Certainty in uncertain times

Isaiah 63:7-9

2019 in review

Let us take a quick look back over 2019.  In South-Africa, this was the year of:

  • Riots
  • Fires
  • Division
  • Drought, with many Eastern Cape towns being without water
  • While also being the year of floods and cyclones.
  • The Zondo Commission
  • Stage 6 Loadshedding
  • This was the year where people, for the first time, took note of the levels of violence against women in this country, when women finally stood up and said:  “enough!”
  • Hoërskool Driehoek tragedy
  • National election
  • Xenophobia – still
  • Robert Mugabe passed away
  • The DA was reshuffled

It was also, for SA, a year of victories:

  • World Cup Rugby
  • Miss Universe
  • Africa Netball
  • Women’s 7’s African Champions
  • Jnr World Ballet Champions
  • Etc.

Internationally, just a few reminders:

  • Mosque attacks in New Zealand
  • Notre Damme burned
  • Easter bombings in Sri Lanka
  • Increasing political division
  • Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas

What about your personal life?  What are you thankful for?  What were the disappointments, the losses?

2019’s search

Every year, Google keeps a record of what people search for on the internet.  This serves as an indication of what is going on globally, of social shifts.  At the end of the year, they make a video overview of the year’s searches. Here is Google’s video of 2019’s internet searches, globally. (Watch it!)

In 2019, people were looking for heroes.  According to Google, this is what we do in times of uncertainty. 

Remember

If you will allow me some theological creativity, let’s call today’s scripture reading – this Psalm in Isaiah – a “Hero Psalm”.  It starts with the words:

      I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD

Which can also be translated as:  “I will remember.” 

This is a remember-Psalm, reminding people of who God is and what God did.  Because we struggle with amnesia.  We can’t even remember what happened this year! 

What this Psalm does, is remind us of things we already know.  Like when you start telling children a story and they yell, “I know this one!” Which is not to say, “stop telling it”,  but means, “Yes!  I love this story!  Tell it!”

This remember-hero-Psalm says some wonderful things about God.  Let’s have a look at what the text says about God (which might not all be clear at first glance, since this short text has several translation issues).

Steadfast Love

    63:7 I will tell of the faithful acts of the LORD,

    of the LORD’s praiseworthy deeds.

    I will tell about all the LORD did for us,

    the many good things he did for the family of Israel,

    because of his compassion and great faithfulness.

    63:8 He said, “Certainly they will be my people,

    children who are not disloyal.”

    He became their deliverer.

    63:9 Through all that they suffered, he suffered too.

    The messenger sent from his very presence delivered them.

    In his love and mercy he protected them;

    he lifted them up and carried them throughout ancient times.

This is חַֽסְדֵ֨י hesed – loyal, faithful, steadfast love.  This is an all-encompassing, eternal love.  It is a covenant relationship that is unbreakable and will last eternally.   

Abundant

    63:7 I will tell of the faithful acts of the LORD,

    of the LORD’s praiseworthy deeds.

    I will tell about all the LORD did for us,

    the many good things he did for the family of Israel,

    because of his compassion and great faithfulness.

    63:8 He said, “Certainly they will be my people,

    children who are not disloyal.”

    He became their deliverer.

    63:9 Through all that they suffered, he suffered too.

    The messenger sent from his very presence delivered them.

    In his love and mercy he protected them;

    he lifted them up and carried them throughout ancient times.

God did a multitude, an abundance of good things with an abundance of hesed – steadfast love.  God’s love is not stingy.  God loves abundantly.

Like a parent

    63:7 I will tell of the faithful acts of the LORD,

    of the LORD’s praiseworthy deeds.

    I will tell about all the LORD did for us,

    the many good things he did for the family of Israel,

    because of his compassion and great faithfulness.

    63:8 He said, “Certainly they will be my people,

    children who are not disloyal.”

    He became their deliverer.

    63:9 Through all that they suffered, he suffered too.

    The messenger sent from his very presence delivered them.

    In his love and mercy he protected them;

    he lifted them up and carried them throughout ancient times.

God’s parental love might not be all that obvious in the translation, so we tend to miss it.  But the Isaiah Psalm uses the most beautiful parental imagery to describe God’s loving care.

The root of the word translated as “compassion” in verse 7, is רֶ֫חֶם  rehem womb.  God’s love comes from the womb.  This imagery is affirmed in verse 8, where the people are called God’s children, and then developed further in verse 9, describing God as lifting up the people and carrying them – as a parent would do. 

This is an intimate, close, personal love – a love that gives birth, declares a nation to be children; a love that cares and protects.

Caring

Which brings us to the next characteristic of God in these few verses:

    63:7 I will tell of the faithful acts of the LORD,

    of the LORD’s praiseworthy deeds.

