Sunday, January 14, 2007

Isaiah 62:1-5 - “Hephzibah”

2nd Sunday after Epiphany (Year C - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Saturday, January 13, and Sunday, January 14, 2007

(pole with words on it: “Jesus,” “Glory,” “Strength,” “Holiness,” “Power,” “Majesty,” “Forever”)

If you were here last week, you’ll recognize this pole as my visual aid from the sermon. Last week we talked about Psalm 29 which calls on us to ascribe, to give credit to Jesus for having all of these qualities. But then we talked about how Jesus says He will share all of His blessings with us, He will make us an equal part of the family. So we said that this pole doesn’t just describe God, but it also describes us.

(replace “Jesus” with “You” on the pole)

This week, looking at Isaiah, we’re also going to discover how God makes us into something new. Last week, with baptism, the metaphor was being made His children.

When I say metaphor, I don’t mean that it isn’t real. What I mean is that Scripture uses metaphors, picture language to talk about our relationship with God. Since understanding what it means to have a relationship with God is pretty difficult, God’s Word uses language from our everyday lives to help us kind of get the idea.

With baptism, the metaphor, the picture language is becoming part of God’s family, being adopted into God’s family, Jesus sharing the inheritance of the Father equally with us, sharing these qualities with us.

Well, now, we turn to today’s reading from Isaiah 62. You may want to open your bulletins to the Old Testament reading to see the words of Isaiah 62. It’s a different metaphor, picture language to describe our relationship with God.

(take down signs on pole except “You”)

To really understand what God makes us into, how God transforms us, changes us, first we’ve got to realize what we were without God. In Isaiah 62, verse 4, God says,

No longer will they call you Deserted,
or name your land Desolate.

(put “Deserted” and “Desolate” on the pole)

It seems as if we’re dealing with a metaphor of the land. Without God, we’re like a deserted piece of land. Without God, we’re like a desolate place. Without God, we’re empty, barren, without the things we need for life.

Yet, behind those words are also the ideas of marriage. That’s the real metaphor going on here. Without God, we are deserted, left at the altar, left with no one who would marry us. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong to be single; that’s not what I’m saying. The idea goes back to the way the ancient Israelite culture was structured, and a woman who wasn’t married had no good way of having an income on her own. If her parents died and her brothers were dead or wouldn’t take her in, she was left without any way to survive except to beg. She was deserted and desolate.

Spiritually, that describes our situation if we didn’t have God. We wouldn’t have anyway to survive spiritually without God. We’d be deserted and desolate, without the things we need for spiritual life.

I’m not thinking that you are at that place. If you’re among us this morning, I’m assuming God has worked faith in your heart. Yet, even when we believe in God, that doesn’t mean we never feel like we’re outside of God. Even though we know that God has come into our lives, we may at times still feel deserted and desolate.

On Your Shore
I want you to put yourself in the shoes of a character in a song by Charlotte Martin called “Something Like a Hero.” I want to tell you her story. The woman in the song is feeling deserted and desolate, and even if her reasons for those feelings are different than your own, her experience is similar to our spiritual experience: there are things in our lives that make us feel deserted and desolate which then make us feel deserted by God, like we’re in a desolate place spiritually.

For the rest of the sermon, I want you to imagine yourself in this woman’s place, so that you can see the incredible transformation that takes place by God’s hand, the way He changes us spiritually through Christ.

You have a bruised ego, a hurting soul, troubled by the culture’s demands to be what is deemed pretty, desirable, a “bombshell”. That desire to be beautiful is leaving you drop-dead gorgeous, dying under the weight of the demands of being gorgeous.

The closing scenes of the song find you swimming out into the ocean, saying,
If I make myself into a wave out there and I'm never gonna ache like this again and I'm never gonna 'scape from here. So I swim and you keep me keep me and I'm turning half blue true and I'm out of last words.

You felt so hopeless that it seemed like it would be better to be a wave in the ocean, far away from your pain. But then you cry out with a prayer, a plea to God:

Keep me, Lord, Keep me, Lord, so I won't go down
Keep me in the rhythm as I float out of my misery.

But you feel that you’re too far gone.

This song is your urgent prayer to God, exposing the very raw nerves of your need to be loved. It’s the wide chasm of hurt that we inflict on each other, our minds inflict on ourselves, the world inflicts on us, the devil inflicts on all of us.

Even though you believe in Christ, even though spiritually it is no longer true that you are “Deserted” or “Desolate,” still you experience that depression, emptiness, utter loneliness, feeling that you’ve reached the end of your rope.

Then God comes and stands with you on that desolate beach, answering you with words recorded in Isaiah.

No longer[, God says, no longer] will they call you Deserted,
[No longer will they] name your land Desolate.

(take “Deserted” and “Desolate” off the pole)

But you will be called Hephzibah,
and your land Beulah.

(put “Hephzibah” and “Beulah” on the pole)

Hephzibah and Beulah are Hebrew words that by definition immediately answer your spiritual desolation.

