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Hearing God's Voice #3

What Could Have Been!

Reading: Isaiah 2:2-22

Introduction: Security, Identity, and Purpose. In many respects, those three words sum up most of our human existence as we experience and live out life on this planet. Who am I? Why am I here? Am I safe and is this a safe place? While we may go through life in pursuit of happiness or contentment, or desire the freedom and financial resources for leisure activities, we always remember in times of crisis what the big questions are. Sports and attempts to find identity by being a sports fan aren’t important in South Florida this morning as Hurricane Francis comes ashore.

We approach yet another anniversary of 9/11 and watch the death toll continue to rise at a Russian elementary school after a terrorist hostage crisis and subsequent gun battle. We continue to pray over American soldiers living in constant uncertainty in Afghanistan and Iraq. We watched the Olympic games in Greece and wondered for two weeks – not if, but when – there would be a terror threat, only to be relieved when it was over and the athletes were all safe. Security was a major concern, like never before, at the national political party conventions.

At the personal level, the question of security takes on emotional and spiritual dimensions along with the physical and financial concerns. At the personal level, relationships can become security risks. And whether we are talking about the individual or the family or the society, the loss of security has an immediate impact on our sense of identity. Emotional stability and health are directly related to our sense of purpose, knowing who we are and where we are going.

Even when we feel secure, there are the quests for self-knowing and meaning in life that bubble to the surface from time to time. Somehow they are related to the question of security, because insecurity at any level makes us question our sense of worth, makes one wonder about direction and purpose in life. While we often live with certain assumptions about identity and purpose being more individual quests that can be self-determined, the reality is that the social environment in which we find ourselves shapes us in defining ways that we may either continue to embrace over time or rebel and fight against. Family circumstances shape who we are, but we can fight our way out of bad family systems toward healthier lives and identities. Social and cultural circumstances create environments that can shape us, but in this country at least, we believe humans can make choices for change. We can remove ourselves from bad environments. We live in a land of opportunity! We can become! Life is not predetermined.

It is that possibility, however, that makes our quest for security and identity and purpose so vulnerable. We are a people hungering for answers in all kinds of places these days. We seek answers to the security questions through strong national identity and the control that comes with being the most powerful nation on earth. We seek financial peace and security through economic growth and greater financial success, both as a nation and as individuals. Meaning and purpose for life are to be found in our financial success and our conspicuous consumption. Into that cultural mix of human performance we add religion, while admitting that religion has questionable reputation. To some, religion is thought to be the drug of choice for the unsuccessful and weak. To others, it is the means by which social identity and purpose can be achieved in culturally appropriate ways.

In fact for a long time in America, religion has offered differentiation and power and identity to those who otherwise had no power or identity in larger cultural and political circumstances. Having the right practices and right answers gave individuals and groups a sense of security as well as evangelistic purpose when they otherwise were powerless. I’m not just speaking of spiritual identity; this was/is a social identity and power issue. To be in the right church and have the right church answers differentiated and made one “better than” those other people who might otherwise be more powerful or successful in “worldly” affairs. But over time, faith in the right answers has faded and other emotional and spiritual longings have surfaced that now have people from all backgrounds questioning the merit of right thinking and right acting as the goal of existence.

Our text in Isaiah this morning reminds us that the questions are not new and the human capacity to seek answers in all the wrong places has been around for a long time as well. Listen again to the God’s complaint against the people of Judah and Jerusalem:

“For you have forsaken the ways of your people, O house of Jacob. Indeed they are full of diviners from the east and of soothsayers like the Philistines, and they clasp hands with foreigners. Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots. Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands to what their own fingers have made” (Isa. 2:6-8).

Israel’s search for security and identity and purpose leads them on a spiritual and economic and governmental pursuit of alliances with the cultures and nations around them. Their land is full of the signs of success that humans can achieve for themselves. The leaders have been led astray by earthly pursuits of health, wealth, success, and power. The people are full of themselves, they’ve become proud of their material excess, and found security in what their hands have made. There is a repetitive announcement that the proud are going to be humbled, that the high and mighty will be brought low because they have trusted in idols, in fortified cities and their own military strength, in economic and political alliances that make them self-secure.

“And so people are humbled, and everyone is brought low—do not forgive them! Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust from the terror of the LORD, and from the glory of his majesty. The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled; and the LORD alone will be exalted on that day. For the LORD of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty against all that is lifted up and high; against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan; against all the high mountains and against all the lofty hills; against every high tower and against every fortified wall against all the ships of Tarshish and against all the beautiful craft. The haughtiness of people shall be humbled and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the LORD alone will be exalted on that day. The idols shall utterly pass away. Enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from the terror of the LORD, and from the glory of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth. On that day people will throw away to the moles and to the bats their idols of silver and their idols of gold, which they made for themselves to worship, to enter the caverns of the rocks and the clefts in the crags, from the terror of the LORD, and from the glory of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth” (2:9-21).

