The latter part of Isaiah is profoundly inspiring, particularly when one considers the terribly uncertain times in which these words were written. It is a call to a weary people, wanting, needing, and seeking inspiration… These words were also a caution for them to not become too hung up in the trappings of their culture, but to remember the core of who they were and whose they were.
But it’s hard.
It’s hard when they lived in a strange land. The customs they were once familiar with were no longer there. Or the rituals that they did practice had become hollow.
Almost two generations into their exile in Babylon, a prophet wrote and spoke to the people in exile. Calling them to look above their present circumstance, and proclaiming that their captivity would end, and that a new day of hope was dawning. They needed it. They needed to hear these words of comfort and encouragement… but they also needed to be able to let go, and to understand how and why they got there in the first place. Second Isaiah, as we now call these chapters, was not about going back to the good old days, but rather looking forward to something new: a transformation; a new way of being God’s people. His words were as much a caution about the complacency of the generations that led up to the exile, as they were a proclamation of hope in the midst of a very trying time. Like Jeremiah and Ezekiel preached two generations earlier the prophet believed that the people of Israel had lost their way long before the Babylonians had come along. They had forgotten the core of what God called them to be.
Maybe it’s human nature, though. We do share a lot with the exiles. It’s amazing how we get hung up on the minutiae and forget about the core values and reasons of why we do what we do.
It happens often even in the smallest things, never mind at the broadest scale.
Something I learned fairly early on in seminary, is that as human beings, when left to our own devices will tend to keep the new and toss out the old… but we do so thinking that we are preserving the old. For those of you who were here two weeks ago, and I gave a brief history lesson of the brief history of the pews you’re sitting in, that’s just one example. The week before that it was the story of a spoon that was set out with communion ware.
This week I want us to consider the humble offering plate… or more specifically the ritual that we have every week around it. Like the story of the spoon, like the pew, the practice and ritual that we have around this particular trapping has not been around since day one. It evolved, and it evolved in a rather peculiar way… so much so that it unintentionally obscures an important part of what we do in worship.
So most of us are used to at a certain point in the service of us passing a plate like this around. We put money, or envelopes of money onto the plate, and the ushers take it to the back. We then stand up, as the plates are carried forward, and we sing as they’re brought forward. These days, we try to vary what we sing as they’re brought forward, but when I was growing up, there was one song and one song only that was sung as it was brought forward: The Doxology. Usually set to a tune called “The Old 100th” –The doxology (have Antonina play it).
A doxology is a short hymn of praise, but it wasn’t sung after the offering was collected.
Originally, any money that was given for the work of the church was collected through a box located somewhere near the entrance. People placed their money in the box before entering worship, or if they happened to be in the building at some point during the week.
Of course, theft was a problem. Even in highly superstitious times hundreds of years ago, there was a continuous problem of these boxes or repositories being broken into and the contents removed. So there was the idea that the contents of the box would be brought forward in the sanctuary during a certain point in worship where everyone could then keep an eye on it. The best place was at the point at which the bread and the wine for communion would be brought from the back of the sanctuary to the front… oddly enough so that there would not be this big production about it.
However, as the offering was being brought forward, there would be people in the congregation: “Oh! I forgot to put some money in the box” and so they would come over and do so as it was being brought forward. That wasn’t all that convenient, so eventually a means of collecting “late” offerings emerged. Sometimes it was a bag on the end of a stick that ushers would reach across the pews, and as we are familiar with, the plate.
Still, the gifts were brought forward at the same time that the bread and wine would be brought in for communion. Yet as the shift in worship services went from focusing on communion to focusing on the sermon, bread and wine would not need to be brought forward… and yet for security reasons, the monetary gifts still needed to be brought forward. So the ritual and the song of praise to God that was intended to be sung for the elements of communion, now became a ritual around giving and stewardship… and in most protestant churches today, even on Sundays where we celebrate communion, the doxology and rituals around the bread and wine are now separate from each other.
This didn’t happen all at once, but rather incrementally over hundreds of years, so that the original purpose of a ritual had been forgotten in favour of a practice that was done for convenience.
What do we do with this information, John?
Do we stop passing the plate around or doing the offering? Of course not. That’s not my point. In understanding how our own practices developed, we renew our understanding of what matters, and it could give us permission to try something different, especially in an age of PayPal and e-transfer. But more importantly, remember that the original ritual of bringing the bread and the wine into the sanctuary was a profound statement of God coming into our midst, healing and renewing. That is what is important, and we shouldn’t forget that. This was the kind of concern that the prophet had over what had happened on a much more severe scale. Those latter chapters of Isaiah sought to acknowledge what had happened, what the people had forgotten.
When we read in Isaiah, “Have you not seen, have you not heard?” it was a rhetorical flourish. They had not seen, they had not heard… because they had forgotten who they were long before the exile. The theology of these latter chapters of Isaiah is all about rediscovering who they were, and realizing that God was about to do something profoundly new. In so doing they could let go of all the things that were making them weary, and embrace God’s vision of hope, and be renewed.
What resulted is one of the most inspiring passages from the entire Bible, powerful enough to reach across time and space to remind us of God’s renewing power in moments of despair. It is as valid today as it was when the prophet penned them for the first time. It is the message we need to hear. It remains a call to us to remember who we are, and whose we are. In so doing, in remembering and living out that core message of God’s love and presence in our midst, we may find ourselves not only healed and renewed, but given a chance to fly like eagles. Amen.