(put “Delight” and “Married” on the pole)

Hephzibah means “my delight is in you.” Beulah means “married.” Remembering that God is working with that metaphor of marriage, a metaphor from that ancient Israelite culture, God is transforming you from an unmarried woman who is desolate and deserted by society, a woman begging in order to find food. God transforms you from someone so deserted and desolate, and now you are His delight, to be married to the Lord.

This isn’t the only place in Scripture that talks about God marrying His people. It’s a powerful metaphor to describe the relationship we have with God. Jesus Christ is our Groom, and we, the Church, are His Bride. Jesus comes to marry us—despite the fact that we are deserted and desolate, despite the fact that we may feel unlovable, despite all of our sins and faults and bruises and past mistakes. Jesus comes and says, “My delight is in you. You will be married to me.”

As in Charlotte Martin’s song, you are crying out to God, asking Him to rescue you from the desolate beach of “insecurity” and “damaged dignity.”

God answers that prayer through Jesus Christ. Where once you could’ve been named Deserted, God calls you “Hephzibah,” my delight is in you. Where once you could’ve been named Desolate, God now calls you “Beulah,” married, the bride of Christ. Where once you were insecure, God gives you eternal security. Where once you had a damaged dignity, God gives you dignity, sees you as wonderful, beautiful, holy.

That transformation takes place in you through faith. Without God, you were on the desolate beach of insecurity and damaged dignity, living without hope, but with Christ, with His salvation, with His Holy Spirit in your heart, you are Hephzibah, Beulah, the delight of God, His bride; you are secured and have dignity in God’s eyes. These are the gifts that He showers upon you. This is how He has transformed you.

And now look again at God’s words in Isaiah. Look again to see how He decorates you as His bride, the blessings He pours out on you, the ways He dresses you in a most beautiful gown of His blessings.

Verse 1: till her righteousness shines out like the dawn,
her salvation like a blazing torch.

(put “Righteousness” and “Salvation” on the pole)

Verse 2: The nations will see your righteousness,
and all kings your glory;

(put “Glory” on the pole)

Verse 3: You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD’S hand,
a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

(put “Splendor” and “Royal” on the pole)

God transforms you with so many blessings that they spill onto the floor like a wedding gown. God transforms you to shine with His righteousness—His holiness, His perfection. God gives you salvation that is like a bright torch in your life. God lifts you up so that others will see His righteousness, His glory. God is showing you off, showing off His bride, but in doing so, He’s showing off the blessings He’s showered upon you. He’s the One who has made you beautiful.

God gives you a crown of splendor, pours out all of His riches upon you. God makes you to be royal, a part of His royal family and His royal kingdom.

As in Charlotte Martin’s song, you were desperately trying to make yourself beautiful, trying to meet the world’s definition of beauty, and you dreamt about getting married, being someone’s true love, wearing that beautiful wedding gown. That longing, that’s the longing for God that happens in your soul. That’s why God in Isaiah is using this metaphor of marriage. You know that longing in this life, and God is saying that He comes to take you as His bride spiritually. Your soul longs to be beautiful in God’s eyes, and He comes and dresses you with His beauty—His righteousness, His glory, His splendor, His royalty.

Even if you’re not concerned about being beautiful in your outward appearance, perhaps there are other ways that you’re seeking approval from others. Maybe there are ways that you feel deserted or desolate, as if the people around you have stopped paying attention to you. Perhaps there are ways that you are insecure or can see that you have a damaged dignity. Maybe you feel left out of your group of friends. Maybe your family ignores you. Maybe you’re trying so hard to get that raise, to have that new house, to have everything together, hoping that people will pay attention to you then. Maybe you’re trying to make your marriage look good to other people—when really you’re struggling. Maybe you simply feel lonely, but no one seems to notice.

Whatever it is that puts you on that desolate beach with the character from Charlotte Martin’s song, God comes to dress you up for your big day. God takes notice of the hurting, lonely soul at the back of the room. God takes notice of you and asks you, “Will you marry me?” He calls you, “Hephzibah,” tells you that His delight is in you. Like a groom marrying the poor, moneyless bride, God buys you a dress, a most beautiful dress, the kind you could never have imagined wearing. You put on this dress, and then you realize what it means to marry this groom. Everything He has, He is sharing with you. He has dressed you with His beauty, His riches, His love, His blessings, His royalty, His splendor, His righteousness, His eternity. He rejoices over you.

It’s enough to make you blush and lose your breath. It’s enough to make you wonder whether you can really walk down that aisle. Certainly Jesus must know that you don’t really deserve to be in this place, to be walking down the aisle to be His bride. For a moment, you’re ready to talk yourself out of it, ready to put yourself right back on that desolate beach, thinking that swimming away and drowning would answer the problems.

But then you see Jesus at the altar, you see how Jesus looks at you, and there’s no question that He sees you as His delight, as the love of His life, as a holy, perfect, beautiful bride. The Holy Spirit leads you down the aisle, Jesus takes your hand, and you know that you will be His forever.

