We are beginning a sermon series on Prophets today for the 5 weeks leading up to Lent. In the Gospels Jesus is compared to prophets, like Moses and Elijah. Jesus quotes from the prophets Isaiah, Jonah, and others. Today and tomorrow we honor a modern day prophet – Martin Luther King Jr. whose life and message paralleled Biblical prophets in many, many ways. For the next 5 weeks we will try to learn a bit more about biblical prophets and what they had to say back in the day and what they have to say to us now.
Bible prophets were spokespeople for God – God’s megaphones if you will. There were many, many male prophets and at least 7, maybe more women prophets. It is hard to get true count as some people are called prophets and many others prophesied but were not referred to in the Bible as prophets. And while we are looking in this series at the Prophets who have a book named after them, there are many more whose stories are told throughout the Old Testament. Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam are prophets along with Elijah and Huldah and none of them have books named for them. There are more than seventy prophets in total. We are starting this week with Isaiah, followed by Jeremiah next Sunday and then 3 others after that. The schedule is on our website, if you are curious and want to take a look.
There are 4 books called Major Prophets in the Bible; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel and there are 12 Minor Prophets. They are named major and minor not because of their importance or lack thereof, but because of the length of the books. The major prophets are long books and the minor are short. Four of these prophets who have a book named for them lived 800 years before Christ: Hosea, Amos, Micah and Isaiah.
Prophets were a diverse group. Some were old and some were young, some were simple and some educated, some were poor and others came from families with money. Some prophets were well respected, some were even employed by kings, others, like Jeremiah, were thought to be crazy. Most prophets spoke to their own communities but some were called to foreign lands. A few were eager to speak on God’s behalf but many were resistant to God’s call. But all prophets spoke for God lifting up righteousness and justice, speaking against oppression and on the behalf of widows, orphans and the poor. They did God’s work, usually without regard to their own well being.
Isaiah is up first. He had a wife and two sons and although we talk about him as if he was one person, one prophet; the book is actually a compilation of the writings of 3 prophets all written under the name Isaiah. Isaiah the first wrote most of Chapters 1-39. He lived before the Jewish exile to Babylon. Second Isaiah wrote chapters 40-55 and lived during the Exile in Babylon. Life was difficult, the people were uncertain of their future and they needed reassurance of God’s abiding presence. Third Isaiah wrote chapters 56-66 and lived during the end of the Exile and during the return home when they found that their land was occupied, their Temple was in ruin, and the people had weird worship practices.
Of all the prophets, Isaiah is quoted more in Christianity than any other: 46 times in the Gospels, 30 times in Paul’s letters and 30 times in Revelation. Throughout Christian history people have believe that Isaiah predicted Christ’s coming. And while Judaism did anticipate the Messiah, I doubt Isaiah’s prediction of a savior who was to be born in 800 years would have been much comfort to the people.
If Martin Luther King had said, “God will free us in 500 years,” I don’t know that anyone would have listened or followed him. So while we can find incredible connections in Isaiah’s words that describe and seem to predict Jesus the Christ, it is important to know that the first hearers did not understand it that way.
Our passage from chapter 40 says, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” – Don’t you remember who stretches out the heavens – who is the creator of all and gives power and strength? Don’t you know? —
You may have heard of Virginia Marsh Bell, she is Daniel Marsh’s aunt who grew up a Disciple in Harrison County and married a Disciple minister. Virginia is a researcher, a writer, an advocate and an educator for people with Alzheimer’s disease. She started one of the first day care programs in the country specifically for people with dementia and her “care with dignity” program is a model that has won much recognition and is now housed down the street at Bridgepointe.
My grandmother and Virginia were good friends and my grandparents were among the first volunteers in her program and my mom is a volunteer now. Best Friends has been part of our family since it began but it became even more crucial when my grandmother went from being a volunteer to being a participant after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
My grandmother was an incredible woman that I loved and admired very much. She lived her faith in a humble and honest way. But Alzheimer’s slowly took her life from her. She had to even quit attending worship when she could not longer make sense of it and it made her anxious. She lost the ability to read Scripture, to write or pray. She did not seem to recognize the name Jesus or — as far as we could tell, remember God. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” My grandmother could not remember.
And faith begins with memory – doesn’t it? Faith begins with a story. And that story grounds us – it helps us understand God and our relationship to God. Faith requires us to remember…
God, who sits above the circle of the earth, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, who created it all…. God who in the beginning turned chaos into order and created light…. God, who created every living thing and made humanity in God’s own image. God, who blew God’s breath into the first human being. God’s story, Scripture is the foundation of our faith. —
A friend of mine takes a neighbor child to church every Wednesday night for children’s choir. In children’s choir they are told Bible Stories each week to better understand the songs they sing and for their faith development. Once Sophia was found reading a children’s Bible and when she was interrupted she looked up and said with excitement, “That story about Jonah – is in THIS BOOK! And that’s not all — you know the story about God creating the world? It is in this book too!”
Through storytelling, children’s songs and books, Sophie is learning God’s story. And in God’s story, Sophia will hopefully hear her story and connect that her story is part of God’s. Sophia has heard that God heard Jonah’s prayers when he was in the belly of the fish, and she will know that God also hears her prayers. She has heard that the first people were made in the image of God, and so she knows that she too was made in God’s image. In her life – in the good times and the bad, Sophia will be able to recall what she “heard as a child and what she will always know” about God. That God knows her name and counts her as God’s own and “not one is missing.”
Bible stories, especially stories that we relate to – that mean something special to us, create the foundation of our faith and we remember them all our lives, we carry them in our hearts and treasure them forever. Likewise, songs of the faith and hymns, especially those that connect us to our family and church community – and those that stir our spirits and make us laugh or cry are central to who we are as children of God.
And at the end of our lives, they will still be part of us and will still carry us.
But 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and in the final stages, they no longer remember “what they heard” as a child or what they used to know. Dementia in all forms robs people of the lives they have known. Dementia in all forms takes our loved ones, as we have loved them, from us. It is hard, it is painful, it is a struggle. But, if we allow it, if we are open to it, there is a lot of grace along the way – many gifts and teachings that should not be overlooked.
As we journey with people into dementia, we notice little things and enjoy simple pleasures – flowers, babies, puppies, ice cream…. We laugh more and are more patient. We let go of what does not matter and cherish what does. Grace abounds.
We discover on our journey that the middle part of the brain where emotions are located and our music memory is stored is the last part affected by Alzheimer’s disease…; that people with memory disorders and dementia respond to music, especially music that once stirred their souls, even when they have lost the ability to remember anything else.
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” Isaiah asks us?
I am thankful that little children like Sophia and our children here at Providence are learning the stories of the faith and the songs of the faith. I am thankful that at the end of life, those stories and especially those songs may be my last memories and may be your last memories– that gives me comfort. Someday, many years down the road someone may sit by Sophia’s bed and tell her a Bible story and sing her a song of the faith and it may bring peace to her, a peace that passes all understanding.
Will Sophia remember the story of Jonah at the end of her life? Will I remember Jesus at the end of mine? I do not know, I do not know. Will we remember Amazing Grace or This little light of mine or It is well with my soul – at the end our lives? Maybe we will. Will any of us remember God in our very last days? I cannot say, but I do know that God will remember us, that God knows our names and numbers us and we will never go missing.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?