How many of you have ever been to a “Third World” or “developing” country? And while you were there, were any of you able to observe the educational system? What did you see?
In 2005, I had the opportunity to travel to Uganda on a two-week immersion experience through my seminary. While we were there, we spent time in Kampala, the capital city, but we also spent time in rural parts of the country. We visited churches, and hospitals, and schools, and we even visited in people’s homes. There were many things about this trip that were eye-opening and even shocking to me; the fact that access to clean water was basically non-existent in the rural parts of the country, the lack of clothing among young children, many of whom were running around in nothing but t-shirts. I could go on and on. But today, I want to share with you something else that really stood out to me and has stuck with me in all the years since. The kids over there in Uganda crave education. Many of them walk miles to attend school. And sometimes, they live so far from the schools that they will bring a palette with them and spend the weeknights sleeping on the classroom floors. If you offer those kids a soccer ball or a pencil and an opportunity to learn, they take the pencil every time. It’s almost like a hungry person being offered food for the first time in several days. They eat it up!
Of course, we are all quite aware that here in America, kids aren’t so enthusiastic about school most of the time…to say the least. And I think that’s because we Americans take education for granted. It’s something we have to do, and so often times we grow to resent it. But in Uganda, educational opportunities are rare, and the ones available are often only available to the privileged. In order to enroll in school in Uganda, kids have to pay school fees and buy uniforms. Youngsters in Uganda are often tied to their homes, where they are relied upon to care for siblings or other family members. Or they may suffer from malaria or some other disease that keeps them from being able-bodied enough to even get to school. And so any opportunity these kids have to learn, they jump on it. They value education because access to education is so difficult.
And so it goes with so many things in our lives. We give more value to those things that are harder to access, or harder to achieve. A “job well done” is more meaningful the more difficult the task accomplished. Healing or recovery is more miraculous the greater the illness. And as we see in our scripture passage this morning, our praise is greater the more trying our hardships.
Upon first glance, this passage from Isaiah’s prophecy is a beautiful psalm of praise to God, the source of strength and salvation. Without putting this scripture in context, we might be tempted to just glance over it with some rather quaint remark like, “Oh, isn’t that nice.” But, if you’ve spent any time looking at the first ten chapters of the book of Isaiah, you know that this psalm of praise in the twelfth chapter is far more than just “nice.”
You see, the first ten chapters of Isaiah contain a litany of harsh and bitter biblical predictions of divine wrath against Israel. The people of Israel have been acting against God’s wishes and in defiance of God’s covenant. Jerusalem, God’s chosen dwelling place, has been defiled, and has to be purged by judgment in order to make it fit for God to dwell there. And the judgment is massive. According to Isaiah’s prophecy only a “seed” of one-tenth of the people will survive. By the time we reach Isaiah 12, the people of God have been through the wringer: severely punished, brought low—and then miraculously promised restoration, a new beginning, a new leader who will bring about a reign of peace. Isaiah 12 envisions what the restored community will say to God once this amazing transformation occurs. The praise of the people is immense because the suffering was immense and because the restoration was so perfectly complete.
Many of you remember just a few short years ago when a massive earthquake struck the poor island nation of Haiti. Thousands were killed, and relief organizations are still at work in Haiti, seeking to rebuild and restore all that was lost. Richard Stearns, the president of one of those relief organizations, World Vision, reflected not too long ago on a visit he made to a church in Port-au-Prince just about one year after the earthquake. The church’s building consisted of a tent made from white tarps and duct tape, pitched in the midst of a sprawling camp for thousands of people still homeless from the earthquake. This is how he describes the church and the lesson he learned in Haiti:
“In the front row sat six amputees ranging in age from six to 60. They were clapping and smiling as they sang song after song and lifted their prayers to God. The worship was full of hope … [and] with thanksgiving to the Lord. No one was singing louder or praying more fervently than Demosi Louphine, a 32-year-old unemployed single mother of two. During the earthquake, a collapsed building crushed her right arm and left leg. After four days both limbs had to be amputated. She was leading the choir, leading prayers, standing on her prosthesis and lifting her one hand high in praise to God…
“Following the service, I met Demosi's two daughters, ages eight and ten. The three of them now live in a tent five feet tall and perhaps eight feet wide. Despite losing her job, her home, and two limbs, Demosi is deeply grateful because God spared her life on January 12th of 2010… ‘He brought me back like Lazarus, giving me the gift of life,’ says Demosi … [who] believes she survived the devastating quake for two reasons: to raise her girls and to serve her Lord for a few more years.
