Saturday, December 7, 2013

Hope of the World

Isaiah 35: 1-10
December 8, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL

Three years ago, on December second, the forest of Mount Carmel caught fire.
The fire began on the outskirts of the northern town of Isfiya and spread through the Carmel Forest. The fire burned rapidly, and became an inferno. Mount Carmel forest, one of the most beautiful and historic places in Israel, was utterly devastated, burned beyond description. A year the Jerusalem post reported: “The Forest Reawakens: The first flowers of the season can now be seen covering the slopes of Mount Carmel, reminding us once more of nature’s enduring capacity for renewal…These first blooms from the scorched earth have emerged from bulbs and tubers buried deep in the ground, where they have remained secure and untouched by the flames. Cyclamen, narcissi and sea squills peep out from among the trees in both burned and undamaged areas, and in some parts of the woodland grassy plants are already struggling back to life.[1]

None of the news reports I read harkened back to the 35th chapter of Isaiah, but they seemed like a contemporary fulfillment of the prophet’s words: the desert rejoicing, as new life springs forth from desolation. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Isaiah, Chapter 35:

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.  Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.  

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Sometimes, the selected Scripture reading for the day is so rich in imagery and poetry that it seems important to simply sit quietly with it, to let it soak in like a gentle rain, and drench us with hope. This reading is one of those selections. Every line bursts with beauty and every word hums with hope. It’s believed that this chapter of Isaiah, along with the one before it, was written at a time when the people of Israel were in exile. God had made them a great people, just as Abraham and Sarah were promised. God had given them a land, just as Moses and Miriam and Aaron had been told. God had given them judges, but they were not satisfied, and they demanded a king. God gave them a king, a whole series of kings, some of them good and wise, some of them, as is the way of kings, selfish and tyrannical.

But things had not turned out the way they wanted. The people thought they knew what was best for them. They adopted the ways and customs of other cultures. They did not keep covenant with God. They strayed away from God’s steadfast love, and their connection, their prosperity, their identity had eroded to such a point that they were in exile. They sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept. “How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?”

Then came the prophet, Isaiah. How their hearts must have pounded as they heard these words: the desert shall rejoice and blossom… it will rejoice with joy and singing…

There is hope! That which is parched and devoid of growth will burst forth with glorious beauty, with crocuses and green-ness and splendor! That which was dead and barren will spring up to new life. The dry land will become a spring of water, and where there was dead brown grass there will be rushes, and cat-tails. Where once a small brown lizard skittered across cracked ground, there will be a pool, where ducks paddle and dragonflies buzz.

Not only will the created order be restored, not only will the land be healed, but humanity will be restored as well: blind eyes will see; deaf ears will hear; speechless tongues will sing for joy; the lame shall leap like a deer. The hope spreads out across the barren desert, blown by the wind of God’s grace, transforming what was desolate and inhospitable into a sanctuary of beauty, an oasis. Hope emerges like a bubbling spring, unexpected, refreshing, continuing.

But God is not finished yet, no, God always has more in store than we imagine: a road will appear, a highway in the wilderness, a road so straight and so clean and so safe that no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. That road leads away from sadness into hope. It leads from desperation to salvation. That road leads home.

In this season of Advent, while we are waiting for Christmas, it may be difficult to imagine a world without hope. So many signs of hope are around us, so many songs of rejoicing are being sung. Bright-eyed children gaze in awe at the multicolored lights, poke at the wrapped gifts under the tree, and laugh in delight at television Christmas specials. Here at the church, the decorations are up, the mitten tree is lit, the banners proclaim hope, and we’ve welcomed people into the building to see the annual presentation of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

We are ready for Baby Jesus to come to us, bringing joy and toys and candy and family and carols, bringing angels and shepherds and sheep, and the most wonderful day of the year. But we know there is more to Christmas than lights and gifts and cocoa. We say that Jesus is the reason for the season. And he is. But there is even more to Christmas than Baby Jesus. That baby in a manger is God with us, the love of God in human form – not just on Christmas, but through all eternity.

There is wonder there, in that manger. He takes weakness and makes it strong. He touches what is dead, and it springs to life. He has come and is here and is coming and that wonder unfolds all around us and within us. We lose sight of that, as we grow older. The older we get, the more complicated our lives become. Layers build up, like geologic formations, covering up the simple joy that childhood Christmases may have brought.

Maybe hope seems to have dried up, in the parched deserts of our grief.
Maybe hope has been covered up by the sands of sorrow.
Maybe hope grew for a moment, long ago, then withered over time.
Maybe hope lived within us once, but as we became more sensible and cynical, it migrated away like a threatened species.
Maybe hope grew up, gave up, and died.

Maybe hope just seems as far away and impossible as it must have seemed to those exiles, weeping in Babylon. So maybe it just isn’t realistic to think that this one little baby is really going to change anything in this weary old world. Maybe it isn’t very sensible to think that this infant in a manger is going to tip the balance of the cosmos.
But hope says otherwise.

Hope says that God is restoring all of creation – all at once!
Hope says that the lame will walk and the blind will see.
Hope says that mourning will be turned into dancing and that those who cry themselves to sleep will awake singing joyful songs. Hope says that in Jesus Christ, God bursts into the world, wailing, red-faced, wriggling – a baby! In Jesus Christ, God appears in human weakness, fragile, but comes bringing power, and mystery[2], bringing a new world --the hope of a new heaven and a new earth.

That hope is not some far-off dream, some distant prophet’s vision. That hope is real and alive and being born in us, right here and right now. That hope is blossoming up like a crocus in the snow, affirming that God has come to be with us, one of us! Hope opens our eyes and our ears so that we can see the angels and hear them singing. Hope lifts us up from apathy and despair, and makes us leap for delight to see what God is doing, and can do, and will do, with us, if we are willing.

Hope restores the weary and transforms the whole cosmos. It comes to us in small and quiet ways, in the tiny hand of an infant wrapped around a finger, in the distant cry of a baby, shattering the night, ringing across the centuries to awaken us, to rouse us from sleep, to jar us from apathy, to awaken our humanity and call us into service. Hope pushes one tiny tendril, a leaf, a vine, up through the ground, and the mountains of Carmel, ravaged by fire, bloom again.

Hope lifts up the down trodden, energizes the weary, enlivens each one of us.
Hope wraps itself around those who mourn, enfolds those who weep and gently, gently turns them--  turns US!-- to follow that road.
That road leads to God made manifest in Jesus Christ, who was and is and is to come.
He is coming to us, to meet us on that road,
to drive away our sorrow and sighing,
to fill our hearts with gladness,
to transform the world,
to transform me, to transform you,
to lead us home.

[2] Christine Roy Yoder, Journal for Preachers. “An Interpretation of Isaiah for Advent Preachers: Hope that Walks” p. 21

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