A caring presence
Sunday, October 15, 2017 - 11:00 to 12:00
Every single night that I remember from consciousness as a child, my parents would kneel beside me and eventually get me to recite with them this refrain: “Lord, keep me safe this night, secure from all my fears. May Angels guard me while I sleep till morning light appears.” It was a tradition that I grew up with. Before all my prayers of intercession and thanksgiving for everyone else, “Lord, keep me safe this night.....” was the standard prayer. In early childhood, it seemed like a good thing, but the older I got, the more I thought it was kind of schmaltzy and irrelevant. I think I was around seven years old when I realized I didn’t need it any more, for why do I need the protection of angels when God had given me two fists that I could use? Why couldn’t I just take care of myself rather than have little angels taking care of me. For a while, I dismissed it and thought it was trivial and only for the weak and the timid – not for me! But as I got older and hopefully a little wiser, I realized it is still a powerful phrase. Quietly to myself many nights I say again, as my mother taught me, “Lord, keep me safe this night, secure from all my fears. May angels guard me while I sleep till morning light appears.” They are marvellous because they speak of the profound intimacy of God, who is concerned and involved in our lives. Even when we are unconscious of God, God is still conscious of us; when we are not aware of God, God is aware of us. Even in the moments of our sleep, the Creator works; his angels guard us until our consciousness returns. It is a powerful image!
I want you to hold that image as you recall our magnificent passage this morning from The Book of Isaiah. In a sense, Isaiah was writing in the midst of what I would call a nightmare for the people of Israel. He was writing during what was known as the Exile, which is really not one event, but two events, along with many other sub-events. You see, Israel was divided into two parts: there was northern Israel and Judah in the south. The first exile occurred in 724 BC to the northern kingdom, when the Assyrians invaded what was then northern Israel, plundered it, took its people out into Assyria to become slaves and vassals, destroyed many of their religious monuments, and their religious life. Some still stayed in Israel, but many were forced into captivity. In 586 BC, there was a second exile: this time with the Babylonians, and this time, for what was deemed the more powerful Judah in the south. The Babylonians also put the people into exile, made them slaves and vassals, and for generations they had to live outside of the nation of Israel and of Judah. Even the mighty Temple was destroyed. The people lived through this nightmare, and wondered what on earth was happening, why they were suffering, and if God had forsaken them.
Yet, in the midst of all of this, interjected as a prayer or a hymn, we find the words of the great prophet Isaiah. Isaiah speaks different words than the words of lament, woe and sadness that were all around it, with a decimated, desecrated people speaking. Not in this passage! He speaks of the fact that he will testify to the kindness of God, and then he says something very strange, “Angels of God will come and save us.” In our passage today, from the New Revised Standard version, it suggests that God intervened directly into the lives of these people who are living this nightmare. But there are other translations in Hebrew, and that I think are probably a little more accurate, that suggests God was using angels, for they appear here, to protect and save the people of Israel. Either way, God is intimately engaged in the people’s lives, this is the main thing, directly or indirectly through the angels who act as agents of God. John Calvin in his Commentary said, “These angels are like a mirror of God, so when the angels come, we see the reflective power of God at work.” When Israel is going through its nightmare, there is the sense that angels are looking after it, that they are not alone in all of this, that they do not just have to feel the agony of being disbanded and destroyed and humiliated, nor abandoned by the Lord God.
This is a classic example of many things that we need to learn about our God: God engages intimately in the life of the world. I have said this before, but I think it is worth repeating, I don’t believe that people necessarily feel there is no God. I think they wonder whether this God is engaged and involved at all. In other words, it is not that people dismiss the notion that there might be a deity. In fact, so many arguments and debates these days are working more towards the existence of a greater being, rather than the absence of a greater being. Even philosophy is taking a turn toward that, as is cosmology in many places, but that is not the issue. The issue is not whether there is an existent ontological being; it is whether that being is engaged actively in the world. Many people would subscribe to the belief in a deity, but they question whether that deity is engaged and involved in human life and affairs. In many ways, that is how the exiles were feeling.