“It makes no sense to me as an ‘entitled American’ who grouses at the smallest inconveniences—a clogged drain or a slow WiFi connection in my home. Yet here in this place, many people who had lost everything … expressed nothing but praise.”
Certainly, we Americans take a lot for granted. We complain about a lot of inconveniences that other people in the world just wished they had so they could complain about them in the first place. And sometimes, we even take worship for granted. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that we, too, along with so, so many in this world, experience terrible hardships in our lives. We have to say “good-bye” to a child long before his time. We stand by, helpless, as a tornado makes matchsticks out of our home. Our body is wreaked by cancer or heart disease or MS or Alzheimer’s or depression, and we wait helplessly as the doctor says simply, “There’s nothing more we can do.” And then we begin to wonder if God is punishing us for something, or if God is angry because of something we have done or left undone. Perhaps we wonder if God cares, or if God even exists at all. Indeed, we have all experienced “the storms of life” in one way or another, and for many of us, there may very well be still more storms on the horizon.
Yet, amazingly, God’s promises still ring true. God is still miraculously at work in this world. Though we may not always experience it in the way we hope. Though the outcome may not be exactly as we want it, we can know that God has suffered, too, and even walks beside us in our trials. What Isaiah tells us still holds truth: God will gather his people together, the devastation will end. God will comfort us and save us. And even though we die, Christ says, “Yet will [we] live.” We will be filled with joy as we draw from the well of salvation. Demosi lost her church, her home, her job, and her limbs, but she did not lose her life. So she praised God; every opportunity she had, with all that she had. It’s so much harder to just take things for granted when we have stood at the brink, or weathered life’s harshest storms. And when we come through life’s trials and sufferings, how can we help but to praise God for carrying us through the valley? No longer is worship just something we do. That’s what we see the Israelites doing in this passage from Isaiah, and their praise is a vision of the praise of all God’s people as they emerge from the darkness into the salvation of Christ’s light.
We gather each Sunday morning to worship and praise God. Sometimes, our worship is empty, or it feels empty. But how much greater, more genuine, and complete is our worship when we are praising the God who has walked with us through the valley and carried us through the storms of life. Draw deeply from this well of salvation, my friends, and drink in the joy of abundant life with God. But don’t simply take this amazing gift for granted! Our worship and praise should be like Isaiah’s vision, welling up from the depths of our souls. For each of us who have been through these hardships, how can we help but praise God with all of our being?!? This is the vision Isaiah sees. And if we are a part of God’s people than that means we, too, are a part of this vision of praise.
As we hear Isaiah’s words this morning, I pray that each of us might hear the hopeful word offered to the people of God. Many of us may in this very moment be navigating the difficult trials of life. We may see only darkness, and we may feel as if there is no end to this suffering. We may find it hard to sing songs of praise, or even to just be present here in worship. And so in these days, remember this, God has already started carrying through on the promises foretold to us in Isaiah. God has delivered a Branch from the root of Jesse. Christ, our Savior, has already begun the work of establishing peace and righteousness in this world, and he did it by suffering on a cross. God knows your pain more intimately than you can imagine, and he has not forgotten you. God walks with you, even now. God is at work, even now. And God will deliver you from this pain, too. Even in this time, you can give praise to God for those promises. And, in faith, you can find hope in the work that has already begun through Christ Jesus our Lord.
And if that’s not a reason to give praise, I don’t know what is!