Isaiah 64:1-4, 8-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Advent: A Time to Wonder (Who “They” Will Be?) 12.13.20
I know…..it’s the 3rd week of Advent and some of you are waiting for me to turn the corner toward Christmas but the lectionary readings from Isaiah have been calling out to me this year, and by the end of this sermon I promise I’ll get there.
For the last two weeks we stood with the ancient Israelites after they had been conquered by the Babylonians and sent into exile. It was a rough period for them, but one for which they came to hold themselves responsible.
Today’s text comes from a time later. After 70 years in exile they were able to start return home….back to Israel…to the place they had dreamed of returning to one day…but as is often the case the reality of returning home didn’t turn out to be all they had hoped or expected.
Actually, that’s kind of always the case, isn’t it? Going home rarely lives up to one’s expectations. Things change. People change. Times change. You really can’t go home again.
Once again today we are faced with people who really hurting. . .and the prophet Isaiah is trying to comfort a disheartened people. He is preaching a sermon intended to give them hope…to inspire and rouse them…this was no time to rain fire and brimstone upon them. He tells them that he has been anointed by God to bring good news to the oppressed, the heart-broken…to the captives and the prisoners…and to all who are in mourning. “Do not be discouraged. Hear the promise of God…better days are coming. Have faith in God. Don’t give up hope.”
And what is the basis of hope?
There is a sudden shift in the text here. The prophet suddenly switches from talking to them to talking about some unknown “they.” All of a sudden he is speaking in the third person. . .”they”.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.O….
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
They they they…yes…but who are “they?” The prophet doesn’t say leaving his audience and US to wonder who “they” are.
Sooooo…. did any of you read the book or see the movie, “The Neverending Story?” It’s supposed to be a story for childen, but like all great children’s literature it speaks to all ages and I think it is helpful here.
It’s about an 11 year old boy named Bastian who is doing poorly in school, and being picked on by his peers. He’s pretty messed up as his mother had recently died and his father is coping with the loss by plunging himself into his work. Bastian, on the other hand, is dealing with life by immersing himself in books, especially fantasy books.
One day Bastian comes upon a very old book in a used book store called The Neverending Story. The owner of the bookstore warns him that he probably won’t like the book – “After all it’s not like those safe books that you usually read,” he tells Bastian. “Reading this book is risky”…which of course makes the book all the more intriguing to Bastian.
Bastian takes the book, hides himself away in his attic, opens the book, and starts to read. And now we start a story within the story.
Bastian’s book takes place in the land of Fantasia and we learn that Fantasia is in trouble – something is devouring the entire world – something called “The Nothing”. Empowered by despair and the loss of dreams “The Nothing” is sucking up all that is. The Empress of Fantasia tells the people that their only hope is a boy warrior named Atrayu.
The story proceeds with Atrayu’s adventures as he seeks the knowledge necessary to battle The Nothing. He struggles through the swamp of sorrows, visits the Ancient One, and travels to the Southern Oracle.
It is a wonderful adventure that completely captures the imagination of that 11 year old Bastian back in the attic, who is reading the story.
But there’s one thing that is very very strange about this story. As Bastian sits in the attic reading, occasionally, at a particularly frightening part, Bastian cries out – something like, “Look out!!!” and when he does that the characters in the book turn their heads and look around.
“Huh??? What was that?” they ask.
Bastian is understandably confused. “What in the world is going on here?” But he keeps on reading.
Then one day Atrayu is standing before a mirror which supposedly reveals a person’s true self – he looks, and for a second he actually sees Bastian – Bastian in the attic reading the book – and Bastian realizes he is being seen. Frightened, he slams the book shut – but then slowly he overcomes his fear, opens the book again, and reads on.
That’s when the story starts to include references to a mortal boy.
Things are looking very bleak in Fantasia – The Nothing is taking over more and more. Atrayu feels he has failed, but the Empress tells him that he hasn’t failed at all – that it was really only a mortal boy who could help. “But I failed to find a mortal boy,” Atrayu cries out in despair.
“No you haven’t” says the Empress. You have brought him along with you.
And Bastian, sitting in the attic reading the story, realizes that he is that mortal boy and he is absolutely terrified.
Then the Empress speaks to him directly – “Bastian, please. Help us. All you have to do is call out my name,” she says. “Please Bastian. Just say the name.” But Bastian is too afraid and Fantasia continues to disappear.
But finally he summons the courage and he does it – he speaks her name – and the moment he speaks it, he is fully drawn into the story and the land of Fantasia begins to be reborn. The power of the NOTHING starts to fade. He discovers new life and new power. Bastian becomes a hero.
It is a wonderful story…a story about a story that isn’t just a story.
It’s a story about a story that calls out to the reader…that invites their engagement.
Which of course leads me back to Isaiah and that “they.” Who are they…the oaks of righteousness who will build and repair? Could THEY be us…the ones who are reading this. Is Isaiah calling out to us to be the repairers of the ancient ruins and the rebuilders of the city? Is Isaiah inviting us into the Neverending Story of our ancient faith?
In fact isn’t the entire Bible an invitation to become part of the story of God’s people? Doesn’t every biblical story come with an RSVP at the bottom? Respondez sil vous plait? Will you be part of it?
So right now we are preparing to once again focus on the story of Jesus’ birth. I told you I’d get there. It is a great story…replete with angels and kings, and shepherds….where Caesar’s armies are devouring the whole known world…. and yet a young woman and her carpenter husband who married her in spite of the very suspicious circumstances of her pregnancy…are to give birth to an enfleshed holiness so holy he has the capacity to save the world from the NOTHINGNESS that is threatening to destroy it.
Listen to the story!
The angels…like Isaiah….THEY come and proclaim good news of great joy to the marginalized and the poor.
The shepherds…they are out in the field and they are roused by the possibility that something new and remarkable was happening and they went…they went to see.
The Innkeeper…he figures out a way to house this little family of refugees.
The Kings….they lay their wealth at the feet of this poor little family.
And Joseph, faced with an unexpected pregnancy…believes the woman when she shares what happened to her and he embraces her and cherishes the unexpected gift they are given….
and Mary…Mary stands tall upon the ground of her truth and her value no matter what the world might say of her.
All these characters…all of THEM…THEY ALL have a crucial role to play…and for those who are listening carefully a voice cries out from the story….who will THEY be now? Who will announce? Who will have hope? Who will make room? Who will share their wealth? Who will believe the woman? And who will stand strong upon the promise of God that the new life growing inside of her is a gift.
Who will “they” be? Is this story inviting us to become a part of it? Will we step into the story or will we just stand by while a great NOTHINGNESS of human hopelessness and despair overcome us and a great darkness descends on our world.
So I wonder, will we read these stories as passive observers…or will we hear our names being called out from its pages and step into the Neverending Story of our faith.
Respondez sil vous plait!