160124 – The Marrying Type

Yr C ~ Epiphany 3 ~ Isaiah 62:1-5

Two weeks ago we looked at Isaiah 43:4 and revelled in God declaring “You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you” to each and every one of us. Last week we explored Nehemiah 8:6 and saw how when God’s Presence is revealed through scripture and prayer that the people’s response is to worship with joy and weeping. Worship is how we love God.
So, two weeks ago it’s God loves us, and last week it’s we love God, and this week – God pops the question!marrying-type

The context is that this scene takes place post exile (but just before last week’s text) – so the people have returned home but they’ve returned to ruins and destruction.
How do you think they feel? Well, it’s confusing – because they’re thrilled to be home and released from exile but they come home and are faced with the utter destruction and desolation of their land.

To make it more confusing instead of referring to the people as Israel or even Jerusalem, God calls them Zion – which is a word that associates with the religious identity of the Jewish people rather than just their geography, even as it refers to a holy mountain beside Jerusalem. But here it means the personification of the spiritual aspect of the people. Got it?

Now for the air-quotes: So, God is talking through “Isaiah” (although this is from third Isaiah and the actual Isaiah is long dead) to “Zion” (the people not the place) trying to convince “her” of “his” affection. (Easy, right?)

62:1 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.

You could forgive the people for thinking that while they were in exile God was being silent and punishing them, thinking poorly of them. Apparently God thought otherwise. Here God declares God will not keep silent – like you won’t be able to shut God up about this! The Hebrew here is really fun and reads something like “I will not hush or be shushed!” In fact, God says the people are so much in God’s love that it shines like the dawn or a burning torch! Hey, God “carries a torch” for us!

62:2 The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.

“Other kingdoms and nations will see how awesome you are,” says God. That would feel pretty good to a downtrodden people. But then the really great stuff comes. God says that Zion will be given a new name.

Ok, bible quiz time – Who got a new name in the bible, and why?

Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah when they accepted God’s invitation to journey in God’s way.

Jacob wrestled with an angel (or God) and came away with a limp (because wrestling with God leaves a mark!) and Jacob is renamed Israel which means one who wrestles, or strives, or persists with God.

Saul the persecutor of Christians became Paul the proclaimer of Christianity after he had a dramatic encounter with the Presence of God on the road to Damascus.

Simon the fisherman was renamed Peter the rock once he understood about Jesus.

A new name in the bible means a new trajectory for your life – a new understanding of God – and a deeper relationship and trust in God’s Presence.

So there’s all that, plus in a second God’s going to pop the question to Zion. In our classic tradition of marriage one partner (most often the woman) takes on a new last name which symbolizes a new identity as a family.

And think about the history of this place! Faith United didn’t exist 20 years ago. As two, and then three churches came together you assumed a new name, a new identity, new life in God.

62:4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called “Hephzibah” My Delight Is in Her, and your land “Beulah” Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.

Ok, stay with me here. It’s totally understandable why Israel felt forsaken and their land was desolate.

Have you ever experienced desolation? I think we all probably have in some way – some more than others of course. Maybe you’re there today. It is a hard, lonely, and dark place to be. It feels like everything and everyone is against you. So when you’re feeling forsaken how wonderful it is to be called someone’s beloved, to be assured that you are God’s beloved!

And into that darkness God shines light and says their new name is Hephzibah which means “my delight is in her!” Lovely.

Have you ever gone from desolation to delight? Sadly it doesn’t happen instantly. Often it takes a long time. But desolation is not the final word. As people of faith – as people tuning-in to God’s Presence in this place and every place – we are learning to see God’s light everywhere – even in the darkness, even in the desolation, and we can feel God’s love and know we’re not alone.

That’s how the people of Israel felt. God’s love and God’s Presence was moving them from desolation to delight!

Then it gets weird!

You shall be called My Delight Is in Her and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.

“Your land shall be married.” What on earth does this mean? Why would it be a good thing for the land to be married?

Remember that in ancient times there were two things they thought were essential for having a hope at a good life – descendants and land. That’s what Abraham was promised in the beginning. It remained the measuring stick for blessing in their culture. So the image of land being married is about land enjoying the benefits of marriage. What are those?
To be fruitful and multiply!

Zion is staring at desolate land and God assures them that their land will “be fruitful and multiply.” It’s a wonderful image!

The last verse is really complicated and confusing in Hebrew. The gist of it is a comparison saying that in the same way that young people marry so shall God marry “you” (the people) – and as the groom rejoices over the bride so shall God rejoice over you (the people).

We are strong supporters of equal marriage, but the bible only talks about it in classic boy/girl terms so that’s what we’ll refer to here.
So, in classic terms, who’s “the girl” in this relationship?
Zion is. Israel. The people of God. Us!!!

