Saturday, December 14, 2013

Hope: Advent in the midst of the Funk

Advent has become rather disjointed for me this year.  And I would suggest that it may be for all of us because of the weather and the closings of last week. And I also have a case of the Funky Februaries and it is only December--NO FAIR!   But today’s lessons bring me back to the season.  

First we hear one of those wonderful prophetic oracles from Isaiah that heralds newness, repair, return and rest.  It is a wonderful oracle and helps us focus on the hope that is held up to us in preparation to receive the Christ Child:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the LORD,
    the majesty of our God....

The First part of the book of Isaiah is a series of oracles in response to a time when the people have have been oppressed
by their own sinfulness.  Isaiah is most likely writing this in 7th century before Christ when the Kingdom of Israel (the northern portion of the Divided Kingdom) was being conquered by the Assyrians and the southern Kingdom of Judah was being threatened.  The whole faith of what we know as Judaism was being threatened with extinction.  The first 34 chapters are a series of oracles or visions of what is going to happen to the Promised Land because the people of God have failed to follow the Covenant between God and humanity, that is Mosaic Law.

Just before this passage, Isaiah in Chapter 34 says: 

For the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host, he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter.
Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood.
All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree.
For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have doomed.

Pretty grisly stuff.  But then,  out of the blue, comes Chapter 35 which we have today.  There is no preparation for it.  There are no verses of change; no preparation for this song of hope and reparation.

  The notes in my study edition of the Bible tell me that this chapter was most likely written by 2nd Isaiah some 100 years later and was copied into this passage.  However, recent
scholars are not quite willing to say that.  By all rights this passage which is so comforting and so proclaiming of hope shouldn’t be in this part of the Book of Isaiah.  It sounds like Isaiah, but from an era much later.  What’s going on?

Such juxtapositions happen often in the prophets.  Most of the time we ignore them, but like in music, the silences are as important as the notes.  And this is one of those cases.   When things jump out at me in Scripture, I try to listen to them because they are often hold things that God wants me to see.  

For 34 chapters Isaiah has ranted and raved at the people of both Israel and Judah for their failure to follow the Law of Moses—not just the laws but the spirit of love and community that Mosaic Law engendered among the People of God.  And then out of the blue comes this Chapter 35 that is an oracle of hope.  It is out of character.  It doesn’t quite fit.  It doesn’t belong here.  And yet…and yet….

Faith engenders hope even in the midst of despair.  No matter how the law serves to give structure to our lives, the love relationship with God engenders hope.  We cannot claim to have a relationship with the Holy One of Israel and be hopeless.  I think that that is the reason that this chapter is the final oracle in this part of Isaiah.  It seems to belong to something else, but I would like to suggest that perhaps Chapter 35 is a call to go beyond the Law, go beyond the structures of our lives and step into the spiritual world.  Perhaps Chapter 35 is just one of those anomalies of life that says that hope is the outgrowth of those who are willing enough to really trust God’s love.

Hope is why we can surrender to the love of God.  Hope is the desire to know something
better than what we know—to be something better than we are.  In our relationship with God we come to trust in a future that says life can be better and we can be better even in the midst of gloom, ice, fatigue, depression, sickness, and perhaps disobedience.  When we allow ourselves to surrender to the God that is within us, we can not only be better, but our world can be a better place too.  Because that hope is based in love—the love that the Creator has in us and we have for the Creator.

While I was working on this sermon, a friend texted me that her supervisor was being especially irritating that day.  I suggested that she find some peace with in her herself and try to be exceptionally helpful to her boss.  She said she was trying to be accommodating.  I wrote back:  “Try loving, it may be scary but it will be redeeming.” That is the nature of love—in the face of ennui, in the face of anger, or irritation, or defeat—love redeems. 

