Sunday, December 16, 2018
Full Service Audio
I am forever surprised by how optimism and pessimism affect the way things are carried out. I’ll give you an example: On August 2nd an editorial in The Wall Street Journal talked about there being great optimism in the world, with markets hitting their highest level. Then on November 8th the BBC reported tremendous optimism that the British Pound was rebounding. On December 12th the CBC reported that the crisis with China produced little optimism for the way things are. Then on December 14th the BBC reported that the Pound hit an all-time low for the last twenty-three years. On and on it went! It seems the emotional cycles of optimism and pessimism, though often not in equal measure, influence human behaviour. We respond to whether we think that we are living in an optimistic world or a pessimistic one. You have heard the old adage about some people seeing the glass being half empty, while others think it’s half full. Optimism and pessimism have a determining factor on the way humans behave. In many ways, this is fatuous. It is silly because it is based on a sense of fatalism. People are always saying, “Everything is going to turn out all right. It will be okay.” And then, there are the cynics and the skeptics that believe that no matter what good is done, ultimately we are on the road to destruction. Either way it is like the Scylla and Charybdis of life. We are powered by those emotions.
Just to show how utterly ridiculous philosophical optimism or pessimism is: a couple of years ago, we had a Jewish scholar who had been interred in the camps in World War II come in to address school children. After the presentation she said to me, as we were talking about optimism and the way ahead, “Dr. Stirling, don’t you think it is absurd to quote Dr. Pangloss (from Voltaire’s Candide), who always said that we live in the best possible world, to people who were on a train headed for Auschwitz?” In other words, be it positive thinking, (the glass is half full) or pessimism (the glass is half empty), either way, these emotions can paralyse us.
In today’s text from the incredible Prophet Isaiah you could be seduced into believing that this is nothing more than an optimistic text. Isaiah 35 is about a people who are living in the wilderness, waiting for the promised restoration. It is a powerful text! I sometimes hear people say, “But all of that is just optimism, just biblical optimism, and it is silly.” It isn’t, for this is not a text of optimism; this is a text of faith. This is not a philosophical narrative of either optimism or skepticism; it is rooted in faith, and faith is fundamentally different and more powerful than overriding ideas of optimism or negativism because it is about a journey. In this case, it is about the journey of the people of Israel. It makes a couple of very powerful affirmations about the journey of faith. The first is that faith is not always a smooth road. Isaiah writes at a time that was very dark. He describes living in the wilderness. But, to understand the power of what he is talking about, we need to understand the historical context in which he was writing, because in that context the power of what he said becomes all the more precise.
These were dark days for the people of Israel. They were living under the oppression of the Assyrian Empire. Now, the Assyrian Empire, for those of you who know history, was the most powerful empire in the first century BC. It lasted some four hundred years. Think back for a moment, four hundred years in our history, and where that would place us? For 400 years, the Assyrians ruled tyrannically. Some of the names of the kings go down in the annals as the most sadistic and dangerous human beings of all time. Ashurbanipal was one of them. Tiglath Pileser III, you know is my favourite one, because I call him Tiggy for short. Sargon II, Sennacherib, these might not be names that you bandy around in normal conversation, but believe you me, they make Hitler and Stalin look like jellybean salesmen. These were really dark characters! If you do not believe me, look at the history of Assyria. They maintained their power by public burnings. On one day, records have it, in the City of Nineveh 260 people were decapitated because they opposed the king. There was the public gouging of eyes as a way of maintaining control over those who opposed the Assyrian powers. Even the Prophet Jeremiah (39:7) suggests that the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, who came later, actually tried to emulate Sargon II with his eye gouging policy and skinning people alive. This isn’t the sort of stuff you come to hear before Christmas, right? But, it was real! And, it was the only way to understand the power of Isaiah 35, for he was writing to people who were living through this. Not only were they living through the tyranny, but the cruelest thing was that they were removed from their own country and forced to be refugees and exiles in another country. They didn’t even have their own home. This is how cruel it was. They were forced to worship gods, like Hasad, the god of storms, or they were forced to worship Shamesh, the god of the sun, or Sin, the god of the moon among other gods.
This group of people, who were living under the power of the Assyrians, are being written to by the Prophet Isaiah with the hope and the word that something powerful would transform them. They were also Covenant people, people who hadn’t given up their faith. They still believed that God would be faithful to them even though for 400 years they had lived under the oppression of these Assyrians. They were always asking, and we see this in the text leading up to it, “Are we there yet? Oh Lord, is this our fate?”