What does a groom do for the bride? In their culture it was crucial for a woman to be married. It meant status, protection, family, belonging, a purpose.

So the people, them, us, because of God’s love receive status, protection, a sense of family, and a purpose in life.
Our identity is transformed because of God’s love.
Our “name” is changed as we become one with God and our trajectory in life is reoriented. We are forever connected with God and we are forever in God’s loving care. That doesn’t mean bad stuff will never happen to us – marriage offers no such guarantees – but it does mean we don’t have to face it alone.

I don’t know about you but the metaphor of being married to God kind of blows my mind. It’s so intimate, so warm, so connected, so personal, so overflowing with love. And more than that God doesn’t just have affection for us but God metaphorically seals our bond with vows of commitment and steadfastness. And in turn and in response this binds us to God and God’s way in such a profound way that it compels us to live our lives as a reflection of that core loving relationship. It’s mindboggling how beautiful, and deep, and powerful this is!

The lectionary pairs this reading with wedding at Cana story in John 2. Think about what Jesus does at that wedding. He changes the water into wine. To be precise, he changes the water in six stone jars into wine – 6 jars holding 20 or 30 gallons each – that’s around 900 bottles of wine! What single word sums up that kind of action – and the invitation from God to be like we’re married to God? How about Abundance? Extravagance? Blessing? Flourishing? Transforming? Love?

Now, think about this.
What type of God do you think the people of Israel felt they were dealing with while they were in exile?
Pretty angry and judgmental, I’d think.
And what type of God is God revealing to them here?
Warm, loving, extravagant.

Did God change?

We say things like “God is the same yesterday, today, and always!” What we mean is that God’s character or essence never changes because God’s very being is love, so God is always love.
That means what changes is our perception.

The question isn’t “What type of God is God?” the question is “What type of God do you perceive God to be?”

You can pick from a wide variety of types of God!
The hard-core conservative’s God is all about morals (someone else’s usually, but that’s another sermon).
The prosperity preacher’s God is all about giving you the wealth you deserve.
The ‘Hallmark Card’ God is all about magic wands in rhyming couplets.

God-questionWhat is your God all about?

How do you know your vision of God is the right one?
Has your opinion of God changed or evolved over time?
Do you think it’ll change or evolve again?

Now for the big uncomfortable question: How do you know you’re not just making up a God that suits you?

This is why it’s imperative that we’re in a community of faith. A person who tries to be a solo spiritual person is in serious peril of deluding themselves.
So we stand in a tradition.
I dress in a robe and a stole and collar because it grounds me in a strong tradition even as I often push hard against it.

And this is also why God talks to Zion here and not individuals. You don’t marry God and I don’t marry God but we, as a people, as the body of Christ in this place, are metaphorically joined in marriage with God. And as partners in this marriage, God and you and I work together to try to get it right.

So, do we have it right? Is our interpretation correct? Is God the harsh type or the marrying type? Today’s scripture passage suggests the latter. But there are others where God seems very harsh and judgmental and unloving.
So what do we do?

We stand in the tradition.
We look beyond one or two verses and take the biblical witness as a whole.
We take our lived experience of sensing and savouring God’s Presence and add it to the mix.
We bounce our nutty ideas off one another and through dialogue, prayer, and discernment we come to as common an understanding as we can.
And for me, as I read scripture, and experience God’s Presence, I am absolutely convinced that God is the marrying type!

When I came up with that title I immediately flashed to a television show called “How I Met Your Mother.” For those who don’t know the show, it focuses on a man named Ted and his quest for love. One of Ted’s friends, Barney, is a womanizer, a player, lying, conniving, on the make, the king of the one night stand, absolutely terrified of a relationship – but Ted is the marrying type.

He’s a gooey romantic who wants to be in love not lust. Ted is kind, giving, thoughtful, caring about the other’s feelings, wanting the best for the other, honouring, respecting – who wants a house and kids and the responsibilities and benefits of a committed, loving relationship.
They don’t have any characters on the show that are harsh, unforgiving, chucking lightning bolts at wrong-doers and consigning people to hell.

And do you know what – the bible doesn’t have any characters like that either! Sometimes well-meaning but flawed people wrote about their perceived experience of God and those biased or limited glimpses became part of our scriptural legacy. And I do not doubt that such experiences were absolutely real and true for those people who wrote them down. But an experience does not create a fact, necessarily. And when you stack up the experiences of how God’s character has been revealed and perceived through the ages I think you will discover that the loving God eclipses the angry God by an overwhelming margin. Without a doubt, for me, God is the marrying type!

I believe the spiritual reality is that God loves us, no matter what.

I believe the faithful response to experiencing that love is to love God back.

And in this giving and receiving and sharing of love, God gets down on one knee (metaphorically speaking), and pops the question.

Will you say yes?