Anticipating the Best or the Worst?
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, December 13, 2020
Reading: Isaiah 52:1-12
In a remarkable moment, Tolstoy went to visit what we call a shelter (in those days it was a mission in Russia), where the poorest of the poor lived in tenement buildings. The landlord greeted him and one of his assistants. They visited to bring some good news to those who lived in the tenement building. As he was standing there, talking to the landlord, he caught a glimpse of women’s faces. They were standing on their beds, looking over the wall. Their faces were emaciated from poverty, their eyes seemed larger than life, because of the way that the faces had collapsed inward. They were hungry and poor. One by one they got up and they gazed at Tolstoy, and he froze. He didn’t know what to say in response to this. His mind went to the Bible, to a moment where Ezekiel, the great prophet, had the vision of the valley of dry bones. This is how Tolstoy recorded his own feelings:
It was like the valley of Ezekiel’s vision, when the bones began to move. I had uttered a chance word of pitying kindness, and it seems as if they had only been waiting for it to cease to be corpses and to become alive again. Now they seemed waiting for some further word, at which the bones would be covered with flesh and receive life, but I felt, alas, that I could not continue, for I had no such words of power to utter to them.
Tolstoy felt bereft, he didn’t have anything to offer but a word to them. He was overcome by their sense of grief and their poverty, and it touched him deeply. There was within them clearly a sense of anticipation that Tolstoy was going to help them. But now they were wondering whether that word from Tolstoy would make a difference.
We don’t know the rest of the story, but what we do know is that Tolstoy was expressing what many people feel when they're in times of oppression and difficulty, danger and uncertainty. They have a sense of anticipation that something good might happen, something wonderful might occur, and maybe the deeper you go into the recesses of your own sorrow, the greater the anticipation of something good happening that will transform lives.
We’re in a time of anticipation. We’ve had all these words coming to us over the last few days about vaccines and their ability to be like a panacea, to help solve our COVID-19 problem. We also know that this will be slow and will have ethical issues associated with it. There will be challenges, and we will have to be patient. But we have an anticipation in the depths of our sorrow that maybe something good is going to happen. People are anticipating that in this economic time of struggle, something good might happen in the new year as things unfold. There’s a sense of anticipation, of hope. And maybe the lower you are economically right now, the greater the sense of anticipation that something good might happen. It’s like the women looking over that wall at Tolstoy hoping to hear a good word.
Those who are struggling with health and mental illness are anticipating that the burden of that will be lifted, and that no longer will there be the pain and the agony of isolation. There is a sense of anticipation, I believe, that something good just might happen. Even at a spiritual level, our hearts have been changed because of the pandemic, because we haven't been able to associate with one another, lay on hands or pray together, sing together, or worship together. There is this incredible feeling of need for a spiritual boost. Anticipation is a powerful thing.
I watched a mother take a child on a cart through a drugstore this week, and she went, accidentally, along the chocolate box line, where these chocolates were all arrayed. Ironically, on the other side, were dietary fibres and things that help you lose weight, but I always think that’s an irony in a drugstore. But here they were, and the child reached out for the chocolate and almost fell off the cart. They knew what the good chocolates were. I looked closely and they were very discerning; they’d gone to the Swiss and the Belgian chocolates – they knew what they were doing. There was an anticipation, a light in the eyes of this child that something good was there, waiting for them, and that sense of expectation was great.
Well, you can imagine, if you're a nation living for years in oppression and exile, suffering at the hands of others, who are not merciful and kind, but have taken you from your homeland, leaving behind your loved ones. That was the case for the people of Israel in the time of the writing of the book of Isaiah. It was about the return from captivity and exile to the Babylonians, around the 530s BCE this was written. There was this belief that there would be a restoration, that God would bring the people back from exile, and this is a story of the faith of the people facing that incredible moment. There is an anticipation in the land, and Isaiah is the one who is privileged to speak to that anticipation of what God has done and is doing. In one way, this is a statement about how people deal with anticipation and with God.
Now, there were some conflicts at the time, exiles returning, having lived in another land, back to Zion. Then there were people who had lived in Zion, who had lived in Israel, and had not been removed, and owned land. So, there were the returnees and the remainders, and a conflict ensued; who should have the land, who should have the work, who should have the benefits? There was a conflict, even though there was an anticipation of good things.
We might have in our hearts and minds, a conflict ourselves, when it comes to who receives the vaccine and when. There will be those who will receive it and those who won't. That’s nowhere near as traumatic as what they were facing. That was a very existential thing for the people of Israel, but there was an anticipation that God was going to do something great and was in the process of doing it. As Isaiah said to the people, “The Lord has gone before you”, the God of Israel is your rear guard. Anticipating what God is going to do.
That anticipation takes two forms. The first is anticipation looking backwards. Isaiah looks to the past, back to what God has done, the wonderful that he has already accomplished for them. God has got their back. He has been with them and they just need to remember that.
Now, psychologists tell us that the human sense of anticipation is a construction of our own mind, that we anticipate things based on prior experience. Some of those experiences are positive and some are negative. For example, we can be paralysed by a prior experience and anticipate more bad things happening.
A few weeks ago, when we had the flu shot, we went into our drugstore, lining up as we were, according to the procedures of a set time. But we were delayed because there was a family in front of us, a mother and three children. Two of the children had already been vaccinated, but the third one put up the biggest fuss you've ever heard in your life. It was painful to listen to. This young girl was screaming her head off. She did not want this. The mother could not constrain her. The person who was giving the shot could not control her. This is how serious it was. Eventually, the girl could not have the inoculation, she would not remain still. She was out of control, anticipating the needle going in.
