Text: Isaiah 35:1-10
“Be strong, and do not be afraid.” The prophet Isaiah speaks these words that invite us to face the future boldly. These are good words to focus on as we start the New Year which begins, of course, today. This is not the first day of the calendar year or academic year or fiscal year. But it is the first day of the Christian year – the beginning of the church liturgical calendar.
The beginning of this annual cycle of praise and prayer and challenge and instruction and worship centers around Jesus’ birth, and today, the First Sunday in Advent, we begin that journey. So at least on paper, this First Sunday in Advent would seem to be an important day. But the reality is, it hardly gets noticed, coming right after Thanksgiving as it does, with many of us in a shopping stupor and many students and others away this weekend. And then Advent in general gets completely lost with the big run-up to Christmas. So Advent is not much in our consciousness.
You will not find Advent cards in stores. There is no Advent display at the mall, no Advent specials on TV. We don’t have office Advent parties.
People worry about Christmas being co-opted by the culture. Well, we don’t have to worry about that with Advent. The Church has Advent all to itself; nobody else would want it. And so here we are this morning, as Christians have been for two thousand years, daring to face the future before us.
Christian faith is forward-looking. At least, that is the way it is designed to be. Now, to be sure, history is important; tradition is important. We read the scriptures, which tell us about God’s work through history. We remember and we celebrate the life and teachings, the death and resurrection, of Jesus. We live out a faith that has been lived for 2000 years and we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. We look back, we remember, and this tradition and heritage, this remembering, gives us a place to stand. We have just celebrated Thanksgiving, which asks us to look back – we look back in order to give thanks for the blessings we have enjoyed.
But our faith involves more than looking back. The purpose of looking back is so that we can live now, so that we can move forward. Advent is about preparing our hearts for Christmas, but at a deeper level it is about looking ahead. It is about waiting and anticipating and turning our gaze toward the future, toward God’s promised future, with hope and imagination.
This ability to look ahead, to look to the future, can be difficult for us. Peter Gomes, who was the chaplain at Harvard and a great American Baptist preacher, said that we live under the tyranny of the past. That may not sound right, because a lot of us think of the past as a comfort. We talk about “the good old days,” about our “heyday,” about “glory days,” and the past can seem very comforting.
I am not real big on change. They are building a new Fareway downtown. Well, I liked the old Fareway. They have remodeled Hy-Vee. They have changed the dining area. I liked it the way it was.
I confess that I am as bad as anybody when it comes to thinking of the good old days. Zoe reminds me of how often I say, “Well, when I was in college…” We may think of the past in an idealized way, as the Golden Age, but this is not always helpful. We can live under the tyranny of the past when the past keeps us from living fully today. We tend to remember the good parts of the past and forget the heartaches and shortcomings and failures. We can have this unrealistic view of the way things used to be, and by comparison the present never quite measures up. It is possible to never really be happy and never fully live in the moment because of this tyranny of the past.
The past can also lay hold of us when we will not let go of past wrongs, when we insist on nursing wounds and holding on to hurts and injustices done to us, real and perceived. We hold onto old fears and anxieties and worries. We nurse grudges. There are those who seem to manage life in a difficult present by holding on to an even more difficult past. It’s like those clans who can’t remember the origin of a feud – they don’t really know why their enemies are so awful, but they choose to wallow in hatred nevertheless. The tyranny of the past.
Our scripture this morning asks us to look to a future that is not held captive by the past, a future unlike anything we have experienced before. “The desert shall rejoice and blossom. The eyes of the blind will be opened. The deaf shall hear, the lame shall leap like a deer. Water will break forth in the desert.” A highway will go through the wilderness and it will be completely safe – no robbers hiding off the side of the road. Not even fools will go astray. Sorrow and sighing shall flee away; all will know joy and gladness.
Well, that certainly never happened in the past. As good as the good old days may have been, they were never that good.
Advent bids us to a new future. Now, it is easy to just write off all of this stuff because it sounds way too good to be true. It sounds way too good to be even remotely possible. It sounds like hyperbole on steroids, and we don’t take it very seriously. This is hoping against hope.
The British ambassador to the United States, Sir Nicholas Henderson, was interviewed at the height of the Cold War by a reporter from the Washington Post. It was about this time of year, it was a features article, and he was asked the question, “What do you want for Christmas?”
Sir Nicholas, a master of British reserve and understatement, did not want to appear greedy. Wanting to be truthful, he replied to the interviewer that all he really wanted for Christmas was a jar of fruit preserved in ginger, such as you might find at Harrod’s. Apparently he liked this fruit and that was what he would like for Christmas, and he hoped the Lady Henderson might get him a jar.
A few days later the Washington Post’s feature article described in detail what the diplomatic corps would like for Christmas. The Russian ambassador hoped for peace and goodwill; the Swiss ambassador hoped for genuine disarmament around the world; the Spanish ambassador hoped for Gibraltar to be given back; the Israeli ambassador hoped for peace in the Middle East, and so forth. And Sir Nicholas, the British ambassador, hoped for a jar of fruit.
Clearly, the British ambassador’s hopes were the most obtainable and realistic, but he did seem to be lacking a bit in imagination and courage. Sometimes we do not hope enough. And sometimes our hopes are diminished by the tyranny of the past – by our beliefs about what is possible.
