This week we have entered into the way of hope. It is the prophets who show us how as they hold firm to who God is and what God has promised in the midst of difficult and devastating life circumstances.
Hope does not set us free; it binds us to the hard places, to the dry places, to the burning places, watching and waiting for the bud to blossom, for the river to run, for the promises of God to become a present reality.
Sometimes, we may wish that God would release us and allow us to wallow in self-pity; to throw up our hands in despair and declare, “There is nothing to be done!”
Yet hope catches the lie between ours lips and counters, “Just wait and see what God can do.”
As we journey with your living Word and deeper into the eternal Mystery of God-with-us, may you come to us like a bud on a long-dead branch, like a quiet stream in the desert, like the warm hand of a child, reaching out to lead us. Amen.
Today, we look at Jesus’s family tree from Matthew 1 against the backdrop of the prophecy in Isaiah 11 regarding the shoot that shall spring from the stump of Jesse. You’re welcome to read through the first half of the first chapter of that Gospel but for those who may be put off by all those names, here’s a handy little lyrical version that I found on youtube:
Isaiah’s hope-filled vision occurs, interestingly, in the context of the growing Assyrian threat, in a time when the legacy of King David is all but lost in spite of God’s promises that his house would endure forever.
In the midst of those first 39 chapters of the book, we hear the voice of first (or proto) Isaiah: a voice full of judgment and warning about the bad things that are about to happen because the people of God have not lived in right relationship with God nor with one another nor with their neighbours.
It’s a countdown to conquest really; but, against all odds, a new shoot will grow from an old stump – the stump of Jesse who was David’s father and David was Israel’s first and greatest King.
And this new King – the Messiah – will receive the fullness of God’s Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and reverence for God and delight in doing God’s will. Through him, the poor and the needy will find favour and all that are divided will find peace and harmony. There will be no harm, no hurt in his kingdom.
Isn’t that a beautiful image? A hope to hold on to?
But what do words and pretty promises mean when your home is burning, your child is dying; when you have no freedom; when there is no peace or harmony – only harm and hurt, hurt and harm day after day, month after month, year after year after year?
It was 700 years or so before the promised child was born – so full of Spirit; the Son of God. Born into the midst of Roman occupation and religious exploitation and poverty and need …
… for the more things change, the more they stay the same as we say so casually.
But when we step back a little further and look at Jesus’ family tree, we see, in fact, God’s promise to deliver, to rescue, to save spanning the fourteen generations from Jesus’ birth to the exile in Babylon. And fourteen generations before that between the tile and the reign of King David. And fourteen generations from David all the way back to Abraham, who is known as the father of our faith for God made a promise to him and he left all that he had known to follow God.
Forty-two generations! That’s a long time to wait for a promise; a long time to hold on to a hope when you’re hurting right now.
We will spend a lot of time with the Gospel of Matthew in Year A of the lectionary cycle, and you will see how often he draws attention to things happening in fulfilment of what the prophets said. The author wants us to know – in both head and heart – that God does what God says God will do.
But each person has a part, a place, in fulfilling these promises, including:
Tamar, who was nearly burned to death for being pregnant out of wedlock,
Ruth, the foreigner,
Rahab, the prostitute,
Bathsheba, who was so beautiful that King David had her husband killed so he could have her for himself,
and Mary, who was pretty much an insignificant little nobody until she was chosen to bear the Christ-child.
Everyone has a place – including those we deem unlikely, insignificant, and unworthy (hence my choice of women from Jesus’ family tree) – in the unfolding promises of God who is active in every generation.
As we hear again in this Advent season that familiar story of the Christ-child born in our midst who will come again one day to establish the perfect peace of his kingdom, once and for all, it would serve us well to wonder – and perhaps to talk about over the table:
what does that promise really mean?
what might it mean for those who are in the midst of drought, destruction, and despair right now?
do we walk with dread each day because of bad things happening?
do we set out into the world in anticipation that God will draw near to us?
do we offer hope through pretty words or through active participation in what we see God doing to bring comfort and healing and peace in the midst of harmful, hurtful situations?
My prayer as we travel the prophet’s path is that we will enter into each new day as if God is coming – not in 700 years’ time or 7000 – right here and right now, in the words that we speak, and the love that we share, and the space that we make at the table.
In the Godly Play enrichment lesson entitled “The Mystery Of Christmas,” older children are introduced to a part of the Christmas story that is often left out.
“It’s no wonder people do not tell this part,” the storyteller says. “It’s too sad. It’s called the Massacre of the Infants.”