Article about Charlotte Martin's On Your Shore
On Your Shore
It’s easy to make Tori Amos comparisons with Charlotte Martin’s jazz-tinged piano pop rock, but on the song “Something Like a Hero,” I hear Really Rosie.

Really Rosie, the star and namesake of Maurice Sendak’s collaboration with Carole King on the 197_ musical film. Really Rosie was a tough street kid with the bravado of an 18-year-old but still only 8 years old, based in part on a street girl Sendak would watch from his apartment window in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood. Despite all of her gruff, ready-to-fight, bully attitude, Sendak saw that this street girl (and his character) desperately needed love.

Really Rosie
Charlotte Martin bangs the opening chord walk progression on “Something Like a Hero,” and Really Rosie has grown up. In Martin’s piano, I hear what Carole King contributed to Really Rosie: pop rock which gets fleshed out by jazz changes. In Martin’s voice, I hear what Carole King gave to the character Really Rosie: individual lines that work like hooks, multiple emotional possibilities in one song, and a voice which soars, kids, sneaks, speaks, and invokes all of this.

Should Charlotte Martin’s “Something Like a Hero” be about Really Rosie all grown up, then I’m afraid Rosie’s search for love isn’t over. “Something Like a Hero” takes the bruised ego, hurting soul of Really Rosie, which as part of a children’s musical film actually is quite uplifting and hopeful, but the children’s book for “Something Like a Hero” isn’t G-rated. This grown-up Rosie is troubled by the culture’s demands to be what is deemed pretty, desirable, a “bombshell,” but it is leaving her drop-dead gorgeous. The closing scenes find her swimming out into the ocean, drowning, choking, asking the Lord for help but feeling that she’s too far gone. Carole King pounded the piano while Really Rosie pounded the pavement; Charlotte Martin pounds the piano while the waves pound against the grown up Really Rosie.

The themes of desperation, searching, and drowning run throughout Martin’s album, On Your Shore, especially the opening title track. The album is collection of urgent prayers to God, exposing the very raw nerves of someone needing to be loved.

She’s Come Undone
Such themes of water/drowning, depression/self-realization, emptiness/self-worth, utter loneliness/love, reminds me of Wally Lamb’s novel, She’s Come Undone. The novel’s main character, Dolores Price, has reached an end of sorts, coming to Cape Cod, connecting with a beached, dying whale. On a cold November dawn, Dolores strips off her clothes, swimming out to the whale, swimming under her to see the whale’s eye.

The eye stared back at me without seeing. The iris was milky and blank, blurred by seawater. A cataract eye, an eye full of death. I reached out and touched the skin just below it, then touched the hard globe itself.

This was how I could die. This was where.

I fought against myself, my head butting downward to the bottom, arms pushing and flailing to stay under. I drank seawater in thick gulps and swallows, glimpsing the death eye in the middle of my battle.

Dolores fights off her urge to die with a surprisingly strong urge to live. She sits shivering on the beach in her wet clothes when a uniformed ranger pulls up in a jeep. He says, “Would you by any chance be Dolores Price? Some people been looking for you. They been worried.” Saved, found, given a blanket, confirmed to be alive, taken to safety, and yet, Dolores apologizes that people were worried about her. Her desperation speaks volumes about the hurt a person can feel.

With On Your Shore, Martin captures so much of that same wide chasm of hurt that we inflict on each, our minds inflict on ourselves, the world inflicts on us, the devil inflicts on all of us. What Wally Lamb describes in his story about Dolores Price, Martin describes in “Something Like a Hero” as she sings,

If I make make make make myself into a wave out there and
I’m never gonna ache like this again
And I’m never gonna ‘scape from here.

In She’s Come Undone, the ranger arrives to rescue Dolores. Martin’s song “On Your Shore” possibly presents God as the ranger as she sings,

I dig my heels into the dirt cause this one’s gonna hurt
Won’t let the waves wash me away is what I always pray
In my heart I know you couldn’t see in the dark or find your way through me
Now I’m alone my hands are numb how do I carry on

At the turn of the tide I feel this part of me die
Am I washed on your shore and barely alive?

The desperate figure in Martin’s song seems to letting her hopelessness die, turning instead to that faint hope of her prayers, washing up on the shore of God, as He rescues her from the desolate beach of “insecurity” and “damaged dignity.”

“Bang that piano, Charlotte! Bang it for all it’s worth. Bang those jazzed-up pop rock chords for your desperate characters in your songs. Bang that piano for Dolores. Bang that piano against the devil and for the hope of God!”

(By the way, Really Rosie is a great children’s album, and any resemblance to desperate, depressed, suicidal characters is much more about speculation and filling-in-the-blanks than actual facts in the songs. However, you’ll find as you sing along with your children to “One Was Johnny” and “Pierre” that there’s much a children’s album can teach your family about the hard realities of this life. Really Rosie is available from Sony Wonder.)

Thanks to Charlotte Martin and RCA Records for the review copy of On Your Shore.