“Unexpected Miracles” A Sermon on Isaiah 43: 16-21

Last spring, when your pastors Bruce and Barb invited me to come be with you I didn’t realize that I would be with you on a momentous day. For today is the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended The First World War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. So before this service is over we will have reached that centenary.

The Armistice ended what was then the bloodiest war in human history. It was called the Great War then, and the War to end all wars. Sadly, that was not the case. A baby boy born in London at the exact hour of the Armistice was named Pax, Latin for Peace. It was a name full of promise and hope for a peaceful world. 20 years later Pax was killed in battle in what would become known as “The Second World War.”

In 1954 President Eisenhower signed a bill declaring the holiday Veterans Day to honor all veterans, living or dead. It remains a day to honor veterans, as you have done today, and to pray for a world that knows the Peace that God intends for it.

My sermon today is called “Unexpected Miracles” and a world without war might be the greatest miracle of all.

So what is an unexpected miracle? That was what my friend Ed asked me as we walked along the shore of Onota Lake on Thursday. What a beautiful day that was. The sun was shining, there were still brilliant colors on the leaves on the Taconic Hills, and some great big fluffy clouds.

My friend Ed, a frequent walking companion and interlocutor of mine, asked me what I was doing this weekend and I told him I was coming to Littleton to preach. “What are you preaching on?” he asked me. I said, “Unexpected Miracles.” He wondered aloud, “What is an unexpected miracle?”

Ed retired as a partner in an Insurance firm, and by his own admission is no theologian. That’s why he is so helpful to talk to when I’m ruminating on a sermon. Still, Ed is a former congregant of mine, and sat under my preaching for 22 years, so he knows a thing or two. So I asked him, “What is the most important story in the Old Testament?” “I give up,” Ed said. “The Exodus!” I said.

“Ed, I’ll give you another chance, what is the most important story in the New Testament?” “You tell me, he said. “The Resurrection!” I said.

“Those are unexpected miracles!” “One more question: what are the conditions necessary for unexpected miracles?” Ed got this one just right. “They can’t be expected.”

That’s right, but I would take it even further. They are not only unexpected they are unimaginable! The conditions must be dire, hopeless. In the Exodus story the Hebrew slaves couldn’t have imagined that Moses could lead them out of bondage into freedom.

Likewise, on Good Friday the disciples couldn’t have imagined that Jesus would rise from the dead. St. Luke gives us a vivid picture of the kind of despair the followers of Jesus had in his story of the Road to Emmaus. Their high hopes were utterly dashed. And St. John describes how the disciples were hiding in a locked room the evening of the first Easter, fearful, hopeless.

And it was at one of those “out of luck,” “no hope,” “dead end” moments that we get our reading from the prophet Isaiah today.

Here is a little back-story for you. Since ancient Israel figures so prominently in our Biblical story it is easy for us to forget that it was never a great power, but a tiny nation perpetually stuck between rising great powers to its north and south.

Israel did have a brief heyday under the monarchies of King David and his son Solomon, but after that it was pretty much downhill. The kingdom split in two and had a succession of more or less corrupt kings.

Finally, in 587 BC, after a long and horrific siege, the powerful Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem. And they did a very thorough job of extinguishing the national flame of Israel. The three foundations of Israel’s identity at the time were 1. The monarchy. 2. The Temple. and 3. The land.

So first the Babylonian conquerors murdered the king’s sons before his eyes, put his eyes out and took him captive to Babylon to live out his days. Then they burned the Temple to the ground, along with most of the rest of Jerusalem, and they took ten thousand of the most important surviving citizens in chains back to Babylon, where they stayed in exile for 60 years.

And it is out of this dire period that some of the most profound theology in the Bible was forged, as Israel wrestled with the question of what kind of God must this be who allowed (or perhaps even made) such things to take place. From this period we get the Book of Job’s profound wrestling with the question of evil, we get a handful of our favorite Psalms, and perhaps, most of all, we get Isaiah of the Exile, who didn’t know at the time that he was writing a good bit of the words for Handel’s Messiah.

So, post-exilic Israel had all the necessary conditions for an unexpected miracle. Their important things were lost and gone. They had lost their land. They had no monarchy. They had no place to worship. They were in exile, far from home, far from their beloved Zion.

Psalm 137, made famous as a song in Godspell, expresses their lament for their lost life:

“By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
But how could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?”

That is the context in which God speaks to (or through) Isaiah, and announces to the exiles “ I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

God reminds the despairing people who they are and who he is. “I am the Lord, your Holy One.” I am the Creator.” Remember me?  I made a way in the sea where there was no way. I rescued you from Pharaoh’s chariots.

There is an old Spiritual from the days of slavery called “Oh Mary don’t you Weep.”  Like many slave songs it had a coded message. One of the verses says:

“The very moment I thought I was lost
The dungeon shook and the chains fell off
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
Oh Mary don’t you weep!”

These African American slaves may have been singing of an ancient Egyptian King, the oppressor who kept the Hebrew slaves in bondage, but they were singing out of their own experience. They were singing in hope and promise about the liberator God who frees those in bondage and leads them to freedom. Because Scripture casts long shadows, giving new meaning in new circumstances. The old, old story becomes new in new contexts.

The Bible is not a story about the triumph of human accomplishment. There are few heroes in its story. Its story, which is our story, is a different kind of story.

It is a story of unexpected miracles, implausible outcomes, improbable second chances. It is a story about ordinary people becoming caught up in extraordinary events.

