I preached this sermon three years ago this week — we were hardly 3 months out from the pandemic which would shake up the world. I read it this week, hoping to steal from myself for this coming week’s sermon, but I found it was a word so closely woven to the time and place in which it was first given that I cannot hope to effectively reuse it. I share it here, now, as a marker of grief for the community I miss so dearly, and as a witness to the hope I still hold in Jesus Christ.
Delivered Advent 2, 2019, at St. Augustine’s Oak Cliff, in Dallas, Texas.
This past week, John Cleese accepted an award at the Texas Theater, just up on Jefferson Boulevard; he’s the British comedian behind Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, but my favorite thing about him, the quotation I call upon again and again in my life, is as his character Brian Stimpson in the movie Clockwise from 1986, he says: “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”
It’s not the despair that will get you down, not the depression and the darkness that will sock you in the gut. We’re so used to the dark, we’re so accustomed to evil, we’re so habituated into sin — it’s when hope breaks through and when joy bubbles up, and when peace descends, that we are undone, we are broken apart, we are rent asunder.
Last week I was teaching the little ones during the sermon, but I hear that Fr. Jordan preached on death and judgment — aren’t we glad he’s headed to full-time work at the diocese in two weeks?! — so this week, I’ll preach on hope. Which actually might be more brutal than death and judgment, if we take John Cleese seriously.
Both of us, Fr. Jordan and me, are taking ques from the history of our church and tradition — last week he tackled two of the “Four Last Things,” death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Standing in the ancient tradition of millenia, sermons and spiritual devotion often focuses on these end-of-life, end-of-time matters during the season of Advent, the season of waiting — waiting for God to come in flesh, waiting for God to come again and make all things right.
A more modern take on the four weeks of Advent is to focus on Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Sometimes, these have been interpreted as a capitulation to a squeamish and soft church that have lost their sense of urgency, of hard truth, and of austere devotion to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This pastel-tinged and sweet, fuzzy understanding of these virtues avoids the depth of these concepts — the real, fleshy, terrifying incarnation of God’s character in a man, Jesus, fully God, fully revealed of hope, peace, joy, and love, and fully man.
Advent, then, is a moment that calls us to stare back, to look full in the face, at the miracle and seeming impossibility of a life so transformed by these virtues that their identity is changed, his name is new, that she is a new creation. This happens through the slow and painful work of obedience and submission, or put another way, the work of constant, continunal openness to change, change in ones convictions, change in one’s lifestyle, change in one’s relationships, until the old is so far away as to be a different person altogether.
Isaiah picks up on this theme in our Old Testament lesson today; he’s speaking this message to a people who are in a precarious political situation, under an unjust king, divided against their brothers in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. These two parts of God’s people have taken opposite sides in a dispute with Assyria and Aram; Isaiah grieves for the people who are torn apart and who are being led into disaster. More than just lamenting, though, Isaiah trusts in hope that God will make all things right, will bring a good leader back to his people, and will somehow bring the divided family of God back together.
This poem that Isaiah delivers from the whisper of God in his ear and heart isn’t just about Jesus, which is the way we read it most often today, but was more immediately about Isaiah’s hope for the next king of his people, Hezekiah. History tells us that Isaiah’s hope was exactly realized in that man, Hezekiah, and the second part of the poem we read today hints that Isaiah himself might have started to realize that, too; as he talks about these age-old enemies, the snake and the baby, the wolf and the sheep, the calf and the lion, resting and playing not just side-by-side, but together, with one another. Isaiah describes an ultimate reunion, not just bringing together pieces of God’s people who have been divided politically into the Northern and Southern kingdoms at this point in Isaiah’s history, but bringing together created beings that have been enemies since the fall, since almost the very beginning. It’s a stunning image of hope.
And yet, what do we see when we look around us? What if we were to put a little calf into the lion enclosure in the Dallas zoo? I don’t expect that we would see them snuggling up against the cold, or grooming one another, unless it was the lion preparing his own meal. So what our eyes tell us when we look at the world, when we gaze around creation, when we experience death or when illness or infertility or poverty or anger and betrayal overcome us and our lives, is that despair is safer, darkness is more certain, at least we can count on evil, at least we know what to expect when we depend on sin.
