Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justice now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
In a world where you can be anything, be kind!
We hear these words of Isaiah promising a beautiful future, one where predators and prey will befriend one another, but we must put this into context if we are to hear the fullness of this vision. It did not come to Israel during calm periods of peace, but during interesting times. It came to Israel during times when alliances with outside forces threatened the sovereignty of the state. It came to Israel during times when the economic systems promoted the wealthy and devastated the poor. It came to Israel at a time when, as Isaiah put it, “Your hands are full of blood” and there was no justice for the oppressed, poor and marginalized. It came to Israel during dark and frightening times.
I wonder if it might almost be heard as a parent comforting a child about to undergo surgery, yes honey, this will hurt, but one day you will walk again, one day you will play again, but yes, it will hurt. Our lectionary this year is insistent that we look at the darkness and brokenness within us. It’s terribly difficult to do and honestly, I was looking for a more upbeat and inspiring message today. One that would fill us all with hope, love and joy, But first, our scripture tells us, repent. The scripture from our lectionary that I didn’t read today was the one with John the Baptist yelling at the pharisees, repent you brood of vipers. I really wanted something more upbeat than that, but here it is again, Isaiah only a few chapters from yelling at Israel saying, God hates your worship, God won’t listen to your prayers, not when your hands are full of blood. We are reminded that advent is not only a time of anticipation but of preparation. Be gentle with yourselves this advent, but be persistent too. Take up your cross and be a part of the healing that this nation, this time, all of us, so need. We are the people who have been called to this moment, to be peace in the world, to bring healing, to speak the gospel word.
Oh, it’s a hard word today! A few days ago someone asked me how there can be so much darkness, so much pain in the world. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who became famous for documenting the stages of grief, once toured concentration camps in Germany. She was met there by survivors who had returned to the camp to tell their stories. Stories not only of loss, despair and death, but stories of redemption, of finding meaning and purpose in caring for one another, of finding hope in the midst of this most painful situation. As she toured the camp she began to notice that there were images of butterflies carved and scrawled in corners and over beds, in midst of these horrible living conditions, images of butterflies and she asked her tour guide about this. Her guide responded, “We knew we were in hell, that all we knew was gone and that everything was falling apart. Some of us believed that God was still at work in the midst of this, that God would triumph, even if we didn’t know how. We believed that God was remaking us and that in the end, God would be triumphant.”
So we turn to the hope, the promise, yes, the chrysalis looks like death, but something new is being born and we must stay faithful and stay present to this. Reverend Yolanda Norton, an assistant professor at San Francisco Theological, described it this way: “In Isaiah 11:1-10, the prophet finds himself in a season of despair. He writes in the interstitial space between destruction; a time that has seen and is anticipating devastation at the hand of the Assyrian empire. And yet, the prophetic speech of Isaiah is filled with a persistent hope that God will bring peace, order, and love in the midst of chaos and ruin.”
She goes on to remind us that while Isaiah is promising us that the end is secure and that God will not now nor ever abandon us, God does work through us and insists we participate in the healing of the nation. This is not a suggestion that God will magically make everything better even if we persist in tearing things down. Isaiah spoke truth to power, and that power was involved in tearing things down, in oppressing and hurting people. Get right with God, he said, do it now, but to the people he spoke words of peace, of promise.
This is the promise, that we have a savior and he will judge with righteousness, and his justice is restorative. Even the most venomous among us will be made whole, will be made well. Nature, red in tooth and claw, will become peaceful and a new paradigm will reign. And we are called to participate in this transformation. In the first chapter of Isaiah we are told what this will look like, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Christ is constant, God’s mercy and justice are constant, but we are not. So in the season of Advent we are called again to the paths of righteousness and of hope, of mercy to those who are vulnerable and justice for those who are oppressed. We are called to be a living witness to the hope we find in Jesus Christ. To live each day with the intention of lifting up those who are beaten down by life, who struggle and who are hurting. We are called to stay present to all the pain and loss in the world and to see it through eyes of compassion and not grow weary but abide in the promise, gain sustenance from the love and mercy of God.
Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who was interned at the concentration camps. He stayed present, he observed, and he noted what it was that made a difference, what it was that helped some survive while others, seemingly strong and healthy succumbed. He said later that what made the difference was the act of reaching out to others with love and compassion. In a vivid example of this a survivor recounts how, as a young man he and most of his neighbors were herded into a cattle car to be transported and on the way the cattle car was left on the side of the tracks in bitter, freezing cold. He noticed that one of his neighbors, an older man, was shivering violently and he went to him. He sat with this man all night, rubbing his freezing feet, holding him, keeping him warm and alive. When the dawn broke only the two of them were left alive, their act of solidarity, of keeping one another warm through the bitter night had saved them.
We are called to just such acts of solidarity. We are called to the audacious hope and conviction that even when things seem to be at their darkest, that God is still working a great good in us. We are called to righteousness, yes, but also a stubborn faith that even when the world seems to be tottering on its axis that God is in control, that God has good in mind for us and not evil. So we step bravely into this future, this incredible belief that we can stay present to the pain of the world, that we can have compassion for one another, and that love will win.
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Decide now how you will live your life. What matters most to you. Where do you want to put your energy. Make that decision now. You don’t have much time. You think you have time, but you don’t, so decide now, act now, be the person you want to be now. You don’t have much time, don’t be fooled, don’t put it off. Be who you want to be right now.
If the word apocalypse literally means removing the veil of all our illusions, of coming face to face with the truth, then perhaps we can live an apocalyptic life every day, shredding our illusions and facing the reality, the difficult truths, the beautiful truths, every day. It’s odd, though, isn’t it? that our lectionary has this apocalyptic warning for the first Sunday of advent. Advent is that time of waiting, of anticipating, it’s a pregnant time, dark and hidden, waiting for new light, new birth, new life, the hope of a new future and kingdom here on earth, and the whole world groans for this, we long for redemption, for this new thing to come, for justice to come down like a cleansing rain, washing away all injury, all wounds cleansed and healed, we long for this!