It is, above all, the story about God, who uses those ordinary people for his own purposes, which are hidden and unpredictable. Think for a moment about the people God calls and uses. They are often the last and the least in society. They are often very old or very young. God calls old people like Abraham and Sarah, who as Fred Buechner once wrote, had “one foot in the grave and one foot in the maternity ward.”

Or God uses young people of little standing such as David, the youngest son, or Mary, an unwed pregnant young teen.

Or God calls the unqualified like Moses, to be his spokesman, although Moses has a stutter. And God calls Jacob, a stinker, a scoundrel and a schemer, to carry the Promise.

Or God calls the women, who had little standing in a Patriarchy, like those two brave Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh and saved the Hebrew boy babies.

And remember that it was women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection, whose witness was dismissed by the all male disciples as “an idle tale.”

This is our God, the mysterious, often hidden, unexpected One. The God who makes a way where there is “no way!” So God says to broken Israel in exile, “I made a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters. This is a reminder of the Exodus across the Red Sea waters.

And then God says to them, “Now I am going to make a way in the wilderness.” Don’t focus on the former things! I am doing something new, something unexpected, something unimaginable. Look for it! Pay attention for the new thing I am doing.

Now I love my friend Ed, who my family calls Uncle Eddie, even though we aren’t related, but he has a saying that I am hearing more and more from people. Perhaps you are hearing it, too? Ed likes to say, “It is what it is!” I’ve even said it myself!

And there is a kind of factual truth to it, but it seems too fatalistic to me. It implies, at least to me, that what is must be what will be.

And since I belong to a community that believes in unexpected miracles, I don’t know what will be. None of us does. We didn’t get to choose when we were born and we don’t know when we will die. We don’t know the future. But we do know the reality of the God who is doing a new thing, who makes a way where there seems to be no way.

I admit that Ed has a right to say it, since he almost died a couple of years ago. He had a sudden heart attack, and the doctors rushed him to the hospital, discovered that his coronary arteries were clogged, and installed two stents in him. So when Ed and I walk at the lake we do not take life for granted. As we looked at the golden day, I said to him, “what a beautiful day,” and he said, “Any day I wake up alive is a beautiful day. You might say that I am an unexpected miracle!” And Ed would be right. He is an unexpected miracle.

And I am also an unexpected miracle! Eighteen years ago I had a catastrophic bicycle crash that broke my body and my brain. My body healed, but my brain didn’t, since I had suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI. Like Humpty Dumpty I couldn’t be put back together again.

And I lost many of the things that I loved. I couldn’t taste my food, I couldn’t listen and enjoy music, I couldn’t concentrate to read or write, and I had a hard time going to sleep. I lost my health, and eventually I had to retire, so I lost my job, my vocation, my community, and, since I lived in a parsonage, my home.

So I know something about loss and grief and despair. And I was ill for over a decade.

And then something unexpected happened: I got better. It didn’t happen in an instant, but it happened. My depression lifted, and some of my neurological impairments improved somewhat. It turns out that the brain is more adaptive than they used to believe, and undamaged parts of the brain “come off the bench” and help out with functions that the damaged parts can no longer do.

So I got better. I started doing some preaching again. My daughter is a UCC minister and she asked me to preach at her ordination. I was asked to write for the UCC Still Speaking Writers’ Group. I’ve now written more than a hundred devotions for them.

So the last six years of my life have been a extraordinary unexpected gift. Lovely things have happened in my life. Both my children married people we love and they started having children, and now I’m a grandpa twice over with another one due this week. So I am filled with gratitude for the restoration of my life.

And I’d like to be able to tell you I did something heroic to get better, or had great faith, but it wouldn’t be the truth. When you’re as sick as I was even faith seemed like yet another of my losses.

So the Biblical story of unexpected miracles resonates with me because my own restoration seemed so unimaginable to me. And it wasn’t anything I did.

But I had lots of help. I know Pastor Bruce and Pastor Barb have been preaching about the miracles of community and congregation. I think about all the people that helped me, supported me, and loved me, even when I was pretty unlovable. First and foremost, my wife, Martha. And my two children. And my extended family and friends, and some great doctors. And in time Martha and I found a new congregation that accepted and loved us.

So I want to testify to you today about grace, the free gift of love, which comes unexpected and undeserved, but comes nevertheless. Comes as an unexpected miracle.

The Christian Story is a story about a God who rescues, restores, liberates, heals, and forgives. This story shapes our life together, it tells us who God is and who we are as God’s people.

And you know, I never finished the story of those poor Exiles in Babylon. They got to go home. God found a Way. In the geopolitical world of the Ancient Middle East a new power arose: Persia, which is modern day Iran. They conquered Babylon (which by the way is modern day Iraq). And the King of Persia, Cyrus, freed the exiles and let them go back to Zion.

The God who makes a way where there is no way made a way. And after Jesus died on a cross on a lonely hill in Jerusalem, and there seemed no way for the story to go on, God found a way.

And then the disciples remembered that Jesus had called himself the Way, the truth and the life. And the little movement that he started, long before it was given the name Christian, called itself “The Way.”

And here we are two thousand years later still worshipping the God who finds a way where there is no way, and watching with our eyes (and faithful imaginations) for the new thing that God is about to do. In our world, in our community, in our congregation, in our lives.

You are people of the Way. You are one of God’s unexpected miracles. Amen.

(I preached this sermon on November 11, 2018 at the Congregational Church of Littleton, Massachusetts. Photo, R.L. Floyd, 2012)

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