Sunday, December 11, 2016

"The Backstory: Despair Seeking Hope"

"The Backstory: Despair Seeking Hope"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
November 27, 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44
It seems that no matter the time or place, no matter the century or continent, we humans are looking for a strong man to get us out of trouble. It doesn’t matter if the trouble is of our own making, or was imposed upon us. That “strong man” may or may not have our best interests at heart. And we may even harbor the idea that we can be that “strong man” for ourselves. Please excuse the sexist reference to the “strong man” – women can be the strong “man” too. I’m not passing judgement right now. I’m just observing. Many factors shape the kind of “strong man” – the “anointed savior” – that we seek. The first Christians – the followers of the “The Way” – proclaimed that Jesus of Nazareth is that anointed savior – literally the one that is clearly designated to heal us – to heal our predicament – to set things right – to bring about the peaceable kin-dom.
Of course, those first Christians did not come to know or learn of the anointed savior through the Gospels, or through the teaching of the church, or through the preaching of pastors and theologians. All they had was the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, and the cultural milieu and cultural historical context in which they lived – and Jesus, of course. They had the real deal. But how did they know he was the real deal without the Gospels? Some scholars have called the book of Isaiah the fifth gospel. Some theologians have even claimed that without the four canonical gospels, Isaiah could tell us everything we need to know for our salvation.
This Advent I’ll be using Isaiah as a lens to examine some of what shapes our expectations for the anointed savior – the Christ Jesus – whom we call Emmanuel; God-with-us. Isaiah is comprised of three main parts, artfully sewn together, written over the course of at least two centuries. Scholars refer to chapters 1-39 as First Isaiah, chapters 40-55 as Second Isaiah, and chapters 56-65 as Third Isaiah. All of the prophetic readings for Advent this year are drawn from First Isaiah. It was written in the 8th century before the Common Era, generations before the exile in Babylon. It was a time of great despair, anxiety, misery, and separation amongst the covenant people – but perhaps not as great as the despair, anxiety, misery, and separation they would face later when they were taken into captivity. The Hebrew nation, which thought of itself as a contender for greatness among nations – a mythos embodied in the characters of David and Solomon, had long since broken into two kingdoms. Neither of them had the strength or resources to outweigh the true empires that flanked them. They were like two siblings, back to back, not fully trusting each other, each facing great danger.
They were a divided nation not only in governance, but also economically. The northern kingdom, Israel, encompassed fertile plains, hills, and valleys. It was agrarian, and thus a strategic target for conquering armies. The southern kingdom, Judah or Judea, was mostly arid high ground. It revolved around Jerusalem, the site of Solomon’s temple, and home to the Ark of the Covenant. Its “mountaintop” location could also be a tactical asset in times of war as well as times of worship. Each kingdom laid claim to legitimacy as successor to David. Each laid claim to greater faithfulness to the covenant.
Isaiah’s people faced the expansion of the Assyrian Empire. The northern kingdom sought to bring the southern kingdom into an alliance in order to resist Assyrian expansion. The pressing issue of the day was whether or not to gear up for war. Isaiah unequivocally declares God’s disapproval of this plan. Isaiah’s message was this: God will empower a leader who does not seek the idolatry of war, but instead who seeks to be faithful to God as God is faithful to the covenant people. In other words, do not succumb to despair, do not put your faith in the hands of the “strong man” – but seek your hope in God.
To get the full picture of Isaiah’s prophecy, we need to see the whole book, and more. God’s message through the sewn together book of Isaiah is expansive and poetic. But biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that in its three segments, we do not see the whole story that takes us from despair to hope, from anxiety to peace, from misery to joy, and from separation to love. Brueggemann suggests that First Isaiah is primarily about recording the profound sense of loss that the covenant people share in their division, even as it records the independent success of the southern kingdom in repelling the advance of Assyria. Second Isaiah is a picture of hope – a vision of what lays ahead for those who are faithful to God, and was written centuries later at a time when Judah faced a new expansive threat from the north – Babylon. Third Isaiah is a great hymn of assurance that God will always be faithful, and desires thriving for all nations, all creation. What Brueggemann suggests is missing in this narrative tapestry is grief. He suggests that we need to read Lamentations after First Isaiah, after our loss, before moving on to hope.
Despair – or an aspect of despair – is the sense that things fall apart despite our best intentions. We somehow know that the “strong man” is not going to be able to “fix” our predicament.
Things fall apart.
There is disunity.
Danger lurks nearby.
