Archives for December 2005

Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2005

December 25, 2005

(RCL) Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around the, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

There is a clergy person who, like many others, makes a practice of visiting a nursing home in her community every week. In that nursing home there is a resident, a woman, whose mind is as sharp as anyone’s, but because of her illness, she can no longer walk or speak.  She communicates mostly by gestures, or by spelling words in her lap with her one good hand.  She and her clergy visitor have become good friends over the years they have known each other, and, as friends do, the clergy visitor occasionally runs little errands for her friend, small tasks that her friend can no longer do for herself.  A week or so ago she waved her visitor into her room with some sense of urgency.  There on her bed was a paper napkin with a picture drawn on it, and looking straight at her visitor, she pointed to that napkin over and over again.  It was obvious that this was something important.  Her clergy visitor looked closely, and there she saw her friend had sketched, as best she could, what appeared to be a flashlight.  “Is that a flashlight?” the visitor asked.  Her friend’s head nodded up and down, while she pointed first at the picture and then to herself.  The visitor laughed.  “You want a flashlight?”  The head nodded again.  “Whatever for?” the visitor asked.  But there was no deterring her.  In her own way she made it known that this was a matter of great concern and importance to her, and that was that.  So the clergy visitor agreed.

The next time the visitor went to the nursing home she made sure that she had the flashlight in hand.  She walked into her friend’s room, shining the light all over the walls.  A big smile crossed her friend’s face, and a look that could only be interpreted as relief.  “Please,” the visitor said, “tell me what this is all about.  Why do you need a flashlight?”  Her friend moved her wheelchair towards the door and indicated that her visitor was to follow.  Together they went down the hall to the nurse’s station, where one of the aides told the visitor that, a few weeks earlier, during a week of heavy rain and high winds, the power in the nursing home had gone out for a time.  Her friend had become frightened, and she wanted the assurance that if it happened again, she would have that small beam of light to shine in the darkness and ease her fears.

For all of us, there are always those times in our lives when fear and worry get the best of us.  To the rest of the world they may seem totally unfounded and even ridiculous, but to those who live in the midst of them, they can be very real and totally overwhelming.  Big or small, these fears can take over our lives so that they literally become who we are and what we do. There are many examples of these fears: fear of the unknown, fear of illness or loss of health, fear of waiting for the results of a medical test, fear of losing a job or fear of ever getting a new one.  There is also fear for our children and what the future will hold for them.  Every one of these powerful fears can send a stab through our hearts.

Blessedly for all of us, we have this glorious season of Christmas that comes again and again each and every year to remind us and to renew within us the realization of the wonderful gift to us from a loving God – a God who sent God’s only son into the world to take those very fears upon himself and replace them with the joyous Christmas message of light and love and hope.

In many of the Christmas stories that are read from Scripture during the weeks before Christmas, we hear of God’s messengers, the angels, delivering this very message.  Do not be afraid.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to announce that his wife Elizabeth would become the mother of John the Baptist, even in her old age, Gabriel’s first words to him were, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, your prayer has been heard”.  Not long after, Gabriel appeared again, this time to Mary, to announce that she would be the mother of Jesus.  And again his first words were, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God”.  And an angel appeared to Joseph, too.  He was betrothed to Mary and it would have been understandable in those days if he had sent her away, but the angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”.  And finally, on Christmas Day, in glorious splendor and light, an angel appeared to the shepherds on a hillside while they were tending their sheep and said to them, “Fear not, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord”.

All of these people were just ordinary folk who, each in their own way, were asked to overcome their fears and, in faith and obedience to a loving God, do improbable and difficult things.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were elderly and I’m sure many of their friends and neighbors had much to say as Elizabeth became obviously pregnant in her old age.  Mary, on the other hand, was just a child of perhaps fourteen or fifteen.  She was unmarried and so a disgrace to her family and to Joseph, her betrothed.  Everyone would have understood if Joseph had put her away from him.  According to the times, he could have had her stoned, but he did not.  Because of the angel’s words, he stood by her and held his head, and Mary’s, high.  As for the shepherds, they were the lowliest of the low.  Always smelly and dirty from herding their sheep, they lived apart from the other townspeople and were shunned by them.  And yet they were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth, and they went quickly to see the babe in the manger.

