Isaiah 55:6-9 and Philippians 1:21-30
Different cultures have different “folk heroes” who show up in varied stories. In parts of India there is Ananse, a clever one. Baba Yaga, in Russian folklore, is kind of scary. In Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, it’s common to tell folk stories about a guy named Nusreddin, who Is just your average guy, beset with life’s problems. Sometimes Nusreddin is the hero of the story, sometimes he’s the one who gets tricked. Long before I knew that he was a character of wider I was amused by stories about him that showed up in a book I used to teach English at Cheng Kung University.
In one Nusreddin story, that is probably found in a lot of cultures, he returns home after dark, and in the darkness in front of his house he drops the key to the front door. A while later a friend passes by and finds Nusreddin searching for the key across the street under the single light that is there. While helping look for the key, and not finding it, the friend asks, “exactly where did you drop the key?” Nusreddin answers, “Over there, by my front door.” In surprise, the friend responds, “then why are we looking for it here?” to which Nusreddin answers quite plainly, “It’s so dark over there that we can never hope to find anything. That’s why we’re looking here, where there’s light.”
In life, we’re all seeking things. Our chances of finding them often depend on whether we’re standing in the right places or not.
For example, Last year I began following an online course in English Grammar which is free at a web-site called Khan Academy. After listening to a video, students are invited to ask questions about the topic. An “Introduction to Grammar” video begins the course, and many young students post the following question, “How do I become a great speaker of English?” I like to answer questions like this, and often will type, “You’re looking in the wrong place. Find a free online class in Speaking English.” Then I give people a link to a list of 25 free online English speaking courses.
I The Lord is Near (Isaiah 55:6-9)
Last week I heard a radio interview with the pastor of a Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles where most of the members are Mexican. He told how the members of his parish are responding to the recent earthquake in Mexico. He said that they are asking him to say WHY God would send such a destruction to a Catholic Country. They noted how in the past month floods and storms have hit parts of the United States where lots of Mexican and other Latin American Catholics reside, and have also devastated islands in the Caribbean Sea where the majority populations are also Spanish-speaking Catholic people. But before these Christians let their pastor respond, he said, they give their own answer. The End of the World is near. In fact, according to them, it was supposed to happen on September 23rd. Today is the 24th, and, sisters & brothers, We’re still here.
The biblical book of Isaiah, from which we read a few verses this afternoon, doesn’t indicate a day for the end of the world, but it does urge us to seek the Lord. We are to seek, NOT like Nusreddin who looked for his keys “where it was convenient”, or like young students wanting to learn something in the wrong classroom. We are told to seek while the Lord is near.
I guess that for this writer, he EITHER thought that at the time he was putting these words down it was a special season in the history of humankind, one in which the Lord was nearer than usual, OR he believed that the Lord was always near (which fits with Taiwanese folk religion in which there’s an expression, “lift your eyes three feet, the gods are everywhere!).
But whatever the writer of Isaiah may have been thinking about the time, he set some conditions for greater success. There are things that those of us who seek the Lord, who want to get answers, can do to increase the chance that we’ll be able to hear God’s response. The first is that those of us whose “spiritual ears” are blocked by wickedness should leave that way of life. The second is that those of us whose lives are pointed in directions different from those in which God communicates are to align ourselves with God’s direction. “Turn to the Lord, our God.”
That can be scary, though. To many of us, it might feel like walking past the police station when you know there is a warrant out for your arrest! But we’re told not to fear, because of the nature of God, who is merciful and forgiving.
Even then, though, we’re not guaranteed that we’ll understand whatever answer comes. God’s thoughts are not like ours, God’s ways are different from ours. I’m glad I’m YOUR pastor, not the guy with the Mexicans in his church, demanding an answer for why there have been storms and earthquakes where their friends and families reside. I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t indicate the end of the world, but I doubt that answer would satisfy anyone who is worried.
St Paul, who wrote the letter to the Philippians from which we read 10 verses this afternoon, was looking for “the best life”.
II Paul’s Search and Standing
St. Paul’s search inquiry went something like this: “Given that I’m with Christ whether here of in Heaven: and Given that I’m in jail now: What’s the best place to be?”
