SERMON: Nov 29 – Barry Heath, “I Believe Even When…Hope Is Hard”
This is the first Sunday of Advent, and on this Sunday, the lectionary, which is a resource of scriptures that the church has to suggest for using on each Sunday of the year. On this first Sunday of Advent, the lectionary usually chooses scriptures from the Hebrew prophets that are speaking about their longing for God’s return. In this particular passage that we’re going to read this morning from Isaiah. Isaiah, 60 for the people in Israel, have returned from Babylon, their exile time only to find that Jerusalem is completely destroyed and in ruins.
And not only that, the worst part of it is, is that the temple itself is destroyed. And for them, this means that the place where God resided no longer exists. At the very least, it’s a symbol of God’s presence and the fact that they are the chosen people. And now that is destroyed. And the question that they have is now where is God? And the scripture that we’ll hear is a pleading for God’s mercy, if you will, or God’s presence in the midst of God’s absence.
So I’m reading from Isaiah 64 beginning in verse 9 through 12.
Now consider we are your people. Your holy cities have become a wilderness. Zion has become a wilderness. Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house where our ancestors praised you has been burned by fire and all our pleasant places have become ruins. After all this, will you restrain yourself? Oh Lord. Will you keep silent and punish us severely?
One of the traditional hymns of Advent that we usually sing on this first Sunday of Advent is called Oh come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel. You heard the first verse of this hymn during the lighting of the Advent Candle. Now we’ll hear the second verse. The first verse speaks to the situation when the people were in exile. And this verse speaks to their longing for God’s return, for an answer to their prayers. Here is. Oh, come, come, Emmanuel.
Oh, come now, Dayspring from on High. And cheer us, by the drawing nigh. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel. Shall come to thee O Israel. Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel. Shall come to thee O Israel.
A few years ago, we were visiting relatives down in Texas in the fall. Now there’s two things you need to know about Texas in the fall, two things that are really important in that area.
One of them is football and the other is cheerleading. We were visiting relatives who were graduates of Baylor University, and the game that was on that afternoon was a game of Baylor against an opponent for the championship or a game that would qualify Baylor for the championship. So the mood with my relatives household was very intense and watching every play with that kind of intensity. At one point, the game pauses toward the end, actually, with a really crucial play on the part of Baylor and the camera pans to a cheerleader off to the side, a Baylor cheerleader.
And she was to me, obviously praying with her hands and her prayerful position. And I was assuming that she was praying, of course, for the outcome of this play to be in Baylor’s favor and indeed the whole game for that they would win. And I unfortunately spoke up with but I must confess, I was a little bit of sarcasm. I said, I’m sure God really cares about who’s going to win this game.
To the shocked silence of my relatives from Baylor, the game for them was indeed very important. And for them for me to say that God really didn’t care about that game was almost an attack on their faith because their faith was, of course, God is present in every situation in our life. And so why wouldn’t God be present in this game between two opponents?
Well, I should have kept my mouth shut, but I didn’t and maybe out of that experience, I learned something because instinctively we want to answer the question, does God really stay active in our lives with of course, of course, God cares about our daily life and is present in our daily struggles and needs. So for my relatives, it was almost a question of faith where they might say, of course, God cares about Baylor’s game. God cares about everything in our life.
But the people of Israel had a very different experience in our scripture passages. When they returned from exile, their experience was an absence of God. They experience life differently for those that after the crucifixion, those people experienced life differently as well. The disciples wondered, is God present? So to them, it wasn’t clear at all that God was present in life and they struggled with that. So how about you? Is it clear that we experience God in our everyday realities, especially in those times of crisis and struggle?
Is it clear that we experience God in the midst of covid? Is it clear that we experience God when a friend loses work and is out of work because of this pandemic? Is it clear that we experience God when we suffer any kind of health crisis at all? Does God care enough to be present in my history? Does God care enough to answer my prayers when I am in need? Is God present in my struggles enough to change my current history and make it come out much better?
You know, each week in our worship service, we say this prayer. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as in heaven. We want we need to have the real experience of God being present and active in our personal and in our community lives, particularly, and especially when those lives are in crisis. So what if we knew God was present in our daily struggles? What would it look like?
Well, you know what it would look like, just take an honest look at the prayers that we say when we are most in need, when we want to know that God is active in our daily lives, what we pray for and how we want to experience God is in our prayers. For example, we will know that God is present in the reality of our struggle when we experience healing from an illness. We will say God is there. We will know God is there and experience God when we might experience the answer to our prayers for peace, when we experience reconciliation between family members.
We can say God is there when we experience the end of evil’s power in life, when we experience the end of injustice or the end of the suffering of the innocent ones. And that is our prayer. And we say, yes, God is present in that struggle. I experience God in the answer to my prayer when we pray for and when we know God is present. What do you pray for and what do you want to experience? Such prayers have a common thread.
When we pray to God for any of these things, we recognize that what we need is beyond our own strength, beyond our own ability to do it ourselves. And so we call on God to answer like some kind of superhero. We want God to enter our lives and change things and make them better. So however you fill in the blank of your prayers and what you need, we must realize that what we pray for and what we say to know God is going to be present in our struggle is going to be defined by how we ask God and how we pray for that result.
And if God answers our prayers, then we profess God is here because I’m healed, because I got the job, because we are reconciled to the family member, because we see the end of evil’s power in life and the innocents are supported because we see the end to divisions that divide our nation, because we see the end of the large economic divisions in our own culture. If this is our prayer and these things happen, we profess with gratitude, God is present.
