I’d like to begin with the Isaiah passage today. I want to bring your attention to the life-giving words in the passage: glad, rejoice, blossom, joy, singing, glory, majesty, leap, strong, firm, springs of water, open, unstop, redeemed, sing, gladness. The passage is filled with words that represent life overflowing.
Those words that represent life overflowing, that are life-giving, however, are mixed in with words that represent life as a struggle, that are life-taking: wilderness, dry land, desert, weak, feeble, blind, deaf, lame, speechless, burning, thirsty, haunt, swamp, unclean, ravenous beast, sorrow, sighing. The passage is filled with words that represent life as a struggle.
The Bible contains some of the most beautiful writing ever written, and Isaiah has some of the best of that beautiful writing. Part of the reason that it is some of the best of the beautiful is its poetry, the way it weaves together the challenge of life with the joy of life, using language that allows us to see and feel the reality the words are describing. It tells the truth about life in a way that we can understand, almost viscerally.
The truth about life is that it is hard. Psalm 23 talks about the “valley of the shadow of death.” Usually, we think about the valley of the shadow of death as the hard times we go through while living, but I want to suggest that ALL of life is the valley of the shadow of death. From a young age, we are aware that we will, someday, die. The whole time we are alive we live with the awareness that we will die. So, throughout life we are walking in the valley of the shadow of death. Life IS the valley of the shadow of death. While on the Earth, we are walking in the valley of the shadow of death: struggling, yet hoping we survive.
This is what Isaiah expresses with those words above: wilderness, dry land, desert, weak, feeble, blind, deaf, lame, speechless, burning, thirsty, haunt, swamp, unclean, ravenous beast, sorrow, sighing. The passage is filled with words that represent the struggle of life against death that we are caught in while we walk the Earth.
BUT – and this is a big but – the passage also expresses the other half of the “walk[ing] in the valley of the shadow of death” reality of living. The other half is, “I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Life IS the valley of the shadow of death, but while walking in that valley, we are not to fear, for God is with us. God’s rod and staff comfort us.
This is what Isaiah expresses with those other words above: glad, rejoice, blossom, joy, singing, glory, majesty, leap, strong, firm, springs of water, open, unstop, redeemed, sing, gladness. The passage is filled with words that represent life overflowing, the victory of life over death that we can experience on Earth IF we turn to God while in this valley, IF we depend on God’s rod and staff to comfort us.
While alive here on Earth, we ARE walking in the valley of the shadow of death. We WILL suffer and struggle; that is a given. But, we don’t have to suffer and struggle in fear, and we don’t have to suffer and struggle without hope. God is with us, and He has sent Jesus to be the rod and staff to comfort us. We do not walk alone.
A year-and-a-half ago, a clergy colleague, Nancy Butler, was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. I first met Nancy when she led a workshop at an ABCCONN Annual Meeting. The workshop she led was about the church she had founded. It was kind of a “how to” about planting a new church. I attended because I was interested in finding out what it took to do that. It seemed like an enormous task to start a new church.
Nancy was particularly qualified to plant a church. She had an MBA and had worked in marketing and human resources for many years. Eventually, though, she felt called to plant a new kind of church: a progressive evangelical church that was also welcoming and affirming to those who identify as LGBTQ. She broke ground, religiously, in that her church combined what was historically conservative – Evangelical Christianity – with what is currently progressive – welcoming and affirming the LGBTQ community. Any time two seemingly opposing things come together in love and unity, God is revealed. Her church made God known to many who had not known the love of God before.
Obviously, it was a blow to be diagnosed with a terminal illness. In fact, the diagnosis was a death sentence. This past week, Nancy died. I attended her funeral yesterday. But, true to who she was, Nancy faced her death sentence faithfully, trusting Jesus all the way. From the moment she made the announcement, publicly, about her diagnosis, she shared the journey with all who cared. She wrote about it in a blog, she spoke about it in interviews, and she shared about it on Facebook. Her journey from diagnosis to death became a testimony. She testified to the power of faith in Jesus regardless of what comes our way.
One of the posts on her Facebook page after her death was from a mother who is a member of the church Nancy founded. She posted an image of a portion of a letter Nancy had written to her son, Kayden, who was having a difficult time. Nancy wrote,
“I heard about the loss of your half-brother. Many people have told me that emotional pain is much worse than physical pain. It breaks my heart that you are experiencing emotional pain. The only thing that cheers me up is knowing that you have great parents, grandparents, and church family who love you very much. Oh, and I hear your two new foster sisters love you very much, too! I hope these people help you get through each day, one day at a time.
I am also so happy that you have decided to get baptized at my house on June 14. Why? Because I know from personal experience that when life gets tough, a relationship with Jesus and God can help you rise above the storm. When I feel like giving up, I remember that my life is not about feeling happy every minute. My life is about following in the way of Jesus. My life is about serving other people with the gifts God has given me. Keeping my eyes on Jesus, when the waves crash around me, keeps my life simple and afloat.
I love you very much.”
As Nancy’s muscles stopped working and atrophied, as she lost one body function after another, as she became more and more dependent on others and machines to keep her alive and functioning, she kept her gaze on Jesus. She allowed the rod and staff of Jesus to comfort her in the valley of the shadow of death. She did not fear, for she knew God was with her. Through it all, she did not stop sharing her faith journey with all who cared. Nancy lived what she wrote to Kayden. She accepted that she would not feel happy every minute. She embraced following in the way of Jesus. And, she served other people with the gifts God had given her, right to the very end: death’s door.
We can do the same. God offers his love, forgiveness, mercy, redemption, renewal, and peace to all. Regardless of the circumstances of our lives, we can enter into kingdom of God by receiving these gifts from Him.
For example: I feel hated, but the reality is that I am loved by none other than God. I feel judged, but God has forgiven me through Jesus Christ. People are harsh to me, but God’s mercy is raining down upon me. I feel damned, but Jesus Christ has redeemed me. I am worn out, but the Holy Spirit is here to inspire me. I am conflicted, but I can receive God’s peace that passes understanding.
This can be done on the personal level, as the examples illustrate, or the universal level. For example: The world feels hateful, but God is Love and created the world out of love, so love is in the world. God judges His world, but He has also forgiven it through Jesus Christ. The world is harsh, but God’s mercy is raining down upon it. The world is damned, but Jesus Christ has redeemed it. We are worn out, but the Holy Spirit is arriving to inspire us. Wars abound, but we can receive God’s peace that passes understanding even as wars rage around us.
Yea, we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but we need not fear any evil: for God art with us; his rod and his staff they comfort us. In our wildernesses and deserts, we shall rejoice and blossom, like the crocus. Our weak hands will be strengthened; our feeble knees will be firm. Our blind spirits will be opened. Our deaf spirits will be unstopped. Our lame spirits will leap like deer. Our mute spirits will sing with joy. Streams of living water will break forth in the wildernesses and deserts of our souls. We shall be baptized anew in pools of living water. Our spiritual thirst will be quenched. A way will be set before us, the highway of our God, a holy way. Jesus will lead us on it. Our gaze will be upon him as we walk through the valley, and he will lead us with joy and gladness to the kingdom of God, which is at hand even now, for we do not walk alone. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, December 11, 216, the Third Sunday of Advent.
 Biographical information about Nancy Butler is from http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/hartfordcourant/obituary.aspx?n=nancy-jane-butler&pid=183020187&fhid=4281.
Image is of the Rev. Nancy Butler at the church she founded, Riverfront Family Church, and is from http://1aon88369c3gtkxjg19cnprs.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/webRNS-SILK-COLUMNa-121216-771x578.jpg