Despair literally means a loss of spirit. In the English language it replaced the older word “wanhope.” Wanhope connotes feeble hope or hope spread too thinly. The Hebrew word that we translate as despair is ruah kehā – or spirit of fainting. There is a sense in our loss, whatever it may be, that we are about to faint. We do not have the energy to go on. We may be tempted just to collapse to the ground where we stand and allow our grief to rush over us, to overwhelm us, to drown us. It seems to describe a loss of energy, a loss of will. In contrast, Isaiah’s word for hope really means “to look to.” In other words, hope is a matter of vision, not dependent on whatever muck or mire we stand in, but rather where we set our sights. Hope is a matter of perspective or a habit of seeing that allows us to breathe even in stale air.
There is trouble in the Isaiah text. The main trouble is this:
Adversaries loom.
Darker days seem immanent.
The nation is divided, lacking allies, and unprepared.
Despite the loss they have experienced, or perhaps the loss they are anticipating, Isaiah warns, “Hold on! Do not buy into false trust or false promises.”
There is trouble today. Among many troubles, one is parallel to First Isaiah’s predicament:
Our nation is divided.
Adversaries loom.
Darker days seem immanent.
The nation is divided, lacking allies, and unprepared.
We find ourselves at a loss – perhaps we feel nostalgic for a time in the past that never actually existed. We find ourselves trying to satisfy our deepest yearnings with material comforts or extreme experiences. Isaiah warns, “Hold on! Do not buy into false trust or false promises.”
But there is also grace in the text. Isaiah tells us that “in the days to come” our attention will no longer be diverted by distractions. In the days to come – in other words, within time and place – not in some distant heaven, but in the days to come – holy ground is high ground. We can speak of high ground literally – higher ground is strategically advantageous. We can speak of high ground ethically as well. We can choose the morally higher ground, from whence we can see better and farther. Isaiah says that many peoples will turn their focus from the distractions to the vision of wholeness and justice that radiate from God’s high place, so that we can learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths. Those who seek God’s instruction and seek to walk in God’s ways do not focus primarily on the present existential quagmire in such a way as to lose sight of God’s way of peace-making, peace-saying, peace-acting.
Isaiah tells us, God will judge between the nations – in other words, God will set things right. And the sign of God’s judgment will be whether or not we disarm. To disarm is to hope. This hope is predictive, not prescriptive. It doesn’t match the reality on the ground. Hope is not certainty, but seeing beyond and choosing God’s path. Hope is an act of will. In hope, we envision God’s way and we lean into it – live into it. Whatever has been a tool of despair, anxiety, misery, or separation – in other words, whatever has been weaponized – we must reclaim and reshape as a tool of life – for cultivation and harvest.
There is also grace for today that radiates from the prophet’s vision:
Make allies, but not with war-mongers. Make allies with peace-makers.
Align with power, but not with the powers of despair, anxiety, misery, and separation. Align with the seemingly powerless who hold the moral higher ground – the holy ground. They may be the children, the homeless, the meek, the gentle, the oppressed, the water protectors, the “other” – these have tremendous spirit-power. There is power in walking in God’s light right now, one step at a time.
Take the energy and resources that have been invested in division and destruction. Invest them in cultivating life, in harvesting love. I’m thinking of Heifer Project, Mary’s Place, Bread for the World, Children’s Defense Fund, UMCOR, the Food Bank.
Cultivate hope – not some rosy colored version of wishing for the best, but through the investment of your relationships, your prophetic truth, your wellness, gracious leadership, time and place, and money. Cultivating hope is work – it’s farm labor. It’s daily rising at dawn and working past sunset everyday planting, tending, and harvesting hope.
Hope is an action word.
At the Interfaith Evening of Gratitude this past Tuesday that was held right here in our sanctuary, the Free Range Folk Choir sang an amazing African song punctuated by three drum solos. It was an Uhuru song – or freedom song. And although freedom and hope are not the same, they are twin siblings – each seeks and needs the other. The idea of the song is something like this: Each drum solo represents striving for freedom. For those who have been oppressed, pressed-down, robbed, depressed, and are in despair, they must strive for their freedom. But that struggle only brings them back to where they were before. Then they must strive for more – to advance their freedom. But even then, they must press on or their freedom will be taken. Hope, I believe, is the same. For any who are lost or have lost, they must envision God’s wholeness, to see it in the eye of the heart as actualized. For any who have seen God’s hope, they must reach for it. For any who have reached God’s hope, they must share it.
Do not hope in the strong man. Hope in the one who came to us as a powerless, immigrant, fugitive infant. Hope in the one who poured himself out from the cradle to the cross.

1 comment:

  1. this was such an inspiring post. filling all the spaces that needed to be filled. you are such an inspiration to have posted with this. keep updating