February 18, 2015 – Ash Wednesday Text: Isaiah 41:14-16
Dear Friends in Christ,
If you could be any animal in the world, which one would you choose? Maybe, like Isaiah, you would soar on wings like an eagle. Or, like Amos, perhaps the lion is your animal of choice because he is king of the jungle. Or maybe, like Elisha, you boast in the bear, because you could maim and maul.
How many of you would like to become a worm? Show of hands? That’s what I thought – we don’t have any worm wannabes in the sanctuary tonight. Worms have no arms, no legs, and no eyes! They are small and insignificant and if you ask me they don’t have the best of personalities.
No one ever stops their car to rescue a worm. We don’t read editorials that say we must stop the genocidal atrocity taking place in our lakes and rivers. Think of a worm being a team’s mascot. Will we ever hear of the Los Angeles Leaches or the Michigan Maggots or the Washington Worms? I don’t think so.
Our text Isaiah 41:14 calls God’s people a worm: “Fear not, you worm Jacob.” Why does God call the community in Babylon a worm? Didn’t He get the memo that calling someone a worm isn’t the best way to boost self-esteem or encourage people to get up and get going?
Buried under the boot of Babylon, in Isaiah 40-55 the exiles are also called weak and weary, bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, deaf and blind, childless, widowed, divorced, and a stubborn rebel from birth. God has a word for that: worm.
It is Ash Wednesday, another season of the Passion and . . .
“GOD HAS A WORD FOR THAT”
“You worm Jacob” is equated with “those who are dead.” Isaiah’s invites us to compare dead people with worms. Dead people are buried – so are worms. Dead people are stepped on – so are worms. Dead people are surrounded by dirt – so are worms. Dead people are ignored and soon forgotten – and so are worms.
The exiles had seen terror on every side. They are caught in a culture where their most treasured narratives and liturgies are being mocked, trivialized, or dismissed as being simply irrelevant. The beast called Babylon had swallowed everything up. Their hopelessness is epitomized in Psalm 22:1: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And then in verse 6 David says, “I am a worm and not a man.”
Now, what should I think of myself when I am captive to sin and far away from the Father? When I don’t walk humbly with God? When I feel no compassion for the lost? When I take no delight in the Word, recoil from prayer, harbor lustful thoughts and pant for the praises of people? When I am deceptive, mean-spirited, and petty? God has a word for that: worm. “Pastor, didn’t you get the memo that calling people a worm isn’t the best way to boost self-esteem or encourage us to get up and get going?”
No, I didn’t. Because thinking highly of ourselves has nothing to do with God’s Word. Rather He longs for us to cry out with Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips”; and with Job, “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”; and with Paul, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death!” This is what Lent is all about. Acknowledging who we are in God’s sight – sinful and unclean in thought, word, and deed. Lent is when we confess these sins, grieve over them, and repent before Almighty God. You see, only people who are dead and buried and surrounded by dirt cry out for life and resurrection.
Hear again Isaiah 41:14: “Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the One who helps you, declares the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.” The Lord is not a football coach rallying the team. He is “your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.” A redeemer is your next-of-kin-relative who buys back your inheritance, frees you from slavery, and pays off your debt. Whatever has gone bad, your redeemer will make good.
Couple with Redeemer is “Holy One of Israel.” It means the Lord is completely set apart and different from everyone and everything else.
Isaiah couples your Redeemer – the completely immanent One – with the Holy One of Israel – the completely transcendent One. In this way, he announces that the Lord alone is able to marshal every power in the universe for a single, loving, furious, relentless goal – to bring us love and life, forgiveness and salvation!
How does He do it? In the fullness of time, God became our next-of-kin-relative, literally. And then He took another step. He became dirty, despised, and dismissed. But then He took another, almost incomprehensible step. It was one for the ages. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” And then verse 6, “I am a worm and not a man.” Here is Jesus, nailed to the tree, His body bent and twisted. Here is Jesus, a bloody, horrific mess. Here is Jesus, mocked, ridiculed, and abandoned. God has a word for that: worm.
He did it all for you. And so God’s transforming word to us is exactly this. Isaiah 41:15 and 16: “Behold, I make of you a threshing sledge, new, sharp, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff; you shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest will scatter them. And you shall rejoice in the Lord; in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory.”
Worms become mountain movers! The lowly and despised are loved and lifted up. Our Lenten sackcloth and ashes are not the last word. On Easter they will be exchanged for baptismal robes washed white in the blood of Jesus. “The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the gospel is preached to the poor.” (Matt. 11:5) God has a word for that. Grace!