Tuesday, December 5, 2017

God's trustworthiness is the basis of Hope

Second Sunday of Advent Year B

The Christian season of Advent abounds with traditions that have been upheld, invented, and reimagined over the centuries. In the West, one such tradition is attending Handel’s oratorio, Messiah (1741), with its famed “Hallelujah” chorus. Interestingly, this piece of music was written for the season of Easter. Nevertheless, it has become a standard staple of Christmas pop-culture. The opening words were what we heard in the first reading, “Comfort my people” or in our lectionary translation, “Console my people, console them.”

The chapter begins with a beautiful assurance of consolation. In fact, it takes us to the foundation of hope – our hope. Hope colours our entire season of Advent. No wonder, the prophet Isaiah who speaks these words of consolation has often been described as both the prophet of hope and the prophet of Advent. Though these words were written to ancient Israel thousands of years ago, they are addressed to us as well. What God said then, to them, He continues to say to us today. To understand the message of hope for us, we need to remember the hopeless situation of the original audience. 

The people were in exile in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar’s army had conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and taken its leading citizens into captivity. But as bad as that was, that wasn’t the worst of it. They knew that the reason why they were in exile was because God had handed them over into the hands of their enemies. The exile was God’s judgment on their sin – in particular, their immorality and their idolatry.  So Chapter 40 and following is addressed to that generation, languishing in exile in Babylon, who knew they had two – seemingly insurmountable – problems. The presenting problem was their captivity, but the deeper problem was that God had apparently abandoned them because of their sin. Could this be the “double punishment” which Isaiah refers to in the text? Was there any way back – any way back to the Promised Land? Any way back to favour with God? Well, this chapter provides the answer, “Yes, there is a way back”. The way back is returning to the Lord.

And so Isaiah’s first emphasis is this wonderful word of forgiveness to Israel. The most important message at the outset is that God is no longer holding their sins against them. That their most fundamental problem is resolved. It’s the message that God’s people desperately needed to hear. At the heart of this comforting and consoling message is that judgment is at an end, because their sins have been done away with. He speaks to the heart of Jerusalem, and announces to her that “her time of service is ended (the warfare is ended), that her sin is atoned for, that she has received from the hand of the Lord, double punishment for all her crimes.” The reader seems to be carried forward in time to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In that very sacrifice of His, the atonement of our sins has already been accomplished.

That last phrase, “double punishment” does not merely mean that God has punished the nation twice what their sins required. This is a reference to an Eastern custom. If a man owed a debt he could not pay, his creditor would write the amount of the debt on a paper and nail it to the front door of the man's house so that everyone passing would see that here was a man who had not paid his debts. But if someone paid the debt for him, then the creditor would double the paper over and nail it to the door as a testimony that the debt had been fully paid. Yes, our debts have been fully paid by the blood of the Lamb on the altar of the cross.

But Isaiah is not done. There is another message of hope that begins with a voice crying in the wilderness. We need not be in doubt as to whose voice this is, for the Gospel tells us it is St John the Baptist, the one who calls us to “Prepare the way for the Lord”. These verses quoted from Isaiah define the ministry of John the Baptist. He was to announce the coming of the Messiah and his ministry would not only be one of reconciliation, but also one of reconstruction, to “make a straight highway for our God.” The idea of preparing the highway of the Lord is a word picture, because the real preparation must take place in our hearts. Four steps would be involved in the building process: “Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley.” A massive construction work meant to reshape the unfriendly terrain into a great thoroughfare fit for the king of kings. Building such a road is expensive. It comes at a great sacrifice and cost, not just to us, but for God too.

Most people mistake this sentence as the spiritual engineering work that we must undergo if we wish to prepare for the Lord’s coming. At one level, that is true. Repentance is an essential condition for reconciliation and it is hard work. But the saying also speaks at a deeper level of what God is about to do. The greater work that is to be done would be the work of God – Opus Dei. And so both Isaiah and the gospel utilises beautiful symbolic language to describe what God undertakes when He comes into our lives. When we have received His forgiveness, the next step is that the Lord begins to change us, to reconstruct our lives. “Every valley be filled in” - in the low places of life, the discouraging times, times when you feel crushed and defeated, there will be comfort and encouragement from the Lord. “Every mountain shall be brought down” - all those places where our ego manifests itself, our proud boasts, our grasping for power, these must be cut down. Ultimately, every crooked place will be made straight - our deviousness must be corrected, our wrongs put right, our deviations set on course again.

Ultimately, the basis of hope is not in human strength or human achievement, which withers like grass; like the flower of the field. The basis of hope is found in this simple verse, “for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” The basis for our hope is the trustworthiness of the word of God - the word of our God which stands forever. Sometimes, we doubt if God is indeed present or working in our lives. Very often we do not have any objective proof of this. There is no cloud of dust on the horizon to prove that the way of the Lord is under construction. There is no account book with “paid in full” stamped on your page. You have to take it on trust. You have to believe the word of the Lord. The divine comfort only comes to those who believe that the mouth of the Lord has spoken, that their sins are dealt with, that their rescue from Babylon is only a matter of time. Your hope depends utterly on the trustworthiness of the Lord’s promise.

Hope is about the now and not yet of our salvation, about the Lord’s coming. This is a hope grounded on the promises of God, to forgive our sins and deliver us from our captivity. A hope grounded on the knowledge that the Lord is the good shepherd who longs to bring the strays home. Like the Israelites in Babylon, we live in that window of time between the promise and fulfilment. As we think about the situation of the Church universally and locally, as we continue to follow the sad developments in our country, it is easy to focus on the negatives: the crisis of division within the church, the rise of modernistic notions even among bishops, the rampant corruption in this country. It can all seem hopeless. But Isaiah challenges us to refocus. To look not at our circumstances, but to lift up our eyes and to behold this with the vision granted to us through the lenses of faith and hope, “Here is the Lord coming with power, His arm subduing all things to Him. The prize of His victory is with Him, His trophies all go before Him. He is like a shepherd feeding His flock, gathering lambs in His arms, holding them against His breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes." He's the King of Kings! The Lord of Lords! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Open your hearts to Him this Advent Season.  

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