Image Description: The entrance to the Strasbourg Cathedral. It is gothic architecture with a round stained glass window. Public domain.
This sermon was preached at Northside Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan and was focused upon Isaiah 49:1-7. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
“It is too light a thing…” these words of prophesy say. Too small. If there’s anything that the people of Judah felt – the people of Judah from the Southern Kingdom of Israel – I’m sure it involved a day-to-day reality of feeling ‘too small.’ We’re distanced in time from the people who are addressed in this passage, distant in culture, distant in experience, so it’s hard to wrap our minds around the suffering these people were enduring. Too small: It would have been easy for the people of Judah to feel like the nobodies of their world.
This is connected to trauma. It’s connected to the utter upheaval of the year 587 BC. To us, that’s just a number, but to the people of Judah, that year was the watershed moment. It wasn’t the beginning of their conflict with the Babylonians, but 587 was the year that solidified Judah’s defeat. The Kingdom of Babylon was a force to be reckoned with, not only in Judah but in the entire region of the near-east. With Babylon on the prowl as an ever-expanding empire, the other kingdoms of that region were terrified, fearing that their own destruction was imminent.
And this brings us to a quick history lesson: In 597, ten years before the final defeat of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar II, the King of Babylon, led an army to Jerusalem and put the city under siege, cutting the people off from food and safe access in and outside the city. The Babylonians weakened the city to the point that they eventually broke through the walls, and when they did, they wreaked havoc on Jerusalem. They plundered the city and the temple, the most sacred place of worship and self-identity for the people of Judah, and they deported the King of Judah along with 10,000 others, prominent leaders in the government and the religious establishment. The people of Judah were left with a sweeping void of leadership. And as difficult as that was, it was only a taste, only the beginning of the end concerning the life that the people knew in Judah.
And then ten years later, in 587 BC – the watershed moment – Babylon left nothing untouched. For two years the Babylonians put Jerusalem under another siege, cutting the people off from the outside world, and in 587, they broke through the walls, destroyed the city for a second round – homes, fields, lives – and made captives of nearly all the survivors. But before they moved the captives of Judah into the foreign land of Babylon, the Babylonians gave them a searing, final, ghastly image to take with them. The Babylonian army burned the temple to the ground – made dust of it, destroying the most sacred place of these people – destroying the house where they believed their God dwelt with them. Can you imagine the sorrow of that moment? Can you imagine the fear? The confusion?
And so the people of Judah were taken to live in a foreign land – a place they had never lived with foreign customs, a different language, a worldview not their own, and ways of worshipping gods that weren’t their own. They were a disenfranchised, defeated, second-class group of captive exiles. And they were put into spiritual confusion too: Where was their God? Had God abandoned them? Is it any wonder that the people of Judah believed they were too small in their world? They had lost almost everything. Too small. Too small for this world to care. And perhaps, they wondered, too small for their God to care.
But God had something to say about that. In the Book of Isaiah, a prophet arrives with a Word for the people, a Word of Hope from their God, a Word of Identity. In effect, these prophetic words are flying in the face of all the heartache that the Judeans are witnessing in their lives. The words seem to say, “Don’t you know Whose you are? And since you belong to a God who loves, a God who saves, and a God who claims, don’t you know who you are called to be? Don’t you know Whose you are?” The words from our passage today seem to rise up out of the ashes, creating an alternative vision for the future of Judah, for the future of the Jewish people, and the future of all those who put their faith, trust, and hope in God.
Too small for this world? No. Through the words of the prophet, God has something to say about that self-understanding. In these words, God turns that self-understanding on its head. “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb God named me. . . And God said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’
Too small an identity? No. Here’s what’s too small: “And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him. . . God says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” It is too light a thing – too small a thing – for you Judah, people of Israel, to gather up your own tribes and restore your survivors. That’s huge, but it’s too small. You are a light to the nations, that salvation may reach everywhere! Do you know Whose you are?
What a message. The prophet’s message seems to rise out of the ashes. Babylonian dust will not be the last word. And it wasn’t. Without God’s pledge of love toward the people of Judah, we wouldn’t even have a Hebrew Bible to hear these words this morning – to know about the heartache of exile and the eventual return to the homeland. Nearly 70 years later, people of Judah did leave Babylon and return to their homeland, and our identity is connected to theirs. Our faith is sustained upon their convictions. When they returned, they assembled the texts of the Hebrew Bible. Apart from their testimony, we would not be who we are. A disenfranchised, defeated, second-class group of captive exiles, empowered by God, articulated a faith that sustains people in every corner in our world. The Judeans returned to their homeland, something nearly unthinkable. And then people of Judah spoke hope to the entire world.