All of these people were asked to do difficult things, things that were totally out of character for them, and things we can be sure they never would have chosen for themselves.  It is obvious that they were afraid.  But Scripture tells us, too, that they were faithful people.  Not only did they believe in God, but they trusted in God and in God’s love.  They knew deep down in their hearts that if God asked something of them, God would also provide the strength and the courage and everything they needed to get the job done.

Now Christmas is here again for each and every one of us.  The gifts of that first Christmas are as true today as they were on the first Christmas more than 2,000 years ago.  Out of God’s constant and abiding love, God waits to give them to you through God’s best gift of all, the gift of God’s own Son, come to earth as a tiny babe born in a manger in Bethlehem.  May God fill your heart with his love this Christmas, and may that love overcome your fears and set you free to accept the gifts God came to bring to each of you, gifts of light and hope and peace.

— The Rev. Judith Carrick, a vocational deacon serving in the Diocese of Long Island, is currently assigned to St. Anselm’s Church in Shoreham, New York.

Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2005

December 24, 2005

(RCL) Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

The birth of the Messiah in a lowly stable is current news. Just a year ago Newsweek devoted a December issue to the topic. It was quite good! It talked about how modern scholarship attempts to unravel what happened or didn’t some 2,000 years ago. It leaves the reader with a lot of unanswered questions, and a feeling that the investigations into the historical background for the birth narratives of Jesus might just be a blind alley.

There has always been resistance to accepting the story of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the babe in the manger. In fact, resistance has a lot to do with how anyone comes to terms with the Nativity. But did you ever wonder how it is that God’s way of working in the world is designed to minimize resistance? Had the announcement of the birth of Jesus been broadcast widely, the Roman Empire would have done everything possible to suppress the event. In fact Herod typifies the resistance. Though a Jew, he is so threatened by what he hears from the wise men, who are only asking for information about finding Jesus, that he sets out to destroy every male two years of age or less, just to be sure no usurper comes along to challenge his reign—as if God were interested in doing that.

In the science fiction stories about the Starship Voyageur, the Borg are creatures depicted assimilating every life form with which they come in contact. “Resistance is futile,” is their mantra. But in one episode one of the starship crew becomes part of the Borg and discovers that by not resisting actual liberation from them is possible. This is precisely what God chose to do.

We are all resistant to change, new ideas, even new ways of keeping house! “My mother always did it that way; don’t change it!” “This new plan by management will never work!” “We’ve never done it that way before!” Somehow we think resistance will win out over change. Sometimes it does, but rarely. At best it can delay things, even in Congress!

That is because in spite of our natural inclination to resist there is also a drive to move ahead, to open new frontiers and see things in a new light. God seems to work this way. Our God is not a God of tradition and unchanging revelation. Our God does new things.

The Birth of the Messiah had been “in the works” for a long time. In fact, the whole of Scripture up to the New Testament can be read as God’s preparation for this event, the birth of Jesus. And there was resistance. The people led by Moses were unruly, complaining, and disobedient. They preferred Egypt’s slavery to wandering in the desert. Many of the ancient kings of Israel turned against the ways of the Lord. The 8th Century BCE prophets were repudiated, even the greats like Amos and Hosea.

But the plan prevailed, and now comes the birth event itself. Yes, on this Holy Night we are all but there, “standing on the tiptoe of expectation,” as one Gospel writer puts it. But that’s because we know the story. The actual birth of Jesus was a quiet, unheralded event except for a few motley shepherds, the Holy Family and some seers from the East.

And that’s the point. God chose a path to be born into humanity that would encounter little resistance because God wanted to join the resistance, not provoke it. The author, Rick Maurer, in his book entitled Beyond the Wall of Resistance: Unconventional Strategies that Build Support for Change, writes about the phenomenon of resistance and how one overcomes it by actually joining it. Well, God knew about this before Mr. Maurer did! God joined the resistance, if you will, by choosing to be born into it, lowly and quietly in a backwater region of the Roman Empire through the biological birth process of a young girl, probably 14 or so.

