We are not a lucky people, we are a prepared people!
My wife Stephanie is a Chiropractor. When we have snowy weeks like this, I wonder if it was such a great idea to have her office in our home. Out of consideration for her patients, I spend a great deal of time on days like today plowing, shoveling & sanding; and I’ve built up a set of tools, practices, skills and resources appropriate to such efforts. Without them, I would not be able to do what needs to be done to support her and her patients in a timely fashion, let alone have time to complete my newsletter article for ARK Church!
One of my favorite movies is Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” a story in which each main character’s super-strength is also their weakness. They are so used to employing their strengths to solve any problem that they are at a loss when their strengths are no longer sufficient for the challenges they face. But, right when all of the individual crises of the main characters peak and collide, a wise friend tells Helen Parr (aka Elastigirl), “Luck favors the prepared.”
Third Isaiah is a text that deals with disappointment, of a restoration gone wrong, of a reality that does not match up with the image that hope had inspired in the minds of the people. They thought the future was here, but now realize it will take much longer to realize the vision. So, we are forced to admit, with disappointment and frustration, that the future is still not here, yet! We are also facing doubt and division over the way forward, and finding that our vision for the future does not match that of others. The future is much cloudier than we thought. Things are not going well, and we are struggling to figure out who is responsible for failing to implement the dream. We are coming to realize that bringing the dream into reality is far harder than we we ever imagined.
This week we will be celebrating the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday. Tradition tells us it is “…a day to be joyful even in the midst of long waiting and keen awareness of suffering.”
Advent begins with a focus on the future: “The reign of God is coming. Prepare!” And ends a little over a week from now with a focus on the past: “The Messiah is about to be born in Bethlehem. Rejoice!” Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, is named using a Latin word meaning “to rejoice” in the imperative – meaning we are commanded to rejoice.
Last week’s reading from Isaiah 40:1-11 was the Second Isaiah’s comforting of Jerusalem because the restoration from exile of both God and the people was at hand. That morning’s sermon focused on the need to prepare in anticipation of that return, to reflect upon our own failings and sin, and admit to ourselves that we needed God to heal (or fill) the gaps and holes in our own lives.
This coming Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is from the third set of prophesies in the Hebrew Testament’s book of Isaiah: prophesies that mainly concern themselves with the situation in Jerusalem after the exiles have returned from the Babylonian exile. Just as the second set (chapters 40-54) are referred to as “Second Isaiah,” scholars refer to these writings (chapters 55 through 66) as “Third Isaiah.” Like the second set, those who compiled the Book of Isaiah felt it important to include the prophesies of “Third Isaiah,” along with those of “Second Isaiah” to follow the complete (three generation long) narrative arc of exile of Judah to Babylon: from the First Isaiah’s prophesies of future doom and destruction for Judah’s distancing itself from God; to Second Isaiah’s call for compassion and redemption in the present as the seemingly impossible dream of restoration comes to pass; to Third Isaiah’s focus on the disappointment, discord and disillusionment that followed the return of the exiles to Jerusalem a generation earlier.
The story of Advent follows a similar arc: our emphasis on the future declines as our emphasis on the past increases. Our readings for Advent begin with a mature Jesus teaching us about the reign of God, and they close with the unborn Christ Child in Mary’s womb.
This movement reflects our Christian understanding that the sacred story, to be understood fully and correctly, has to be told backwards. The birth and ministry of Jesus are incomprehensible until we know of his death and resurrection. To put it another way, our understanding of the past is muddled and incomplete until we grasp the nature of the future and purpose of History. Christianity sees History as having a definite start, a definite end, and that it reflects the plan and purpose of God, reaching its crescendo in Christ. In other words, while we have (incomplete) knowledge of the past and present, we cannot make sense of what we know of them until we know the whole story, including the end.
Advent encourages us to choose God BECAUSE of the facts, not in spite of them; and to remember that it is God who writes our story, a story that always ends in the embrace of God’s eternal, fierce, and unrelenting love for us.
The year is about 540 BC. The place is Babylon, capitol of the Babylonian Empire.
Only a generation ago, in the year 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar’s army destroyed the Nation of Judah, the City of Jerusalem, and Solomon’s Temple. Much of the surviving population, including most of the upper classes of Judah – priests, nobility, scholars and their families – are imprisoned and then exiled here, in an alien land totally unlike the isolated mountaintop fortress of Jerusalem. Their new home is perhaps the greatest city on earth, containing people of many cultures, languages and faiths. Strange people, strange ideas, and strange gods are all around them, challenging the Jews and their faith in ways they never imagined.
They are strangers in that strange land. The fact is, they have lost everything – friends, family, home, possessions, status, and even – or so they think – their God. And even if God is not lost, what good is God, since the strange gods of this strange land are clearly more powerful? And besides, how can they hear from God, even if God still lives? God’s home among them was destroyed, too.
The news from back home is just as troubling: the prophet Obadiah tells us that marauders and armies from nearby lands, such as Edom, are sweeping through the ruined land, murdering those left behind, and plundering what little of value remains.
The People of God see themselves as the walking dead, soon to forever vanish and be forgotten. All is darkness. All is lost. They are lost: whether they are scrabbling to survive among the ruins of Judah, or living in exile in the all too alluring and exciting materialism and corruption of cosmopolitan Babylon.
The facts are indisputable: the future holds no hope at all for them, nor for their faith.