Remember the contrast with the opening announcement of salvation to the nations in this chapter: “In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:2-4).

Instead of security and identity and purpose being sought and claimed from among the natural resources of the planet or from human alliances with other humans or from having more material wealth and success than others, Israel should have sought out the God who called them to himself. “O house of Jacob,” he pleads, “come let us walk in the light of the Lord.” But they will not listen. They will not turn and discover his peace. The nations cannot discover his peace through Israel. The weapons of destruction and insecurity cannot be turned into humanitarian aid and physical sustenance. So the chapter ends, “Turn away from mortals, who have only breath in their nostrils, for of what account are they?” (2:22).

Doesn’t it all sound a bit too familiar this morning? Do you suppose the people in Jerusalem at the time thought that God was on their side too? I find myself longing to believe that we are the people of light, walking in the light of the Lord, being his witnesses to the world, broadcasting his peace and salvation to the nations. But I have a nagging fear that in our own time we have settled into the habits and pursuits of those who have come before us; trusting once more in our own might; finding identity – even religious identity – in the creation of our minds, if not our hands; trusting in silver and gold and conspicuous consumption to provide the identity markers of success and failure and meaning in life.

But this I call to mind this morning and therefore I have hope. We always find what we’re looking for in the last place we look! And too often we find what we lost in a place we looked before but not carefully enough. Maybe the Mountain of God has been lost in the fog of our social religion just as in the days of Isaiah. Perhaps we have allowed our religious practice to hide or obscure the mountain of God; our churches and our demands for doctrinal purity have become toxic. Perhaps we have become more concerned at times with protecting a past identity than we are actively pursuing Kingdom business, and God is calling us this morning to refocus the life we call a journey and rejuvenate our steps toward higher ground. Is it time to climb above the tree-line and the fog of human agendas and political power plays and intra-church debate and inter-faith squabbles and press on?

It is time to hear the words of Paul in our own context. Remember his exhortation to the Philippians: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Song: Higher Ground

One of the striking things about reading Scripture is the function of this mountain imagery in relationship to God. On the one hand there was the contrast between the “high places” of pagan worship where the people of God were not to worship, and the appointed place of worship such as the tabernacle or the Temple in Jerusalem. But there are also the stories of God-encounters on the Mountain. After the flood, the ark comes to rest not in some valley or plain but on a mountain. Abraham goes to the mountain when called to sacrifice Isaac his son. It is at the mountain of God in the wilderness that Moses sees the burning bush. The people of the exodus meet God again at the Mountain. But it is also while Moses is on the mountain that the people fashion the golden calf and turn away from God. The prophet Elijah has a great victory over his pagan rivals at Mt. Carmel, but then immediately flees for his life and believes he is the last God-fearing person on the planet when he holes up in a cave on Mt. Sinai. Jesus reveals his divine nature to three of his disciples in that transfiguration scene on a mountain. Matthew records the largest single block of teaching material we have from Jesus as a sermon preached on a mountain.

It’s been five years now since my son Matt and I drove to Colorado and joined some experienced mountain climbers in our own version of Wilderness trek. I still vividly remember the first day’s hike to base camp at about 10,000 feet. I remember how different the schedule is when one gets completely away from technology. Yes, we still had plenty of conveniences: a camp stove and water purifier and our tents and sleeping bags and back-packs. But there was a sense of vulnerability and dependency on one another in the group that was different in that setting. I remember how easy it was to go to bed as soon as it got dark, because I was so tired from the day’s hike. And I remember getting up at 4:00 AM and getting started on the hike that would end in us reaching the summit of not one but two separate 14,000 ft peaks that day. I remember thinking repeatedly that morning that I was a complete fool for being there! We went up a side of the mountain that had no hiking trails – just deer and elk trails until we got above the tree line and into the rocks. I don’t do well with high places any way, and I would have given up and gone back down several times, except that when I looked back reversing course looked more frightening than going up. So I stopped looking down and kept my eye on what was ahead. And I never took my eyes off of my friend who was leading us.

It’s not just the view that leaves one in awe when you reach the summit. Yes, the beauty of God’s creation is awesome. There is an awareness of God in such moments that is not explainable. The clear, smog-free air is wonderful even if it is thin and breathing is difficult. The sense of human accomplishment is powerful, even as the view makes one feel quite insignificant. I remember the thunderstorm rolling in as we were just beginning our descent. I will remember being so sore two days later that I couldn’t walk! But what I will always remember and cherish the most is that I shared that moment with my son.

That’s how God feels about you and me this morning. He longs to share that mountain-top experience with his children! He longs for his sons and daughters to make the journey together – with one another AND with him. But taking the journey means leaving a lot of stuff behind and figuring out the essentials for survival on the trip. It means that “joining the journey at Woodmont Hills” is much more than signing on to assembly times and practices. Worship is not about times and places and church is not another item on the to-do list for Sundays. It’s a life lived in vulnerability and dependency. May we have the courage this week to look up and look forward and not turn back!

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, September 3, 2004


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