Third Sunday in Advent A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
In 2006, with the publication of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress presented a rich new liturgical resource for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It has its faults, but it also brought many gifts to the church.
One of these gifts is the intentional inclusion of more hymns in the main hymnal that aren’t, well, white European in origin. There are hymns from Asia, Africa, and South America. 14 of these hymns are African American spirituals, most dating from the time before the American Civil War, when they were sung by slaves.
Some of our best loved hymns are African American spirituals: “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”, “Were You There?”, “Wade in the Water”, “This Little Light of Mine”. It’s hard to imagine worshiping our God without the help of these songs which so often speak of the longing for justice and God’s presence among us in times of trial.
And really, that was the point of the songs to begin with. When Africans were captured and brought to America as slaves, they were often forbidden from retaining anything of their life and culture found in their homeland. As was proper in the eyes of the slave owners, they were converted to Christianity, a more “civilized” religion (even though it was used to support the slave trade, so take that with more than a grain of salt–more like a truckload).
Sometimes, slaves were allowed to hold their own prayer meetings, as their owners believed it helped them “cope” with a life of slavery and forced labor. It was in these prayer meetings that slaves were finally able to express themselves and the torment they endured during their lives. Mixing in elements of their homeland cultures, dancing and shouting and playing their own homemade instruments, slaves turned their voices to God to both cry out in anguish and to express hope for a better tomorrow.
“I want Jesus to walk with me,” they sang, “all along my pilgrim journey.”
“There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”
“My Lord, what a morning!”
“Give me Jesus!”
In the midst of unspeakable turmoil, a hell on earth that despite its horrors people fought a war to keep putting on others; in the midst of this pain, they cried out to God.
It is a turmoil that Isaiah’s audience knew well. To understand the prophet’s words this morning, it’s important to know who he’s speaking to, and why.
The history of the Jewish people is one fraught with war against and conquest of them. One of the most devastating conquests was by the Babylonian Empire, who after a long siege knocked down the walls to Jerusalem, sacked the city, burned it, and worst of all, destroyed the Temple: the first time the temple had ever been destroyed since it was built 400 years earlier.
After the city’s destruction, the Babylonians enacted their policy that dictated what to do with people they conquered. They took most of the population and deported them out of their homeland, resettling them in the Babylonian Empire as a community in exile, a diaspora.
This was the definition of a tragic event. The Jewish people had lost their city, their temple, and their homeland. They were forcibly removed from their homes, refugees, and sent to live somewhere else. And while some of the people led relatively good, decent lives, it still wasn’t home. It still wasn’t right. The people were in turmoil.
That turmoil is reflected in this part of Isaiah’s prophesying. There’s a lot of angry imagery of death and destruction immediately prior to our reading this morning, lashing out against others and creation itself for the suffering the people are experiencing.
That human beings suffer and are in turmoil is not confined to any particular time period or group. At every point in history, it happened. People suffered anguish when they were put in concentration camps in this country because they happened to be of Japanese descent. It happened in Europe when the Jewish people were hunted down, put in camps, and exterminated. It happened when our country made an industry out of capturing Africans and forcing them into permanent slavery; and when their descendants 100 years after the end of slavery were still fighting for basic human rights.
And it doesn’t just happen to other people. Turmoil and anguish are present here in our own communities, isn’t it? For years, people have been worried about the evaporation of well-paying, stable jobs from the area, and what that means for the economy, the future of our town, and for our families if we lose our jobs.
Food insecurity in our town is on the rise. Dozens of people are served by the Three Lakes Christian Food Pantry every month, people we know, who don’t have enough food to feed their families. Up in Eagle River, enough kids don’t have enough food to eat that the entire school qualifies for free or reduced lunches.
Homelessness has always been an issue up here, but it’s gotten so prominent that serious discussions have begun about building a second homeless shelter, since Frederick House in Rhinelander can’t always hold or accept them all.
We may not know it, but there are people in our own town and community who face the constant fear of retaliation against them based on racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia.
We are frightened, and we have every right to be.
And then we hear these strange words from the prophet Isaiah. These strange, and wondrous words.
You see, as one commentator puts it, “This reading doesn’t belong here.” Remember what I said about where these words are in Isaiah. They come right in the middle of these long passages about hardship, destruction, death, anguish, turmoil. It’s not pretty. It’s not nice. And right in the middle of it all, we hear:
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…
“Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a dear, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy…
“And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing;”
It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit at all. Right in the the middle of this turmoil and anguish, there’s this strange beacon of hope, this light at the end of a very long tunnel, this sure and certain promise of God. There’s this declaration of God, saying, “I’m on my way. I’m coming to get you out. I’m coming.”
It doesn’t make any sense. People in such dire circumstances shouldn’t have any hope. They have no reason to. The Jewish people should have had no hope at all for ever returning to their homeland. Slaves, born into slavery and who would die in slavery, should not have been singing songs about coming freedom or the goodness of God, the same God that their captors worshiped and claimed supported their abhorrent practice of slavery.
And yet, hope did find its way into the Judean community in exile in Babylon, through prophets like Isaiah. Slaves did raise their voices loud, singing praise to the God who rescued the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt through mighty deeds and could do the same for them.
Because this is the God we worship, too: a God who in the midst of the most unlikely circumstances imaginable suddenly shows up, making the Divine Presence known. Places God should never be, by any right, all of a sudden become the point at which God and humankind meet.
Frankly, God doesn’t belong there. Which makes God’s presence there all the more extraordinary:
That God is not just found in times of plenty, but in times of hunger.
That God is not just found in times of security, but in times of insecurity.
That God is not just found in times of peace, but in the midst of hate and violence, right alongside those who suffer them.
And not only is God present in those unexpected times and unexpected places, but God is especially and intentionally present with those gripped by their fear and worry. Into those, into our worst fears and times of anguish and turmoil, God shows up, saying, “I’m on my way. I’m coming to get you out. I’m coming.”
In this season of Advent, we wait for God’s arrival into our worst places, not the same kind of waiting as when people are told to just wait it out, give things a chance; a passive waiting that accomplishes nothing. Instead, we wait with anticipation for the promises of God to be fulfilled. For the exiles to come home. For the slaves to be free. For the hungry to be fed, the victims of hate to be safe. We wait with every fiber of our being, and we wait as people in action, getting ready for the arrival of God to happen at any moment, when we can’t predict.
And as we wait, together, we strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. We encourage those who are of a fearful heart, especially when those hearts are ours, to Be Strong, and do not fear. For here is our God.
God is coming.
Featured Image: “St. Peter Claver Catholic Church Gospel Choir @ Juneteenth in Lexington Park MD on 16 June 2007” by Elvert Barnes is licensed under CC BY 2.0.