If your life is perfect, then you may not be able to relate to the scripture texts this morning for the first Sunday in Advent. If you are happy and healthy and well, and you live with your beautiful family in a lovely neighbourhood, enjoying your spacious home and your comfortable income… If you’re getting ready for an absolutely wonderful holiday season of socializing and gift-giving, laughter and good times, without a care in the world… then perhaps this morning’s readings will seem a little out of place or off the wall.
But, you know as well as I that the congregation here on Sunday mornings is not made up of super-duper people with perfect lives. That’s not the reason for the smiles and laughter that we share as we gather in this place. In fact, you’re not the only one here today who’s come despite the struggles, who’s come carrying heavy burdens, who’s come with pain, or disappointment, or stress, or grief beyond compare.
For one, it’s the fatigue that comes from constant caregiving and the many thankless jobs still needing to be done. For another, it’s the worry and stress caused by a difficult work situation or a boss who just doesn’t seem to understand.
Someone else is finding it hard to get up in the morning because of a chronic illness, while another is aching with loneliness through the night because of a loved one who is no longer present.
A young person is struggling to find meaning and direction in life, and one who is older is looking back with regret at missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams. Even the one whose life seems to be going well may be feeling overwhelmed and ready to break from all the demands to serve, and help, and give for those who are in trouble.
And while one person’s relationship struggles are making her feel like her whole world is coming apart, another is feeling something similar as he considers the world in which we live with so much conflict, chaos, and destruction.
How many times have we prayed something that amounts to “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”? We long for a resolution to our own particular issues. We long for relief from our own particular pain and struggle. We long to see a world set to right, peace and stability prevailing, justice reigning, and safety surrounding. And this is a longing that both Isaiah and his contemporaries in the post-exilic period, and the early Christian community of which Mark’s author was a member, could understand.
The reading from 3rd Isaiah that we heard this morning was a prayer of longing. Its origin is the city of Jerusalem during the period immediately after the Babylonian exile, sometime after 537 BCE. As you probably remember, Judah and Jerusalem were conquered by the Babylonians, the temple was destroyed, and many of the people were sent to live in a foreign land.
During that troubling time, the prophets provided encouragement, and 2nd Isaiah in particular expected a glorious return and restoration of the people, the land, and the temple. But instead, even when they got the opportunity to go home, they found themselves frustrated by innumerable hardships. And as despair increased, the returnees begged God for a miraculous resolution to their unhappy situation.
What is clear is that the people felt like God had abandoned them. They thought God must be hiding from them because all they could see around them was hopelessness, despair, and destruction. They hadn’t noticed God doing much of anything for a long time. God has hidden himself, they were saying, and that’s the reason why no one was paying much attention to God.
Haven’t we all felt something like that at times? And how difficult it can be to keep on praying, to keep on coming to church, when nothing seems to change, when there seems to be no response from God, and no sign of God’s presence or compassion?
But what is striking about this prayer of longing is that someone utters it. Someone keeps on talking to God through the darkness and doubt of God’s seeming absence. Someone keeps on crying out and begging for God’s help, while others have given up and gone their own way.
What the author of the prayer does is to look for signs of hope. Now, what he might have done was to look around at the situation and try to find something to feel optimistic about… “At least we’re not still in Babylon…” Perhaps all of these trials will make us stronger?” “Well, now that we’ve hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go from here but up!”
You see, optimism and hope are not quite the same thing. I think optimism is more like “looking on the bright side” or having a good idea that things are likely to improve. But as Patricia E. de Jong puts it, “Hope is what is left when your worst fears have been realized and you are no longer optimistic about your future.”
Those praying in Isaiah did not look AROUND THEM for a reason to be optimistic, but they looked BACK to find hope in the God who had shown himself to be faithful, compassionate, gracious, and powerful. They oriented themselves in the direction in which God was last seen, remembering God’s acts of old, and expressing faithful longing for restoration.
I wonder if that is something that we can do also. In the face of whatever troubles or challenges we face today, and even in those moments when God’s presence is not so apparent, can we access the memories of those times when the Holy One seemed so close that we could almost reach out and touch God?
Remember that early morning, up at the lake, when everyone was still in bed, but you were up watching the sunrise? You were so aware of the gift of the day ahead, of the gift of life itself, and God’s presence around you and your family.
Remember when things were bad once before, and remember the friend who came to listen and encourage you? At first you may not have noticed, but God’s presence was with you in that time – listening, caring, consoling, strengthening.
Remember when you were sure of God’s presence and God’s call on your life? You were filled with excitement and plans and dreams, and you knew that God would be with you through it all. You made promises. You committed your life to God. Remember what that felt like?
Those who prayed the prayer of longing in Isaiah’s time found hope and strength as they looked back because they could recognize God’s saving power in their lives in the past, and that gave them hope for the future as well.
The early Christians, similarly, lived in a time of war, chaos, and disorientation, and they also needed a source of hope and strength to carry on. While Isaiah’s people were struggling with the rebuilding of Jerusalem, these Christians (more than five centuries later) were living in the midst of a war with Rome. The temple was about to be destroyed yet again, and the followers of Jesus were living in fear for their lives as they navigated the new “way” that Christ had called them to live.
But instead of looking back, the early Christians were encouraged to look forward for signs of hope. Words placed in the mouth of Jesus himself acknowledged their suffering and encouraged them to hold on until Jesus’ return: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the ‘Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”
These words in Mark’s Gospel serve to steady and comfort those who are experiencing tribulation with VISIONS that they can hold on to. The point of the speech is not to demonstrate Jesus’ predictive powers, nor to offer explicit details revealing when or how the world will end, but rather to exhort disciples to faithfulness, courage and attentiveness.
As we look forward for signs of hope, we are assured that God will act, that Christ will return, and that the world of justice and peace and security that we long for will be accomplished.
Could we just ignore the problems in our lives or in our world? Perhaps we could just look on the bright side, and try to be optimistic about things. Perhaps we could. But I appreciate the way Patricia K. Tull put it in our bible study material this week: “The more we are aware of that longing, the more it will structure our visions of tomorrow and our prayers for today. Prayers prayed with integrity will shape the way we live… May our longings for redemption structure the decisions that we make each moment of each day.”
As some come forward today to profess their faith for the first time, and as we all join in re-affirming our faith once again, may we be filled with the hope of Jesus to carry us through both the high points and the struggles of our lives. And as we celebrate Holy Communion together, may we experience that hope in the recalling of God’s gracious acts, in the foretaste of the heavenly banquet, and in the very real presence of Christ as we gather at the table of the Lord. Amen.