Hope Springs Paradoxically

Random Thoughts

Like many of you I grew up with the two-year Lectionary cycle from the Book of Common Prayer, in which the Third Sunday of Advent was the Sunday on which we finally got to direct attention more specifically to the coming event – the birth of Jesus as a babe in Bethlehem. This is why the pink candle in the Advent Wreath sits in third place. For the last two Sunday’s we have focused on the coming of Jesus as Messiah in what I referred to last week as the trans-generational vision, a vision so clearly articulated by the prophet Isaiah in his dream of a future in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

This Sunday will be my last stint in the pulpit for a while. Next Sunday Canon Bill Rhodes gets to talk about what, half-consciously, I had been looking forward to talking about, i.e. the message of the Angel Gabriel to the young girl Mary about the coming birth of her son. I will be taking a short break between Christmas and New Year and Deacon Myra Kingsley will be sharing the Word on the 29th December. On the 5th January Father Troy Mendez, the incoming Dean of Trinity will be with us.

So it was with a little disappointment that I was jerked back to the reality of the three-year Ecumenical Lectionary which keeps the joyful Annunciation stuff to the last Sunday of Advent. This change, although a little unsettling, emphasizes the counter cultural message of the Church in a world. Around us the world has already virtually celebrated Christmas already with lights, trees and infuriating popular Christmas music. The rich repertoire of Advent music has been lost to our popular culture. Maybe it never noticed it. At least, I keep hoping for some traditional carols in place of endless Bing Crosby and his more contemporary ilk.

Well, one thing is for certain at Trinity, we are not lighting the pink candle today. It now needs to wait to the last Sunday of Advent. My residue of brain-dead Anglo-Catholicism balks at such a radical departure from tradition, yet it is only sensible to keep the consistency between Advent Wreath and Lectionary.

Today we jump way ahead from chapter 11 to chapter 35 in Isaiah. Last week, I referred to the dream Isaiah has during the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 715 BCE as a trans-generation vision. By this, I mean that it is as true now as it was then because even though much time as elapsed between 715 BCE and today, Isaiah’s words remain a pertinent reminder of the way the Kingdom of God plays with time. Historically speaking we stand after the events of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, through which God dramatically fulfills the promised in-breaking of the Kingdom.  Isaiah stand before them, nevertheless we are connected by this trans-generational vision because for us the Kingdom, while here, is still in the process of becoming, in the same sense as it was for Isaiah, a here, but not yet ,kind of thing.

Within the book of Isaiah we now jump some 200 years. While chapter 35 is a continuation of the vision of chapters 2-11, it’s not the same person speaking. Chapter 35 is the voice of the man scholars refer to as Second Isaiah. Second Isaiah, writing in the name of the great prophet 200 years and several generations earlier picks up the thread of the trans-generational vision in the midst of another crisis, this time the invasion by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. The Babylonians succeed where the Assyrians had earlier failed to capture Jerusalem. In 715 the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed. The southern Kingdom of Judah is spared only to fall victim to a similar fate in 597 BCE. Now, Jerusalem is destroyed and the southern Kingdom’s leaders taken into 50–60 years of exile in Babylon.

Second Isaiah, like his forerunner, is still speaking out of turn. He is still speaking against the grain of time. In the midst of impending crisis and this time doom, he still finds the voice to speak-out the dream of expectation. At the time of the prophecy this is a continuation of an expectation of improbable things[1]:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. … Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

Hope is a many paradoxical thing

Last week Matthew’s Gospel introduced us to the figure of John the Baptist. Today we jump forward seven verses to the time. Herod has imprisoned John and as John languishes helplessly in prison, he hears reports of the things Jesus is doing. John, in ordinary time is the cousin of Jesus. John in the trans-generational vision is the forerunner announcing the coming of the Messiah. John is deeply disillusioned by Jesus’ performance as Messiah. Jesus’ interpretation of what it means to usher in the reign of God is not at all what John is expecting. John’s message was a call to repentance with the promise of dire consequences for those who failed to heed the call. This is a message still much favored by religious figures who like to cast themselves in John’s image of the religious firebrand. His was an expectation of the Messiah as a mighty warrior returning to set things right.

John somehow gets word to his disciples telling them to go ask Jesus what on earth does he thinks he is doing? The accusation is barely veiled in the question: are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another? Jesus does not say to John’s disciples: you go tell John he can’t speak to me that way. Instead he asked them to go and tell John what they see and hear: that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Note that in answering John, Jesus is paraphrasing the prophecy of Second Isaiah we heard in the Old Testament lection for today: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. Jesus is clearly mindful here of the trans-generational vision of the coming of the Kingdom.

There is a sting in the tail of Jesus’ message to John for he ends it with: and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me. Jesus immediately affirms John’s importance in the trans-generational vision. John is more than a prophet, for he is Elijah come again. Jesus says that as human beings go, there is no-one more important than John the Baptist. Yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. The rebuke is clear. It’s a rebuke for John. Yet, it echoes down the trans-generational vision as a rebuke for you and me. Expectations for the coming of the Kingdom and the signs of its arrival are not necessarily in sync with one another.

For two weeks I have been quoting from a section from T.S. Eliot’s poem East Coker. In it Eliot reminds us that while hope is important, to hope necessarily will involve hoping for the wrong thing. It’s inevitable that as human beings we will latch onto a set of expectations that, like those of John the Baptist open us to the inevitability of disappointment and maybe even disillusionment. Like John our hopes are a projection only of what we already know. Because our expectations are so conditioned by our sense of the possible they are too limited to be accurate signs of the Kingdom’s coming. Remember Isaiah’s dream of the Kingdom is a dream of things manifestly improbable to any rational view of things. The result of our disillusionment is that like for John, Jesus becomes for us a source of offence.

