Preparing in Hope
The wisest pastor I’ve ever known once said that every Christian should take Communion at least two times a year: Christmas and Easter. I’ve always thought there was a lot of wisdom in that idea. We’re often too busy to really meditate on the mystery that is the Christian Faith, the paradox of the God who come to us in the elements of bread and wine, the God who comes into the world in Bethlehem’s baby, the God who dies and raises from the dead at Easter. As a pastor, I’ve gone out of my way to make sure the communion table is extended to everyone at Christmas and Easter, especially those who can’t travel or are sick.
This year, that has taken me into the lives of several people in transition. Folks who have moved from familiar homes into new settings. Some of them were enjoying new friends and new adventures, but a few of them were troubled and missed the things they left behind. The reason I was there was to let them know that they haven’t been forgotten, that they were missed and what they left was waiting for them. I was there to bring hope. Lots of people in the hospital this year. Some moving through quickly, their bodies strong and full of energy. Others, were struggling with the obstacles in front of them, worried that they would never perhaps return to full health. For those, the celebration of the Lord’s supper brings the hope of the God who knows our weakness, or struggles, our sorrows. The God who journeys with us. My task in those rooms is to bring hope.
Hope, even if it is the hope of God coming to our aid, is brought to us by people. He hope because someone is there to remind us of hope, to encourage us to hope, to tell us the stories of the God who delivers the hopeless and the forgotten. Hope comes in human form. That is an essential part of the Christmas story: the God who expresses hope in the baby in Bethlehem.
This morning, I would like to look at three people who brought hope in the Book of Isaiah. By their very presence, these people remind us that the God of Abraham is a God who delivers, who rescues, who saves; that is by definition a God of hope.
Even if you can’t find the book of Isaiah in your Bible, you know about Isaiah 7:14:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
The instrument of hope, the child named Immanuel, was born at a time of particular trouble for Israel. A great nation from the north, the Assyrians, were gathering. They were sweeping away anything in their path, and Jerusalem was the next “thing” on their path. God tells Isaiah to go to the king of Judah and tell him that God was about to give him a sign. Something visible, something tangible. A child, and infant would be born. The land wouldn’t be decimated, the people wouldn’t be destroyed. A baby would be born, and that baby would remind the nation of the God of hope.
Too often we think Isaiah’s word pointed directly to the New Testament and to Jesus as Matthew applies them. Let me suggest however that the sign given to King Ahaz and the nation of Judah was flesh and blood in their time and their place. In fact, the promised child would be the offspring of the Prophet Isaiah himself, and we learn about him the identity of Immanual in the next chapter:
And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the child knows how to call “My father” or “My mother,” the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria.
The sign, the sign that God was with the nation of Judah, was this baby. Immanuel had a name in the book of Isiah, Maher-shalai-hash-baz which mean something like “the prey hastens.” The birth of the baby in the eight century gave hope to a people very much in need of hope in the eight century, as the birth of the infant in Bethleham in the first century would be a sign of God’s presence and an instrument of hope. The Assyrians might being chaos to the entire world to the north, but this child will be born and will grow up in Judah. This was God’s promise to king Ahaz through Isaiah, and the presence of the child brought hope to the nation in a very dark time.
Many of you played a part in the neighborhood Christmas project we wrapped up this week. We asked Kinyon elementary for the names of five families that would struggle this Christmas season without some help. They gave us six families. Here are some pictures of the gifts we gathered and took out last week to these six families. A couple of thing really caught my eye as I looked over the collection of gifts and food we took to the families. First, we bought way more clothes and shoes than we bought toys and candy. Hope very often looks like a pair of waterproof shoes or a warm shirt.
It was life-changing to get to be a part of delivering the gifts on Wednesday night. The families were our neighbors, people all around us. They had very individual stories but they were all having a tough time right now. The skeptic in me wants to ask if we did anything perminant, did we really change anything for them or did we just paper over the holiday season. I think rather than bringing clothes or toys or food, what we brought was hope. In our going out, we shared a bit of ourselves with them, and they with us. We clearly pointed to the God of hope and wholeness who’s deisre for the whole of creation and for each part of the creation is to know both peace and abundance. For those families, we were Immanual, we were God with Us, we were the sign.
Isaiah 45 introduces a second person who brought hope to the nation of Israel:
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him— and the gates shall not be closed:
This is Cyrus, the great Persian king who conquered Babylon and thereby became ruler of the lands of Judah and Israel. He wasn’t a Jewish king, he wasn’t as far as we know a monotheist. But he was the anointed instrument of hope for the people of Israel.
For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.
Cyrus represented a different way of treating conquered people. By virtue of transferring from a people held in exile by Babylon to a people held in exile by the Persians, the God of Israel delivered his people. The Persians had no interest in taking people into exile. They vastly preferred to let conquered people remain in their homeland and simply pay tribute to the Persian king. God delivered the people of God through Cyrus. He was God’s anointed.
I was part of a facilitating conversation this week about what the coming year might bring for the church. As congress turns its attention from tax reform and begins to look at reforming things like Medicare, Medicaid and social security, that begins to touch on some of the things with which we’re involved. As I listened, I heard a lot of uncertainty as though changes in discretionary spending might directly impact the church. We have a very real tendency in the US to view our political narrative through very private eyes. By that, I mean that when the government pursues priorities or policies with which we agree, we tend to see God at work. When we disagree, we tend to see, well not God at work. But if Isaiah can look at Cyrus and see God’s anointed, if he can look and see God working through this most heathen of kings, then surely God can work through whomever happens to control the levers of power. What will the church do if Washington pursues entitlement reforms? We will do the same thing that we are always supposed to be doing, caring for the widows, the orphans and the strangers among us. We’re not in the governing business, we’re in the declaration and demonstration of God in our world business. If God can work through Cyrus king of Pursia, then God can work through anyone who happens to be the government of the day in any particular nation or time.
The final person who brought hope to God’s people in the book of Isaiah is unnamed. The final part of Isaiah’s message is about restoration; what God would do for God’s people after days of judgment and darkness. The turn from judgment to restoration would take place through a person, someone anointed, chosen and equipped by the God of Israel to a very specific task:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
In a world of people who were broken, wounded, bound captive and help prisoner, this anointed one brings God’s promise of resortation. This was one of Jesus’ favorite passages. In Luke 4 when Jesus was at his home synagogue and he took his turn reading from the Torah, he choose to read from Isaiah 61: he was the anointed one who had good news. When John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus asking whether he was God’s Messiah, or should they look for another, Jesus answered
And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.
The God of Abraham, the God of Israel, the God revealed by Jesus is the God who gives us hope: hope that we will know God’s peace and God’s wholeness, hope that God can and will deliver us from and through, hope in the resurrection and the life to come. But the God of hope comes to us through people. In the Old Testament and in the time of Isaiah, that hope came through Immanuel, through Cyrus and through the anointed messenger. As we prepare for God’s coming this Advent season, we need top stop and ask: are we looking for God’s hope expressed through people.