Monday, February 5, 2018

"Rise Up! Focus" - Sermon, February 4, 2018

Community UMC, Quincy
“Rise Up! Focus”
Pastor Andrew Davis
February 4, 2018
Isaiah 40: 21-31

            A few days ago, my dad shared a photo on my Facebook wall of a church sign that asked “how many verses in the Bible are about ‘Eagles’ and ‘Patriots?’ The answer was Eagles, 33, Patriots, 0.  Over the last couple weeks, the running commentary among many of us has been that God seems to have a sense of humor about the Super Bowl this year, given that our scripture reading from Isaiah is one of the passages that has eagles in it and the fact that the Philadelphia Eagles will be playing the New England Patriots around 3:00 this afternoon.  It’s a strange coincidence that this particular reading would fall on Super Bowl Sunday, as it had been selected quite a few years back when the Lectionary readings for 2018 were assigned, even though we never know who is going to play who year from year.  Since I generally stick with the Revised Common Lectionary, a cycle of four readings each Sunday, I couldn’t help but laugh about seeing the eagles come up in the scripture, with profound apologies to any Patriots fans this morning. 
In all reality, I actually don’t believe that God has any preferences as to whether the Patriots or Eagles win (even amidst the scripture), although I do believe that God prefers that we focus on a good game being played, good sportsmanship, and that nobody is injured.  It’s also a timely focus with the Winter Olympics opening in Peyongchang, South Korea this Friday (and I do LOVE the Olympics with their ideals of world peace, sport, culture, and education).  With so many fun events happening around us and in the world right now, it’s easy for our focus to be a little bit swayed, not that we can’t enjoy sporting events or have a little fun, because we do need a chance to play or rest too (like I’ll be doing this week as I take some vacation time to rest and renew in time for Lent).
            As we engage with our text from Isaiah, the prophet puts it pretty square that God is our primary focus on the journey of faith.  Our passage from Isaiah is in what many scholars call second Isaiah, which was written around the end of the Babylonian captivity, when the Israelite community could return to their land and begin a new future after being held in Babylon for seventy years.  The prophet reminds the people that it is God’s majesty that has been at work this whole time and that God had always been and will always be with the people.  At the same time, the author admonishes the people not to forget everything God has done in their lives.  As Professor Charles L. Aaron Jr. of Perkins School of Theology puts it,
Here in this part of Isaiah 40, the prophet adopts almost a pleading tone, as he invites the people to reflect back on the understandings of God that initially brought them together and initially drew them into a relationship with God. The insistent tone of the questions seems perhaps designed to shake up the people, to force them to consider the questions the prophet asks.[i]

            The call to reflect back on what God has done is a renewed call to focus on how great God has been through all the ages and to focus on how great God will continue to be in ages to come; that God is above anything in this universe, even big enough to handle our anger, our fear, our cries, and is even bigger than the kings and kingdoms of this world as pointed out in the modern readings we heard.  God is above all things of the earth and that’s where we need to keep our focus on.
I say all of this in the midst of some great losses in my extended family these last couple weeks, as my family on my mom’s side lost two aunts who were the last of their generations, along with a couple good friends we have known for quite awhile, although one was still considered too young to leave this earth.  Amidst our earthly grief and how easy it can be to disrupt our focus, we know through our faith that God is good all the time, God is majestic and above all things, and that God will bring us back together when our own times on earth are done.  God is our everlasting God, which the prophet reminds the people and reminds us too. 
Any time that there is loss gives us a new focus that life is precious and cannot be taken for granted.  And even though Jesus gives us the promise and hope of resurrection, we still grieve.  Yet, we can rise on wings like eagles, and have renewed strength by keeping our focus on God, hence why this morning’s scripture is one that I have heard read at memorial services. 
Even here in the church, we keep looking forward as we face the future together, even if we may not be sure what the future holds.  Charles Aaron Jr. says that
The contemporary church cannot go “back” to anything. The church can only move forward into an uncertain world. Where would we start with the problems the church faces? Declining numbers and influence. A divided society that cannot seem to communicate. Threats both international and homegrown. What does the church need moving into that future? This passage offers a call to harken back to the faith that formed the church. That faith includes God’s power and creativity as well as the affirmation that God sees and knows us. God cares for us. God can give the church the energy it needs to move into an uncertain future. Although these words originally spoke to people whose faith might have faded nearly away, they can speak persuasively to people whose faith is shaky and tentative. They can speak a word of courage to those who see reason for fear in what the church faces.[ii]

