Let us pray:
We are waiting
We are waiting in the dark
We are waiting in the holy darkness
We are waiting in the womb of God
Between this Advent and the next
We are waiting. We are waiting for Christmas. We are waiting for the end of the semester. We are waiting for this calendar year to be over. We are waiting for one heck of a New Year’s Eve party. We are waiting for Jesus. We are waiting for Jesus to come back. And while we wait, we wait with Jesus, in this world that needs him still.
We are a waiting church. In the gospel John is waiting for Jesus and urging the people to wait for the kiss of the Holy Spirit.
Isaiah waited. Isaiah waited for the restoration of Israel after the Assyrian invasion and did not live to see it. Waiting time can be anxious time because there is no guarantee that we ourselves will see that for which we yearn. But Isaiah did not wait alone. Isaiah waited with the woman who was his companion in the labor of prophecy and pregnancy, the labor that brought forth at least one of his children, (Isaiah 8:4, 16). They waited with children and disciples who would outlive them and go on to write in Isaiah’s name. For 200 years their children and disciples and their children and disciples and theirs and theirs waited. In that time things went from bad to worse. The Babylonians came and defeated the Assyrians and they were still not free. Jerusalem fell. The temple fell. The nation fell. The people were sent into exile. And they waited. They waited for God to deliver them. They told the stories of God’s deliverance passed down from generation to generation including those at Isaiah’s hand. And while they waited, some died without seeing the liberation of their people. Just as it had happened before in Egypt, some died promising their children that God would come. Some died under the heels of Assyrian boots believing that God would come and deliver her people. Some died in the ruin of Jerusalem. Some died on the trail of tears to Babylon. Some died in exile. But they believed. And when they could not believe, they hoped.
We are waiting in the darkest time of the year when it looks like death is all around us as the leaves that have fallen crumble into dust. Yet deep in the heart-womb of the earth life is unfolding and unfurling right on time. This holy darkness, this radiant darkness, this luminous darkness is not the stuff of night terrors; it is the womb of life birthing spiraling galaxies and the rich, deep, dark soil that brings forth life in abundance. We are waiting. Waiting for a vaccine. Waiting for a cure. Waiting for the end of the pandemic. Waiting to hug and kiss and cuddle without fear. We are waiting to get away from the people in our households. We are waiting to travel. We are waiting to hold babies again. We have waited through wanton murder in the streets and upheaval and rioting. We have waited through scandals and committee hearings and trials and political advertisements every 15 seconds.
We have had waiting times before. We have waited for soldiers to come home; some are still waiting. Some of us come from peoples who have long experience with waiting. We have waited to safely exercise our rights at the ballot box, and some are still waiting. Waiting for justice. Waiting to immigrate. Waiting for citizenship. Waiting for the valuation of black lives and trans lives and black trans lives. Waiting for the reign of God to be fully manifest in this world. We wait. We believe. We hope.
While Isaiah’s descendants were waiting, they searched for meaning in their sorrows and struggles as a people. They blamed themselves and their ancestors. They had failed at covenant and commandment and viewed every tragedy, every atrocity, as divine punishment. One could rightly argue that retributive punitive theology is inherently biblical. There are some who think that way now. But the scriptures are not static. They reflect on and reconsider the theologies of their progenitors and when necessary, revise it. It was in this frame of mind that the poet-prophet writing in Isaiah’s name two centuries after his time writes (in Isaiah 40):
1“Comfort, comfort my people,”
says your God.
2“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the hand of the Holy One,
double for all her sins.”
Meeting them where they were, God says, whatever you may have deserved or thought you deserved, consider it paid in full, twice over. You have suffered enough. For there came a point when it was clear that what they experienced at the hands of their oppressors could not possibly be just or God’s will and punishment for their transgressions. Their wait was over.
There was a new power in the world and as one empire fell and another rose, they were passed hand to hand once again. Yet on Persia’s throne was a man who would usher in the occasion for Isaiah’s reading today. Cyrus of Persia would send them home; they would rebuild. Their wait was over.