Yet, our texts today will not allow us to forget the terrible killing of every baby boy under the age of two in and around the city of Bethlehem as a result of Herod hearing the Good News of the Christ-King born in the land of Judah …
… nor to callously ignore the heart-rending cries of anguish from mothers unable to be comforted as the sons that had nestled so snuggly in their arms are suddenly no more.
This is no warm, sentimental story;
but a brutal intrusion into the love, the joy, the peace
which so epitomises the natal scene –
a stark reminder of why the Light of Life
came into the world;
and of the depths of depravity and fear
that lurk within the human heart.
It is a tale which needs to be told following the heights of angel-visitation and shepherd-worship and magi-generosity lest we romanticise the Good News to the point of it being unbelievable or irrelevant to a world in pain.
This sad story which no one really wants to remember (let alone tell) is, in fact, key to the power and the purpose of the incarnation for it reminds us that right from the start, God – in taking on human form – immersed godself fully in our fragility, our vulnerability to those who have power over us, and our tumultuous up-and-down experience of life …
… born among the animals because there was no room for him, no welcome among his people …
… now the inclusion of the prophecy of Jeremiah regarding the sounds of weeping and mourning in Ramah would have reminded those listening to the Gospel story of the place through which their forefathers had passed on their way to exile in Babylon; the reference to Rachel, the grandmother of Ephraim and Manasseh, of the unassuaged grief of the Northern Kingdom of Israel being wiped out …
… then the country of exile to which the holy family flees in response to an angel’s warning is none other than the one in which Moses too found sanctuary as a baby before having to fight for his people’s freedom ….
Before he was even old enough to utter a word, the Word was
that there might, one day,
be hope for our future
in spite of people who do atrocious things
because they are selfish,
because they are frightened,
because they are desperately trying to hold on to an illusion of power and control.
It may be difficult for us to empathise with the man who would order the slaughter of innocents in order to protect his crown, but the truth is that when we are acting from a place of selfishness or fear or the need to control, we often inflict damage upon other people through our words and the way that we act towards them.
In today’s imagining, try to picture what was going on in Herod’s mind and heart as he heard the Magi’s tidings about the Christ-King … as he waited day after day for them to return only to find out that they had deceived him. Reflect on situations in which you have felt similar emotions and how you acted from them.
What word would the grown Christ-King offer Herod? What word does he offer you?
Here’s a fact that might stop you dead in your tracks: there are over thirty idioms containing the word “track” (I got side-tracked at thirty so I know there are more than that).
Being from the right side or the wrong side of the tracks doesn’t seem to matter to anyone anymore as long as you are on the fast track back to the right track, or is that the inside track …? I lose track … so let me double back and put you on a more beaten track ….
Today’s text are all about the way we’ve chosen to walk in: the track we’ve taken.
From Psalm 126 which is a song of ascent – a pilgrimage or walking song that the people sang as they journeyed towards the temple of Jerusalem) …
… to Habakkuk’s prayer for God to traverse the old salvation route again put to music (on shigionoth – see chapter 3, verse 1) …
… to Paul’s cheer-leader-like exhortations to press on towards the goal and race to win the prize …
… there resounds through each passage a spirit of victory and energy, a call to keep moving onwards at a steady pace.
“Where are we headed?” you might wonder. “Are we there yet?” Donkey might add (if you don’t get the reference, put Shrek 2 down as a must-see movie).
“Home,” comes the answer.
Towards an eternity with God.
What is your instinctual response to these words? Your gut feeling?
Do you have a picture of what home, heaven, eternity will be like?
And this is the part where many of us back track or jump the track for fear that God might mistake our interest in home or heaven as a sure sign that we’re ready to enter into the eternal mystery that is life in and with and through God.
The truth, for most of us, is that we’re quite content to be living in the here and now – even though life is a little messy at times and the world can be an ugly place – with the idea of “eternity” being a one-day-in-the-future dream rather than the goal to which we’re off and running.
Even an eternity with God can be a terrifying concept for it is so intangible, so unquantifiable, so unknown to we who use sight and sound and taste and touch and smell and time to make sense of our world. Yet to know Christ and to walk with God is to willingly enter into an ancient, eternal way while others tremble and turn away (Habakkuk 3:7).
And entering into that way radically shifts our perspective:
… things that seem so pressing and important if life is as short as we think it is might lose their urgency as our sense of time expands …
… the unknown mysteries that once terrified and confounded us become signposts to wonder and awe as we walk in faith rather than knowledge …
… death is neither end nor beginning but just another step in our deepening communion with the One who Made and Saves and Sustains us ….
Today, if you can sit with the discomfort, contemplate your mortality.
What songs would you want sung at your funeral? Who would attend? What would you be remembered for? Who would you worry most about?