Living in the paradox of hope and the coming of the Kingdom

I arose on Saturday morning around 5.30am to begin to put some thoughts to electronic paper in preparation for Sunday’s sermon. As I made coffee I switched on the radio. Alongside urgent reports on Christmas shopping trends, the NPR end of year pledge drive urging me to take advantage of the tax code because of course, I require financial compensation for any acts of generosity; there was a further report on the situation in Syria. As if the unspeakable brutality of the civil war were not enough, the weather is now conspiring to increase the burden of misery for the refugees, poorly clothed and house in the face of freezing conditions. My automatic response was to be filled with a sense of futility that compounds my guilt along with my sense of helplessness. In the face of such terrible suffering, not only in Syria and Iraq, but also currently in sub-Saharan and central Africa, and the anniversary of the slaughter of the innocents of Sandy Hook being marked by more gun violence in Colorado, I want to cry out: God, what on earth do you think you are doing? How can I hope for the coming of the Kingdom when everywhere I look I see signs that confirm the futility of such a hope. In my disillusionment Jesus the Messiah becomes a source of offence to me.

Expectation verses hope

My expectations have often been disappointed in life. My expectations often have turned out not only to be wrong, but too limited. Events have come about which have been so much richer and more fulfilling than anything I could have dreamed of if left to bring about only the contents of my own imagination. As I reflect on this in the light of my expectations of the kingdom I have to acknowledge that my sense of time frame is too limited. Like John I want to see what I expect to see, and I want to experience its fulfillment now! As I look back over my experience I can see a crucial distinction between what I shall call expectations and something else, which is more properly hope.

Hope is not the fulfillment of my optimism to come to directly experience the truth that things will be all-right in the end. Yet hope is, that things will be all-right in the end! In the meantime as my life journeys towards that ultimate realization I move from moment to moment propelled by more limited expectations, some of which are fulfilled while many others open me to repeated disappointment. Despite disappointment, even disillusionment, the long-term direction of my travel continues guided by the compass setting of hope.

How do we keep the long-term direction of travel fixed on the compass setting of hope? We do so as we come to see that the direction of travel set by hope is not detoured by disappointed expectations along the way. Paradoxically, it is fed and strengthened by repeated disappointment and disillusionment. Hope is the projection of longing born of two things. The first is faith. The Letter to the Hebrews explains faith as the realization of things as yet unseen. We trust and believe in developments and outcomes, which we cannot yet imagine. The second thing is dogged perseverance born out of our sense of loss and grief. Through perseverance fueled by a desire for things to be different we courageously act in the present time by performing acts of love, taking steps in solidarity with others, one act and one step at a time.

Word and action out-of-place

Isaiah’s vision of the Messiah goes against the grain of reasonable expectation.  It’s a word out-of-place. Jesus performed the signs of the Kingdom and these failed to realize John’s Hebrew, messianic desire for liberation from oppression. As Jesus tells the crowds, great though John is, his expectations precede the arrival of the Kingdom.

We are those who come after the in-breaking of the Kingdom event for Jesus is the Messiah. At one level, things don’t appear to have changed much. Yet, to be Christian is to believe that everything has changed. For within the reign of the Kingdom through our actions, our embodiment of the word and action that is out-of-place, our hopes and dreams ultimately contribute to its emerging. The fruits of Christian history are not as the cynics claim a legacy of hate and war. Those are endemic to the human condition, which when unredeemed is to act from fear and the hardness of heart. The fruits of Christian history are the advances of compassion and justice into a world, which in Jesus’ time knew neither. We may complain that its emergence is slow, but it is also unstoppable.

I keep reminding us that we have a part to play in the interpretation of the trans-generation vision of Isaiah in our own time. Our part is to take our place as baptized members of the community that continually speaks the word out-of-place, and acts against the grain of societal expediencies.

One of the great early figures of the anti-slavery movement was a woman named Sojourner Truth, a brilliant and indomitable slave woman who could neither read nor write but who was passionate about ending unjust slavery and second-class treatment of women. At the end of one of her antislavery talks in Ohio, a man came up to her and said, “Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good? Do you suppose people care what you say? Why, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea”.“Perhaps not”, she answered, “but, the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching”.

Barbara Lundblad commenting on this passage notes we must be determined and persistent fleas…Enough fleas biting strategically can make the biggest dog uncomfortable.  And if they flick some of us off but even more of us keep coming back with our calls, emails, visits, nonviolent direct action protests, and votes —we’ll win.[2] 

In Advent let our hope be encouraged by being taking our part in the unfolding of the trans-generational visions for the coming of the Kingdom. Along side Sojourner Truth, over a century later the theologian Paul Tillich wrote: that for which we long for into the future already conditions who we have become in the present. In the context of hope, the psychologist Alice Miller wrote: we are already who we have been waiting for. And the poet T.S. Eliot reminds us continually that although the human-conditioned objects of our hoping and loving will often be misdirected, hoping and loving come to ultimate fruition in the faithfulness of our waiting.

[2] cited by Barbara Lundblad, who is the Joe R. Engle Associate Professor of Preaching
Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1941

2 thoughts on “Hope Springs Paradoxically

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  1. Our daughter, Anneliese Mougharbel, loved attending the Cathedral in Phoenix. Now, separated from her husband Abed, she moved to Portland, Maine in September, and attends nearby St.Albans church in S. Portland. She sent us your website early in November. I forwarded your 1. Advent sermon to our Rector, Fr. David Peck at St. James in Lancaster PA. He responded saying “a real theologian, very thought provoking”. He is also a very good theologian!
    George & Inge Murphy

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