Sunday, December 7, 2008

Lead Gently

Lead Gently

copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder
Second Sunday in Advent: December 7, 2008

Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

Of the scripture to be proclaimed over the four Sundays of Advent, this is one passage that seems custom-made for those who may be spending their pre-Christmas days wishing they could go to sleep tonight and not wake up until December 26th, those for whom the word “Christmas” and all it brings to mind are just misery stacked on hopelessness. It is a prophecy for those who dread encountering Currier & Ives Christmas scenes of happy hearths in comfortable homes where families love each other in perfect harmony, those who want to weep for the ways in which their Christmas will fall so miserably short of that unrelenting vision.

This is a section of prophecy in Isaiah that recalls the desperate and hopeless plight of the Chosen People in exile. To give it a modem twist — since the geography is virtually the same — it is as if the prophet identified completely with suffering exiles in Iraq, in the very same kingdom where several thousand years ago, the remains of the nation of Israel withered away by the banks of the rivers of Babylon and longed for Zion.

This is the sort of desperation and hopelessness that Isaiah understood when, even as God called him to prophesy comfort to his people, he cried out what any homecoming queen can tell you when she looks at her corsage three weeks after the big event, “All flesh is grass...the grass withers, the flower fades.” The Chosen People were caught up in the temporary nature of human life, began to see their destiny as entirely controlled by the transience that governs human life in general. Just like countless nations before and after them — like once mighty Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome, Nazi Germany — they were a once-great nation that was destined to perish: all flesh is grass.

We know the feeling, most of us. And if we don’t know it yet, there will come a day when we will. Even though we may have known halcyon days when we were part of perfect families that gathered for perfect holidays — may know such days even now — we also know how true it is that such experiences do not last. Perhaps more often than we care to admit we live in fear of the day when we will awaken to realize that an end of warm and happy home scenes has come true for us. In the final analysis, the fleeting nature of happy days often does not make them seem more precious — as we might like to think — but all the more depressing for their transience. A child, once the joy of our hearts, now perished and gone; a home, which once rang with the voices of aunts, uncles and cousins, now relentlessly silent in their absence; a set of bedrooms in a home, once filled with children and pre-Christmas bustle and excitement, now silent; a career which once offered such promise, now lying in tatters as we turn in despair to see about picking up the pieces. All this while everyone around us seems to be singing “tidings of comfort and joy”. What comfort? What joy? Why not depression instead?

“Comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her period of conscription has ended, her iniquity is forgiven.”

No wonder Isaiah balked at this command and tried to remind God that people are like grass, nations are like flowers that grow, blossom, then fade away. We may be so accustomed to hearing this beautiful passage in connection with Christmas and the singing of the music of Handel’s Messiah that we forget that it is a thoroughly Old Testament word. It is a word addressed to real people suffering real hardship; a people for whom the Messiah had not yet come. It is a word for people longing to regain the sort of balance John Calvin was thinking of when he wrote that there are two great sins of humanity: one is to presume too much, and the other is to despair too much. The truth seems to lie in that thin line between the two extremes.1

While we may live in an age of presumption which supposes that human wisdom and technology will overcome every stumbling block, the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah had been in darkness, had veered away from presumption and were nearly given over entirely to despair. It was the deepest darkness we can imagine. And into that darkness came the word. Though the grass withers, the flower fades,

one thing remains.

Nine words save the next fifteen chapters of Isaiah from being a despairing rehash of the suffering and laments of Job, transforming this prophecy instead into a towering testament of faith:

but the word of our God will stand forever.

I think it is marvelous that in granting this prophecy to Isaiah God did not attempt to erase the experience of the people. It nowhere says that your suffering does not exist, that your experience is not real, God does not deny the reality of the hardships we can experience, our causes for despair. Isaiah was called simply to declare that on top and underneath and all around the ever-changing realities of this world — both good and bad — there is something which stands, something which persists, something which lives on, something which cannot be defeated.

The word of God does not depend on Israel; Israel depends on the word of God. We can replace the name, “Israel” with any other name, and the sentence works just as well:

  • The word of God does not depend on Rob; Rob depends on the word of God.
  • The word of God does not depend on Mountain View Presbyterian Church; Mountain View Presbyterian Church depends on the word of God.
  • The word of God does not depend on the good we can do; the good we can do depends on the word of God.
  • The word of God does not depend on the Dow Jones average; the Dow Jones average depends on the word of God...

Remember what Israel had lost: land, nation, king, temple and the worship that took place there. All of it was lost brutally, finally. Even so, without any of the physical features of that which makes a people — land, government, temple — they still retained the word of God. Not a word as merely some words collected in a book, but the living Word of God to which a book may testify, but which, like the person of Jesus, has a life of its own.

Advent moves us toward Christmas well only if it moves us closer and closer to a recognition of our complete neediness before God. We are made increasingly ready for Christmas only if Advent makes us increasingly aware that in the midst of all the transitoriness of life, all the contingencies which are forever stripping us of that which we had hoped would last forever, there stands the abiding and purposeful Word of God, which the carol says is “now in flesh appearing.” It is the sort of truth which caused John to reflect in the opening of his gospel, “In the beginning was the word....” There is something about God’s Word that goes beyond words, beyond books containing words, proceeding directly and unmistakably into life as we live it.

If it reminds us of anything. Advent reminds us that Christmas brings us not just one more nice feature among many other wonderful aspects of our faith but the single fact that saves us, the child who came in time to save the day, Jesus — word made flesh — without whom all was lost and irrecoverable. God is not silent, absent, uncaring. Quite the contrary. God is one who does for his people as outlined in the four verbs in the 11th verse: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. God feeds, gathers, carries, and gently leads.

The watchfulness of Advent implies this kind of care, the care of a nourishing, gathering, carrying, gentle leading God who provides that ultimate hope which we cannot provide for ourselves out of our own passing strength.

One last thing I remember asking of myself when I read this passage from Isaiah. I have a passing acquaintance with Old Testament history, and so I wonder why it is that Isaiah was able to speak these words before anything had happened, before the people actually returned to the Promised Land, before they were rescued from their exile, long before they could go home a build a new temple. Isaiah’s words sound as if the Word of God had already accomplished the rescue of this people from exile, as if the final salvation had already been accomplished, but I know that this is not true. How, then, can Isaiah utter these words?

The advent, the coming of God is to be proclaimed, then as it is to be today, even if its final consummation still lies in the future. In the end of the passage, praise is called for from the people as if help had already come, because the promise of God is as good as the execution of it. The promise that Jesus made to his disciples to be with them to the close of the age is every bit as good as if the close of the age were here today to prove him right. The full faith and confidence of the government of the United States is expressed in every dollar bill as a promissory note. How much more confident, then, should be the praise of the people of God upon receiving the promises of God?

A promise is to be born to us in this season, a promise like no other, a promise that will speak right to the heart of the most aching need we can lay before the throne of God if only we will have the courage to face that need and make our prayer known.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” to Las Vegas, to Henderson, to Nellis AFB, to Gene to Vicki to Martha to Rick to Joe to Helen to every single Tom, Dick and Harriett, proclaiming confidently to them all that iniquity is pardoned, that the word of God will be born among them and will stand when everything else has fallen. This is a promise. We can rely on it. We can proclaim it to others. Hope is being born in the world in Jesus Christ.

copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 “The Renewal of God-Confidence,” a sermon by Dr. Tom Boyd, preached April 25, 1971, First Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City.