Anticipation of a bad thing can paralyse us, but anticipation of a good thing can make us warm and open to good things happening. We’re told by people who know better than I that when we sit down to eat a turkey dinner, our mouths produce saliva before we eat, and it does so in anticipation of turkey that we’ve had in the past. Now, I don’t know if you're a lover of turkey, it makes no difference. Whatever the food may be, the principle is the same; when you're waiting for something good, you have anticipation and you're preparing for it.
Here we are coming to Christmas, and if ever there was a time of anticipation, it is this time, for indeed, so much of what we celebrate at Christmas, is driven by the nostalgia of Christmases past. But this is not going to be like Christmases past, is it? This is not going to be the same at all. There will be some wonderful things that we can do, a lot of things that we can't, and we anticipate something, but we’re not sure what it is.
Anticipation then is powerful. It can look back and it can look forward, and Israel was the same. When Israel looked back, it saw that God had done remarkable things, and therefore they must anticipate good things to come. Isaiah says, “We got out of Egypt, we survived the Assyrians, we’re going to survive the Babylonians as well, because God has been our rear guard. God has been looking after us.”
This week I had an emotional moment. I found a book on my bookshelf that I thought I’d lost. It was a book of sermons written by my great-great grandfather, who was a Welsh preacher in the nineteenth century. He had written some sermons that were presented – so I found out – to Queen Victoria. This was really humbling to read. I went back as part of my devotional, and read my great-great grandfather, David Roberts. There’s nothing quite like it if you're a preacher than to read a sermon from someone from whom you came. He wrote this in a wonderful passage in one of his sermons:
Can Zion claim any acquaintance with God’s former mercies? Ah, yes, she remembers a season when she was powerful to accomplish great things, when the right hand of the Lord was exalted, when the right hand of the Lord did valiantly, causing the voice of rejoicing and salvation to be heard in the tabernacles of the righteous. Then was she a joyful mother of children, singing as she nursed them, her experience flourishing, peace within her walls and prosperity within her palaces. Then did the Lord perform marvellous things in Zion, and terrible things in the side of sinners.
At that time, the streams of the river, which make glad the city of God overflow their banks, while the peace of Zion was as a river, and its righteousness as the waves of the sea. Then indeed was Zion the joy of the whole earth. Where are they former mercies, Israel? They have come from God.
Beautifully put, eloquent words. Thanks, Great Granddad.
That is indeed the truth, the truth that Isaiah captures. God has been their rear guard, looked after them, so they can anticipate God acting in a positive way. Here comes the anticipation of the future. The anticipation of the future is described in glorious terms, in terms of the garments of joy that the people will wear when they return to Zion. This is a beautiful phrase; “put on the garments of joy, the garments of peace, the garments of righteousness.” This is a theme in the Bible, that you come into the house of the Lord wearing your best and finest.
And that, by the way, my friends, is why people throughout the centuries have dressed up to come to church. I watched a video with tremendous joy this week of a church I knew in Cape Town – Ebenezer Congregational Church. Everyone was dressed so beautifully; coming into the house of the Lord, they put on the garments of joy.
If you were a person from Israel, you no longer needed to worry about, or be concerned about the oppression of the Gentiles. You were free to come into Zion, for Zion to be restored, for the temple to be rebuilt, for the people to come together, for God to be in His house, for the Lord to reign over all things. Isaiah had this incredible sense of joy. He thought this was marvellous, because how wonderful it is to be able to proclaim this good news to people who are having a difficult time. Good news, anticipating God doing something great.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul picked up those very words, and in his passage in Romans 10 – and I commend it to you to read afterwards – he writes this about the Word of God being preached, and how important it is to hear the good news. Paul is writing as a disciple, as a follower of Jesus Christ, but he’s rooted in his own tradition, and he quotes directly from this passage in Isaiah. Paul says:
But how are they to call on One in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in One of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim Him? And how are they to proclaim Him unless they are sent, as it is written. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news! But not all have obeyed the good news, for Isaiah says, Lord, who has believed our message? So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the Word of Christ.
Paul is saying that the good news is to anticipate something wonderful happening. And that is exactly what Isaiah proclaimed; he says, “The Lord God reigns, your Lord God reigns over all the tribulations of Babylon, over all the fears that you may face, over all the complexities of bringing your people together with their conflicts. In all of this, the Lord still reigns and does amazing things.”
The New Testament writers, whether it was Paul or the writers of the Gospel, all picked up on this theme of anticipation from the Book of Isaiah. He is the most quoted of all the prophets in the New Testament, and I understand why. Isaiah spoke from the heart, he spoke about a God that he knew he could trust, a God he knew had been faithful in the past, but also a God who goes before us.
Isaiah anticipated a time when a King would come, when a Lord would reign, when Zion would be restored, when the people, including the Gentiles, would be brought into the covenant with Israel. Isaiah believed not just in past mercies, but in future glories. Future glory based on the Word. The Word, as we discover at Christmas, becomes flesh and dwells among us. How wonderful to proclaim that good news.
As you know, I'm a lover of art, certain forms of it. I remember visiting the Tait Gallery in London and staring at a painting by George Frederick Watts. He was an allegorical painter in the nineteenth century, and some of his paintings are in the National Gallery in Ottawa, here in Canada, as well as in the British Museum and in the Tait. There’s this one of a blindfolded girl playing a lyre. In front of her is a globe of the earth, but you look at the lyre, all the strings have been removed except one.
Many people have said that painting is one of distress and sorrow, of a girl attempting to play an instrument, but unable to play it, looking at the whole world blindfolded, not able to see what the future brings. But George Frederick Watts in replying, said, “No, that one remaining string, is the string of hope, and all we need to hear, is one sound, one tone in the world, and that is the tone of hope.
This advent, we pluck that string of hope, because we live with an incredible sense of anticipation that as He’s done before, God is going to act mightily. Amen.