“Advent Hope”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 2, 2018

Isaiah 64:1-9

 

“O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” prays the prophet, “so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…”

I don’t know about you, but I find this reading a little hard to hear.  In a season when earthquakes have brought devastation in Haiti, and in Indonesia, and just this weekend in Alaska…  In a month when dozens of people and thousands of homes and millions of acres have been destroyed by wildfire in the western United States…  It is hard to think of calling on God to come to us as earthquake and fire, shaking mountains and kindling brushwood and causing water to boil.  It is hard to hear this passage as “the word of the Lord,” hard to imagine responding to it with “Thanks be to God.”  It is hard to receive this prayer as any form of good news at all when such devastation is so fresh in our minds—and when we are conscious of the harm inflicted when religious leaders interpret natural disasters as God’s punishment for some form of human sin (often blamed on the very vulnerable communities that Jesus himself would most cherish, as in the AIDS crisis, and Hurricane Katrina, and so many other examples in which victims were blamed for their own suffering).

I don’t know about you, but I find this reading a little hard to hear.  And yet, for the prophet’s original audience, this was a word of hope.

About five and a half centuries before the time of Jesus, the Israelites had just been allowed to begin making their way home after decades of exile in Babylon.  Those who made the arduous journey back to Israel/Palestine—hundreds of miles, probably on foot, across arid, stony, desert terrain—were either aged ones, who had survived the conquest and destruction of their homeland, endured the forced march to Babylon, and withstood the sufferings and indignities of life in exile, or young ones, who had been born in exile and were returning to a homeland that they knew only from the stories of their elders.

When they arrived, they found themselves in a land that was still occupied, just by a different imperial force.  They and their kindred still did not have the full right to self-governance or self-determination.  Their communities still were subject to the whims of leaders whose priority was extracting wealth for their emperor and keeping the local population subjugated.  Many of the devastations wrought by conquering armies had yet to be restored.  Homes were still in ruins.  Fields were overgrown (if they had not been taken over to be cultivated by the occupiers).

And the people who had not gone into exile, but had remained in Jerusalem and its environs, were not necessarily excited to welcome the exiles back.  Even if they had not fully assimilated, the returning Israelites had surely been shaped by their time in Babylon.  Perhaps their accents were different; perhaps they had picked up a few Babylonian words to add to their vocabulary.  Perhaps they dressed differently or cooked different meals or sang different songs or told different stories.  Perhaps those who had not traveled to Babylon felt suspicious of their distant cousins who had lived in the belly of the beast for so long.  How could their loyalties—political, religious, familial, or otherwise—be trusted?

This journey home, this return from exile, was the thing for which they had prayed, had yearned, had waited for so long.  And like so many long-expected things, when the day finally came, it did not live up to the hype.  Their rosy images of home did not match the tarnished, shabby, rubble-strewn reality.  Life was still hard.  Occupation was still brutal.  Family was still complicated.  Survival was still not a guarantee.  Hunger and illness still stalked the land.  The way things were was not the way they had dreamed that they would be.

Into that context, into a world where the gap between dream and reality was painfully wide, the prophet spoke for the people, crying out to God.  “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil!”  Come, God, and make it right!  Change things for the better.  Defeat the empire.  Heal our families.  Transform the world.  Feed our hungry children.  Bring about your realm.  Fulfill your promises!

 

This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that faithful people confronting an untenable situation cried out to God for help.  This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that faithful people feeling desperate called for a divine warrior, an all-powerful deity to intervene in an overwhelming way.  This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that faithful people who were suffering prayed for God to overturn it all.

But hearing this reading as Advent begins, when we know where this season leads…  Hearing this reading as Advent begins, when the children are downstairs preparing for the pageant…  Hearing this reading as Advent begins, with the Christ candle, though yet unlit, beckoning us through these four weeks toward tidings of comfort and joy…  Hearing this reading as Advent begins, I am mindful that when we cry out to God for help, when we call for a divine warrior, an all-powerful deity, when we pray for God to tear open the heavens and come down, God does hear us and God does respond—but what we think we want is not always, not usually, what we get.

Hearing this reading as Advent begins, I am mindful that when we ask for wildfire, we get candlelight.  When we ask for earthquake, we get embrace.  When we ask for the omnipotent divine warrior, we get a newborn baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  We get Jesus.

If we’re honest, and if we’re willing to risk sounding a little bit heretical, sometimes this can feel like a disappointment.  There are things in this world that need to be overturned.  There are circumstances in this world that are absolutely untenable.  There are situations in this world—personal and communal and global—that require complete and utter transformation.  And I don’t know about you, but as I look around for hope, I am sometimes like those long-ago Israelites:  I want to see it tearing open the heavens and coming down, setting things ablaze and making mountains quake.  I want to see illness cured instantaneously.  I want to see suffering alleviated with a magic wand.  I want to see families healed, children nurtured and cherished, refugees welcomed, injustice overturned, our ravaged earth restored, oppressive systems destroyed, hatred and bigotry wiped away.  I want an edict from the highest heights, a potent word that will not fail to accomplish the purpose for which it is sent.

And yet, when I remember who Jesus is and how God chooses to move in the world, I remember that hope comes in small, vulnerable, tender ways.  In a gentle word to an estranged lover…  In a longed-for child who finally arrives…  In a job offer that follows more applications than you can count…  In a week, a month, a year of sobriety, one day at a time…  In family members who clean gutters and put up Christmas decorations for one who is hospitalized…  In a new medication that’s making life livable again…  In a phone call from a friend who reaches out at exactly the moment when you need a little love…  In a gift purchased for a family in need…  In a meal served in a church basement on a Monday afternoon…

It turns out that the God we know in Jesus works on a human scale, and hope comes that way, too.  Not as fire from the sky, but as this little light of mine.  Not as booming thunder, but as the still, small voice.  When I remember who Jesus is and how God chooses to move in the world, I am reminded that the birth of an infant is how God changed the world forever.  And so, as this Advent season dawns, if hope seems small, faint, vulnerable, tender—maybe that actually means it is about to transform everything.

 


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