Sometimes it takes going to a different place to perceive home in a new way. Ten years ago, I took a meaningful trip to Germany. It was an incredible time, filled with gorgeous views, and interesting history. And while on that journey, we took an impromptu day-trip to France. We crossed the border between Germany and France and stayed one night in Strasbourg. There were many points of interest in Strasbourg – including a church where John Calvin, the influential theologian of the Presbyterian tradition, was pastor for three years, and we just unexpectedly stumbled upon it when we turned a corner on a Sunday morning. There was much to see, but without a doubt, the most awe-inspiring place we visited was the Strasbourg Cathedral. It’s really an understatement to say it’s awe inspiring. The Strasbourg Cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Construction for the building began in the 1100s. Now that’s old! And it was completed in the 1400s. For three hundred years, eight generations of people created a sacred monument which is more intricate than anything I’ve ever seen. Everywhere you look, there’s a carving here, a statue there, stained-glass windows towering everywhere. It’s as if everything has significance in this cathedral – all the details — and as I stood in awe of it, all the intricate parts seemed to point in a unified direction toward God, toward what’s most ultimate.
And I’m enough of a realist to know that when a city spends three hundred years building a cathedral, part of the reasoning behind it is to flex a muscle toward other cities. But that being said, the vision for this cathedral seemed to be large, and I would even say cosmic. The structure is built in the shape of a huge cross, and signs in the cathedral said that it was created to represent a ship to bring all of humanity to God. All humanity. There’s nothing ‘too small’ about that.
But even if this cathedral was built in part to flex a very large muscle, I have to say that as I looked around, I found myself in complete awe, reflecting upon how much faith it must have taken to build this structure, this cathedral for all of humanity. After all, only a strong faith in God’s presence would be worth this much time, and this much effort, and this much money. Perhaps the builders of the Strasbourg Cathedral felt connected to Whose they are.
And it must have taken so much faith in one another as well. It would have been difficult to put that much wealth, and time, and talent, and sweat into such an endeavor, only to know that you wouldn’t see it completed in your lifetime. Eight generations of lives, of individuals and communities, created this beautiful church. I wonder, did the innumerable people who contributed to this work feel that their part – no matter how small, no matter how detailed – was infinitely larger than themselves? I wonder, were they in any way aware that they were not too small for this world, that they were part of something larger than they could imagine? Today that Cathedral speaks to innumerable tourists who visit the city of Strasbourg. Nine hundred years later, a structure which was begun in a very different time period, acts as a witness, pointing toward God and community for the benefit of the entire world. Anything less would be too small.
And here we are together on an ordinary Sunday morning, but if our vision for this moment is mundane, we’re playing our faith too small. Much too small. Northside Presbyterian Church hasn’t experienced anything close to a Babylonian exile – though I’m sure if we reflected deeply enough, we might all discover that we’ve felt internally exiled in one form or another throughout our lives.
And we remember people in our community and beyond our community whose ancestors have experienced trauma and upheaval. During this holiday weekend in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., we remember African-American people along with their ancestors who have experienced slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and disenfranchisement. We remember refugees and migrants who are viewed with suspicion and treated as second-class people.
We are called to proclaim hope, and we are called to enact hope and justice in the face of these wrongs.
Though we’re grateful for this sanctuary where we worship, Northside Presbyterian Church isn’t housed in a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. But we would be missing something on this ordinary morning together if we forgot to remind ourselves in this moment of Whose we are. And we would be missing something if we forgot who we are, who we are in light of the amazing pledge and claim of God in our lives.
And so I turn the question to this church today– this holy, beloved community of God. Do you know Whose you are? Do you know how you’ve been claimed? Do you know who you’re called to be? Do you know that it would be too small a thing if we viewed ourselves as simple sanctuary dwellers this morning? No, it would be too small a thing for us to sit in these chairs and miss the mystery of God’s Spirit in one another. You are surrounded by a holy community – neighbors, and friends. And they contain worlds – yes, actual worlds within themselves. Have you ever thought about how every person is a community of worlds – how they represent people, and places, and memories, and experiences? Do you know that you represent people, and places, and memories, and experiences? Because of Whose you are, you bring all of that to this place. You bring all the worlds you carry within you – yes, to this moment.
And as we do it, we too are pointing to God’s presence. We bring our worlds – our people, and places, and memories, and experiences – and we share them with one another. It would be too small a thing for them to serve our own salvation and healing. Friends, let Northside Presbyterian Church be a community, a monument, and a nexus of relationships created for the wholeness also beyond this community, this building, and this nexus of relationships. May all our worlds serve this larger world. This expansive world. This beyond-our-world world.
Nothing you do is insignificant because of Whose you are. Nothing is insignificant.
Be Whose you are.