Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Prophetic Word for Today: Wait Expectantly (RCL Advent 3B, 17 December 2017)

The Prophetic Word for Today:  Wait Expectantly
Reflections on Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

RCL Advent 3B
17 December 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

            61.1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.  4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

            8 For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.  9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.  11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

An observation from Christmas past

            Forty-six years ago this December I began working at J. C. Penney’s in Colorado Springs.  My mother knew the personnel manager and I knew that I needed a little extra money to cover expenses at university.  My association with Penney’s would last until the end of the summer of 1976 when I began my first semester of graduate studies.

            In those days there were few people who had credit cards.  If someone wanted to purchase an item that was beyond their ready cash, they had two options:  put a little money away on a regular basis or put the item on lay-away.

            If you decided to save up to buy something, there was always the risk that the item would not be available when you finally had the cash to buy it.  Lay-away, on the other hand, meant that the store would put the item aside for you.  True, you had to pay a small service charge and keep up your payments, but you knew that, if you persevered, the item you wanted would be yours at the end of the agreed-upon period of time.

            During that first Christmas at Penney’s I was asked to work the lay-away desk for a couple of days.  I can still remember the excitement on the faces of children as their parents picked up items that had been set aside months before and the satisfaction on the faces of adults as they looked upon the items that were now theirs, free and clear.

            In our time when credit cards are a necessary part of our everyday lives and on-line shopping replaces the face-to-face contact with service staff, we risk losing one of the most important aspects of living a life of faith.  We are becoming less and less accustomed to waiting expectantly for our hopes and expectations to be realized. 

            Whether it is the search for faster internet speed or our impatience with how long we have to wait in line-ups at the store or Christmas music beginning Thanksgiving weekend, North Americans want what we want now.  This pervasive attitude hampers our ability to proclaim the good news of the reign of God, a promise that Christians believe is still in the process of being fully realized in human time and space.

Waiting expectantly means proclaiming our hope, our understanding of God’s future for us and for all of creation.

            Last week I spoke about the prophet biblical scholars call ‘second’ Isaiah.  His ministry was among the disheartened exiles from the land of Judah who were hoping that they would soon return to the land that God had promised to their ancestors.  To these people the prophet spoke a word of comfort, a word of reassurance, that God would return them to Judah.

            This week we hear a word spoken by another prophet, one whom scholars call ‘third’ Isaiah.  His word is directed to the people of Judah who have recently returned to the land of promise.  Their initial joy has been tempered by the reality of re-establishing Judah as a place where God’s covenant is honoured.  The Jerusalem of memory is not the Jerusalem of present experience.

            The prophet’s audience feels oppressed, their hearts are broken, they feel imprisoned by the present and they mourn the glories that are no longer theirs.  But the prophet brings good news:  God is with them in the here and now, empowering them to build up the ancient ruins, to raise up the former devastations and to repair the ruined cities.  Once again the people of Judah will be a sign to the nations of the righteousness and justice of God.  This is their hope.  It is a hope we share, the hope of a renewed creation, God’s peaceable kingdom.

Waiting expectantly means looking for the signs of that future in the present and to point them out to others.

            As we contemplate the world around us, it is impossible for any observant person to ignore the suffering of millions of our sisters and brothers.  Civil wars send millions into exile from their homes as well as wounding and killing thousands.  Racism rears its ugly head even in democratic societies such as ours and poverty still robs children of their future.  I could go on with the ills of our times, but this would not be faithful to the good news that you and I are anointed by God’s Spirit to proclaim.

            I remember hearing an international aid worker talking about the state of the world.  To be sure, he said, there are still major challenges that face human beings, socially, politically and economically.  But, he added quickly, let’s not lose sight of some important glimpses of hope:  more women are gaining access to education, more children are gaining access to life-giving health care, more indigenous communities are gaining control of the resources of their traditional lands.  Complacency is a constant threat, he affirmed, but hope, glimpses of hope, empower us to chip away at the places where human dignity is still held captive by injustice and inequality.

            On a local scale I see signs of hope within our own community.  Through the ministry of the Pastoral Resource Centre we respect the dignity of every human being who comes seeking assistance and lives are changed.  Through the ministry of Saint Hildegard’s Sanctuary we proclaim the good news of God in Christ to people who, for one reason or another, have found themselves estranged from the community of faith.  Through the ministry each one of us offers in our daily lives we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbours as ourselves.  Through our maintenance of this physical space children are nurtured, the gift of music shared and community groups break through the various isolations experienced within our city.

Waiting expectantly means working or that future with the gift of ourselves, our souls and bodies.

            Will Campbell, a Baptist minister and early stalwart of the civil rights movement in the southern United States, wrote about his early life in a wonderful memoire entitled Brother to a Dragonfly.  He describes one of his early spiritual mentors, a Baptist minister who smoked cigars, who enjoyed a good glass of scotch and who was known from time to time to use language that would make a sailor blush.

            One day, after a particularly colourful explosion of invective, Will asked him why he, a fellow who smoked, drank and cussed, became a Baptist minister.  ‘Because I was called, goddammit,’ he replied.

            Friends, the Spirit of the Lord is upon all of us.  We bring ourselves to this altar Sunday after Sunday where God gathers us, transforms us and then sends us out to the work God has given us to do.  Long after any sermon I preach has faded away, our actions of love towards our neighbours, our words of comfort and compassion, our witness to a future where all God’s children shall be free will be remembered.  No one can know the impact of the life of one faithful Christian can have upon the lives of others.  But it does have an impact.

            So let us wait expectantly for the coming of God’s promises in their fullness.  Let us share our hope far and wide.  Let us point to the signs of fulfilment that flash as brightly as the holiday lights that illumine our homes and streets.  And, with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength, let us work with God to make the promises come soon.

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