Friday, December 2, 2011

Advent 2B 2001

          These are rough economic times, and have been for a while. Yet this week I received from Bishop Taylor an invitation to contribute to the Mission Fund, “established so the important initiatives identified by the Executive Council of the diocese would not be diminished by the downturn in the economy.”  Bishop Taylor may know something I don’t know. He very likely does. He’s a man of hope.

          We’re called to be people of hope, people who trust in the love and mercy of God, not only about money, but about all our life, in this world and the world to come.

          The first 39 of the 66 chapters in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah tell of the last days of the southern kingdom of Judah. Then Jerusalem was captured, the Temple destroyed, and the leaders of the people taken into exile in Babylon – 586 years before Christ. Two generations later Babylon fell to the Persians, who allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. Gradually they did so and the last 27 chapters of Isaiah are God’s word to the returning exiles.

          The Jews who returned had heard from their parents and grandparents of the land of milk and honey, the beauty of the Temple, the joy of living in Judah. Our children and grandchildren occasionally ask us about the past, and we all tend to describe the good parts. Going back to places where we lived as children is always a shock. The houses and the rooms are much smaller than we remember them. So we can imagine some of the returning exiles’ reactions, particularly from the reluctant spouses. “What have you gotten us into? This is not like grandmother described it. This “homecoming” idea is a big mistake. We’re being punished like our grandparents were. We should have stayed in Babylon.”  They forgot that their ancestors in the desert said the same things about Egypt.

          To this dispirited group, the word of the Lord comes by Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.”

          The penalty has been paid. By his death on the cross Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of the whole world, and for our sins, our individual sins and the sins that come because we live in a world filled with sin and evil and pain and injustice and hopelessness.  We can live in hope because on Easter Day Jesus rose from the dead. Because he lives, we live, and we live in hope. The Holy Spirit of God came at Pentecost to in-spirit us in God’s hope.

          The exiles had followed the route our father Abraham had taken, up the river and then down the valleys past the Sea of Galilee and down the mountain road to Jerusalem. It took several months on a rough road. They knew first hand about the wilderness and the desert, the valleys and the mountains, the uneven ground and the rough places.  They understood the call of the Lord, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” The exiles understood the call to hope.

          We’ve all had our own experiences with valleys and mountains, with uneven ground and rough places. And we know something of how the Lord has brought us through them into the place where we are now. For some of us it is easier than for others, but we’re in this together, to help each other, to hope together.

          The decision to leave the familiar in Babylon to return to Judea was not an easy one. Families were divided. Some left; others stayed. During 500 years of Europe’s Dark Ages Babylon was the center of Jewish learning, and Jews were only forced out after the founding of Israel in 1948. The returning exiles knew from experience about the pain of broken personal relationships.

          Many of us know something of that kind of pain and loss and the loneliness that invites our own loss of hope. We know how “people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades . . . surely the people are grass.”

To the exiles, and to us comes the word of hope, the word of the Lord. “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” Our hope is in God’s promise. We are called to take the long view, the view from the mountain top, to trust in the love and power of God who “comes with might,” feeds “his flock like a shepherd,” who gathers us his precious lambs in his arms, and carries us next to his heart, and gently leads.

          St. Peter reminds us that we live in God’s time, and encourages us to patience. “With the  Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

          John the Baptist called the people of Jesus time to repentance, and he calls us to repentance. We are exiles in a sin-filled world who are on the road – the sometimes rough road – to God’s kingdom. We are sinners saved by God’s grace in Jesus. And while we are on the road we are called to hope, to hope for our final redemption, to look in hope for God at work in the world and in us.

          December can be a dark month, a time of despair and loss and pain and hopelessness.  But Advent is a time of hope, hope in Jesus’ final triumph, hope in our redemption, hope  both in the last day and hope every day. In the busy days let us hope for the guiding of God’s Holy Spirit. In the sad moments let us look in hope for God’s love and power. In the happy times let us hope for the fullness of God’s love and joy in our lives, in the lives of those we love and those we have trouble loving, and in those whom we do not know with whom we share life in the world redeemed by Jesus death and resurrection. Amen.

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