It is this method of God’s, taking the path of joining the resistance, that makes the Christmas story believable. If Luke had chosen to depict Jesus’ birth in terms of cosmic, earth-shaking conquests, if Luke had portrayed dominions and powers being toppled, it would never have worked. Few people approach the Messiah as conquering king. Most of us come to the crib, gaze into it and wonder, wonder if the light of the Christ Child is really strong enough to overcome the great resistance of the darkness.

And so far, it seems, that is exactly what happens. Slowly, deliberately, and with apparent failures and setbacks, the plan of salvation unfolds. It’s not a smoothly rising road, but a journey with rocks and deserts in the way for most of us. But this crib is the starting place, and it teaches us all something profound about God’s nature. God does not choose to use power to overwhelm us; rather God uses the most compelling possible strategy, being born as a human being, to lead us back to our loving creator. Nothing else would have or could have worked. The writers of the Gospel saw that, and used the birth narrative to illustrate this truth. True, they each wrote about it from different perspectives, but the account of Joseph, Mary, the shepherds and the wise men is more than a charming story.

How do you measure resistance to God? America is still a church-going nation, but if you came from another planet and read newspapers or watched the six o’clock news you would never know it. The resistance is in full swing every day. Good news is hard to find. It always has been. It doesn’t make good copy.

Luke is not interested in any of this. As a writer, as a believer, he wants one thing to be clear: God came and was born among us, quietly but with every intention of joining the resistance and conquering it, one soul at a time. That is the miracle, the Good News prevailing. This is the night when we can shed our resistance anew, and find that simple things like a birth in a manger matter more than anything.

This is the night when heaven and earth are joined in a glorious way, with human beings at the center of the joint. This is the night when “the hopes and fears of all the years” are resolved by a stable and a star. This is the night when we can truly sleep in heavenly peace, because we know that God has entered our world to reclaim it forever.

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is staff officer for congregational development, rural and small church communities, at the Episcopal Church Center.

4 Advent (B) – 2005

December 18, 2005

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Everybody knows that oysters sometimes make pearls; and that fascinating reality has been used to illustrate many a point. But here’s an old truth said in a new way, a way that gives it more power. It seems pearls aren’t automatic. When an oyster – who must ordinarily have an enviably calm life lying around eating soft, pleasant food – somehow gets a bit of sand inside its shell, then one of two things will happen. The oyster will create a pearl, or it will die. The pearl, a thing of beauty and value, is the oyster’s way of staying alive after something very irritating has gotten past its shell, into its heart.

That little bit of marine biology is background for today’s Gospel – not to present any sermonic pearls; be they pearls of wisdom, or pearls of great price. Instead, let’s examine the grain of sand, a bit of irritation, something small and rough that can slip past our shells and give us all something to work on. We – and indeed the church itself, in this and every generation – need to work on this bit of sand very carefully. It will not go away; and we will either make of it a pearl, or, in one way or another, we will die.

The grit, like the oyster’s sand, is well hidden in pleasant, soft food. The Gospel we just heard is a portion of what is called the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. It is after supper “in the night in which He was betrayed.” Jesus is praying for his disciples, and for us. He prays for our unity, for our joy, and for our safety and protection. Jesus says that we are not of the world, but that we should none the less remain in the world – for our ministry is to be in the world, and for the world.

Now remember, when Jesus says “world” here, He is not talking about the created order: rocks and trees and rabbits and things like that. He is talking about human society organized as it sees best for its own purposes.

He is talking about business as usual; about the government, the society, the culture, the various human institutions; the world in that sense, doing what it usually does.

And Jesus says of his disciples that the world has hated them because they are not of the world. This hatred is to be the fate, indeed it is to be a real, distinguishing mark, of all who follows Jesus. They are to stand out because they don’t really fit in.

The bit of grit is this: When was the last time the world hated you because you belong to Jesus and not to the world? When was the last time your faith so set you apart from business as usual that you were met with anger, ridicule, or hatred? How about a little bit of contempt? Mild dislike? How about a tiny bit of irritation?

