“A Multitude of Camels?”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
January 6, 2019
Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-6
1Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
3Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
I bet if you made a list of the blessings you would like to experience in 2019, having a herd of camels “cover you” won’t be on that list. But in the passage we read this morning that is one of the blessings that Isaiah prophecies for the people of Israel. Of course, all things in context. I am sure the folks Isaiah was writing for would not have had a clue about why your list of blessings includes a better smartphone and internet service, right?
I want to explore the blessings God promises in the Scriptures we will read over this first month of the New Year. I want to read and listen and think together about what those ancient promises – thousands of years old – mean to us today. And I hope that we will all find a deeper love for God and recognize even more just how deep and wide God’s love for us is.
Now all this might seem old hat and something we take for granted, but stop a moment. The revelation of Yahweh has always had at its heart a revolutionary, startling claim. It is the claim that God was a God of blessing and that this God, who was the true, only, God of the infinite universes, wanted to bless not curse people. Before Yahweh most people believed in gods that were dangerous, violent, and destructive. It was the way they made sense of what a world where danger, violence and destruction took lives without any warning. It was a way to explain and live in that world. The God that came to Moses and led the Hebrew people out of captivity and gave them the law to guide their lives was now speaking through Isaiah to promise them they would return from exile to yet another foreign power.
Isaiah’s words begin with the beautiful proclamation: “arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Not only would those people exiled be returned to Israel, but nations and kings would come and honor God’s people who had suffered in exile. In Isaiah’s list of the blessings God was sending their way is the promise that a “multitude of camels shall cover you.” So clearly this was a blessing that God’s people would cherish and appreciate, even if it is a bit difficult for us to imagine in this day and age.
So what is the point? Why am I talking about camels to you? The main point was there in what I said about the character of God. This God, the God of Israel, the God we believe is the God of Infinite Universes is a God of blessing. Oh, sure you say – and maybe you have always believed this – or maybe you are skeptical even if you are a believer. And let’s be honest, Christianity has often preached a judgmental, violent, vindictive god despite this premise that I am claiming now.
We have been told God is unconditional love and then we have heard all kinds of conditions that humans have placed on God’s love. We hear that God saves but then we hear all the people human’s claim God curses. We hear and believe that God sent his son Jesus Christ because he so loves the world, but then we hear preachers and theologians put limits on who qualifies. Let’s be honest, there are certainly voices within Scripture that those who limit God’s love to those like themselves can cite. Let us say there is a dialogue within Scripture itself. Either we believe the voice that proclaims God’s love or we believe in a God whose love is limited and therefore whose power is limited. I believe in a God whose love is the most powerful thing there is, and I believe Jesus Christ is a sign of that love and its power to conquer all things, even sin and death itself.
Holy Communion is the sign of that love and the reminder that the suffering and death of Jesus was and is the promise of a new reality, not yet fully seen. We gather and we proclaim what God has done, and will do. We speak of it as something that did happen, and as something that will happen, and something that is already real. This is faith. In communion we relive what Jesus and his disciples did before his suffering and death. In communion we remind ourselves that in the time to come we will all sit at table already awaiting us and God will provide food and drink for eternity. In communion we proclaim that despite what was a sorrowful meal before Christ’s crucifixion, yet it is the joyful feast of the people of God because in it we see the sign of God’s promise to bring us blessing, and joy, and life.
This is what matters: in the midst of still being in exile the people heard the promise of God that their situation was not permanent. It was not the destiny that God intended and God’s love and God’s power would yet change their reality. And God did! The word of Scripture constantly speaks to the reality that God intends, that is already, even if unseen by human eyes. Though they were not yet back in Israel, Isaiah was promising them that they would be covered in camels! Though they were still far from home God was already revealing that nations and kings would come and bring blessings to Israel.
To me what this urges me to do is to live now as if the promises of God are fulfilled, even if we do not yet see them fulfilled. We take communion remembering the suffering and death of Christ not just because he died, but because he lives. We celebrate communion because it gives a glimpse of the time when all will eat and drink and rejoice and no one will hunger or thirst. We believe even when we are in exile that we will return. We live as if the reality of God’s promises are already. Many of us look at the current circumstances and are fearful and anxious about the future. Many people feel as if they are in exile right here and long to hear a word of hope, a promise from God of blessing.
Rebecca Voelke, “Laughing, Singing and Dancing Our Way to Resilience,” ucc.org, SSD, Nov 13, 2018, gives an example from an experience that speaks to this. She says, “It was Christmas morning 1987, and [she] was in the remote, mountainous Salvadoran village of Santa Marta as part of a small delegation of North American Christians and Jews. [They were] awakened, disoriented, to the ground shaking. Quickly, an older leader in the community explained that the Salvadoran government was dropping bombs nearby to scare and intimidate them. The contrast between the ground-shaking bombs and the early Christmas morning was lost on no one.” The village elder told them more about the village’s history, including how his daughter and a childhood friend had been murdered by government troops. He described in detail the ways in which their government targets real bodies with torture, pain, and death.
“But the story made a sharp turn when, after describing the history, [they] sat in silence and prayed. Then he said, ‘Do you know how I can tell which North Americans are going to last here with us?’ After a pause in which no one answered, he continued, ‘I know that someone is going to last here when they know how to laugh, to sing, to dance, to experience joy . . . because the work we are doing is so difficult, we have to claim the promise of how the world is going to be, now. We have to live the promise. That’s what our faith teaches us.’”
The blessing of God is to know that even in the face of fear and anxiety, of evil and injustice, of exile and of wanting to wall out anyone someone says threatens us, true or not, we must know and believe God’s blessings. We must be able to live the blessings – to “laugh and sing and dance, to experience joy” to claim the promise!
The first of four blessings I hear our Scripture tell us about today is to “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” It is the invitation to live the promises of God, to bless and be blessed, to share the food and drink of eternity now. To believe in God enough to believe the blessings now – and to laugh and sing and experience the joy of God’s blessings now. So while New Year’s Eve and Christmas have come and gone, let’s keep celebrating. Even as we celebrate this sacrament as the sign of God’s loving blessings now. So bring on the camels! May a multitude of camels cover you in the coming year! AMEN.