Have you not known? (sermon)

You know how you remember movies—from your childhood, or perhaps other important moments in your life? Perhaps it’s your favorite childhood movie, or a movie from a date, or something you watched with a loved one. One of the movies that lives in my head from my own childhood is The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was an old video cassette, recorded straight from television sometime during the 90s, so every viewing would mean fastforwarding through the same ads, all Christmas-themed, from years past. Perhaps you know this beloved Narnia story—four children accidently stumble into a wardrobe, into a new, magical country. Narnia is under enchantment, an enchantment that can only be broken by the return of the lion Aslan, and the fulfillment of prophesy.

One of my favorite moments in this movie is when the four children are sitting in the beaver’s dam. It’s the first time they hear the full story of all that’s going wrong in Narnia, and the first time that they hear that they have a role to play in fixing it. Their first response is fear—how are they ever going to save Narnia from the white witch, and become kings and queens? But there’s another important piece of information: Aslan is on the move. The children don’t know who Aslan is, but in this 1988 film, the moment when they hear his name, something happens. When the name Aslan is spoken, each child begins to imagine a world where there are flowers, and greenery, and summer parties in the woods—no longer winter. The movie shows this in a montage, before returning to the plot at hand. When the name of Aslan is spoken, for a brief moment, the children see Narnia as it should be—full of life, and growth and beauty.

Of course, we are not in Narnia on this winter day. We are here on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—a moment in our church calendar that is beginning to feel quite exciting. The season after the epiphany spans from the Star in the East on January 6th, to next Sunday—the Transfiguration, and we have been building up to that moment on the mountaintop for quite some time. Today is the penultimate Sunday—Moses and Elijah haven’t appeared beside Jesus yet, but there’s excitement in our lections: something is about to happen. There’s a buzz about Jesus: ‘everyone is searching for you!’ Who is this guy? Why do we feel like there’s something different about this wandering prophet? We also encounter Paul, who says he’ll do anything for the sake of the Gospel. Tangible excitement… all of this good news really matters, somehow.

The lectionary choices for today pull us toward the questions found in Isaiah: Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? Isaiah gives voice to the excitement and escalation of this Epiphanytide. Have you not known, that Jesus is more than just a prophet? Have you not heard, that, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”?

The writer of this portion of Isaiah is addressing a particular audience—likely those who returned from exile in Babylon, to resettle in a new and strange Israel… to do the hard work of community-building, and remembering their history as a people chosen by God. For the writer of Deutero-Isaiah, remembering history is all about remembering where we as humans stand in an enchanted universe—a universe which God has created and maintains and recreates. Their particular audience are people who, as Paul Hanson writes, “are looking for magic, not for miracle; for a genie, not for the Creator of the universe.” The writer of Isaiah 40 begs the people of Israel, and maybe even us, to remember that their history does not begin with them as individuals, or with rulers and nations, but begins… with God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. 

This invitation to think differently, is the core of our lectionary readings today… but it is not an easy invitation. If you’re anything like me, you might feel a bit called out by verse 27 of Isaiah, which critiques people who say “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”. I can’t tell you the number of times I have basically prayed this same set of words to God—“tell me what I’m supposed to do” or “seriously, God, what have you gotten me into?”. Or, perhaps, like me, you feel vaguely discomforted by our reading from 1 Corinthians, where for the sake of the gospel, Paul has “made himself a slave to all”, and become “all things to all people”. That seems like a LOT—if I did the same, would I still be me? Is there any part of myself I can keep separate from this all-encompassing job of evangelism?

The invitation to imagine ourselves in a great big story—the one that the writers of Isaiah, and Psalm 147, and Paul both try to paint—is incredibly difficult, once we begin to think about it. How do we even begin to give up so much of ourselves, our individualism, our ‘rights’, our autonomy? We don’t like to think we are in a great big story—it’s easier to just do church one day a week, or examine the context of the Bible instead of reading the words of the Bible itself, or to think that Paul might need some vacation time, and a little self-care.

But where, at least, my own bravery and imagination fails, is where Isaiah begins. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? The task of Deutero-Isaiah is this great big story… as Hanson again writes, “the construction in words of a universe renewed and restored around its life-giving, loving Center”.

“’It’s no good, Son of Adam,” said Mr. Beaver, “no good your trying, of all people. But now that Aslan is on the move—’

‘Oh, yes! Tell us about Aslan!’ said several voices at once; for once again that strange feeling—like the first signs of spring, like good news, had come over them.

‘Who is Aslan?’ asked Susan.

I have read, and watched The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, hundreds of times, and this moment still gives me chills and goosebumps. Each child, in this moment in the book and on screen, saw a vision of springtime, and a flash of the world made right. “Like the first signs of spring, like good news”, like a snatch of an old song that you loved but had forgotten about, like a memory of home and belonging—wherever that is or was—that makes your heart ache, like a world that could be, hovering just around the corner… If you know that feeling of anticipation of something that is unimaginably good, then what you know is the invitation of Isaiah. Have you not known? Have you not heard?

And perhaps, for all our fears, and doubts, and worries, seeing ourselves as part of this great big story—God’s story, is the thing we are being called into right now. Perhaps, on the cusp of experiencing the Transfiguration afresh and entering Lent yet again, we are being invited to be brave, to take a step or five, to imagine our world with God at the center, “he who sits above the circle of the earth”, who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless”.

The story of the Gospel—God’s story of salvation and redemption—is powerful, and as Christians, we believe it is good beyond any kind of good that we can even imagine. It is a great big story that rivals the likes of Harry Potter, and Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, and even Narnia, that it is possible for us to be a part of. It is a great big story that asks us to imagine a better world for all people, and to invite others into that great big story. This is the story that Jesus came to show us, that Paul believes is worth everything. THIS is the story that enables us to look at this world with confidence and hope and dreams of a better future. THIS is the story that makes other people look at us and wonder: what do they have? What do they know that I’m missing out on? Maybe I want to be a part of that.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth”, that this is the great big story of our salvation?

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