    I will tell about all the LORD did for us,

    the many good things he did for the family of Israel,

    because of his compassion and great faithfulness.

    63:8 He said, “Certainly they will be my people,

    children who are not disloyal.”

    He became their deliverer.

    63:9 Through all that they suffered, he suffered too.

    The messenger sent from his very presence delivered them.

    In his love and mercy he protected them;

    he lifted them up and carried them throughout ancient times.

God is caring, God’s love being seen in words like “good things” (טוּב tub – best things, prosperity, beauty, happiness, well-being) and “mercy”.

Redeeming

    63:7 I will tell of the faithful acts of the LORD,

    of the LORD’s praiseworthy deeds.

    I will tell about all the LORD did for us,

    the many good things he did for the family of Israel,

    because of his compassion and great faithfulness.

    63:8 He said, “Certainly they will be my people,

    children who are not disloyal.”

    He became their deliverer.

    63:9 Through all that they suffered, he suffered too.

    The messenger sent from his very presence delivered them.

    In his love and mercy he protected [redeemed] them;

    he lifted them up and carried them throughout ancient times.

And God’s love is redeeming.  It doesn’t leave people where they are, but redeems and frees them. 

What a beautiful word-picture!  If it is true that we are looking for heroes – what an amazing hero!

Lament

However, the thing about this hero-Psalm, is that it is in the midst of a desperate lament.  If we read the wider context, the rest of Isaiah 63 and 64, we read a desperate cry for mercy.

If we read this hero-Psalm on its own, it might seem like everything is going hunky dory.  That everything will always be hunky dory.   But this Psalm is part of a bigger whole of mourning and crying.

This Psalm is the product of a time of disruption and uncertainty.  The people were carried away in exile. Theologically, economically, socially, in every possible way, the carpet was pulled out from under their feet.  Eventually they returned to the ruins of what used to be their land, their temple, and started the arduous process of rebuilding.  But their old ways of thinking didn’t work anymore.  The old answers were empty.  This was truly a time of uncertainty. 

It is amidst this uncertainty, that we find this beautiful Psalm.  The only piece of certainty among the questions and the rubble. 

I can unequivocally state that 2019 has been the worst year of my life.  It was a year of loss.  The theme of 2019, for me, is loss, disruption, liminality.  And I’m not alone.  Collectively, we are disrupted.  It is not for nothing that people searched for heroes on Google.  In South Africa we live with drought, crime, corruption, economic decline.  Not to mention all our own, personal losses and disappointments and worries.

Then the old answers just don’t work that well anymore. 

But I know, from personal experience – and I hope you know – just like the Israelites knew – that the things of this Psalm remain, even amidst uncertainty.  God is constant.  God’s love is constant.  No matter what.  God’s presence with us is constant, no matter how much disruption and uncertainty there is. 

Different from the heroes

What strikes me, however, is how radically different this picture of God is from the movie depictions of heroes, from the stories people tell.

I like Captain Marvel.  She’s strong. Almost too strong.  With the wave of her hand, she can fix everything.  She is often absent, simply because she is too strong – if she were there, there would be no story-line! 

These are the kind of heroes we look for.  Heroes that make everything well again, that wave a hand, and everything is fixed.

But the God we meet in the Bible, is a God of love and presence.  God is different from the heroes that people make up.  God became human.  Not Superman, but a baby – vulnerable, small, wrapped in cloth in a manger.

God came and stood with us, in our vulnerability.  In our sin, God came and redeemed us.  Not by the wave of a hand, but again in vulnerability – by dying on a cross.  By taking our pain and failures on himself.

We might be looking for the hero who just waves a hand, but God is like a parent who is with us, holding us with a steadfast love. 

God’s love and goodness is not dependent on our circumstances.  No matter what is going on in our lives, how well it is going – or not – God’s love and care is with us.    

2020

Where does that leave us, at the beginning of 2020?  It seems like people are convinced that 2020 is going to be different, is going to be an amazing year of prosperity and victory – simply because it is a new decade and sounds catchy on the ear.

Chances are that life is going to be life, even in 2020.  Perhaps it will be a wonderful year.  But there will still be disappointment and loss.  We know this. 

The future is uncertain.  But God’s love – God’s steadfast love – that is certain.  No matter what happened in 2019.  No matter what is waiting for us in 2020.  God’s loving presence, care and redemption is also waiting for us.

Indeed, we can look forward to 2020, enter the year with excitement and celebration.  Amidst the uncertainty, God’s love is certain.

The Lord is before you to make the path straight.

The Lord is beside you to hold you in his arms.

The Lord is behind you to defeat the attacks of evil.

The Lord is below you to carry you if you fall.

The Lord is around you to protect you.

The Lord is above you to bless you.

The Lord is in you to guide you with his Holy Spirit.

The triune God is with you, now and forever.

Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s