For use in congregations/communities who light a candle each Sunday in Advent leading up to Christmas following the traditional pattern of prophets (hope), Mary and Joseph (faith), shepherds (joy), angels (peace) and Jesus (love) … a simple poem/prayer in five parts with an additional “verse” to be said as a conclusion to the prayer time until the final verse is offered on Christmas Day.
A candle for the Christ-King
For whom the prophets said to wait;
He may seem slow in coming
but we know God’s never late …
This one is for his parents
On their trip to Bethlehem
For they believed the promise
That God would be with them …
The third is for the shepherds
Whose hearts were full of joy
As angels came to tell them
About a special baby boy …
Oh! How those angels worshipped
and their song rang through the air:
“Glory be to God on high:
His peace be everywhere.”
And now, with great excitement,
We light the final flame –
For Love has come into the world;
Christ Jesus is his name.
This verse is to be said on weeks 1, 2, 3 and 4 to explain the presence of the unlit candles. On Christmas Day it is replaced with the final verse.
These candles still are waiting
For their chance to shine –
they remind us to be ready
for a very special time ….
“It’s so difficult, isn’t it? To see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something? It’s only with hindsight we can see things for what they are.” S.J. Watson
The prophet Micah speaks of the agony and the anguish of the Israelites as their city was invaded, their temple desecrated, their sons and daughters dragged off into captivity, their status altered from “God’s chosen people” to “prisoners” and “slaves.”
For many it seemed like the end – of their freedom, of their identity, of their story – as their enemies celebrated and gloated over their suffering.
Yet Micah likens the pain that gripped them to that of the pangs of labour: a beginning rather than an end; a moment of immeasurable suffering bringing forth an eternity of new life and indescribable joy.
This is the heart of the Good News: when things look grave and all hope is gone,
God does the unexpected
… the unimagined
… the impossible.
A shepherd boy brings down a giant with just a sling and a stone….
A prostitute and a foreigner become part of Jesus’s ancestry ….
Water is transformed into wine at a wedding and a few loaves and fishes into a feast for five thousand ….
The crucified Christ appears to his grieving disciples as the Risen Lord ….
And, indeed, with hindsight and the help of history books we see that the Babylonian kingdom fell as prophesied; and the Persian and the Greek and the Roman ….
Recall a time in your life when it seemed like all was lost or that God was distant.
In hindsight, where was God in the midst of your pain and suffering?
Were there any “gifts” that you might not have received if you had not gone through this “time of labour?”
How has this experience impacted your relationship with and picture of God?
It can be disheartening to witness all of the wars, the misery, the suffering and death that accompany shifts in power and changes in our natural world.
It can be even more debilitating to experience the pain of loss in our own lives – be it a job, a loved one, a home, an aspect of our health, or an ability.
The gift of Advent in these devitalizing moments is a hope that is founded neither on wishful thinking nor unrealistic expectations of what it means to have God present and active in our lives, but on the creative, transformative faith which develops between hindsight and foresight.
Hindsight helps us to remember and trust the God who has been faithful in our past experiences of suffering and distress, who has brought light into the darkness and order into the chaos in our time of need.
Foresight enables us pray for that which God has promised and to work, with God, towards the justice, the forgiveness, the peace, the healing that we long for.
Babylon will fall. That which seems to have power over us will fade away. The simpler, pleasure-filled lives that we sometimes envy (and even pursue) will end in woeful lament, even as God personally gathers up the lame, the exiled, and the grieving.
What is the gift that you most long for from God today?
Are there any powers, any addictions, any habitual sins that need to fall in your life?
How might you act more from the creative space between hindsight and foresight rather than relying on how you are feeling or what is happening in a particular moment?
As human beings we often cannot avert our eyes from the disasters that befall people living in places with shaky ground – earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis. Yet as we find ourselves on shaky ground through human decisions like BREXIT and the US elections, the challenge of Advent is to find a message of hope and comfort that rings true. Isaiah 40 invites us to surrender our own strength and be sure-footed in the promises and the faithfulness of the eternal God for whom we watch and wait.
Return to the fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
I am a prisoner of hope.
Hope does not set me free; it binds me to the hard places, to the dry places, watching and waiting for the bud to blossom, for the river to run, for the promises of God to become a present reality.
Sometimes, I wish that God would release me: allow me to wallow in self-pity; to throw up my hands in despair and declare, “There is nothing to be done!”
Yet hope catches the lie between my lips and counters, “Just wait and see what God can do.”
Keep me grounded, God, even in those places that seem scorched and inhospitable; when then are no short cuts – no way round – just a hard way across the wilderness hoping, praying, begging, for Your restoration to break through.