Let’s be honest: we have trouble with a lot of the Bible. We have problems with different parts of the Bible for different reasons – some of it seems too hard or too demanding, and there are those troubling passages which are too violent or too narrow and nationalistic. Passages such as what we read today present a different kind of problem. We like this because it is beautiful and moving poetry. It is a lovely passage - but we don’t take it very seriously.
Most of us, dare I say the inner engineer in many of us, likes things laid out in a nice, clear, factual format. We like summary sentences and talking points. Like Sgt. Friday used to say on Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
The Bible seems very distant to modern readers because we are lacking in imagination. Our culture prizes facts and information, and the rich imagery of the Bible sounds very different, even alien. For the Biblical writers, imagination is the home of faith. To modern people, imagination is the home of the fanciful, untrue, and naïve. The crocus shall rejoice? The speechless will sing for joy? Sorrow and sighing shall flee away? Are you kidding me? This sounds like a fairy tale.
Well, this is where Advent begins. It begins with hope that seems almost an impossible hope. It seems impossible because things have never worked out this way before and it seems exceedingly unlikely now. I mean, look at our world, filled with division and animosity and tribalism and hatred. People are hurting. Nations are hurting. The planet is hurting. The future can seem bleak. It is understandable that we just kind of wink at each other when we read that the desert shall rejoice and blossom.
In financial matters, there is boilerplate language that the Securities and Exchange Commission requires in marketing mutual funds and other investments: “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” We’ve all heard these words.
Maybe an investment has done well for a number of years and averaged a 20% gain. (This is hypothetical, obviously.) But if you read a fund prospectus or see an ad in a magazine or a commercial on TV, it will say, “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” That phrase is meant to temper what might be unrealistic expectations. Just because something has done well in the past does not mean the same thing will happen in the future.
“Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” That phrase can work both ways. Just because the past has been lousy does not mean there is no hope for the future. We don’t have to be constrained by the failures and the disappointments of the past.
When I was in college – there I go again – my alma mater, the University of Evansville, had a pretty good basketball team. But for the last 20 years, it’s been rough. We haven’t been in the NCAA tournament in 20 years. Last year, with a new coach, we won 11 games and lost 21. We were hopeful about this season, but based on past performance, the team was picked to finish 8th in the Missouri Valley Conference.
A couple of weeks ago, Evansville played the Kentucky Wildcats – the #1 ranked Kentucky Wildcats, at Rupp Arena. It was hard to imagine even our very best teams of the past winning a game like this. A couple of years before we played at Duke and lost. By 50. But you may have heard that Evansville won that game in a shocking upset, probably the biggest upset in college basketball of the last 10 or 15 years. “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
The past performance of Israel was not good. It was not at all good. The nation had been captive in Egypt for 400 years. They were finally delivered from Pharaoh and led by Moses, but right away they are wandering in the wilderness, complaining, wishing they could be back in Egypt where they at least had three square meals a day. Moses goes up the mountain to receive the law, and the people make a golden calf to worship. It was constantly one step forward and two steps back. Their history was a succession of corrupt rulers and chasing foreign gods and being a pawn in power struggles between regional powers.
The tribes of Israel could not get along and the nation split north and south. In time, the northern kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by the Assyrians and then the southern kingdom of Judah was taken into exile in Babylon. Over the course of Israel’s history, there were occasional righteous rulers and there were great prophets from time to time, but it was not at all what you would call an illustrious past.
There was absolutely nothing in the past to make anyone expect that a child born to poor unwed parents in a weak, occupied nation like Israel, in a small town like Bethlehem, born in a stable of all places, would be anything special. But past performance was not an indicator of future results.
We begin this season of Advent with the reminder that our hope is not based on what has taken place in the past. Our faith looks forward, with prophetic imagination, seeing in our mind’s eye the future God has for us. And we are not simply reenacting the hope that people had for a savior born 2000 years ago; we are called to live in the real hope, in the this-world and present hope, that God has a future for us, a future beyond imagining.
Our hope is for the world to come, yes, but our hope is for, in Biblical language, a new heaven and a new earth - our hope is for a world made right, a world made anew, a world remade according to God’s will. We celebrate Jesus’ birth, but our hope is not that Jesus’ birth was Good News then. Our hope is that Jesus’ presence and the promises of God are Good News now.
And so, we look forward. We look ahead. “Be strong, and do not be afraid,” say the prophet.
A remade world may not come this year. We may not be able to see it happening next year. But then again, we might. And if we look closely, we can see glimpses.
Echoing the words of the 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King Jr. liked to say that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Parker spoke in those terms about the abolitionist movement. He could see slavery abolished even when it was far off into the future. King spoke those words in some of the dark days of the civil right movement. And Isaiah’s stunning words of hope and joy were written to the exiles in Babylon, when a return to Jerusalem must have seemed a pipe dream.
Advent is about hope. We live in the hope that just as God came in Jesus Christ to bring us hope and wholeness and salvation, God will come again to set things right in our lives and in our world.
Our calling is to be a part of God’s movement toward hope and wholeness and salvation. Toward the time when “the desert shall rejoice and blossom… sorrow and sighing shall flee away, and all will know joy and gladness.”
And so, be strong and do not be afraid. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Look ahead, abide in hope. And, Happy New Year.