And in all these ways, if God answers those prayers, that is the profession of our faith. But what happens, what happens when our prayers are not answered in the way that we need them to be, when there is no superhero to swoop down and answer our prayers and fix life? Where is God when we experience not presence, but absence when God is hidden from us? I’ve been reading several books and accounts of late of survivors and their family, the families of survivors from World War to the Holocaust in Germany and in Europe.
And many of these accounts talk about living with the tragedy and the reality of Hitler’s pogrom against the Jews. And I’ve been struck by those writers, these Jewish people of faith, wrestling with their faith and their experience of the absence of God in the midst of their struggles. One such story comes from Josele Rakova, who tells of the violent struggle in the final days in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland, just as the Germans were coming in to destroy.
It also left a note in a bottle that was subsequently discovered. And in it he talks about his struggle not only against are with the Nazis, but his struggle with God’s absence. Josele believes in God. There is no doubt about that. But he questions God’s silence in his experience of life, and he wonders at how great God’s patience must be to allow the destruction of God’s people without interfering. So Josele argues with God. He questions God. He accuses God.
He does not excuse God’s absence. Josele wrote in a note, I die peacefully, but not complacently. Persecuted but not enslaved, embittered but not cynical, a believer, but not a supplicant, a lover of God. But not a blind amen sayer of God, and he closes his note with the words familiar words from Psalm 31 into your hands, O Lord, I consign my soul.
The Advent season is about hope, but our scriptures challenge us to have a realistic hope. A hope even when we cannot see the answers to our prayers. Joseph Rakova believed in God even when God was absent to him.
His faith in God was strong enough to doubt God, to argue with God, to be angry with God’s seeming absence in life’s struggles. We stand in the mystery of such faith, a faith that can still believe in God, who seems to be patient with evil. Somewhere in Josele Rakova’s soul, he could maintain the hope in God’s presence, even if he could not see it, even if he could not experience God’s presence in his suffering, even if he could not find God in the history in which he was living.
Such is Advent faith. It’s faith and hope that is not always in what we see, but is in the wisdom and a love that is greater than what we can imagine ourselves, Advent faith is a faith in the working of God in history that is beyond what we can imagine and even what we can pray for. Advent faith is that that proclaims God’s love and care even when we cannot experience it, even when we think God does not care enough.
Let me illustrate this kind of faith in a way that comes from maybe something that you did as a child. Do you remember when you were small and used to write in invisible ink? Maybe you wrote in lemon juice or some other liquid that when it dried would disappear? Maybe you would write a secret note to a friend. Maybe you wanted to write a word that held a dream that you had and you didn’t want anyone else to see it. And so you wrote your message in something that when it would dry, the letters would disappear.
Your thoughts now were invisible. Your message was hidden to anyone else that would look at your paper. All they would see was a blank piece of paper. But you knew there was something there that no one else could see unless they knew how to uncover your message. And then what was hidden was revealed. What was unseen became visible. This is how it is with Advent faith for people who have eyes to see, who are willing to be patient with God as God is, as God sometimes frustratingly is patient and answering our prayers to such faith is revealed.
The actions of God in history, which are often out of human sight and out of our complete understanding in the Gospel of Mark is another passage often read during this first Sunday in Advent in Mark 13, the writer responds to the disciples fears over God’s disappearance, and they’re waiting and wondering if Jesus is going to return. The writer says. No one knows for sure. But your task is to be faithful, to be alert and to wait. I must admit I’m really frustrated by that answer.
It would be a terrible answer to give to anyone who is suffering any of the crises that we’ve been talking about in their daily life to say to them, well, just be patient, just wait and everything will be OK would be an awful piece of advice. But I think there’s more to this passage. There is wisdom here for us in Advent. It is really a reality check of our faith. It speaks to the very real experience of God’s absence and asks us, even in the midst of that experience of absence, to watch and to wait for God’s real presence.
Mary Oliver once wrote, Keeping My Mind on What Matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished. This is the challenge of Advent to learn to be astonished at God’s presence becoming visible like the invisible ink. And here is what I’ve learned. If we will watch and we will wait and look for God not only to show God’s presence by answering our prayers in the way that we want them answered, but by being open to the movement of God and God’s spirit and presence in an unexpected way, then maybe.
Then maybe we will be astonished at God’s real presence in our struggles. These weeks in Advent will take us on a journey through life’s realities, and we’ll be challenged, challenged to have a renewed faith of a different kind these weeks. And Advent will lead us to a different conclusion, a different outcome for God’s presence, a new answer to our longing that just may astonish us. Advent, you see, leads to a manger. This is the answer to the Hebrew people’s longing.
This is the answer to the disciples fear of being abandoned by Jesus.
And this is the answer to our prayers when we don’t feel God’s presence in the manger is where God proclaims I am with you.
Not only am I with you, but I am born into the various struggles of human birth. I am born into the pain of that time and into the experience of the pain of daily life that you experience in your lives. I am here. I am born. I live the human life among you. I’m born to be with your struggles. God personally knows our struggles, lives in the midst of our struggles and aches and cries with us never letting go of us and holding us in a divine embrace in the resurrection that will follow this manger scene.
God says nothing can take away my presence in your life, not even death. I am. I am with you always in Advent and in all of life. May we be granted the vision and the imagination to see, to experience, to know this presence of God.