That is a name that probably does not bring much to mind for most people.
And yet he may be the second most important person of the Protestant
Reformation of the sixteenth century. And he is our guy. Much that we now
call “reformed theology” can be traced back to Zwingli. Martin Luther
is their guy. The differences between these two are still mirrored in the
differences between the Lutheran Churches and what are generally known as
the reformed churches today. We are on the reformed side. I won’t go
into all of what that means because I know when I put the words church and
history together it can have a magically stupefying effect on people. And
I also know that most of us really are not concerned about the fine points
of difference between the reformed churches and the Lutheran Churches.
Suffice it to say that there were differences between these two and
because of it not a small amount of enmity.
At one point it
would have been politically worthwhile for them to agree and merge because
of the overwhelming threat and power of the Roman Church but they couldn’t
or more precisely wouldn’t because of a dispute they had over what
communion really was. Luther wanted to uphold the idea of
transubstantiation that the bread and the wine actually became the blood
and the body of Christ. Where as Zwingli, our guy, wouldn’t hear of it.
It seems a small difference to us perhaps but it was a world of difference
to them. Luther, it is said, would not even shake Zwingli’s hand when
the talks fell apart. He told his followers that Zwingli couldn’t even
be considered a Christian.
Not that our
guy didn’t have strong opinions himself. He preached constantly against
the Roman church and Roman doctrine. He even lead an army into battle
against his fellow Swiss brethren who happened to want to uphold Catholic
tradition. He was killed in such a battle on November 11, 1531. Luther
said it served him right and it was a sure sign of God’s disfavor with
I am amazed
when I hear such stories of such hatred between people caused by
differences in religion. Especially these people they really ought to know
better. For all that the reformation accomplished it could not solve the
problem of religious self righteousness and certainly didn’t help
religious understanding. In fact it lead to much misunderstanding and
untold violence. People were killing people because they believed those
other people had the wrong idea about God. And it wasn’t just Catholics
killing Protestants or vice versa. Good Congregationalists in this country
executed Quakers! When I read about such stuff I think that Freud had it
wrong. Religion is not the opiate of the masses it seems to inspire much
more violence than opium ever could. It is like the angel dust of the
righteousness is especially apparent in those who win religious battles
and wars. It was and is assumed that whoever won the power struggle must
be right about God because God had delivered them and not the other. It is
an idea that may be even more destructive than religious war and it is
just plain wrong. Success is not necessarily a part of God’s favor or
In the Bible
readings for today we have examples of two colossal failures that every
Christian believes are events that God had everything to do with. God is
not always with those who succeed God is often powerfully present in the
failures of this life.
Isaiah 40 is a
watershed moment. Chapters 1-39 come from a period in the history of
Israel that sees the beginning of the end. And Isaiah sees it coming in
spades. And that is what he tells anyone who will listen in the first
thirty nine chapters. There is nothing but disaster ahead if the people of
Judah do not change their ways. Evidently they didn’t because Israel is
taken in 722 BCE and Judah and Jerusalem are obliterated in the sixth
century BCE. Isaiah is alive for the first and foresees the latter.
Everything that Israel was supposed to be comes to naught. And yet in
Isaiah 40 the failure that has overtaken Israel does not spell the end of
God’s care for Israel and its people.
In fact Isaiah
40 begins with God saying, “Comfort.” “Comfort my people for their
warfare is now ended.” After all the death and the destruction, the
failure of Israel as a country of power and influence there come the words
“Comfort my people.”
How could the
writer of second Isaiah who was writing after the disasters even begin to
suggest that God is still involved in the lives of the people of Israel?
Many of them had been in Babylon for generations. The holy city Jerusalem
was still in ruins. It would take centuries to rebuild and it would never
regain its glory. Judah and Israel remained in desolation. But there they
are words of hope. God is still present and powerful. It goes against all
the evidence and yet the writer maintains that there is hope, powerful
hope and there is one reason for that hope.
and eight are the key verses. They make the claim that even though human
life and endeavor is fragile and fleeting; even though our mightiest
efforts fail; even though destruction overtakes us that is not evidence
that God has abandoned us. “The word of God stands forever!” That is a
powerful theological jump forward and quite a change from the previous
understanding that ruled in much of Hebrew thinking. The change was this:
God did not necessarily bring success and victory rather God gives
something better God gives hope and faith.
It is the hard
won wisdom of Israel telling us that the word of God stands forever
regardless of our fate. So there is hope for everyone, even for the dead.
Good news, really good news.
This good news
is no where more evident than in the sad and tragic story of the ministry
of Jesus. I know we think of the ministry of Jesus the one we proclaim
Christ as a rousing success but that is not really how the story goes.
Professor Bart Ehrman who has written extensively on the life of Jesus
points out what two thousand years of Christian apologetic and tradition
has all but erased. Jesus was not well accepted by most of the people he
came into contact with. Ehrman reminds us that even his family mostly
rejected him. It is what the writer of Mark reports early in his ministry
(Mark 3:21). And the Gospel of John reports that his brothers did not
believe in him (John 7:5). It is clearly reported that he was rejected by
his own townspeople. Luke even reports that they tried to kill him after
he preached in the local synagogue. (Luke 4:16-30). He of course was
rejected by the Jewish authorities especially the Pharisees. And the
Romans did not much like him either. In the end his disciples would not
defend him and fled from him in fear. This ministry was not a rousing
But even if you
did not know any of that it would be hard to understand his ministry as a
success simply because of the way he died. At least, I hope that
crucifixion of the leader is not a mark of success for Christian ministry!
word does stand forever even for the meekest of men who would not raise an
army or a finger to save his life from a scandalous end. Jesus’ life and
death proves that God never lets go of us. So the message is the same as
Isaiah proclaims. There is hope. What has befallen you, no matter what it
is, is not enough to destroy God or even enough to get God to back off.
God is found in the midst of failure or so we learn from the life of
Ours is a
resurrection God and that means hope is present and faith works best when
all seems lost.
I called this
sermon “Holiday Cheer” and I admit that it hasn’t been too cheery.
But right now it is about the real holiday cheer that I am after and I
hope you are too. There is nothing more valuable than a faith that gives
to you and to me endurance and a reason to persevere. The writer of Isaiah
40 is right in my estimation. If it was only you and me our efforts would
be folly but our lives are so much more. Our lives can be the very works
of God. Lest we forget, that is the promise that we are to get all excited
about this time of year. Faith and hope are ours forever and this is the
occasion for living unto them. A person without hope or faith is desolate
but that same person with a mustard seed size amount of either is alive
with possibilities. Which will you choose? In Christ Jesus. Amen.