Hey, maybe Jesus was wrong; maybe, these days, we really are of the world, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But somehow that’s doubtful. Or maybe the Kingdom of God has arrived, and we just missed everything about it except for how convenient it is for us. But that’s doubtful too.

We need to ask whether we have become so totally caught in our culture, become so totally of the world that we have to work hard to discover if we are different, and how we are different, and what it looks like for us to be different, and whether it is worth it to be different.

In many ways it was easier for the early church. As an occasionally persecuted minority in a pagan culture, a lot of things were clear. For example, Christians couldn’t attend the public games, they couldn’t hold several types of jobs, they couldn’t join the army, and so on. The world often ridiculed or hated them – and both sides pretty much knew why.

It’s not so easy these days. Modern attempts to come up with lists of popular things Christians can’t do have usually been rather silly. And we Episcopalians have been downright smug in pointing out that we aren’t like those people (you know, the Baptists, and others) who say you can’t dance or wear make-up or go to movies.

By the way, have you ever noticed that nobody ever really nails us on that? Instead of trying to establish God’s disapproval for the waltz or bingo, they could really hit home if they responded to our self-righteous lack of lists with another question. What if they said, “OK, have your martini and go to the dance, but before you do, tell me how your faith does affect your life; show me how it makes a difference.” That is the grit for us oysters.

One way we try to get out of this pinch can cause a lot of trouble. That way is saying that it is the Church’s job to fix the world so there will be no conflicts for us to worry about. So from time to time, we rear back and try to change everything within reach so we can be both righteous and of the world at the same time. We do that in all sorts of ways, from all sorts of directions. Now, on one level, this is good. It is very important that we engage the world and try very hard to make things better. We need to do this; but we need to avoid getting confused about what that means. And we get confused easily.

It is not hard to forget that God will bring in the Kingdom, not us. And even worse, we find it very easy to begin supporting what we think is a good cause, for Christian reasons, and then to end up holding onto the cause and forgetting the Christian part of it altogether. Of course, the best way to tell whether the cause or the Christianity is more important is by looking at how we treat people who don’t agree with our cause.

And we get confused when we forget that the Lord does not call us to be powerful or effective as the world sees power and effectiveness. The Lord calls us to be faithful – to live his life, to follow his steps. Part of that involves remembering that, of the twelve disciples, Judas was the most effective at using both money and the powers that be to get what he wanted. Just trying to fix things doesn’t get rid of our problems, either.

This is grit, not pearls. We don’t have a list of rules telling us how not to be of the world because we know that it isn’t that simple. Still, we do know, and we must never forget, that the way we treat each other, and the way we treat our bodies, and our time, and our money, and the things we call “mine” – these are and will remain very important. And our Lord has something to say about them. We also know that all the good works, reforms, and changes we make, as important as they are, will not take away the problem, either. This side of the Kingdom, the world as Jesus spoke of it of business as usual, this will always, in one or another, be the alternative to faithfulness, and not the means to it.

We need to make our own pearls, or we will die. We need to look honestly at the world, at the culture around us, and at we are – and who the Lord would have us be. We must always make choices. We may even discover that Jesus was right, and that, in one way or another, the world will hate us. But the Lord continues to pray for us, we are promised all of the help we need. And pearls come from the oddest places.

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire, the biography of our controversial 22nd Presiding Bishop, and current member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, lives in semi-retirement with his wife Toni in Bastrop, Texas, a small town near Austin.

3 Advent (B) – 2005

December 11, 2005

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Sometimes the folks who put the Lectionary – the lists of Sunday readings – together do a really wonderful job. Sometimes it’s questionable, as in August, but today it’s a perfect pairing.

John the Baptist, the gospel tells us, was traveling around baptizing people. This was a departure from traditional Jewish practice, and that – and the fact that he was drawing crowds of people – attracted lots of attention: people were interested, and the authorities were interested. In addition, the people were looking for someone – Jewish tradition promised the arrival of a messiah. Life under Roman rule was difficult, unless you were a Roman citizen, so the people of Israel and Judea were hoping for a messiah to rescue them, to drive out the Romans.

