “Do not let Hezekiah mislead you when he says, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’
Have the gods of any nations ever delivered their lands from the hand of the king of Assyria? 20 Who of all the gods of these countries have been able to save their lands from me? How then can the Lord deliver Jerusalem from my hand?”
Narrator: When King Hezekiah heard this, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and went into the temple of the Lord. 2 He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the leading priests, all wearing sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah. 3 They told Isaiah,
“This is what Hezekiah says: This day is a day of distress and rebuke and disgrace, as when children come to the moment of birth and there is no strength to deliver them.
4 It may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the field commander, whom the king of Assyria, has sent to ridicule the living God, and that God will rebuke him for the words the Lord your God has heard. Therefore pray for the remnant that still survives.” When King Hezekiah’s officials came to Isaiah, 6 Isaiah said to them,
Isaiah: “Tell the king, ‘This is what the Lord says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard—those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. 7 Listen! When the King of Assyria hears a certain report,
I will make him want to return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword.’”
Narrator: Then the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand soldiers in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! 37 So king Sennacherib of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there. 38 One day, while he was worshiping in the temple of his god two of his own sons killed him with the sword. (Pause)
A prophecy from Isaiah 2:
This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
Isaiah: In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be
established as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain
of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, or will they train for war anymore.
5 Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
I'm curious. How many of you have heard this story before? Yeah, that's what I thought. I almost skipped it and just read the prophecy, but then I decided we should hear it. On this final Sunday of our stewardship program, I wanted you, the people of Zion United Church of Christ, to hear a story from your sacred text where a group of people have their backs against a wall, and the voices around them are saying, "You are finished. You're done. Your community has had a good run, but you can't possibly survive what you're facing now. Even, God says you should give up. In fact, God sent me here to shut you down."
I wanted you to hear this story because I know that in the past these words have been said here, to you. Many of you in this room have been told that this spiritual community was on its last legs and you should go ahead and fold. And you didn't. By the grace of God and through the stubbornness of your faith, you survived what felt like a siege against you and now look around you. Look what God has done here.
Not all of us were here for those hard times but I wanted all of us to hear this story as a reminder that we have a choice about which voices we listen to. In the story, we have two messengers. We have to commander of the Assyrian army and we have Isaiah. The commander of the Assyrian army says, "Hear the words of the great king, the King of Assyria – you are finished." But Isaiah says, "Hear the words of the Lord – do not be afraid." Yes, you are surrounded, yes it's been a long fight already, yes the situation looks pretty bad, but do not be afraid. The King of Assyria doesn't get the last word. God has another word after that to speak over you and it's a word of hope. Whose voice are you going to listen to?
The ancient Hebrew people believed that their story was going somewhere. They looked into their past and remembered all the great things that God had done for them. And then they looked at their present and said, "This doesn't look so good." But instead of then believing that their glory days were behind them they said, "God must be leading us somewhere even better." They used their history as the foundation for their future.
I'd like everyone to stand up. Just for a second. It won't be long and I'm not going to ask you do anything weird. Just stand. Ok, if you have been actively involved in this church for less than a year, you can sit down. If you've been here less than five years, you can sit down. Less than 10 years? Less than 15 years? Less than 20 years? Less than 25 years? ... How many years have you been involved here?
Friends these people are like our foundation. They symbolize for us the amazing history of this church. Our ancestors in the faith have seen God do great things. Those who worshipped here in the past have weathered some real storms and been faithful long enough to see God work those things together for good. We have a rich history for which we are so grateful. And when we look at our past, we choose to believe that God is not done with our story, and is leading us somewhere.
The prophecy we heard this morning is almost unbelievable. When all around us is war, God's word is that one day we will beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks. That's like saying we will turn our nuclear weapons into energy-efficient heaters and our handguns into garden trowels. That's crazy. It's beautiful but crazy. God has a dream to do something totally new and different. Something that has never been done before. Theologian Walter Brueggemann calls this prophetic imagination. If we are going to join God's plan for a restored world, we must also have prophetic imagination.
As we wrap up our stewardship program, I want us to practice a little prophetic imagination here together this morning. If God is leading us somewhere we've never been before, the only way to get there is to start dreaming about it. We can't go somewhere if we've never thought about. So this morning, let's exercise our prophetic imaginations. What is the church of our dreams? If you weren't afraid. If you weren't worried about money. If you weren't worried about the building. What would you like to do? Who do we want to be? Yell it out and I will write it down. I have good hearing so we won't take time to wait for the microphone. I'll just repeat it as I write ...
Praise and worship band
Support system for members
Transportation to worship
Clone Mike Newcomb (ha!)
Church name sign under the cross on the building
Special service for different groups (i.e. kids with special news)
Enlarge parking lot
Church chimes ring every hour
Increased racial diversity
More Sunday School Classes
Faith formation for older adults
"A Place at the Table" (aka Duffy Breakfast Ministry)
30-member bell choir
Prayer place outside
Not taking out the best verses from the best songs
Beloved, AAAALLLL of this is possible. The pastor cannot do this. Council cannot do this. But WE can do this. Now we may ultimately decide that God is not calling us to do every single one of these things, but there is nothing on this sheet that we could not do together with God's help. The only question is whether we want to, and that's a question we have to answer individually before we answer it together. Do YOU want to do this? Not do you want to see someone else do it, or do you want to go to a church that does it, but do YOU want to do it? Everybody has work to do. It doesn't matter what age you are, what your physical ability is, God has brought you here to be a participant and not a spectator. We all have a part to play.
Whatever we choose to do, we all have to work together both with our time and efforts and our finances. It will take resources to accomplish this, but they are resources that we all together already have. In Isaiah's vision, the nations don't say, "Well you know we would farm instead of fighting but we don't have any tools." They took what they had and did something different with it. They took their swords and made plows and they took their spears and made harvesting tools. We must ask ourselves, "What do we have that we could redirect into the work God is inviting us to do?" What blessings do we have that we could use to bless others? It's tangible, friends. So far about ⅓ of us have made a pledge. That means that ⅔ of us have pledges to make this morning, including me and Sam because we haven't turned ours in yet. These pledges will help us dream big for next year. Would the ushers go grab the pledge cards off the back table? If you have not yet filled out a pledge card and you need one, would you please raise your hand?
Great. Now let's take just a moment to think and pray. We hold in our hands the future of our church. Bodies can't survive without nourishment. This church is the body of Christ and these pledges are our nourishment for next year. They symbolize our hopes and dreams for the future. Making a pledge is a prophetic act, a demonstration of our faith in God's direction and provision for us individually and as a body. Let's take a few moments in quiet to dream and to make our pledges.
Generous God, help us to be generous too. We want to be channels of your blessing to others.