Favorite Words: Isaiah 36.1–3, 13–20; 37.1–7; then 2.1–4

Delivered at Ames UCC on November 18, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

Human beings are a wordy kind of creature. Maybe other mammals and molecules are, too, I don’t know. But we certainly are. We love to use words, to talk, to communicate. We are hungry to have our words heard, read, understood. That’s a chunk of the appeal of social media, right? Having an audience and people to read our words is a thrill.

So let me ask you this: What is your favorite word? What is your absolute favorite word? Is it a funny word, like supercalifragalisticexpialidotious, or a word unique to your profession like praxis or bouillabaisse, or a word that makes your heart strings thrum like love? What is your favorite word?

Now, what is your favorite word from the Bible? I can’t get my list down to one, so here are four of mine: hineni, hesed, surely, and shall.

2018.11.8 worthyHINENI
Hineni means “here I am.” Not “here I am washing dishes” or “here I am, on vacation.” It is the “here I am” Abraham gives to God.

Abraham wandered with his family for decades. For decades they had no permanent home and he and his wife Sarah had no legacy, for they were infertile. After an arduous old age, though, Abraham saw his way through the veil that he kept between himself and God. So when God calls to him after he has a home, after he has two children, Abraham can reply, “hineni,” here I am.

God, of course, knows where Abraham is, so what Abraham is really saying is, “Here I am in all that I am, fully available to you, fully aware that I cannot know all that you are, yet here I am without reservation for your will.” Hineni is a responsive presence, it is a posture of devotion. If it wouldn’t be so out of character for worship in our church, I would invite you to stand, to feel in your legs, arms, torso, and head that kind of receptivity.

Hineni: one word that expresses the outcome of a lifetime spent walking toward God.

Hesed is also the result of walking toward God, but this time in relationship to other people.

You’ll remember that just over the summer we spent three weeks on the book of Ruth, with a shadow puppet version thanks to the Petefish-Schrag family and friends.

God never appeared in the puppet version or in the book of Ruth. But Ruth and Naomi and Boaz, in the choices that they make to care for each other, despite desperate and tricky social circumstances, exude and enact hesed, the lovingkindness of God. Hesed is a love shown in “loyalty and commitment that go beyond the bounds of law or duty”1 it is to manifest God in the world between people. In hesed, we choose others, their physical safety and their good health, over and above what our communities may provide or our laws even allow.

Hesed: one word that expresses our innate, though often inert, capacity to be the good neighbors God invites us to be.


Surely, the third of my four favorite Biblical words, is about the good that God always is.

I invite those of you who are near one of the Bibles in the pew to pick them up. Turn to page 61. For those of you who have your own Bibles or Bible apps, please open them to Psalm 23. Let’s read it together, as best we are able.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters;

God restores my soul and leads me in right paths for The Name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

2018.11.18 surelySurely goodness and mercy shall follow me and I will be with God all my life. Certainly. Without question. Undoubtedly. Surely. Surely no matter how bad things get, there is yet goodness and mercy, and there is always God. Surely serves as a foothold, an anchor, and harbor light of divine reassurance and constancy, no matter the evidence to the contrary.

Surely: one word that expresses the entirety of God’s side of the covenant promise.

And lastly, shall. At the end of our reading today, Isaiah of Jerusalem says that

the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established…

and shall be raised above the hills

(and) all the nations shall stream to it.

Many people shall come…

out of Zion shall go forth instruction…

The Lord shall judge between the nations

And shall arbitrate for many peoples

they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
national shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.

This did not happen in Isaiah of Jerusalem’s lifetime, or the lifetimes of the two other Isaiahs who authored this book. In fact, by the time the book of Isaiah is over, the nation has fallen to Babylon, the affluent people have been exiled, and then the Persian conqueror of Babylon allows the descendants of the exiles to go home.

The shalls of peace that begin Isaiah are quickly followed by the actuals of war upon war. Upon war, upon war. The cover of your bulletin shows a munitions factory in England during World War I and a bullet factory in Missouri today.

If anything, it seems we have escalated our production of swords.

We have escalated, or at least intensified, the lead-up to wars, too.

In this passage, the king of Assyria sends his army and an emissary to Jerusalem to taunt the Hebrew king and to spread fear among the Hebrew people. Don’t listen to your king or his promises about your god—no god has stopped us yet! Just concede defeat now and come with us to a land of wine and bread.

The kings of our day, be they hereditary or elected or financial, don’t even have to leave home to taunt and disrupt: They just need Twitter and bots and some good programmers. Their audience isn’t a few thousand Jerusalemites, but hundreds of millions of harried, hard-working Internet users.

But still that shall rings out. The clarity of its bell, the day of peace and collaboration that it ushers in, still reverberates in our imaginations and our souls.

they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;

national shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.

They shall, they shall. Surely, it shall. Shall: one word that expresses the good that we, through God, can yet know.

Yes, we are wordy creatures, humans. But that’s not all we are.

We are also worthy.

We are worthy of Abraham and Sarah’s stable homeland. We are worthy of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz’s community of care. We are worthy of a fearless walk in the valley of the shadow of death. We are worthy of a world without weapons and the aggression that fuel their use.

For all the words we will hear and say today, we need only four: Be present, hineni, this day to the God who sets that table for friends and enemies alike. Be covenantal this day, hesed, to those who are in need. Let surely and shall remind us when we forget. And let us not forget any more.


1Berlin, A., and Brettler, M. Z. (Eds.). (2004). The Jewish Study Bible (p. 1578). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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