When they were in Assyria or Babylonia, they were wondering whether this God that they had given their faith to and believed in was actually engaged in their lives. Isaiah is addressing that, and he uses intimate language. He says, “I will declare the kindness of God.” He then goes on to say, “And the angels will come and save us.” He doesn’t say that once, but twice, which as we know in Hebrew is for emphasis. God has done things for us, and done so in a loving and merciful way. God is angry about the way things are transpiring, so you get this sense of a God who is intimately and passionately engaged in the life of the people of Israel. And the prophet is saying, in the midst of all their questioning that yes, God is active!
I read a beautiful thing from the letters of John Calvin. Every week this year I am mentioning one of the Reformers or something about one of the Reformers in my sermons. John Calvin is known perhaps as the most intellectual of the Reformers, certainly along with Melanchthon, one of the great minds of the Reformation, but he was also seen at times to be a little austere and cold. The truth could not be further from that notion! I was reading a letter that he wrote to his good friend Farrell on the event of the passing of Calvin’s wife:
I, at present, control my sorrow so that my duties may not be interfered with. May the Lord Jesus strengthen you by his Spirit, and may he support me also under this heavy affliction, which would certainly have overcome me had not he who raises up the prostrate, strengthens the weak, and refreshes the weary, stretched forth his hand from heaven to lift me up.
Even in the midst of his greatest sorrow, Calvin is writing in his belief that God is there to lift him up in the midst of his weakness and to give him strength. Now, that is faith! And, that is exactly the faith of Isaiah! This is what he is saying to the people of Israel. He reminds them a little later on in this passage that this is how God has acted in the past; this isn’t some new idea that I am bringing to you. Remember centuries before, the Exodus. Remember when you were in captivity in Egypt under the oppression of the Pharaoh, God came and set you free. He liberated you from oppression. He gave you the freedom that you so desperately craved. When you cried out, God heard you and listened. Isaiah is merely repeating something that was centuries old, and Calvin is merely experiencing what Isaiah was telling the people at the nightmare of the Exile. There is a consistency here: that classic understanding of the intimate engagement of God in human affairs.
This is also a classic moment of rejection. This is not an entirely a great story that we have here. The prophet Isaiah comes into the midst of it and he says great and glorious things about God, but there is here a quid pro quo that God says “As long as the people are in fidelity with me, as long as the people face me.” In other words, as long as the people don’t turn their back on me, angels will be sent and I will save them. There is a call to not forget God and, even in the midst of their travails, not to turn their backs on God. This is classic because it is timeless! It reflects one of the great weaknesses of humanity; mainly that we like to get on bandwagons and ride the glory, and then as soon as things sour, we jump off the bandwagon and turn on the one who is leading us. We trifle with these things and we get annoyed with them. It is a human propensity to do this.
I was interested in watching all the events with the Toronto Maple Leafs this past week, and I read the newspapers the day after they lost to the Devils 6-3. The newspaper the day before said, “Oh, the Leafs are brilliant! They are young. They are going to win the Stanley Cup. Aren’t they fantastic?” Then they lost to the Devils, (and maybe that is a statement in and of itself) and the reporters turned on them: “They didn’t work hard enough. They are too slow. The defense isn’t as good as we thought. The goalie gave up. The coach didn’t have the right plan.” On and on they went! They lost one game! We get on our bandwagons and we think that we are following success and all is wonderful and glorious, and the moment something goes wrong, we tend to lose our infatuation, our faith and our support. We are fickle people! We do it in politics: we hail a politician until they collapse and then we leave them. We follow cultural norms until we don’t like them anymore or they are no longer in vogue. We get on bandwagons all the time, and the people of Israel were doing it to God when they were in exile.
Isaiah is reminding them that if they are going to be false with God, then they cannot expect God to come and bail them out; that is not the way things are. God is I think, and this is implied in the text, hurt by them. After all, God had called them into being; they were a people because God had called them as a people, and now in their exile they feel they are in a nightmare and turn their backs on God. That is what was going on. And you know, when we are hurt, it is amazing how things go right to the core.