But fear does drive us now and then, it causes us to pull back from our dreams, our best intentions and asks us to live a life that is small and safe. It insists we can try and live out our dreams another day, another time, but not now, not yet, we’re not ready, and so we play it small. If the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming, he might have realized the thief is the fear that lives in his own heart insisting that he lock all the doors, put up a fence and keep a safe distance from anyone who might want his things. The thief is the promise that he can make it alone and doesn’t need anyone so why take a risk? Why answer the door and risk meeting someone who might hurt your heart, disappoint you, abandon you.
“We want to love people who won’t hurt us, let us down, or betray us, but there are no other people.” Everyone we meet is fighting a battle with their own wounds, their own brokenness and sometimes it spills over and we get caught in it; the closer we are to that person, the more we feel, the more likely we are to be hurt, but the alternative, shutting down, closing our hearts, pulling away from love, is far more painful. Fear says it’s not worth the risk, love says we are strong enough to take it all in stride, feel the pain of our best intentions falling flat, our expectations unmet, failure to communicate, and still love. Love says we have plenty of room and lots to give and we can live our lives out loud.
CS Lewis said that, ““To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
And so a part of us wants to avoid living fully, loving fully. We want to lock ourselves away from any vulnerability or risk, but we cannot live that way. Brene Brown is a researcher based in Houston Texas and a several years ago she began researching whole heartedness. She wanted to know how it is that some people are able to live these rich, full lives, lives that we all look at with a little envy. In her now famous TED talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability#t-9445) Brene admitted that when she discovered that the difference between these whole hearted, delightful folk and those who lived much more cautiously and fearfully was accepting vulnerability she experienced a bit of an existential crisis. She had been looking for the perfect life hack, how to have it all, to win at the game of life, and the answer came back, be vulnerable, accept that you will be hurt, you will lose, and decide to love anyway.
I’m with Brene in that deep down desire to find an easier way! And there is a big part of me that wants to put my life on hold until this better way shows up. I want promises and certainty, but our text reminds us vividly today that only one thing is certain, we aren’t promised tomorrow. We are not given the perfect life hack, but invited to consider how we are living with what is. Are we keeping our lights lit, our lamps full of oil as we wait for the bridegroom? Are we saying the things we most need to say, the I love you’s, the I forgive you’s? Are we offering our hearts and our full attention to those we love the most? Or are we withdrawing and distracting, promising that another time, another place we’ll show up more fully.
The hospice caregiver Stephen Levine participated in a one year thought experiment which he documented in his book A Year to Live. He decided to live one year with the thought that this year might very well be his last. He wanted to get that incredible benefit which he saw many of the dying people he accompanied receiving as they approached their death. Why wait, he thought, until the diagnosis was for real. Tomorrow is never promised us, he figured, so why not assume that I will not be here next year. Every time he began to disengage with life, he would remind himself that this was his last experience of this day. He practiced embracing each and every day, each and every experience. It is not that he had not known that he ought to be fully open, fully present, but knowing this and actually practicing it are two different things.
So we begin our period of advent, this pregnant time, with the reminder that this is precious, precious time. This is one more incredible opportunity to open our hearts, to stay present with all that pains us, to forgive, to love, to worship, to create space in our every day busy-ness for joy.
“In the end
these things matter most:
How well did you love?
How fully did you live?
How deeply did you let go?”
So having gotten just this far into my sermon I was personally confronted by the fact that I have not been living this way. I know the importance of being present in each moment, cherishing each relationship, but doing it, actually putting these thoughts into practice isn’t something I’ve been very good at. I get busy, just like all of you and I get tired and it always seems like there will be another day, another time.
In June of this year I drove through Minneapolis, anxious to get here I failed to make adequate preparations to connect with people there whom I dearly love. I told myself that there will always be time, I could come back up later, but six months down the road I just never had. It’s hard to convey simply how important these people are to me; people who helped me find courage and conviction when it would have been easier to simply quit. People who offered me many and various ways to participate in the life of the church and encouraged me. People who had become a new family to me, yet I had gotten busy and failed to connect.
Short story long, I was in Minneapolis by 1:30, eating tomato basil soup at Turtle Bread Bakery, relishing the sights, the tastes, the sounds of a city that had been home to me for four years. At 4:30 I was sitting on the steps of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian watching members of my church family begin to filter in. I hadn’t been there in nearly four years, Bill has a full beard now, I almost didn’t recognize him. Lisa has lost weight and was looking all fine and trim. The Root kids had grown! Oh my gosh, but Owen is as tall as I am now! My two Sue’s and Kara, women who have been like sisters to me, were all there.
Yesterday I stopped denying myself the joy of reconnecting with these lovely and beloved people. Yesterday, a few of us gathered around a table and shared a meal. Yesterday I was able to wrap my arms around dear friends and give them long overdue hugs! Yesterday I remembered that I am not promised any more time; I am not promised second chances or second Christmases,
How well do you love, how fully do you live, how well do you let go of things not meant for you? The problem is, we think we have time and we put off our joy, we tell ourselves that we can connect with loved ones later, we can say the words that we long to say, later, we can find joy, later.
Do not wait, my friends, we are not promised later. We have the incredible gift of now. Do not withhold yourself from joy. Cherish each relationship, treasure your conversations, give yourself fully to each moment, for tomorrow isn’t promised. Two will go into the field, but only one will come back; so love and live as fully as you can, cherishing this moment, this time, this person with you now, and do not withhold yourself from joy.