Isaiah 55:6-12
3rd Sunday of Lent
Elizabeth M. Deibert

“Return.” We often return a product to a store because we changed our minds or it didn’t fit or look right in our house. Maybe it was defective. So we make a return of something we do not want. We return things that belong to other people. You borrow a book, a lawn mower, a ball from someone. And then you return it. You return a favor. Someone does something nice for you, like baking a cake. You return the favor, if you can, by doing something kind for them. We return home after school or work or vacation. We’re not really talking about returning, but RE-turning. More like when a teacher says, “Turn around. Pay attention.” If you watch sports on tv, you’ve seen the Corona commercial of the attractive young couple sitting on the beach sipping while watching the waves come in. Then another attractive woman walks by and the guy forgets the woman he’s with and his head swings all the way to the left, and the rest of the Corona thrown in his face is a clear message to “turn around.”

That’s sort of what we all do with God. The things of the world distract us and our eyes, our minds, our hearts, our souls are pulled away. We need weekly worship to re-turn us to God. We need daily prayer to re-turn us to God. We need a disciplined Christian life to keep us focused on God. That’s why we have Lenten disciplines. Why would people for generations give up meat on Fridays, except to remember that Christ died on a Friday? Why would Orthodox Christians couples give up conjugal relations during Lent – but to remember that Christ suffered for us. Why would some Christians fast and why would Peace people take on the Lenten Challenge, but to remember to put Jesus Christ first in our lives, to keep our focus on the One who matters most, to renew our faith.

Our theme for Lent is “Re-New your life.” And for the first three Sundays, we are considering different angles of renewal begin with our turning or re-turning toward God. First we read Psalm 51, the prayer of King David, acknowledging his sin and asking for a clean heart. The call that day was to be humble and courageous enough to see our own sin and repent. Then last week, we looked at the temptations of Christ, as a good example of how we are called to resist, to turn away from evil and keep focused on our identity as children of God, nothing that demeans that identity.

Today’s scripture from the prophet Isaiah beckons to us to return to the Lord, who will abundantly pardon. We could talk about the history of this prophet and much about the context of his writing. That might make you a better historian and Biblical scholar, but I’m hoping that today we will become better Christians, so I’m not spending much time with that. You can get a decent summary on Wikipedia about Isaiah, who lived in the second half of the 8th century BC. You can read there about how the Book of Isaiah is understood to be in three parts, possibly written by three different persons at different times. In the first 39 chapters, Isaiah prophesies doom for a sinful Judah and for all the nations of the world that oppose God. The last 27 chapters prophesy the restoration of the nation of Israel. This section includes the Songs of the Suffering Servant, four separate passages that Christians believe prefigure the coming of Jesus Christ, and which are otherwise traditionally thought to refer to the nation of Israel. This second half of the book includes prophecies of a new creation in God's glorious future kingdom. That’s what we’re reading today – Isaiah’s vision of the new creation.

The Israelites felt far away from God in exile. They could blame God for that or blame their captors. They might even blame themselves, which the prophets usually help them to do. Isaiah offers both the challenge and the comfort, calling them to return to the God who will abundantly pardon. Calling them to seize the day. Carpe diem. Seek the Lord, now. Don’t be presumptious that God’s love and forgiveness is something with which we can trifle, play around. It is too special to be ignored, especially when you are such a bad place. Sure God’s love is certain. Sure God is everlasting, but don’t get uppity. God’s ways are higher than yours. God’s still in charge. Hear the word of the Lord:

NRS Isaiah 55:6 Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 12 For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

So these three themes – repent, resist, return – I see them as part of the natural cycle of growing in faithfulness. Repenting of sin. Resisting sin. Re-turning to God, which then leads to repentance of sin. If we see God’s beauty, then we see that we, created in God’s image, are tarnished, dirty, not a true reflection.

Let me use a little example from my life to illustrate how these three themes cycle. I hope the simplicity of this will help you translate into something in your own life. Some of you may have noticed that the Deiberts – both Richard and Elizabeth in particular – have a habit of running late. Notice I called it a habit. I could call it a pattern, or I could, if I have any intention of repenting, call it sin. I could justify it, saying it’s no big deal, doesn’t really hurt anyone, but if I examine it closely, I see at the root of this habit the sin of thinking I’m more important than you, or at least my time is more important than yours. Okay, so the first step is to acknowledge my habit as sin because it is a form of mistreatment of others. I can repetitively apologize or make excuses for my tardiness, but if I really want to repent, then I need to see the sin of considering my time more valuable than yours. So repenting means a real change of heart and willingness to stop making excuses for myself.

Next, I must resist the temptation to squeeze one more activity in before departing for a scheduled event. I must resist the temptation to ignore the clock – very easy for me. I must set timers for myself – put things in place – to make sure that I am guarding myself against this evil of tardiness. When distracting events happen like last minute phone calls, I must remember that my identity is that of a child of God who respects the time of others and is therefore willing to be on time, even if I must leave something unfinished. I must waste some of my time to protect some of yours –self-sacrifice. I must resist the temptation to enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from rushing around, beating the clock in my shower and get dressed time, and all those other games I play when I’m under pressure. Sometimes those games work, but sometimes they waste my energy and with one untimely stoplight, I can still arrive late. I have to admit to myself that my games often don’t work. That admission is part of resisting temptation.

Finally, in order to really keep pressing on toward faithfulness in this area of weakness in my life, I must turn toward God, turn and re-turn, because only when I see God do I see what love really is. Only when I turn toward God do I see my sin for what it is. Only when I turn toward God do I have courage to face my sin as sin, in the comfort of knowing I will be abundantly pardoned. Only when I turn to God, rather than comparing myself with others who are tardy or others who have more consequential sins, do I set a high enough standard for myself.

If I turn to you, I’ll be sure to find that speck in your eye and fail to see the log in my own eye. When I turn to God, then I am seeing who I could be, not excusing myself for being less than I am created to be. When I turn to God, I see that God’s ways are higher than my ways. My egotistical self is put back in its place as servant of God. Now tardiness is just one of my sins. It was an easy one to talk about. There are so many different things in my life that pull me away, distract me from being the person God intends me to be. Returning to God is an acceptance of my humble place in the universe and being grateful for all the good gifts God gives.

There are lots of complaints about cold weather this year, even in Florida. Many of you came here to escape snow and even rain. But somehow God has to water the earth. We get hurricanes and thunder storms. One way or another, God has to bring the uncomfortable wet stuff to give us vegetation. We gripe about cold, but the farm workers who lost everything including their income when the plants froze have more reason to complain than we do. Returning to God means acknowledging God’s sovereignty, knowing that God must have some purpose for the stormy seasons and the exilic periods of life. Returning to God reassures us that we are in the right place. This notion of returning to God is best said by the old 1848 Shaker hymn, popularized by Aaron Copland with his Appalachian Spring in the 1946, further popularized when Sydney Carter, the English man wrote Lord of the Dance in 1963. There is simplicity in seeking one thing, being focused on one Lord, being unashamed of bowing and bending in humility, being in the God’s valley, notice it’s not a mountain top, but a valley of love of delight, where trees clap their hands. But that simplicity comes by turning, turning, turning, turning toward God until we come round right.


'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,

'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come round right.