“The LORD’s Delight”Dr. Stephen Clyborne Isaiah 62:1-5 Year C - Second Sunday after the Epiphany
There are a lot of reasons why people give up on God.
They prayed, and nothing seemed to happen.
They were dealt a crushing blow.
They loved and were hurt.
They tried to live a good life, but it just seemed to do no good.
Someone they loved died.
They lost their health, their home, their hope.
They felt all alone.
They could not make sense of all the evil in the world, not to mention their own suffering.
They read the Bible, but it made no sense; or perhaps it did make sense, but just did not ring true.
In spite of their best efforts to reach God, God seemed to be absent, silent, or even unconcerned.
As a pastor, I spend a lot of my time listening to people who feel that way. And maybe I should not admit this to you, but a lot of times, I feel that way, too. Sometimes it seems that God is as close as the air that I breathe; and sometimes it seems that God is nowhere to be found. The crisis of faith often comes down to the question of whether I am going to lean on my own understanding or trust in God.
We have been conditioned by our culture to believe that, if it does not square with our experience, it must not be true. So, if we are told that God is present, but we do not experience God’s presence, then God must not be present. If we are told that God loves us, but we do not feel loved, then it must not be true that God loves us.
In the book of Proverbs, there are verses that some of us memorized when we were young, and these verses present two very different ways of living: one is to rely on our own insight and understanding, and the other is to trust God: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Those are two very distinct ways of living: trusting God or trusting our own understanding and experience. When our experience does not match our faith, we choose one or the other.
That is precisely the crisis in which the people of Judah found themselves when they received this prophecy in the sixth century BC. For decades, God’s people in exile felt far away from God. Taken away from the land they called home, removed from the familiar and sacred landmarks of their faith, stripped of their dignity, taunted by their captors, they had all but lost hope as they were forced against their will to adapt to a foreign language and culture. In Babylon, their experience with God did not match their beliefs about God.
Because of their prior disobedience and rebellion, they had been named and labeled with two Hebrew names: Azubah, which means “forsaken,” and Shemamah, which means “desolate.” They felt like they deserved those names. There in Babylon, so far away from home, they felt abandoned and desolate. That is what their experience taught them they were. That is the way they felt about themselves – – forsaken and desolate.
And that is often the way we feel about ourselves when we find ourselves in dark and lonely places. Forsaken and Desolate are the names we give ourselves when life does not turn out the way we had planned, when we cannot find God or understand God’s ways.
But the LORD sent the prophet to announce to the covenant people that just because they were in exile did not mean they were forsaken or desolate. The LORD had other names in mind for them – – not Azubah, but Hephzibah; not Shemamah, but Beulah. Hephzibah is the Hebrew word that means, “My delight is in her,” and Beulah is the word that means “married.” “For as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”
They were in exile at a fork in the road, trying to decide whether they would trust in their own feelings and experiences, or trust in the word of God; whether they would answer to the name Forsaken or to the name Delightful.
Fred Craddock told the story of a time he and his wife were having dinner at a restaurant in Tennessee, when an old man started talking to them, asking them how they were doing and if they were enjoying their visit. When the old man asked Dr. Craddock what he did for a living, Dr. Craddock told the older gentleman that he was a Christian minister; and the old man said, “I owe a great deal to a minister of the Christian church.”
The old man sat down at their table and started to explain that he was born without knowing who his father was; and at the time when he was growing up in the early twentieth century, not knowing who his father was made him feel a great deal of shame.
One day, in his early teens, he began to attend a little church back in the mountains; and for some reason, he really liked the pastor so much that he decided to go back again, and then again. In fact, he started attending just about every week. But his shame went with him every time he went.
This poor little boy would always arrive late and leave early in order to avoid talking to anyone. But one Sunday, before he could get out, he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned around to see the preacher, a big tall man, looking down at him. He thought he knew what the preacher was thinking, and that he was probably going to ask whose son he was.
But before he could say anything the preacher told him that he knew he was. “You’re a child of God,” the preacher said. “I see a striking resemblance. Now go claim your inheritance.” Fred Craddock was so moved by the story that he had to ask the old man his name. “Ben Hooper,” and Fred Craddock recognized him as the two-term governor of Tennessee. (Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, ed., Craddock Stories, St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, p.156-157)
It all comes down to whether we are going to believe that we are who we feel like we are, who our experience tells us we are, who other people tell us we are – – or whether we are going to believe that we are who God tells us we are. And what we believe about ourselves will be determined by what we believe about God.