I was reading a fascinating piece, a letter that was written by Charlotte Bronte to G. H. Lewes, a literary critic who had written a scathing piece on her in The Edinburgh. It was interesting that Lewes eventually married George Elliot, and we know her fame as a writer. Lewes really took it to Bronte because she was a woman, and Charlotte Bronte responded to the critique in The Edinburgh with the following:
I will tell you why I was so hurt by that review in The Edinburgh, because after I had earnestly said that I wished the critics would judge me as an author not as a woman, you so roughly, I even thought so cruelly, handled the question of my sex. I dare say you meant no harm, and perhaps you will not now be able to understand why I was so grieved at what you will probably deem such a trifle, but I grieved. I was indignant too. I know what your nature is. It is not a bad or unkind one, though you would often jar terribly on some feelings with whose recoil and quiver you could not possibly sympathize.
Oh, she is hurt! She is mad! “Don’t judge me as a woman; judge me as an author.” Don’t make the fact that I am a woman the central issue. Bronte is hurt, and I love that phrase “whose recoil and quiver you could not possibly sympathize.”
That is what this is all about. God is saying through the prophet Isaiah, “You don’t understand Israel.” In a sense, God is hurt by all of this. It is not just the people of Israel and of Judah who feel that they are in exile and that all has gone wrong; God also feels deeply, passionately that the people are now turning their backs on him. Wow! Isaiah is pouring it on! But, it is also a profound and classic example of a misunderstanding that exists in humanity’s relationship with God, and it is still as poignant today as it was in biblical times. We do not make a distinction between what in the corporate world they would describe as insurance, as opposed to assurance. We think that God is sort of like insurance plan, and that if things go wrong, we have an insurance plan against it. We buy policies to protect our houses and our cars, and we protect our jewellery and some people even take out policies on their limbs – athletes, etc. People take out an insurance policy and they think that this insurance policy will then guarantee that if things go wrong they are covered. They expect the guarantor to be there no matter what. They make their payments; the insurance covers them. Assurance, as we know in technical business terms, is different from insurance. It is a lifelong thing. It knows that at the end there will be death, and it covers that, but it does so with confidence.
In theological terms, the thing that we think of as insurance is when we think of God. People think, “If I invest enough in God, God will make sure that bad things don’t happen to me. Then, when things go wrong and something terrible happens, they then get mad at God and say, “Where were you? And what was this insurance policy worth anyway?” Yet, there are times, are there not, when we can actually be responsible for the calamities of our lives, and even then we think that God is going to bail us out. It is like someone having a number drinks and maybe a few marijuana cigarettes – a few tokes, and getting behind the wheel of a car, crashing into a pole, and saying, “Well God, where were you when I crashed my car into the pole?” As if somehow they are not responsible for anything that had happened. Israel was saying the same thing to God: “So, we turned our backs on you. So, we had a crooked king. So, we were immoral. It doesn’t matter! We have an insurance policy! When things go wrong and we are in the middle of a nightmare, you should pay up, Lord, and if you don’t pay up, we lose our faith in you.” That is exactly what is going on here!
Isaiah is reminding them that God is not into insurance; he is into assurance, the assurance of his presence even when things do go wrong. And no, he can’t save us from every single debacle and nightmare, problem and disaster that occurs, but God’s presence can be there even in the midst of it to see us through. Isaiah was saying, “This is not a time for you to lose your faith. I will honour and glorify God. I will praise God in the midst of this. He will send his angels. He will intervene, either in person or via his angels. Keep your faith.”
In one of the most profound of all the parables, near the end of the Gospel of Matthew, in Chapter 18, Jesus tells that incredible story, which I mentioned last week ironically, of the lost sheep. But what we don’t often read is the first verse, just before Jesus tells the story of the lost sheep, he says: “See to it that you don’t despise any of these little ones. (By that, he is talking about the vulnerable, the poor, the children, the people of the land, the lost ones.) The angels in heaven are always in the presence of my Father in heaven.” Even for the little ones, God has an eye on them. Even for the vulnerable ones, God has an eye on them. That is why I can say at night with a clear and simple theological confidence, “Lord, keep me safe this night, secure from all my fears. May angels guard me while I sleep till morning light appears.” Isaiah would say to a people in a nightmare, “Amen!”