By The Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
February 4, 2017
Most people have enough religion to be restless, but few people have enough religion to be at peace.
- Most people know about guilt and paying for your Shame is a deeply rooted emotion, and bad things happening must mean you are being repaid for being bad. But you are invited to be among the people who know a God whose mercy and forgiveness is abundant.
- Most people have an idea of God being unreachable, anonymously powerful, harshly judging and unmovable by any human action. But you are invited to be among those who know a God who uses power to create new beginnings in the grittiest of situations.
- Everybody is very familiar with the fragility of the human creature, how we can be blown away in a millisecond. But you are invited to be among a special people who know how the weary can be marvelously lifted from the depths of exhaustion.
- Everybody can tell you a story of someone who became drunk on power and made power an object of worship. But you are invited to be among the few who can tell a story of power transformed into selfless service.
- Most people know that power alone will not quiet the restlessness inside our souls. But just a few people know a power that can bring them peace.
Most people have enough religion to make them restless. Throats seared with pain speak this restlessness in the chapter from Isaiah we read today. “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” It is not that the speaker is an atheist. God’s existence is fully acknowledged. It is precisely that God exists so far away, so seemingly uninterested and uncaring, that produces the restlessness.
They have enough religion to be restless, but not enough to be at peace.
Life itself has a way of giving us a restless religion.
- If you are in a community that suffers a serious trauma, it will make us all restless. You all know how it feels when death shatters a friendship, when divorce blasts a family apart. We do not want to walk away, but, you.ve got to admit, our collective soul takes a hit, and we inch up on the scale of restlessness.
- We can be overawed by dot-com millionaires, IPO wizards, and flashy entertainers. How they preen and glide through the centers of prestige and power with so much self-assurance! “Is this what I’ve got to do to find peace?” we ask, and the needle on our restlessness gauge creeps upward.
- Perhaps you are sickened through and through by presidential politics, and all you can see is grown men being manipulated like puppets by invisible special interests who are the real government. “Shoot, it’s all a sham,” as a noose of restlessness tightens around our throat.
- Maybe you’ve got too many kids and not enough
- Maybe you’ve got too many expectations to satisfy and not enough understanding and support from your wife and family.
- Maybe you’ve got a disease that will not turn you loose, or a problem that will not go away. Restlessness is your daily companion.
When life hammers on us, it makes us restless. That’s a central theme to the Netflix Western series Godless1. Have you seen it? Outlaw Frank Griffin is a wickedly charismatic leader who dresses like a preacher in a dog collar. He has been betrayed by Roy Goode, his protégé. Roy’s desertion drives Frank to rain biblical fury upon anyone who gives sanctuary to Roy. When Frank happens across a small group of Norwegian settlers camping on the trail, he demands one of the women join him that night just so he doesn’t kill them all. “You are no man of God!” her husband cries out. “God?” Frank hisses. “What God? Mister, you clearly don’t know where you are.”
Then, paraphrasing broadly from the prophet Isaiah, he explains. “This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the bleeding and the wrathful. It’s godless country.” The reason the West and movies about the West continue to resonate with us more than a century beyond is that its bleak and hostile landscape is the mirror image of our bleak and restless existence, and the religion of the West which deals mostly in guilt, an unmovable God, human frailty, and the search for power is the go-to religion of the restless and the rankled who live in our neighborhoods.
But it is a sorry religion that can only cater to our restlessness. That is why the one who wrote this chapter in Isaiah expresses irritation and exasperation to folk who once knew a better religion and then shrank it, down-sized it, so that all it can do is coddle their restlessness. Listen to how that irritation comes through:
- Why do you say, O Jacob and complain, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord…? Do you not know? Have you not heard?”
- “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy
- Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
Now maybe you think preachers ought not to talk like that. They need to be understanding pastors that are much too polite to tell people that they are selling themselves short when they shrink-wrap their faith. But the pastor who wrote Isaiah 40 was not afraid of getting in your face and taking you by the lapels and shouting at you, “Do you not know? Have you not heard?” Let’s get real about religion. Let’s get to the fullness of the faith. Let’s get you back into peace.
Isaiah does not try to sugar-coat over our restlessness.
- True, all people are grass…The grass withers…when the breath of the Lord blows upon it. Will God ever stretch out an arm to help us?
- True, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the What will become of us?
- True, the inhabitants [of the earth] are like grasshoppers and the rulers of the earth as chaff. Will God recede forever far back into remoteness?
- True, youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted. Why would any one of us attempt to deny this, especially in our present circumstances? Finally, there is no safety
Isaiah uses all the words we use to describe ourselves: weak, flower, wither, dust, chaff, faint, grow weary. grasshoppers. Scripture writes into it the human word. I hear you. I get it.
Isaiah does not deny the awesome majesty of God either.
- Who has directed the spirit of the Lord?
- Whom did God consult for divine enlightenment?
- To whom then will you liken God? Are the heavenly hosts greater than God?
Isaiah uses all the words we use to describe the awesome remoteness of God. Here is one who never faints or grows weary. Here is one who sits serenely above the circle of earth looking down upon the powerful playing out their games like so many grasshoppers. The word of God writes into it the human word. I hear you. I get it.
However, if all Isaiah did was to repeat what we say, he would be preaching a religion of restlessness. But he does not stop there. Now listen carefully.
The astonishing news of Isaiah is that this great God who does not grow weary or faint gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. No other God can do this.
- Who but this God can choose to use unstoppable might to bring mercy? And what a load of mercy can be generated by such might!
- Who but this God can choose to use raw power to bring forgiveness? And what a wealth of forgiveness can flow from such power!
- Every other power that passes for a god is something that we have to work in order to keep itself propped up so that it can command our absolute obedience. How stupid!
- An idol cannot go out to find you. You must find it, placate
Only the God whose vision reaches into the farthest recesses of where humans can be taken by disease and death can go out and find you, recall and reclaim you from your godless desert.
Fifteen years ago on February 2, 2003, the space ship Columbia blew up over East Texas as it was coming home. There were many expressions of our nation’s grief on behalf of the seven astronauts who gave up their lives in the pursuit of discovery of outer space. But no one expressed those sentiments more eloquently than our President George W. Bush during his announcement of the tragedy. At the conclusion of those remarks, he made specific reference to words which have shaped our thoughts for today’s sermon.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?
He who brings out [the starry] host and numbers them, calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength, mighty in power,
not one is missing.
Then, President Bush preached a two-sentence sermon. He said, “The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.” That is an example of a religion that triumphs over restlessness and brings peace.
1 Material in this paragraph is borrowed from Sophie Gilbert, “What Godless Says About America,” The Atlantic.com. November 27, 2017.