When the voice cries out, “All people are grass,” the next generation chorus of Isaiah is saying that empires rise and fall, kings come and go but, “the word of our God will stand forever.” This is the good news in Isaiah. A second Exodus, back to the land of promise. This is why the sentinel, the herald, the prophet and preacher, sang from the mountaintop:
3“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Holy One,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5Then the glory of the Holy One shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Holy One has spoken.”
They were going back home. God was going back home. God had gone into exile with her people and they would return together through the wilderness as they had done before nearly a millennia ago in the other direction. Their wait was over.
There is a chorus of prophets in this text. There is the prophet or prophetic assembly writing in the spirit of Isaiah. And they call out to a herald, a messenger, another name for prophet. In the lesson we read, she-who-bears-good-news in Isaiah 40:9 has been translated as Zion, Jerusalem being the proclaimer, (CEB, NRSV, RSV, KJV, Geneva, and Bishop’s Bibles); the holy city is the daughter of God calling out to proclaim the restoration of Israel. But in other translations, she is a human proclaimer, preacher and prophet to Zion, to Jerusalem, a daughter of God, a daughter of Zion and a herald and prophet herself, (the Dead Seas Scroll Bible, JPS and Wycliffe Bibles, along with the LXX and bibles dependent on it, the Vulgate and Douay).
She, city or prophet, is shouting down the mountains because the tide has turned. The people are home are or on their way. Their wait is over. The psalm (85) joins in the celebration:
1You have been gracious to your land, Loving God; *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob
– and the descendants of Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah.
12The Faithful God will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.
13Righteousness shall go before God, *
and peace shall be a pathway for God’s feet.
The wait was over. Israel was home or on the way and everything would be back to normal. The Israelites rebuilt the temple but it did not compare to the glories of Solomon. Some of the elders who had seen the previous temple wept when they saw the new one, (Ezra 3:12). What the Israelites found on the other side of the desert was that even when you can go home again nothing is the same as it was. You have changed. The world has changed. And that is something we need to face ourselves. We are waiting for the world to get back to normal too. Though neither exile nor captivity, the pandemic has been the cause of great sorrow, grief and pain. And we just want to get back to normal. But we are waiting for a future that will not be what was before. We are waiting.
That is the story of the church, waiting, between the first Advent and the next. In the epistle the church was waiting on that next Advent, the return of Christ to the world. And we are still waiting. In the epistle (2 Peter 3) the voice of Peter urges patience: 8…with God one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. It is 2000 years later and we are still waiting. Those words are still true.
That is something with which the disciples of Jesus struggled. They were waiting for someone born of David’s line to take the crown and the throne and rule an earthly kingdom and kick out the Romans and make everything like it used to be. You know, back to normal. But there is no going back. And Jesus had a very different understanding of majesty and sovereignty. A single nation is too small to be the throne of God whether Israel then or now or the United States today or in the years to come.
We are waiting. We are waiting for Jesus. We are waiting for Jesus to come back. And while we wait, we wait with Jesus, in this world that needs him still. We need Jesus, still. He came to us to be with us as we are that we might be as he is. And while we wait between this Advent and the next, we have work to do. We have work to do in the world and work to do in ourselves. Like the Israelites, we inhabit a world in need of transformation. We have an opportunity to rebuild and renew, forge new relationships and strengthen existing bonds. And in the words of the epistle, this waiting time is a measure of grace that we might repent and prepare our hearts for that which we await: 9God is not slow about the promise of God, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
Even God is waiting.
And one day, our wait will be over. We shall see God, see and be seen, know and be known. And our joy will ring out like the prophet on the hills (Isaiah 40):
9 Climb a high mountain,
O woman of Zion who proclaims good news!
Raise your voice with power,
O woman of Jerusalem who proclaims good news!
Raise it daughter! Fear not daughter!
Say to the cities of Judah daughter,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign REDEEMER comes with might,
whose arm rules for God;
whose reward is with God,
and God’s reparation comes before.
11 She will feed her flock like a shepherd;
she will gather the lambs in her arms,
and carry them in her bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Our wait will be over and we shall be home, heart-close, in the bosom of God. Amen.