Strengthen the weak hands…

Reading
Isaiah 35.1–10

 

To spend time in Advent in the company of the prophets is to open ourselves up to the great and costly truth that the world is God’s and can be lived in peaceably and joyfully only by people who know who they are and whose they are. In that sense, we are all called to be prophets, in that we point to the bigger narrative of which we are a part; we point towards the action of God in Jesus Christ, and prepare ourselves to live in the world that God has made. — Jane Williams, The Art of Advent, Day 8

———————

In some Advent traditions, today is Gaudete Sunday, Joyful Sunday. It comes from an old tradition of Advent as a time of repentance leading up to the celebration of Christmas. At one time, Advent was a time to think on the ‘Four Last Things’: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. For some, Advent is still a time of fasting, like Lent. 

So the Third Sunday of Advent became a little break from the focus on the Four Last Things, a time to focus on joy. One sign of that can be a pink candle, though ours is still purple. (One thing I’ve decided: God is less concerned with the colours we use that almost anything else. The colours are for our benefit, not for God’s.) 

Giving you this potted history helps to understand why the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent direct us to joy. Isaiah 35 begins,

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

I wish that were the case right now in Australia. Instead, the land burns and is laid waste, and the powers that be do anything except address the issue. Perhaps true joy, deep joy, comes once hardship is faced and lives changed so that we can feel a worthwhile, lasting joy—along with peace and hope and love, the Advent themes that we are more familiar with. 

Perhaps there’s no joy until we face the pain of our land, which goes beyond those unprecedented fires. This pain includes the frontier wars that decimated the first peoples, who today are still not recognised as they should be. This pain is a result of greed, which means that water is not allocated properly. 

Pain runs deep in our country, and it will not be patched over. Until the roots of its pain are addressed, we shall not know true joy. 

Advent is about looking for Jesus as he comes to us; does he come to us in painful times? Is he ‘Emmanuel, God with us’ through those times? 

Let’s look some more at Isaiah 35:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

Isaiah looks to a coming time in which everything will be made right. The eyes of the unseeing will be opened, the deaf will hear, the infirm will walk, the speechless talk. 

But what of those who don’t see, hear, walk, talk too well? Without my glasses and hearing aids I have a certain difficulty hearing and reading. People close to me need a wheelchair to get around, or suffer from a form of dysphasia. Do we count? Are we incomplete? 

Do you have to be made whole? Can’t you have any deficiencies? Does Jesus come this Advent time to people who aren’t perfect? Is he like Santa, making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice? Or maybe he’s a Calvinist Santa Claus—everyone is predestined to be naughty… No one gets a present… 

This may not be a very live question to us at West End Uniting. But I have known Christians for whom it has been a very real question. Let me tell you about some. 

When I was a student minister in the 1980s, I met with a young married couple then in their early thirties. The parents of the wife were part of our congregation; they were worried about their son-in-law. He, in his thirties remember, had a form of cancer with a very poor prognosis. They had been invited by their neighbours to a Christian church that boasted a 100% record in healing people through prayer. This church told the couple they’d never had a failure yet.

The couple were desperate, of course; they grasped at any skerrick of hope that came their way. She quickly joined this group, and he wasn’t far behind. She was soon speaking in tongues. She’d arrived, spiritually. 

You may have guessed where this is going: after a few months, he died of cancer. It was a disaster for his poor wife. It was also a disaster for the church. They had to make sense of his death. In my opinion, they made a terrible mess of it. 

To support the family, I attended the funeral. I have to say it was bizarre. The verses quoted in the service were from books like Ecclesiastes and Job, about the inscrutable ways of God and how we can’t understand God’s ways. We heard that if someone had enough faith, healing was theirs. But if they didn’t have enough faith, well…they weren’t healed. This church played Blame the Victim. 

Now, I recall nothing from the funeral of any word that this poor man may now be with Jesus; if they did mention it, it was squeezed out for me by the heavy emphasis on the God whose ways are too mysterious for us to comprehend. A god who is really quite capricious. I left the service feeling heavy; I received nothing of God’s grace that day. 

Over the next few months, this young widow kept going to that church. They had become her people. She met someone, I don’t know where, and this man moved in with her. She was trying to find some kind of happiness once more. 

The church told her that she couldn’t both live with this man and be part of the church. She had to choose. 

She chose. She left the church. 

I think that if you were a whole person in that church, you could have a great experience. But if you weren’t whole, there was no place for you. You didn’t fit. That applied whether you were dying from cancer or, in your grief, looking for someone to love. 

Isaiah is actually more modest than that. He says:

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
Be strong, do not fear!

The community of faith includes us who are weak and feeble as well as those who are vibrant and pulsing with life. God says to us, ‘Do not fear! I am with you.’ (And if I have my hearing aids in, I stand a chance of hearing it with you.)

Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. All of us. Each one. No one is left behind, even the weak-kneed among us. 

Jesus comes to us in those difficult periods of life. We are not abandoned. We may be healed, but much more often our feeble knees are made a little firmer, our weak hands a bit stronger. This happens because we seek the strength of the One who comes to us whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. We lean on the One who loved us and gave himself for us. 

Any time of year, newer church traditions tell us that we can be healed if we have faith, and then blame the victim who fails to be healed. 

In Advent, older church traditions emphasise the Four Last Things of Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. 

We focus on another Four Last Things in Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

Hope, peace, joy and love can be ours now—at least a foretaste of them. It is they that ‘strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees’. They are the fruit of a life seeking God and God’s Spirit within and in the world.

Hope keeps our eyes on the One who is risen. Hope enables us to work in this difficult time of history, this time of oppression of the asylum seeker, of the dehumanisation of queer people, or the climate catastrophe that threatens to pull everything into its dark maw. 

Faith convinces us that God’s will is for the healing of creation and for the liberation of human beings. When we work to this end, we work with God. 

Joy sustains us. Joy strengthens us. Joy is that spring of the Spirit within, rising up within us to keep us on track. 

And Love. Love unites us to God and to one another. Love makes us the Body of Christ, a community of grace, a fellowship of the Spirit. Love is eternal. 

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. 

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
Be strong, do not fear!

Amen. 

_____________

West End Uniting Church, 15 December 2019

(Note to online reader: I wasn’t going to go in this direction until I intended to the excellent By the Well podcast from Pilgrim Theological College.)

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Filed under Advent, RCL, sermon

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