Main text Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Advent is a time that refocuses our attention on the spiritual virtue of hope. Hope is the universal aspiration of the human heart. Regardless of differences in the imagined outcome -hope is a universal of the human spirit.
I’ve mentioned before that one of my fatalistic Irish grandmother’s sayings was don’t hope- never be disappointed. This saying captures that quality of risk inherent in hope. To hope is to risk wanting – and wanting raises the possibility of disappointment. But my grandmother’s expression, while it captures our fear of risk, it nonetheless misses the essential point about hope. Hope’s not primarily a picture of a longed-for future – realizable or not. Hope is the compass setting that establishes a direction of travel in the present.
You see, hope is not a future dream – although much of human hope is couched in this way. Hope is primarily an expectation for the present. Don’t hope -never be disappointed is not simply a protection against future disappointment it’s a severe limitation on present time possibility.
We are the ones we have been waiting for is a saying the origin of which has multiple attributions. We are the ones we have been waiting for is however the title of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book about which Alice Walker has said:
We are the ones we have been waiting for because we live in an age in which we are able to see and understand our own predicament. With so much greater awareness than our ancestors – and with such capacity for insight, knowledge, and empathy – we are uniquely prepared to create positive change within ourselves and our world.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for was also used by Barak Obama – not to indicate that he or his administration were necessarily the ones desperately awaited but that present generations of our society have the potential to really change American society’s direction of travel towards an – as yet – unrealized future.
Sustaining hope is a lifetime’s work. Advent invites us to refocus on this task of sustaining hope in a world that tends often – like my grandmother’s saying – to play up the risk of hope’s disappointment.
We can see the tension played out in the book of the Prophet Isaiah between hope as a longed-for future expectation and hope as the invitation to open to present time possibility. The book of Isaiah begins around 740 BCE when the figure known as First Isaiah begins to prophesy and ends in the mid 650’s BCE with the prophecies of Third Isaiah – The combined prophecies of First, Second, and Third Isaiah form the mainstay of Advent’s O.T. lessons. On Advent Sunday, picking up on Third Isaiah’s plaintiff cry: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence, I posed the question: in Advent what are we waiting for, and why are we still waiting? I noted that the answer was too complex for one sermon and I promised to return to the question.
Third Isaiah’s cry: why God are you too long in fulfilling your promises – is certainly a complaint we can identify with. But the problem here lies in the nature of expectation. Third Isaiah’s complaint is an expectation of a God who dwells outside of human affairs and is required from time to time to swoop in to rescue us from our folly. Yet, in the book of Isaiah we find the earlier voice – that of First Isaiah, writing some 200 years prior to Third Isaiah anticipates God’s arrival not as an all-powerful – God who rescues us – but as Emmanu-El –literally, God is with us.
The implications of First Isaiah’s expectation of God as Emmanu-El – is of a God who has come not to rescue us and take us out of the mess of our own creation, but as a God who enters into the mess of the world alongside us: to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
At the heart of our Christian faith is the realization that in the birth of Jesus, the Creator, hitherto dwelling outside of creation – now enters to dwell within the tent of the creation. In the Incarnation God comes to be with us. However, the birth of Jesus is only the beginning.
Although not the gospel appointed for Advent 3, Luke’s chapter 4 show us the adult Jesus on entering the synagogue, reading First Isaiah’s words: the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. His audience’s familiarity with these words as future promise give way to astonishment and then to anger as he tells them that: today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. They react badly to being told to forget about the future, and open their eyes to see that things are really happening now. In Jesus, hope has come as the challenge for change in the present time and his first act inaugurating his ministry.
We are the ones we have been waiting for focuses our attention firmly on the present time in which hope is not a future dream but a present-time activity. Of course, there is a hidden irony here. Writing of Obama’s use of the phrase in the Atlantic Magazine, Andrew Sullivan wrote:
But I think some have missed a nuance. The phrase is actually a self-indictment as well as a self-congratulation. The point is surely that we shouldn't wait for someone else to save us, or lift us up, or fix our problems or address our fate.
What are we waiting for and why are we still waiting? Maybe this is not the question after all.
The great 20th -century theologian Paul Tillich wrote:
the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait.
On Advent 3 we arrive at a different question from the one I posed on Advent 1. What are we waiting for becomes who are we waiting for? Allowing for an appropriate sense of humility, if we are not to be the ones we have been waiting for – then who will be?