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Burned Beef

Sermons On The First Readings
Series II, Cycle A
Jenny was employed as an emergency room nurse in a busy urban hospital. Often she worked many hours past the end of her shift, providing care to trauma victims and their families. Jenny was also a loving wife and mother, and an excellent cook. On the evening before starting her hectic work week, Jenny would prepare a huge pot of soup, a casserole, or stew; plentiful enough for her family to pop into the microwave or simmer on the stove in case she had to work overtime.

At 5:30 p.m. one evening, Jenny's husband, Terry, arrived home to an empty house and listened to Jenny's voice mail asking Terry to "warm up the beef stew that's in the casserole dish on the top shelf of the refrigerator. Keep the lid on to preserve the flavor."

Terry followed the directions perfectly ... or, so he thought. Placing the dish on the front burner of the stove, Terry turned on the heating dial and proceeded to make a salad. Then he began to read the paper as he waited for the boys to arrive home from soccer practice.

About thirty minutes later, his sons burst through the door, plopped down at the dinner table saying, "Okay, what did Mom make for dinner? Feed us. Hurry up, Dad! We are starving!"

Terry gingerly lifted the dish of beef stew from the stove. However, the glassware was not just warm, it was so hot that Terry quickly dropped the dish onto the wooden cupboard next to the stove. Carefully, he lifted the lid, and immediately the entire kitchen was engulfed with blue smoke. A terrible, burning stench filled their nostrils. Blackened chunks of beef adhered to the bottom of the dish, securely fastened there by a glue-like paste that once was potatoes, carrots, and gravy.

By now the smoke alarm was blaring, and the boys were dashing through the house opening windows and doors as they went.

Naturally, in the middle of this chaos, headlights appeared in the driveway. Mom was home. Jenny was there and she looked tired and hungry.

Silently, Jenny walked through the opened front door, past her cowering men folk. Ignoring the billowing cloud of smoke, she shut off the ear-splitting blare of the alarm and turned on the ceiling fans and the exhaust fan above the stove. Lifting the cooling glassware dish of glop, Jenny pretended to be oblivious to the scorched wood on which it rested and placed it on the floor in front of Penny and Cookie, the family cat and dog. Naturally, they wouldn't eat it, either, and quickly scampered down the basement stairs. Then, Jenny slowly turned to face Terry.

"This can't be good," thought Terry as he feared the worst, knowing that he deserved whatever came next.

Looking into Terry's eyes, Jenny was unable to control herself any longer. She burst into laughter: long, loud, contagious laughter. Jenny grasped Terry's hands and said, "I just knew you'd do that! It's a good thing I didn't marry you for your money or for your cooking skills. Get in the car. Pizza's on me."

Jenny was well aware of her husband's tendency to mess up a meal. She chose him out of love. She gazed into his eyes, grasped his hands, and paid for the pizza. She married Terry because she loved him; not because he was often likely to "burn the beef."

God does it even better. In our Old Testament lesson, God announces to his beloved servant, "I have called you in righteousness. I have taken you by the hand and kept you" (Isaiah 42:6).

Friends, God has chosen us, even though in some fashion, like Terry, we all "burn the beef." Saint Paul writes, "There is no one who is righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10). Paul recognized that he knew in his mind what actions God expected of him. However, he too, fell far short. By his own actions, Paul neither deserved nor earned God's promise of salvation. He writes: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate" (Romans 7:15).

Paul has certainly described what Terry was experiencing as the smoke alarm was loudly reminding him of his helpless ineptitude. Paul has also described you and me. There is nothing we can do to even deserve the label "righteous" in the eyes of God. With Paul, we say, "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24).

Again, Isaiah reminds us that God has chosen us in spite of our sin. It is the righteous God who has chosen to make us righteous. Listen again to God's promise in our text: "I am the Lord. [declares God -- and we are not!] I have called you in righteousness. I have taken you by the hand and kept you" (Isaiah 42:6). Inscribe these words on your heart. Carry them deep inside your souls.

Now, why does God choose to do this? Why does our God choose us in spite of us? Read the next chapter in Isaiah and discover one of the most profound, grace-filled verses in the Bible. Why you? Why me? Why us? "Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you" (Isaiah 43:4).

Wow! Precious! Honored! Loved! Why? Just because God declares it!

Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. Today our lessons remind us of God's choice to name and claim and keep us as God's own children. Today we celebrate the prototype -- the example of God's first choice ... Jesus Christ, God's own Son in whom he was well pleased. Let's look again at our text in Isaiah today. Keep in your mind God's choice of another messed up, fouled up, ready to give up group of sinful people. The people of Judah had messed up big time. They were worshiping false gods and cheating the poor. Their morals were terrible. Their politicians were corrupt.

As a consequence of their sin, God allowed the nation to be conquered by the Babylonian armies who destroyed the walls of Jerusalem and left the temple in ruins. Thousands of the most influential citizens were taken into exile. It was to these captives, 500 miles from home, that Isaiah's message of God's rescue was intended.

Instead of casting out the exiles for messing up, the Lord promised rescue and restoration. They were suffering for the pain of sin that they themselves had caused. God raised up a servant who would save them in spite of their sin. The Lord announces: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring justice to the nations" (Isaiah 42:1).

Who was this servant? Some speculate that it was Isaiah himself. Others suggest that it might have been Cyrus, whose Persian nation was threatening Babylon. The fact is that no one really knows for sure. Today, most Christians see Jesus himself as the rescuing, saving, suffering, servant of God.

At his baptism, Jesus was reminded of God's choice. At the baptism of Jesus, God not only proclaimed that Jesus was God's beloved Son; God also revealed again that Jesus had become one with all people. At his baptism, Jesus became one with all sinners; all who messed up big time; all who are weak; all who are vulnerable; all who suffer pain and persecution.

At his death on the cross, Jesus, God's own suffering servant, made visible God's forever choice to declare us as God's own righteous children. At our own baptism, the risen Christ splashes us with God's word of rescue from the power of sin. At the Lord's table, Christ feeds us with a taste of that promise. As members of God's people, the Holy Spirit sends us, as servants to the suffering and the forgotten around us.

In the midst of a broken and fear-filled world, God sends us as servants of the promise, as light into a darkened world, to open blind eyes, and to rescue those who are imprisoned by the forces of sin and evil.

We cannot do this alone. We still "burn the beef." As Isaiah reminded us in chapter 42, verse 6, it is the Lord who takes us by the hand and keeps us, surrounding us with his love.

Billy and Johnny, four-year-old twins, wandered far from their daddy, who had taken them to a crowded beach. When they finally realized that they were lost, the boys just plopped down on the sand in tears. When their daddy couldn't find them, his heart sank. He began to shout out their names, running everywhere in desperation. Finally, they saw each other and ran into the warmest, biggest hug of love ever. Hand-in-hand they returned to their place on the sand. As the boys' father told this story, he remarked, "I didn't feel really safe until they were holding my hands."

"Me, too, Daddy," said Billy.

"And me, Daddy," added Johnny.

And the Lord said: "I have called you in righteousness. I have taken you by the hand and kept you" (Isaiah 42:6).

People of God, you are chosen. By God you are baptized! God has kept you; is keeping you; and has promised to continue to keep you in his very own hands, even though we still "burn the beef," even though sin abounds and surrounds us in its prison. In Christ, God's own servant rescues us and sends us into the world. In the outstretched arms of the crucified Christ, God finds us and keeps us, embraced forever as God's own children! Gather at the Lord's table! Dinner's served! Amen.
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