November 30, 2014
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Often when I prepare for a sermon, I take time to read the passage and then sit in stillness, trying to just get a sense of what stories, metaphors, or symbols a passage bring up in me. I sat in this stillness this past week (which was hard because it was Thanksgiving), and I thought, “What does Isaiah’s focus on bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners make me think of?” In that stillness I remembered the experience of a Jewish rabbi named Michael Weisser.
Weisser is a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska, and back in the mid-1990s, he was the target of harassment from the Grand Dragon of the Nebraska Ku Klux Klan, Larry Trapp. Trapp believed that the Jews, among other minority races, had polluted Nebraska with their false religion, and so he decided that his mission was to drive the Jews out of Nebraska. He had targeted Weisser for intimidation, leaving a series of hate-filled, anti-Jewish rantings on Weisser’s answering machine. He talked about how the Jews were only half-human, and that someday people would rise up and finish what Hitler and the Nazis started with the concentration camps.
Eventually Weisser had enough, and tracked down his tormentor. He learned all he could about Trapp. He expected to find a man who was evil to the core, but he was surprised to discover that Trapp wasn’t a powerful, evil figure. Instead, he was a broken, struggling man. He learned that Trapp had been abused both by his family and in prison, and that he was confined to a wheelchair. He realized that he couldn’t meet hate with hate, but he had to find a way to speak God’s love to Trapp. So he started leaving messages on Trapp’s answering machine. He left a message asking Trapp whether he knew that among the first people murdered by the Nazis were those with disabilities. He left a message telling Trapp that one day he would come face-to-face with God, and what would he do in the face of God’s judgment? He left messages telling Trapp that God was love, not hate.
One evening, as he was in the process of leaving Trapp another message, Trapp picked up the phone and yelled, “What do you want?! Why can’t you leave me alone?” Weisser paused for a second, and said, “Larry, I know that you live alone. It can’t be easy. Do you have enough food? Would you like me to get you some groceries?” Trapp paused in response, and then said, “No,… I’m okay.”
A few days later, Weisser left another message offering to help Trapp with transportation or anything else. He left more messages offering help. Then one day Trapp surprised him. He called up Weisser and said to him, “I can’t do this anymore. I want to get out. Can you help me?” Why did he call Weisser? In an interview years later, Trapp said, "When Michael started calling my racist hotline, I could sense something in his voice that I hadn’t heard before… something I hadn’t experienced. It was love."
Weisser picked Trapp up and brought him back home for dinner with his wife and family. He took off Trapp’s swastika rings, and gave Trapp a silver friendship ring, telling him that among Jews this was as symbol of friendship and love. Slowly Weisser helped Trapp transform his life. Within a few years Weisser and Trapp began to travel around the country, talking about racism and how to overcome it. Trapp was crucial in helping people understand the mind of a racist. Trapp’s life was transformed by Weisser’s love. In fact, when Trapp fell ill a few years later, and was dying, he moved in with the Weissers, becoming known to the children as Uncle Larry.
Trapp initially lived his life like many people do, looking for the dark in the lightness, but Rabbi Weisser looked for the light in the darkness. He wasn’t a Christian, yet he was steeped in the words of Isaiah. Isaiah shared God’s promise that the oppressed would be lifted up, the brokenhearted would find love, and the suffering would find compassion. Weimar embodied the words of Isaiah.
The difference between Larry Trapp and Rabbi Weisser is that Trapp looked for what was wrong, seeing bad all around, but Weisser looked into what was evil and still saw good. He understood the Christian and Jewish idea of looking for the light in the darkness
How good are we at looking for light in the darkness? I look around at our country today, and i see a land of people who are immersed in light but see nothing except darkness. I’m not sure why it is, but all I hear and read about, when it comes to our country, is that everything is wrong and bad. We live in a country where people are more blessed than any people ever in the history of the world, but what most people complain about is what they don’t have. They look at everyone else and see darkness. The world is filled with light and beauty, but all they see is darkness and ugliness.
The irony is that the prophet Isaiah was speaking to people who were genuinely in darkness, yet who were being told to look for light. They had been enslaved by the Babylonians. They had been marched over 700 miles through desert to become palace, house, and work slaves for wealthy Babylonians, and Isaiah was telling them to look for the light. No matter how dark things were, God was present and God was working to bring love, compassion, and light into their lives.
The problem today is that so many people have embraced cynicism and pessimism, which are spiritual poison. Why do I say that they are poison? Because they come out of darkness. Cynicism and pessimism, and sometimes even skepticism, put us in a place where we can only see what’s wrong—we can only see what’s dark. And when we are in that place, we can’t see God. We can’t sense God’s presence. We can’t sense God’s love, light, and grace because those would bring light. We have been poisoned by darkness.
What’s even worse is that cynics and pessimists often drag others into darkness. You know what I mean. Have you ever been in a conversation with people who are deeply pessimistic and cynical? They start on their rant, and their anger gives them more and more energy. The problem is that as they suck energy out of us. They become more indignant, and we become more drained. The worst is when we can’t escape,… when we have no choice but to sit and listen. They drain the light out of us. Now, contrast this with what happens when we are around people who are hopeful and optimistic. They give us energy. They spread their light and can actually cast out our darkness. They help us to see light in the darkness, while cynics drive out the light with their darkness.
As Christians, we are called to see what’s light and what’s right. I believe that this is how God looks at us. God is completely aware of our sin, but God still focuses on what’s good. Too many Christians think that God is only consumed with our sin, but I believe God is consumed with love, and that love leads God to recognize sin, but to focus on what’s good. Why else would God have constantly reached out to a Larry Trapp?
We are also called to look at life with a focus on love and light, but to do so means understanding the difference between analysis and discernment. We are steeped in a world rooted in analytical thinking. Analytical thinking can bring about great results. It is at the root of all of our technological and engineering advances. It’s at the root of our medical and scientific advances. And all of us have been trained to analyze.
Have you ever wondered what it really means to analyze? When we analyze, we look for what’s wrong so that we can fix it. We look for the problem. That’s our training. We learned these skills in high school. When we read a book for English class, we were trained to not only understand the plot, but to analyze it for what’s wrong with it. We learn how to listen to another’s argument and to see what’s wrong with it. That’s the center of debate. We are a nation of analyzers, and as a result we often only see what’s wrong, what the problems are, and what needs to be fixed.
The Christian life is based on something different. It is based on discernment, the prayerful looking for what is right rather than what is wrong. It’s like panning for gold. We sift through all the junk of life to look for what God is doing, what God is calling us to do, what is good and right and blessed in life. There may be some analysis involved in determining what isn’t of God, but the focus is on looking for what’s right rather than for what’s wrong. This is what it means to look for the light in the darkness rather than the dark in the lightness.
Looking for the light in the darkness requires looking for what’s right rather than what’s wrong. It requires panning for God’s gold by looking through all the junk to see what sparkles. It requires looking for what God is doing, rather than what God isn’t doing. And it requires prayerfully paying attention to God’s light all around.