I think that’s what John Cleese’s character is getting at. Hope is heartbreaking, because of when we see it fail in front of our eyes. And we see it fail so, so often — or at least this pessimist does. I see beloved friends with cancer, I struggle with the echoes of brokenness from my parents’ divorce when I was an infant, I watch poverty and addiction eat up children of God. It’s not the despair, it’s the hope that I can’t stand.
How can we expect, or hope for, anything different? How can we pretend that death doesn’t prowl and pounce and prey upon us? How can we imagine that we live in a world where we are not locked in darkness? It’s not the despair. It’s the hope that I can’t stand.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Isaiah (9:2) said that, too. In saying so, even as he’s realizing that the next guy in line for the throne probably won’t be the great redeemer that the people need, Isaiah is reaching forward, realizing as he says it, that God’s story and God’s timeline is bigger and longer and more complex and more full than any one group of people or any one piece of time.
Just as the glimmers of light blind us after we’ve become accustomed to the dark, stinging our eyes, and burning our senses; as a people who are surrounded by darkness, by sin, and by death, the hope indeed, is hard to stand. It is hard to believe, and it is hard to surrender to. But Isaiah tells his people, and tells us today, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,” that is, out of the heritage of the great King David — who wasn’t perfect either! And this shoot, who we read as Jesus, and who Isaiah hopes might be Hezekiah, and if not him, someone else who is so full of God’s presence that he might have “the spirit of the Lord” resting “on him,” this hoped-for rescuer will do what we, too, are called by Isaiah, and by God himself to do — look at verse 3 — “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”
We see the lion attacking the calf; we see addiction overcoming the will of our loved ones; we see cancer or illness or age wasting away the bodies of our friends; we see death prowl. But what our eyes see and what our ears hear is not the ultimate truth, is not the most trustworthy revelation, is not the reality of the kingdom of God.
And there’s a hint of it right here, my brothers and sisters, and it’s why we come to church each Sunday, to be reminded that what we see out there is not the final word, is not where our hope rests, is not the reality that we’re called to place our faith and hope in.
Look around you right now: the world tells us that people with different skin colors don’t belong together on Sunday mornings. That is not God’s reality. The Kingdom of God is made of all nations, and that is what happens here, at the foot of the cross, every Sunday morning.
The world tells us that your worth is based on what you produce, the money you make, or the art you create, or the investment you make in others, or the care you take of yourself. The Kingdom of God tells us that your age, your social standing, your marital status, your level of employment, your home address, your blood pressure reading, none of these things has any claim on your worth or your hope.
The worth of a person in the Kingdom of God is based on what God thinks of a person, and my brothers and sisters, hear the Good News of Hope: God gave his life for you. God thinks you are worth the price of his own life and breath. God’s love for you is so great, based on nothing but your existence, your creation, your breathing, that he would, and indeed, he did, die for you.
That is what we see here, it is the truth, it is our hope, and God is making those promises of his true in our midst, this very morning. Thanks be to God.
I often tell my son that life is so full of good and beautiful things that he could spend all his days contemplating only the world’s joys, each in succession, as if the only verse in the Bible were Philippians 4:8, and even then he would never see even a fraction of a percent of all the joy there is to see. I tell him also that the same is true for suffering and horror. There is no end or limit to atrocity, as the news reminds us daily. The great thing about life is that all the best things in life are here. The awful thing about life is that all the worst things in life are here too. “Why do bad things happen,” he asked me. I told him, because this is Earth. There is a place where bad things don’t happen, and that place is called Heaven. One day we’ll be in that place. Until then, we’re in this place. It’s not so bad here, really, except for the times when it is.
It’s easy to say, “This is what the world is like,” because no matter what you say, you’ll be right. The world is full of greed! That’s true. The world is full of generosity! That’s true too. The world is full of violence and the world is full of compassion. The world is full of sorrow and the world is full of laughter. It only depends where you’re looking. There is no need to dread terrible things; they are already here. Likewise there is no need to hope for joy; it is all around us. This is the world that God has made for us to be in for now. Miracle of miracles, there is an even better world to be hoped for one day! Until that day, I tell my son, let us treat this world as well as we can, let us be grateful for what it is, and above all let us not expect it to be something that it isn’t. That way lies despair.