Isaiah 41:8-10 "But as for you, Israel my servant, Jacob my chosen one, descended from Abraham my friend, I have called you back from the ends of the earth, saying, 'You are my servant.' For I have chosen you and will not throw you away. Don't be afraid, for I am with you. Don't be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.
COMMENT: There are times in life when I have felt abandoned by God. Certainly, during the past 8 months of forced transition out of traditional pastoral ministry, the questions have arisen in moments of deep pain, grief, and doubt: God, where were you when I needed you? Why did you not come to my rescue? I did nothing to deserve this exile, it was inflicted on me by others... God, are you there? And if you are there, do you care? And if you are there and you do care, then why aren't you doing anything about my situation? Questions raised in the anguish of loss!
These are the kinds of questions that Israel asked in exile. The lament psalms (many of them dating from the exilic period) are filled with those probing, honest, faith-stretching questions. It is faithful speech to talk to God in this way... bold and daring... speech that emerges because of a genuine conviction that, even though God seems absent, there is no where else to turn in times of crisis - and an accompanying conviction that God will hear and answer - even out of the void! It is not easy to talk to God like this... but it beats holding on to the pain and saying nothing at all.
SIDEBAR: (I am glad I am not a fundamentalist. There seems to be no room for lament among most of the fundamentalists I know. They have God and faith all figured out. All their questions answered... all struggles reduced to formulas... all problems solved... a neat, tidy faith that knows of only one way (my way)... and no wrestling with the deep questions or dark moments. But that is no way for me - I see life filled with ambiguity... I experience life that is messy, untidy, and mysterious... I tire of platitudes, cliches, and formulas that simply do not work. Watch a fundy for a while and see that their walk does not match their talk... Rather, I need a robust God for a vibrant faith in a complex world. And that is the God who addresses us in Scripture.)
So, in the midst of exile, God speaks words of promise and hope like this to Israel. Walter Brueggemann writes, "Voices of divine presence are sounded in a context of known absence." That is the gift of God to people who feel abandoned and without a home. There is no reason for fear - even in the exile seasons of life, for we are not alone... we have not been abandoned... God is with us. God's right hand is strong enough to bring us back home.
That has certainly been my experience. These past 8 months, though painful and difficult, have been saturated with the presence of God. Dismissed into the wilderness, wondering how and why - this God has come to me and spoken to me in the presence of pastor friends who meet with me every week, hold me accountable, and encourage me in my gifts and calling. This God continues to come to me in the precious gift of family who love unconditionally and surround me with joy and blessing. This God comes to me through the friends and students who filled my life with laughter, conversation, affirmation, and encouragement as I spent time with them this week in both classroom and restaurant. I thought for a while that I had been abandoned. I was wrong!
God's promise in Isaiah 41 is true, even in the exile seasons of life: Don't be afraid, for I am with you. Don't be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.
Soli Deo gloria