Is God an enemy whose favor we must earn? Or is God a friend, whose grace we can trust? (A while back, a friend of mine sent me a video entitled “Two Roads,” (John Lynch, trueface.org.) and that video has stuck with me because it so clearly described our relationships with God in two very distinct ways, both of which seem right and good.
In that video, John Lynch said that sometimes we find ourselves at a fork in the road in our spiritual lives, staring down two distinctly different paths. One path is called “Pleasing God;” the other is called “Trusting God.” You look at the “Trusting God” path, and it sounds good. But it doesn’t give you a whole lot to do. It seems too passive.
Then you look back at the path called “Pleasing God,” and it seems potentially more satisfying. It appeals to our sense of nobility, it satisfies our work ethic, and it gives us something good to do with our lives. After all that God has done for us, the least we can do is try to please God.
So we get real serious about our reading the Bible, praying, going to church, abstaining from sin, we engaging in spiritual disciplines. And it all seems so right, so good, so noble. But there is a sub-text to this way of living. And the sub-text is that God loves us all, but God likes us a lot less when we mess up. So, we try all the harder, and the harder we try to please God, the more frustrated and exhausted we become.
We realize that, even when we try our hardest and do what is right, it is never completely right, or we do it with impure motives. We realize that, for all our trying, we end up deceiving ourselves, deceiving others, and even trying to deceive God. Finally, we go back to the fork in the road and look again down the path called “Trusting God” – – wondering it would be like to journey down that path.
Instead of trying to please God, we learn to trust God instead. The farther along this path we travel, we learn that God loves us regardless of how we behave, that there is nothing we can do to make God loves us less or more, that we do not have to pretend any more. And the most amazing thing begins to happen.
The farther we journey down this path called “Trusting God,” the freer we will be to love because we will have experienced what it is like to be loved – – not because of what we have done or not done, but because of who we are and who God is.
The sixth-century prophet spoke these words of assurance to the people of God; and these ancient words echo through the ages to offer us hope and encouragement today: “Your name shall no longer be called “Forsaken,” but “Delightful.
No longer will you answer to the name “Desolate,” but to the name “Married.”
For, regardless of how you feel, or what your experience has been,
regardless of what you have always been told or conditioned to believe,
the LORD delights in you.
And if you could just believe that, it would change everything.
The Lord is not an enemy whose favor you must win,
but a Friend whose grace you can trust.
About the writer:
Dr. Stephen Clyborne was born in Greenville, South Carolina, and has served churches in the Greenville area for thirty-five years. After having served on staff in six churches, he is now in his tenth year as senior pastor of Earle Street Baptist Church in Greenville, after first serving Earle Street as associate pastor for seven years. Upon graduation from Furman University, Stephen earned the Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees at Erskine Theological Seminary, where he served as an adjunct professor for seventeen years.
He is married to the former Sylvia Davis, who is recently retired after having served two churches as a ministry assistant for twenty-seven years (combined). They have two daughters: Rachel (a supervisor in adoptions with the Department of Social Services) and Rebekah (a third-grade teacher at Robert Cashion Elementary School). Also, Stephen and Sylvia have two stepsons: Patrick Swift and his wife, Jennifer, who have two daughters and two sons (Hannah, Sarah Grace, Sam and Ben); Micah Swift and his wife, Suzanne, who have three daughters (Emma Kate, Addie and Ella).
Scripture and Music:
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Come, thou Fount of Every Blessing
We’ve A Story to Tell to the Nations
Forward Through the Ages
Christ Has Called Us to New Visions (J.P. Huber)
God of Many Names
Many Gifts, One Spirit (Allen Pote)
On Eagle s Wings (Michael Joncas)
How Precious Is Thy Loving Kindness (Daniel Pinkham)
Gracious Spirit, Dwell with Me (K. Lee Scott)
On Eagle s Wings (Michael Joncas)
Spirit, Now Dwell in Me
O Lord, Most Holy (Cesar Franck)