The question of living or dying is common. Many people whose lives have become difficult choose to end theirs. The 10th highest cause of death in the world is suicide. In the year 2015, all around the world, there were 828,000 suicides. More than 75% of those suicides happened in “The developing world.” Here in Taiwan, there are about 10 suicides every day.
It’s important to see the difference, though, because Paul isn’t debating suicide in these verses, he’s certain of his eternal destination and is not in a hurry to get there, just seems to be pondering the joy of eternity over against the joy of continuing to be useful to someone in his own “here and now”.
When we read the verses, the picture on the screen was of someone in jail. That’s because when Paul wrote this letter, he was in jail. He was like a political prisoner, held there not for anything he had “done” but for what he had “believed”, and for the inconvenience that his belief had caused the governing authorities where he lived.
Whatever he may have been seeking, he knew where he stood. Being in Jail in Rome, he was already half way to where he wanted to go, Spain. So, if he were to be released, he might go East for a short visit to his friends in Philippi, but his destination was west of Rome, in Spain.
He knew what he wanted and where he was.
Do you know what you want? Do you know where you are? Do you have the smallest idea why you can’t hear what God may be telling you about your search or your situation? Both places from which we read in the Bible today speak to us in our current situations.
III OUR Seeking and Standing
If, indeed, God is near… if the writer of Isaiah had it right when he wrote…, then accessing guidance for our lives as we go about seeking the next step is not a long distance phone call. We may need to adjust our lives in order to be able to hear more clearly, and that may mean making changes that we’d rather not, but it’s all possible.
I grew up in a culture where as young people we were warned at church of the dangers of smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. But I noted that next to the door between the parking lot and the church there was a place for people to put out their cigarettes before coming inside. Apparently it was permissible to smoke if you were someone’s mother or father, (both of MY parents smoked, a LOT) but not if you were one of the kids.
At church the youth group leaders were eager to keep kids from drinking beer. I heard that message quite loudly and frequently. At home, however, my parents, whom I never saw drunk, consumed many cans of beer every week. Had I been at church and heard Isaiah’s instruction about “the wicked person changing his way”, I would have thought of tobacco and beer. If the same verse were read at home, it would have sounded more like, “obey your parents.”
St. Paul wrote to the Phillipian Christians about his and their “standing place”. He was not scolding them, but encouraging them to “stand firm with one common purpose”, which was the gospel of Christ. They were of live as the gospel requires (but he mentioned nothing of tobacco or alcohol). According to what St Paul wrote, living as the gospel requires is about being courageous, about believing in God, and of serving Christ even though you may suffer in the process.
One of my graduate school professors, a Japanese man, asked me why I was taking advanced training in education. I responded that based on past experience in Taiwan, I was preparing to return here in missionary service. He responded with a story of his youth in university in Japan. He had become interested in Christianity because of the lives of his Christian classmates, so attended a few meetings with them. Thinking to go on to the next step, he made an appointment to speak privately with the foreign woman who was the group’s spiritual advisor. After a few nice exchanges to open up the conversation, she told him that if he really wanted to be a Christian he had to promise never to smoke, drink, or engage in any of the other “worldly” habits of Japanese youth in the 1950s. He said he would think about it, and never went back.
Sisters and brothers, there are many people in this world, perhaps even some of us here in this room, who are seeking a place to stand in relation to God who is eternal and everywhere, who promises us such joy that someone as “spiritual” as St. Paul even contemplated that he’d had enough of the troubles here and would like to “be with Christ”.
Nothing in what we read today was about alcohol, tobacco, sexuality, sex, use of ‘bad language’ or stuff like that. When any of us wants to draw near to God, it is a matter of taking advantage of the nearness that is already ours. When any of us here wants to “stand with God”, it is a matter of standing with each other.
Turning to the Lord, as we read in Isaiah, is a matter of turning to each other in love, acceptance, courage and mutual support. In the week to come, if and when you feel a need for more “God” in your life, spend some time with another believing friend in mutual encouragement and enjoyment. You’ll be ‘oriented’ in the direction you need.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN