March 20, 2022
Our second reading today is from the prophet Isaiah. These words of hope are directed at a people who have been in exile in Babylon. It’s been a dark time. Jerusalem has been destroyed. The Temple along with it. This exile in Babylon has gone on for decades. New generations have been born knowing only exile. Some of the people have been able to hold onto their Jewish culture and faith… while others… have not. But now… now there is hope. There is hope that this exile is coming to an end… light is shining in the darkness. There is hope that the people might yet be transformed into God’s vision for them. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you.
Hope. It’s one of those tricky words. We all hope. We hope for. We hope in. We hope that. Sometimes we even hope against hope. We can hope for the impossible. We can hope for the best. We put our hope in individuals, systems, and institutions. We put our hopes in dreams and visions. We hope in things seen and unseen. We have hopes fulfilled and hopes dashed. What drives our hopes often reveals the people we are becoming.
For these people in exile so long ago… so long ago in terms of years but maybe not so long ago in terms of shared human experience… for these people in exile so long ago… their hopes were many. Some of those hopes were fueled by those who remembered… those who remembered and told the stories of how it used to be… told the stories of their great heroes and their doings… stories of David and Moses and Abraham... stories of a God who spoke directly to them and who guided and formed a people through the law… a God who inspired a small people through eternal covenants to believe that they were chosen… and that they had a purpose for their being. Hope built on a promise that… while not coming to be in the blink of an eye… gave direction for character… and challenge to believe and live as though there was more beyond the forces of exile.
Those words of hope have become our theological language… our way of expressing our own hope… trusting in the eternal steadfast love of God even as darkness grows and fills hearts. Even as wars and new opportunities for cruelty and apathy sprout forth.
However… we have to remember that the hope in God’s eternal steadfast love and the purpose that love gave to God’s people… this was not the only form of hope in that day… or now. Others in exile found hope in their desire for revenge that grew from their anger as a conquered people… a people who felt they had no control over their destiny. They hoped in the day when their captors would get what was coming to them… not just their captors, but the surrounding nations who had taken advantage of them in their weakness. They hoped in the day when their enemies would be laid low and destroyed… when the wrath of God would come down upon their heads and wipe them from the face of the earth… when justice would be swift and severe. This hope was just as powerful as the hope that came from telling the old stories… the hope that came from theological introspection and reflection… all looking toward the restoration by God that was surely coming. Would it come through wrath or would it come through mercy?
There was no one single way of hope for those who had believed they were in exile because of the sins of their ancestors who had turned away from God… who had embraced worldly idols and other gods… who had not followed the ways God had put before them… but had taken their being chosen as a privilege to be exploited for their own advantage… in the same way they exploited the poor for their own advantage and did not take care of the weakest of their brothers and sisters. The prophets of the time before the exile… before the destruction brought by Babylon… those prophets warned the people… warned them of what would become of them if they continued to turn away from the ways of God… if they continued to embrace their greed and self-interest. But the people had not heeded the word of those prophets… putting their hope instead in walls and wealth… in armies and kings. Only to be destroyed by kings who had more… more wealth and more armies to overwhelm and break through the walls they thought would always protect them.
Prophets in the time of exile now spoke to and through the whole range of the people’s hopes. From the violent and the anticipated wrath to come… to Isaiah and his words that envisioned a different future… a future not built upon violence or our acts of cruelty toward our neighbor. Isaiah spoke of a transformative hope… of waters that would quench every thirst and satisfy. The return home… he would tell the people… would be so full of transformative hope that the land itself would be remade as they made their way back to Jerusalem and the Promised Land. The mountains would be laid low. The low places would be lifted up. And the whole of the wilderness would become a wondrous oasis. Even these people who had had everything taken away from them… these people who had been ridiculed and afflicted… even the suffering of these chosen people of God would be transformed… and from their suffering they would be made into a great beacon of light showing the righteousness and the justice of God to all peoples. These people who had nothing would be made great… great through faith… great in the ways of God. Peoples from all lands would see the greatness and glory of their God in these higher ways in which they lived together… lifting all… loving all… making the least of those among them, the greatest in God. And those stories of old… those everlasting covenants would now be made with the people themselves… covenants that the people would live out daily with the goodness and the graciousness of the law now written upon their hearts.
What wonderful words of hope. Yet, if we turn our eyes to history, we will see how quickly these words were forgotten… as the people fell back into the old ways of the world. Isaiah’s words of hope would not come to define God’s chosen people at that time. God’s people would embrace again the hope of walls and wealth… of armies and kings. They would squabble and vie for power among themselves. They would be subjugated again and again by powers greater than themselves. The hope of violence and trusting in God’s impending wrath would come to define them… not the hope of transformative grace.
Until Jesus came… and in him some people exiled in a broken world saw again the hope… the transformative hope that Isaiah spoke of to those people in exile of long ago. “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy upon them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Christ is the embodiment of this transformative hope… open to all who thirst and hunger for righteousness. The heavenly food he brought… he gave freely to those without money… inviting them to come and to eat and to taste what was good. To drink the water of life and never thirst again. Jesus walked the way of the prophets who had called for mercy in the world… he spent his time among the weakest of the world… the poor and the outcast. Jesus gave the message of repentance… of returning to God… and of embracing God’s kingdom… a kingdom establishing Isaiah’s hope. And that message would go out to peoples beyond those called chosen. In the story of Christ, all peoples could see the transformative hope of God’s glory… transforming suffering and death into release and freedom from the bondage of sin.
Saints, where is transformative hope to be found today? I’ve been thinking and talking this morning in big broad categories and concepts. Maybe here towards the end I need to bring things in and make them more personal. Because today… today we baptized a child… not an act of ritual, but an act of hope in God’s tomorrow. What is an infant but possibility and unadulterated hope in a tiny little package? The future is unwritten and wide open. In that moment of baptism, we let our hearts soften and open without conditions. This child is a gift… a magnificent and wonderous gift. And all our questions boil down to this… will you continue to love this child throughout their whole life as you love them in this instant? Isn’t that how God’s sees… how God loves? Will you feed this child what is good? Will you nourish this child with God’s steadfast love so that they may grow in grace? Will you set an example through your own faith… through your own path of discipleship… following the teachings of Jesus as you make choices in your own lives? Will you show… through your own humility… your awareness of your own stumbling and failings… and happily share your own struggles in life as you try to live by the example of God’s mercy? Will you give glory to God in your imperfection… employing the gifts of the Spirit as you are able… being an active part of a community in Christ… being that example to this child of that real Christian with an integrated faith of both belief and experience? Will you be this… wherever your life takes you… and so nourish this child… wherever their life takes them? Will you live into such hope and be the church that is being called into existence… because our promises to this child are our promises of discipleship to the world.
Tell the stories. Remember and tell the stories of scripture. And like the exiles of old, don’t just repeat the stories but let them speak to us afresh. Let their inspiration lead us forward towards daring to hope once again. Challenge the faith and let it speak to us in the now. Isaiah would speak of God doing a new thing among those exiles of long ago. Have we come to believe God no longer does new things among God’s chosen people? Do we believe God has finally given up on us? Or do we still believe God is alive and active and is still calling God’s people to himself?
Saints, we all hope. What drives our hope reveals who we are becoming. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” So says the Lord our God. Amen.