Hope is rooted in our ability to love.  In my own life when anxiety overwhelms me or anger overcomes me, I find that I am also so tired of trying to hang on to those emotions that I lose focus on the love that is incarnated in Christ Jesus for me.  It isn’t because I am not loved.  It isn’t because I am not worthy.  It is because I have become afraid to love with the kind of
abandon that Christ has offered me in his life, death and resurrection.  Hope for us is to act with an expansive love that is willing to face the fears of life.  It is the willingness to open ourselves even in our fear or frustration or our anxiety to God's Oneness that creates in us the peace we long for—the holiness of balance and wholeness. 
And perhaps this is the message that Advent holds for us today.  In the midst of a cold winter, in the midst of anxiety, in the midst of all the things that tear at what it means to be God’s own, Advent conveys that God still holds out to us a kind of hope that
goes past the basic anticipation of waiting for Christmas.  Advent reaches out to us, and it says that despite what has happened, love conquers it.  And love is the only remedy.  No matter what kind of things that dog our lives, love is the only thing that will prepare us for the living of the Christ-life that we are baptized into.

The passage from the Epistle of James counsels patience—the patience of the farmer.  I am reminded of the elder nuns when I was a novice who counseled to never pray for patience because I would always get opportunities to practice it!!  But sometimes the words of Scripture don’t quite say the same in translation.  The word 'to wait for', in most Romance languages including Latin is the same word for anticipation and hope.  Now, I know that waiting for the bus is quite different from waiting for a beloved to come.  So when we read this passage the 'anticipation' that we are invited to is
more than for the cats at my feet when they hear the electric can opener or waiting for the bus.  It is both 'waiting for' and 'hoping in' while at the same time standing in the confidence that God is working out our joy in the meantime. 

I don’t know about you, the court decision early in the summer really took the wind out of my sails.  I came here to Ft. Worth to retire but also to help the diocese return to the community of the Episcopal Church. When we got the decision from the Supreme Court I figured out somebody out there had been praying for PATIENCE!  

But the kind of patience that James speaks is not just sitting with our hands folded in our laps.  Patience is the quiet dependence upon the love of God being worked out in the
un-anxious work of love.  It says that we are willing to live, to stand and to love, knowing that God is in charge.  I do not need to know what God’s purpose is.  I do not have to live into some Divine Plan.  I must just be faithful to the love that God gives birth in me to give to others.  

If there is anything that I have learned over the past 30 years of ordained ministry is that faith has nothing to do with doing things RIGHT.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t try to do things properly, but it means that my salvation – my 'rightness' with the Holy One is not
dependent upon anything I do. My continued desire to open myself to God’s love and letting it flow through me is enough.  I cannot claim that my vocation is holier than anyone else.  I cannot claim that I can do anything to better my life or anyone’s if I am not grounded in the love with which Christ first loved me.  And the hope that love creates in me allows me to stand in the anticipation that it is that love that makes this season, and all seasons.  It is that love that grows that this day celebrates.

In the Gospel reading, John, who is in prison asks Jesus if he the one that is promised.  And Jesus doesn’t answer directly.  He merely says  "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the
blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  The love of God are seen when such things happen:  When the souls are healed... When the children can play without fear, when the poor can receive the respect of the wealthy, when we can live in peace and loving, free from anxiety, THAT is when the kingdom comes.  It is then that we are living out what it means to be God's own.  

The message that Jesus sends back to John Baptist is the same one that we proclaim right here.  Can we proclaim that Gospel? Can this congregation claim that Gospel?  This is the question of Advent.  It is the question I have to ask myself and perhaps you need to ask of yourselves.  How can you love the people of Aledo?   Advent isn’t just waiting with hands neatly folded.  Advent is about loving.  Faith is about loving.  Hope is about loving. 

My hope for you is that you may dig down in your faith and brush off the love that is there
and allow that stump of Jesse’s love to grow.  Let the hope of this day remind you that sometimes our faith gets rusty with anxiety, or dashed dreams.  But the call of Advent refreshes us.  It is a season of hope that doesn’t seem to belong here.  It is a season that allows us to wait actively by loving.  It is a season that reminds us of the great hope God is and has in us to live out the life of God's love in new and totally new ways.  It is a season that says, ” So be it.”  AMEN


The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski, M.Div/MSW said...

Excellent. I spun off on the idea of judgment and salvation in Isaiah - less about this specific reading, more about the book as a whole.

Muthah+ said...

It is a good time for judgement, but I am talking to a parish that has been badly chewed up and is dispirited. Besides I needed to hear a sermon on hope too.