The Second Sunday of Advent
A Meditation on Isaiah 43:1-19
In the poetry of this prophet, the God of Israel sings a love song, calls to her people in exile, and announces her intentions. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.” “Do not fear, for I am with you.” And then you’ll want to read just a bit beyond the passage Katie’s read for us this morning. Verses 18 and 19 of Isaiah 43. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” This is the God of Israel. This is her love song. For a people in exile. For a people bereft and brokenhearted. “I am about to do a new thing.” She sings: “Do you not perceive it? I am about to do a new thing. I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
Like Isaiah and Isaiah’s God, you and I are called to bear the newness of God in the sadness and darkness of exile. The God of Israel is an Advent God: and she imagines reconciled peoples and feasting fellowships and dancing daughters and sons. To that end, she makes a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. And she insists that her people bear her vision in our hearts and in our bodies and in our commitments day by day by day. “We are all called to be mothers of God,” said the great German mystic Meister Eckhart, “for God is always waiting to be born.” Do you not perceive it? asks the prophet. Do you not perceive it?
Friends, the Advent Church is brave enough and daring enough to welcome the newness of God, the poetry of the prophet, the promise of rebirth even in our darkest hour. And this is something like our darkest hour, right? Though we have eyes, Isaiah might say, yet are we blind and without insight. Though we have ears, he might say, yet are we deaf and unable to recognize hope and promise. Our darkest hour!
Hospitals, health care workers, big cities and small towns: this winter’s Coronavirus surge is overwhelming our systems, our governments and our spiritual resources too. Maybe you saw the interview this week with Dr. Shirlee Xie on CNN; Dr. Xie’s a hospitalist in Minneapolis. I’m so moved by these fragile and frightened providers. And Dr. Xie told CNN that doctors and nurses are “suffocating” – that’s the word she used: “suffocating” – in their patients’ fear and in their colleagues’ exhaustion. She was asked about the surge in hospitalizations, the surge in deaths, the toll it takes on professionals. “Every single number,” she said, “is somebody that we have to look at and say, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing more I can do for you.’” What a year! We’ve made an art form of cynicism and contempt. Our government’s spent the last year poisoning democracy and questioning vote totals. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more I can do for you.” So yes, this seems like our darkest hour.
But the Advent Church hears a voice in this strange and awful darkness. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you.” Friends, I want you to know this, to trust this, to hear this: you are the Advent Church. And the Word of God finds you in this strange and awful darkness. Her heart has been broken into pieces by this virus. Her face, worn with worry, soaked in tears. The God of Israel, the Holy One sings the church a love song. Not just for the church’s sake: but for the good, for the healing, for the redemption of the whole creation. You, dear friend, have been called by name. So don’t be afraid. The Holy One is with you. So don’t be afraid.
You see, the Advent God is about to do a new thing. The Advent God is moved by love and devotion to release us from our captivity, to renew us in righteousness and peace, to reconcile the broken peoples of the broken planet. She prepares a new place, a promised land, a city of peace – and she calls us home, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the west. She sings to the suffocated, to the exhausted, to the brokenhearted. Come home.
Now, isn’t it something that Isaiah’s refrain – this DO NOT FEAR refrain – is passed down through the generations and picked up in the Advent stories of Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Mary and Joseph, and over and over again in Jesus’ teaching. The angel appears to old Zechariah and says, “Do not fear, Brother! Your prayer has been heard.” And Zechariah and Elizabeth have a baby boy, and that’s Jesus’ cousin John. And then the angel appears to Mary by the well in Nazareth. And the angel says, “Do not fear, Mary! For you are precious in God’s sight!” And Mary and Joseph have a baby boy, and he’s the One who comes to free us from despair and war and cruelty forever. See how it goes? The Advent God comes singing, and saying: “Do not fear. Your prayer has been heard.” The Advent God comes singing, and saying: “Do not fear. For you are precious in God’s sight!”
So friends, I want you to hear this poetry, this love song, as its intended for you this morning. Whether the sadness gathering at your door is COVID, cancer or chronic pain. Whether the darkness so heavy in your heart is a kind of isolation or loneliness. Or whether the burden you bear is anxiety for the nation, for the future, for the climate. “Do not fear. For you are precious in God’s sight!” In your darkest hour, the One who loves you beyond measure, the God who imagined and made you, the Maker of Sun, Moon and Stars: finds you and claims you and promises you courage, mercy and eternal life. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
Now God’s promise doesn’t make the sadness less sad. And God’s promise doesn’t relieve us of the pain, or the cancer, or the worry for the dear ones who suffer. Life persists. Pain persists. And it’s all so complicated. But God’s love does transform our weariness into courage, and it does connect our passion to an even more resilient compassion. I’ve seen it, and you’ve seen it too. In you and in your life, in you and in your frailty, in you and in your courage – our God is about to do a new thing. Even now. Especially now. In 2020. In you and me, and in us, our God is making a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. That’s the gospel today.
There’s a whole lot of mystery to be sure: what the wilderness way looks like, how the broken hearts heal on the other side, and how eternity bears our souls into deeper communion and abiding joy. There’s a whole lot of mystery around so many questions. Of course. But the promise is lifegiving and the promise is holy and the promise is yours. “Do not fear, Brother! Your prayer has been heard.” “Do not fear, Sister! For you are precious in God’s sight.”
In our many lives, discipleship plays out in the tension – I think I’ll call it holy tension – between mystery and promise. The unknown and the undeniable. And that journey, that discipleship journey leads inevitably to the table, to the upper room, to the seder Jesus prepares for his friends.
At that seder, at that communion table, with our friends and allies, with the Advent Church, we hear Jesus celebrating the same promise. “Do not fear, Brother! Do not fear, Sister!” We hear him insisting on mercy and communion and the kind of love that overcomes all fears, all sadness and death itself. That night, in Jerusalem, there’s all kinds of sadness in the air. Out in the streets, in the egos of the proud, there’s cruelty and madness too. The journey to justice and the commonwealth of God is demanding and heartbreaking in a thousand ways.
But Jesus knows that God’s love sews courage in the hearts of faithful souls. Jesus believes that brave communities, beloved communities bind up the wounds of the world, and bless the planet with kindness and peace. So he breaks the bread and gives them his own body. “Do not fear, Brother! Do not fear, Sister!” And at the table, he gives them his life, his precious and holy life, a sign of his holy communion and the new thing that God is doing in the them. And so it is with us. Every time we break bread in his name. Every time we sing the song of the Advent God.
So let us be brave enough, let us be daring enough to welcome the newness of God; for she is doing a new thing in the world, and a new thing in you and me too. And though we walk through the fire, we shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume us. Love will bear us home. Amen.