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Sun, Dec 10, 2017

Shared Hope

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B

            I don’t know how many of you saw the film “Gravity” with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, when it came out in 2013. I thought it was one of the eeriest movies I had ever seen. It was a story about being lost in space, literally untethered from the last connection to Earth. The Sandra Bullock character is in definite physical danger throughout the film, but the sense of horror comes from the perception of her utter aloneness. She is rootless, both literally and metaphorically. She is an exile from Earth, her home.

            Being lost in space is probably not what most of us think of when we think of exile. Thinking historically, we might consider the case of dissidents and political prisoners under totalitarian regimes, such as persons in the Soviet gulag in the last century. Going farther back, we might think of Africans enslaved in North America, whose experience of exile under harsh conditions lasted for centuries. Some exiles are refugees, such as refugees from the war in Syria, and many Palestinians, who are still in refugee camps 70 years after the creation of the state of Israel. Closer to home, we might even think of Katrina survivors who left New Orleans in 2005 and have not been able to return.

            The experience of being a refugee or exile as a result of war, conquest, political upheaval, or natural disaster is as old as humanity. When the experience is prolonged, human beings invariably seek to make meaning of it, meaning that will help them transcend the suffering that comes with devastating loss. Communities will often make meaning of their loss and sorrow through poetry and song, and by coming together more intentionally as a community, finding a new sense of purpose together. An example of this is the Christian Dinka people of Sudan. They formed their church in a refugee camp in Kenya while the Sudanese civil war was going on. When the war began, in 1983, there were only a handful of Christian congregations -- now almost every Dinka village has a church, and there are over 300 villages. These churches were formed out of the sorrow and deprivation, but also the hope, of a community of people who had been displaced but not discouraged.

            The experience of exile raises existential questions, for both individuals and communities: Who are we when we are away from our home? How will we go on when everything that gave life meaning seems to have been taken away? Where do we find love and connection?

            “Comfort, O comfort my people.” These words from Isaiah shattered the silence of exile and alienation for the people of Judah – a people who had experienced the sack of the city of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the deportation of the best and the brightest to Babylon. There, the psalmist tells us, they sat by the banks of the river Euphrates, speechless with misery. All their songs had dried up inside them, choked by sorrow and anger and despair.

            God’s word of comfort came to those exiles as into an abyss. How often they must have wondered, Will there ever again be a word from God? It is hard for us to imagine the suffering that this dislocation of national and personal life caused. People were filled with ache of memories of what was never to be again. They were surrounded by their enemies, who mocked them and pitied them from their place of strength and security. Worst of all was the loss of hope for what could be, a sense that things could ever be different. The misery seemed final, endless, and irrevocable.

            A few, of course, never gave up hope. Faith that God would speak a creative, world-changing word was never entirely snuffed out, and that collective hope eventually became the basis of a new community.

            And then, into the silence of widespread despair alloyed with the hope of a few, a word was spoken, a word of surpassing strength and tenderness: Here is your God! You are not abandoned or tossed aside. Empires will come and go, human lives will flourish and then pass away, but the Word of God stands forever. And that word comes to you, today, O people of God, as a word of comfort. God is on the way; clear the way for God’s advent.

            The prophet’s message is the kind of speech that penetrates the gloom of exile, piercing the silence of despair and inertia. In these words, the note of the future is sounded. “For those who have ears to hear, this Word defines reality,”[i] in spite of appearances to the contrary.

            This offer of comfort is not based on the people’s own virtue, resourcefulness, courage or strength. It is spoken out of God’s own resolve to be a comforter: to feed the flock, gather the lambs, lead the mother sheep – to strengthen the weak knees, give power to the faint of heart, and bind a community together on the basis of a shared hopefulness.

            George Packer is a journalist who has traveled the U.S. talking to some of the people who have been hurt the most by the “Great Recession” of the last decade. Though the economic indicators of the last several years have pointed to recovery, many of the people who lost their jobs in the downturn have never really recovered. The skills and experience they have are no longer needed, and they have slipped out of the middle class. (They don’t show up in the unemployment statistics because they have given up looking.) Packer has noted a difference between the victims of the Great Depression of the 1930s and their counterparts of the last decade: the Depression survivors, he says, were more hopeful. Today there’s a “pervasive sense of instability, of wasted talent and unspent energy, and the unemployed can’t help blaming themselves for being let go, laid off, managed out.” The unemployed and underemployed feel like exiles in their own country, cast off by a society that has decided it has no more use for them. What is most striking is the loss of a sense of community – individuals and families are isolated in their misery, and nobody takes note. The most famous photographs of the Depression are images of faces, but today’s images are of abandoned property. What’s needed, says Packer, not just for these displaced people but for our whole society, is “an idea of the future that’s genuinely shared in, participated in, by large numbers of people.”[ii]

            Where do we look for a shared idea of the future? The exiles of Babylon were strengthened by the message of God’s companionship with them, the assurance that they had not been simply abandoned to their fate and forgotten, that God was still seeking to come near to them. They found strength in this message as a community, with a shared idea of a brighter future.

            Wherever we are in the world, at whatever time in history and whatever our situation, if hope is to be found it is always in the knowledge that we are not alone, that we have not been abandoned. For those of us who worship the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, our community-creating God, this knowledge calls each of us to find ways to offer community to others: to let those who are discouraged, displaced, cut off from full flourishing in human society, know that they are not abandoned. We do this best as a community, by forging ties of solidarity and comfort with those who, as the Advent carol[iii] says, “mourn in lonely exile.”

            And in our personal places of loss and exile, we, too, may find refuge and strength in the shared hope of our community: the hope in our Advent God, who seeks to come near to us, who indeed is on the way, who is coming to meet us even now.  

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

December 10, 2017

                 

              

 

[i] Diane Jacobson, “Isaiah in Advent: The Transforming Word,” Word & World 10/4, 1990, 384.

[ii] George Packer, “Don’t Look Down,” The New Yorker, April 29, 2013, 70-75.

[iii] “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

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