On the lighter side, this powerful “Are we there yet?” came home to me about ten years ago when I was on a plane in the United Kingdom. It was a long flight, I had no reading material, and I was bored out of my mind. So, I watched a movie. It was a movie for children really called Are we There Yet? Do any of you remember that? It’s a classic! Actually, it was the worst movie ever! Sitting next to me was a man with who was a merchant banker from London, a very serious man, who was trying to do his paperwork. I put on my headphones and watched the movie. Unbeknownst to me, I laugh out loud when I am watching movies! He would look over at my screen from time-to-time to see what it was that was amusing me, and would just shake his head, and go back to his work. Only about a year later, sitting next to Marial on a plane, did I realize I was laughing obnoxiously when something amused me. Are We There Yet? is about three children from a broken home. These three children loved their father and mother, but after their divorce, a new boyfriend had broken on the scene. He was tasked with getting the children to see their mother in Vancouver. They were supposed to go on an hour-long plane ride, but the plane broke down, so he had to drive them in his brand new Lincoln Navigator. These three children got into the Navigator and they made his life hell! They hated him! So-much-so that they even feigned that they were having asthma attacks. When cars pulled alongside, they pleaded with them that they were being kidnapped. Eventually, his Lincoln Navigator that he loved more than life itself was set on fire by these children. It was a living nightmare! Yet, all the time, he showed his love for them. Over time, on this long trip, where they kept saying “Are we there yet?” he won them over. He won them over with compassion. At the end, the mother is waiting, and she is so relieved to see them. They run to her, she embraces them all, and this glorious music plays. A happy ending. But, I thought to myself “What an image this is!” These were people who had come from division and sadness. They were unsure when they were with this man that there was any chance of anything good ever happening, but his love and persistence won the day. These kids were changed, and their hearts mended.
If ever there was a broken-hearted group of people who were crying out “Lord, are we there yet?” it was the people of Israel during the time of Isaiah. So Isaiah writes to them and tells them that while the journey of the faithful might not be smooth, they do not go alone. In other words, it is a journey of faith. The language that he uses is beautiful! He says, “There is a highway for our God” and “The people will be restored and redeemed”. If you go back and look closely at the text again, you will see that narrative all the way through. The people of Israel are on a journey, they are travelers. They haven’t just stopped in Assyria, things have not come to a dead-end, but rather, there is God, who continues to open up a highway for the redeemed. How is it described? Those who live in the desert will see blossoms; they will travel to Carmel and Sharron, the northern kingdom; they will go to those beautiful places and be restored; the weak and the feeble will be made strong; the lame will walk; the blind will see; the mutes will sing words of rejoicing; there will be no lions around. The lions are a reference of course to the kings of Assyria. God will eventually sort these kings out, and God’s will be done. The highway of the Lord will be open. In other words, it is a song of liberation in the midst of the difficulties of life. It wasn’t false optimism that everything would work out all right. It was not a passive negativism that there was no way out. It was a song of liberation and hope. Is that not what faith is about? Is that not what belief is about? Is it not recognizing that even though we go through the ups and downs of life – half-full, half-empty – we do not go through them alone?
I have mentioned once before that when I was growing up in Bermuda, one of the two churches that I attended was built, as some of you know, by the slaves by moonlight at Cobbs Hill. It was erected in 1827 in response to the needs of slaves who were not allowed to worship because their masters and mistresses felt that they were less than human. So, they built their own church from the rocks of Bermuda, and the ships that were wrecked. That story you know. What you don’t know is that the Methodist ministers who came to serve them found themselves arrested and imprisoned at times because they continued to witness and worship there. Still, in the midst of the oppression and the tyranny of their age, they continued to worship God – to this very day! They now have become so cool! They have their own website. Isn’t this amazing? I go on the website once in a while to find out what is going on in my old church. Every now and again there’s an inspirational quote. This week it is something from Matthew and Nehemiah. There is also a paragraph from their history, and I thought this sounds so like Isaiah. This is what the people of a church that was built by slaves are saying today:
There are many who have laboured in Christ’s vineyard to build this Church, and the great faith of those slaves has been passed on to each generation. Cobbs Hill Methodist Church stands not only as a monument to the slaves, but more importantly as a House of God. We praise the Lord and continue to be truly blessed as our Church family follows the lead of our forebears, working to the honour and the glory of God.
Now, that is neither optimism nor pessimism: it is faith.
For those who wrote the first Christmas story, for those who encountered the presence of Jesus of Nazareth, they believed in their hearts and souls that his arrival, his presence, was the fulfillment of everything that Isaiah had hoped and prophesied. That the lame will walk; the blind will see; the deaf will hear; the poor will receive justice; and that there will be hope in the land. When you come back here next Sunday there will be this reference to the fact that his name was Jesus, which means “to save the people from their sins” and Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Those are not vacuous, empty names! They are names based on what Isaiah hoped and prayed for the people hundreds of years before, even when they were in Assyria, even when they were in the dark times. This was faith! This was God’s care! This was God’s intervention! This does not lead to passivity, this does not lead to throwing up our hands and saying, “Oh, I have faith, therefore everything will be fine.” No! It means we do not travel any road alone; we travel it with God, and God sometimes comes into our very midst and asks us to walk with him, to walk with the deaf, and the lonely, the weak, and the terrified, the refugee, and those who have no voice themselves. He calls us to pray for and to be with children who are starving in Yemen, to lift up those who are suffering and sorrowful, to rejoice with those who rejoice, to mourn with those who mourn. Paul says this is what the faithful will do. Why? Because Isaiah said that is the nature of the journey is like.
This Christmas, you and I are on that journey. In a world that might be full of optimism, and think everything will be all right, or in a world that is cynical and believes there is no hope. It matters not, we are people of faith. We know we do not walk this road alone. It is the highway of our God. We are there – and yet we wait! Amen.