With these high expectations, they questioned John: are you the messiah? But John said, no, he was not. There was another coming, he said, for whom he was only preparing the way. We see here a picture of John early in his ministry. We hear how he speaks of Jesus, the one to come.

The Old Testament lesson also makes this connection for us. It is the lesson from Isaiah that Jesus reads in the synagogue at the start of his public ministry. So we have John and his ministry, Jesus and his ministry, and the description in Isaiah of the ministry to which we all are called.

John was baptizing people and calling them to repentance and forgiveness, to a new relationship with God. Jesus did so, too, calling his followers to a new life in the Spirit. In using the words of Isaiah, Jesus harkens back to his own ancient tradition of caring for the marginalized, and sets out the heart of the Christian calling: to care for the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the outcast, the marginalized; to bring release to the captives; to proclaim the kingdom of God.

Just a few weeks ago, on the last Sunday of the church year, we heard the parable of the sheep and the goats from the Gospel of Matthew. This parable speaks of those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison – and those who do not. This is exactly in line with what we heard today from Isaiah – and again, with the words Jesus chose to introduce his public ministry. In Year C of the Sunday lectionary, when we read the Gospel of Luke, we will once again read these same phrases from Isaiah. And we hear this message repeated again and again in Jesus’ words and actions: care for the poor and the sick, strive for justice, and bring hope to the outcast and release to the captives.

We are now, of course, in the season of Advent, part of the church year, the season of waiting. In the northern hemisphere, people wait as the days become shorter. As the darkness grows, we – like our ancient ancestors – await the turning of the seasons and the return of the sun, the return of the light and warmth.

As Christians, we also wait. We await the birth of the Holy Child, the return of the Son, the Light of the World – just as John waited in his time for the coming of the Messiah. Our earthly waiting mirrors our spiritual waiting.

So we have this paradox set before us, between waiting and action, for we are called to both. Even in this time of quiet, of waiting, of anticipation, the world is also waiting for us. Just as John carried out his ministry while he waited for Jesus, we must remember that waiting does not preclude action. Often we think that we must either be contemplative, as in this contemplative season, or active, busy, doing. Yet as Parker Palmer points out in his book The Active Life, we need both. We may naturally be drawn more to one aspect than the other, but there is room for both in each person’s life. In fact, some of each is necessary for a rich and balanced life.

Most of us live pretty unbalanced lives in so many ways – we work too much; we eat poorly; we don’t exercise or we are obsessed by it; we allow too little time for rest, play, or prayer; and so on. We live in an unbalanced society that equates doing and busyness with self-worth. And the irony is that this time of waiting comes at such a busy, stressful time for most of us – the holiday season.

But perhaps, therein, lies the greatest lesson of Advent, and the greatest challenge. In the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year that the natural world slows down. The light wanes, the days grow shorter, lakes and streams slow and freeze, the mountains retreat into their snowy vastness, animals and plants hibernate and wait for spring. We are invited to slow down as well. Our bodies want to slow down, to sleep more. And in the old days, this was the time to mend the fishing nets and farm tools, the time for sewing and telling stories around the fire, for going to bed early. Life slowed down. It was part of the natural cycle. But with all our modern conveniences, we pay little heed to the rhythms of nature – and besides, it’s holiday season and there’s too much to do!

So one side of Advent is to learn how to slow down, how to enter into this more measured time of year, to enter into the waiting and the quiet contemplation. That’s one of the reasons behind the tradition of not decorating the church – or our homes – and not singing carols until closer to Christmas. It’s a way of honoring that quieter, less hectic time, a way of taking a time out, if you will – to stop and rest, and breathe, and prepare.

And yet, and yet we know that even in the midst of what is to be a more unhurried time, the world still cries out in need, still groans in travail. The hungry still need food, the naked still need clothing, the sick and imprisoned need our attention, the poor and the downtrodden need justice. That is the heart of our call, and the heart of this season. After all, we speak of Jesus as Emmanuel, as “God with us,” wonderful counselor, Prince of Peace. If we believe that, if these are more than just fancy words, we have to find a way to make them real, to embody them.

