By Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
Today is the third out of four Sundays on our way through Advent to Christmas. Advent prepares us for Jesus’ coming in the manger at Bethlehem; it also prepares us for Jesus’ coming again in glory, at the end of time, to restore all things.
The baby Jesus is pretty easy to get excited about. You can feel affectionate about him and his young parents; their hard travel on the road, being rejected at the inn, meeting shepherds and angels in the dark of night. But Jesus coming again in glory? He’s a little less friendly, a little less accessible, and maybe a little less believable. It’s hard to imagine the turn of the seasons and the ordinary business of life year after year being suddenly interrupted by Jesus descending from the clouds and putting an end to history.
I’ve warned you many times not to believe anyone who claims to tell you exactly when Jesus is returning, or tries to frighten you with the news that it’s going to happen soon. But that doesn’t mean that we should deny Jesus’ return altogether, or what this promise means for us. The fact is, whenever Jesus returns — whether it’s tomorrow or next week, or thousands or millions or billions of years from now — the meaning of Jesus’ return is a promise for us today, in this very moment, and for each day of our lives.
The promise means this: God has not abandoned us. We do not live in God-less world. God’s story with us is not over, but is unfolding right now, and leading us somewhere — leading to a good place. Our two Old Testament lessons for today give depth and meaning to this promise, so let’s look at them more closely.
The first lesson is from the Book of Isaiah the prophet, in fact from one of the final chapters of this book. The Book of Isaiah actually packs into one volume three distinct phases or periods in the history of the people of Israel. The first part of the book is full of warnings that if the Israelites didn’t change their ways God would allow the Babylonian empire to attack Israel and take the people of Israel away into exile. Israel refused to listen to the warning, and that’s exactly what happened.
Then, the middle part of the Book of Isaiah is full of words of despair from the exiled people of Israel in Babylon, as well as comfort and encouragement from the prophet that God would remember them and bring them home.
The third and final part of the book of Isaiah, the part we heard from today, comes from when the Israelites were finally headed back home again. Finally, finally, God has heard their prayers. What seemed like a stuck and permanent situation has changed; the light is dawning on a very dark night. And so the prophet says — in words that Jesus would quote, many centuries later, and apply to himself:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor …
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to prisoners,
and the opening of the prisons;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
to comfort all who mourn.
In other words, this speech is addressed to people who are sad. People who are sad because they have been stuck, because the future has looked dark and hopeless, because they couldn’t find a way out of their situation; people who could no longer feel happiness or good cheer but felt the heavy weight of depression on their backs at all times.
In situations like these, we become convinced that nothing will ever change. Every day will be the same — dark, bleak, sad, hopeless. The present and the future are identical, and both are so terrible that sometimes we’d rather not live. In such situations, it’s very hard to pull ourselves out. Or, if we try to escape, we put our hope in the wrong thing — another person or relationship, an ideology, our nation, our job.
And that’s where the prophet bursts on the scene with no ordinary word, but the Word of God. This Word of God is not stuck repeating the present into the future; no, the Word of God carves out a new future, a future that belongs to God only, and is full of God’s possibilities — far beyond human possibilities.
This Word of God is like a splash of cold water: shocking, and yet it wakes us up! This Word of God pulls away the dark and dreary clothes we’ve put on and insists on dressing us up in bright colors and shining jewels. This Word of God is like a bar of soap that cleans us up, a strong drink that emboldens us, a new set of muscles that strengthen us, a new pair of glasses that clarify our cloudy vision. Suddenly new things appear to us. The old ruined cities of our past have been repaired and restored and are open for business. The long chains of mistakes in family and friendship has been snapped in two and replaced with hugs and handshakes.
The dull doubt about whether there’s a God at all transforms into a surprised faith at the strange and patient workings of grace. The dead garden of our hearts and hopes turns green again and the first flowers begin to open. Until Japan, I never lived in place with winter flowers — such an expression, “winter flowers,” was a contradiction in terms. By definition, winter was the time without flowers! But here in Japan, there are flowers that grow only in the winter — and this is a perfect illustration of the Word of God bursting in the cold darkness of our lives and hearts and hopes, insisting on bringing new life in the least likely of times. God’s Word blossoms in the winter of our hearts.
Now, none of us is in exactly the same place spiritually. Some of us are alive and awake and full of daily joy. Some of us are barely making it from one day to the next. Some of us hover in the middle, never knowing if tomorrow will be a good day or a bad one. But I promise you, whichever condition you’re in, the Word of God is calling to you, too, trying to get your attention, trying to shed sunlight and rainfall on your dried-up garden, trying to give you the joy and peace of renewed possibilities in the midst of your stuck places.
And when that happens — and it will happen, at some point — then you will understand today’s Psalm from the inside out. This psalm is the astonished words of people who never, ever thought anything good would happen to them again. They were weighed down with their shame, their sins past and present, their inability to see any way forward: and all of a sudden God burst into their lives, set them free, pointed them in the right direction, and said, “Start walking! Freedom lies that way.”
The psalm records the amazement they felt when it happened: “When the Lord reversed our bad luck at last, it was like living in a dream. All we could do was laugh, all we could do was shout for joy, until even the people around us, even strangers and enemies, had to agree and say: Yes, the Lord loves these people; look what he’s done for them. And we say the same: the Lord our God has done great things for us. We couldn’t be happier. Keep it up, God! Don’t stop now! Yesterday we were crying; today we’re singing. Yesterday our lives were empty; today they are full to bursting.”
I hope you can pray this Psalm right now with the same level of joy as the Israelites did on their way home. But even if not — even if now is a hard time, a dark time — hear the word of the Lord from the prophet long ago, and from Jesus our Lord: the future is not dark. Your way is not stuck. There is hope, even if you don’t feel it. There is light, even if you don’t see it. It is coming, and you can trust it. It will surprise you, because it’s not your servant, but the gift and promise of your master. Your shame will be wiped away. Your sins will be forgiven. Your mistakes will be set aside. The future is bright because the future is God’s, and you are God’s, too. The time will come when you take off the dark and dreary clothes and start dancing to God’s tune again.
Jesus will come again in glory, at some point in the future — we don’t know when. But that doesn’t mean he’s far away. It means Jesus is always coming toward us, coming for us, and carrying us forward into his bright light and beautiful future.
The Rev. Dr. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is assistant pastor of Tokyo Lutheran Church.