Even when the future seems uncertain, both here in the church, in our world, or in our own lives, Isaiah gives us a reminder that our focus should be that God is with us no matter what; that God is above everything in this world; and by holding fast to our faith and fully trusting God, we can face together whatever lies before us with courage and strength (like mounting on the wings of eagles).  As I saw the end of a generation in my extended family almost two weeks ago, I look toward our future generations and while I feel a great sense of hope whenever I interact with our kids here in our church, a new report from The Barna Group gives me some pause and stuff to wrestle with and wrestle hard. 
            Last week, I read a report from The Barna Group that studies religious trends among the different generations that may not exactly sound hopeful.  Although being the sometimes foolish optimist that I am, I see a golden opportunity in the midst of what may feel like doom and gloom.  According to The Barna Group’s latest report,
It may come as no surprise that the influence of Christianity in the United States is waning. Rates of church attendance, religious affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible-reading have been dropping for decades. Americans’ beliefs are becoming more post-Christian and, concurrently, religious identity is changing.
Enter Generation Z: Born between 1999 and 2015, they are the first truly “post-Christian” generation. More than any other generation before them, Gen Z does not assert a religious identity. They might be drawn to things spiritual, but with a vastly different starting point from previous generations, many of whom received a basic education on the Bible and Christianity. And it shows: The percentage of Gen Z that identifies as atheist is double that of the U.S. adult population.[iii]
            Even when it is easy to focus on the doom and gloom aspects of an uncertain future or lament the loss of influence that the church once had in society, the good news is that God is still with us, and God’s grace is still available to all (or as Methodism’s founder, John Wesley calls it, prevenient grace, God’s grace that is there before people come to believe). 
When we see a text like we have from Isaiah this morning, Rev. Dr. B. Kevin Smalls explains that
we are invited to consider something that's not easy. We are invited to trust God no matter how bad it looks. Trust that God has not dozed off on us. Rather, God has spoken and invites us to not just strategize, figure out, contemplate, or plan, but to "lift up our eyes on high and see." Focus on what God is saying and doing. When we focus, things can turn around![iv]
            As a church and even in our own lives, hearing such a message to ‘lift up our eyes high and see’ gives us a chance to focus on what God can do in our lives and world, as transformation and turning things around is ALWAYS possible, even when it’s not easy or as quick as we’d like (like diet and exercise!).  As I have said and will continue saying, we need to keep our focus on how amazing God is, particularly whenever we are out and about in the community, despite some of the misconceptions people may have about God or the church.  We need to keep our focus on the positive aspects of the church, define ourselves by what we stand for (not so much against), and how loving and serving God CAN make a positive difference in both our community and our world each time we put our faith into action.  People will generally have a more positive outlook of the church when they see and hear of us being the church, such as in instances of disaster relief (as we continue supporting UMCOR and think about creating a Volunteers in Mission Team to deploy to some of the affected areas); feeding the hungry such as our support of CAN and through the Community Supper; providing necessary care or aid to people in crisis where we can by being a listening ear and non-anxious presence; and just being our true, authentic, and at times, messy selves. 
Another example of focusing on the needs of our community by putting our faith into action is that we are starting an exciting new ministry tomorrow morning in the Hot Pot Lunch, which will be held in our Fellowship Hall each Monday during the colder months, as we help fulfill Jesus’s mandate of feeding the hungry within our community.  This week, we have added a second children’s Sunday School class because as we have seen and heard, we have a lot more children attending which gives me a lot of hope and encouragement and hope that we as a church can continue making a strong commitment and focus on mentoring and nurturing our younger generations in the faith, reminding them about God’s glory and majesty like Isaiah reminded the Israelite people in this morning’s scripture, as well as what it means to follow Christ. 
In our case, it’s not necessarily doom and gloom right now and we have a lot to be hopeful for, but we need sustain that momentum and hope by keeping our focus on God, following Jesus, and relying on the Holy Spirit to guide us through a rapidly changing world.  When we put our faith and trust in God, keep our focus towards God, and not on ourselves, we too can ride this wave of hope.  We CAN make a positive difference in our world and in our community when we keep our focus on God.  
            Just as Isaiah has reminded the people about what God has done for them and how big God is, we too have a constant reminder of what God is doing in our own midst in what we hear and see around us.  We have a great deal of potential whenever we focus our energies on serving God and neighbor, whenever we listen to the voice of God, whenever we listen to and discern God’s answers to our questions even when it requires moving into places we don’t want to go.  And, we will once again be reminded to continue paying attention to how God speaks as we come full-circle with the Epiphany season next Sunday, as Jesus goes up to the mountaintop with Peter, James, and John and God’s voice speaks to them through the clouds.  As we live out our faith and focus on God this week, where do you find a lot of your focus going towards?  Where might you need to redirect your focus?  And, what renewed focus are you looking for as we prepare to go into the season of Lent a week from Wednesday? 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the Church Say, AMEN.

[i] "Commentary On Isaiah 40:21-31 By Charles L. Aaron, Jr.". 2018. Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed January 30 2018.

[ii] Ibid. 

[iii] "Atheism Doubles Among Generation Z - Barna Group". 2018. Barna Group. Accessed January 30 2018.

[iv] Ministries, Discipleship. 2018. "Fifth Sunday After The Epiphany 2018 — Preaching Notes - Umcdiscipleship.Org". Umcdiscipleship.Org. Accessed January 30 2018.

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