We may feel worn out by the needs of the world crying out from every corner of the globe: poverty, war, famine, genocide, disaster, homelessness, greed, and injustice. And this past year has been devastating, with floods and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis and genocide and violence. The death toll in Iraq exceeds 2,000 American soldiers, and thousands of Iraqis, both military and civilian. The death toll in Darfur in the Sudan keeps growing. Young women keep disappearing in Juarez, Mexico. All over the world, including in our own country, children go to bed hungry. Violence and abject poverty walk the streets of our wealthiest cities, on reservations and in villages, and in the quiet homes of our own neighborhoods.

How do we begin to meet these overwhelming needs? Since we are not God, we cannot fix everything. We can only do what we are called to do by the Spirit. And to understand that, we need Advent and other times of quiet contemplation where we can go deep inside and hear the whisperings of the Spirit as it calls us to our own individual and communal work in the world. Advent serves as a reminder of this need to take time out from the usual clamor of our lives.

Just as babies are not born without a period of gestation in the darkness of the womb, and just as spring bulbs do not blossom without a waiting period in the dark soil, so we do not bloom and flourish without times of quiet and rest. The season of Advent is one of those times, a time of dark and quiet and preparation. Take advantage of this gift of time – don’t let all your time in the next couple of weeks be totally caught up in the frantic holiday craziness. Find some time to reflect on John’s call to repentance – which is not just about sin and forgiveness, but about turning around, turning back to God. In that process of turning around, if you are willing to listen, you may hear more clearly the promptings of the Spirit deep in the quietness of your heart, and receive a clearer vision of how you are called to live out the words of the prophet Isaiah to bring freedom to the captives, sight to the blind, and good news to the poor. And may the Advent season help you find that essential balance between being and doing, between action and contemplation, so that one may inform and nourish the other.

— The Rev. Kathleen L. Wakefield is associate rector at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Juneau, Alaska, a spiritual director and retreat leader, and a wife and mother.

2 Advent (B) – 2005

December 4, 2005

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

In the year 539 BC, Cyrus, the ruler of the Persians, conquered the Babylonians. A relatively benign and tolerant ruler, in the following year Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and Judea and resume their customs and traditions, provided that they recognized his authority. Around the time of Cyrus’ decree, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words”

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
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 Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40.1-2)

“A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it” (Isaiah 40.6-7).

When we read Isaiah we should remember that the prophets of Israel were poets. Modern translations of the Bible are helpful, because unlike older translations, the newer ones arrange many of the words of the prophets in poetic lines and verses. Not only was Isaiah a poet, there is an inherently musical quality in many of his words that musicians throughout the ages have recognized.

There can hardly be a person in most churches who can hear or read the first verse of Isaiah 40 without mentally hearing George Frederick Handel’s magnificent setting of the Authorized Version of this text: “Comfort ye, my people.” That setting, of course, is one of the arias in Handel’s Messiah, an oratorio that premiered in Dublin in 1751

But how many people also hear in their heads Johannes Brahms’ setting of verse 7: “The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it…” Brahms set Isaiah’s words for his moving German Requiem that premiered in Dresden in 1868.

The two settings could not be more different. Handel’s setting of the words “Comfort ye, my people” is tender, sweet, and lyrical. Brahms’ setting of “the grass withers, the flower fades” is rugged and stern. Handel’s music lulls and soothes us with its message of profound comfort; Brahms’ music is a chilling but necessary reminder of our mortality. Yet, there was one inspiration for both composers: Isaiah’s words spoken to Jewish exiles in faraway Babylon.

What possible connection could the two messages have? Could chapter 40 of Isaiah have been sung by the Jewish exiles in Babylon? We know that they sang. Psalm 137 records the poignant lament of the exiles: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion… For there our captors asked us for songs and our tormentors asked for mirth… How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137.1-4) Music has a remarkable power to refresh, sustain, and lift spirits. Think of the African-American spirituals sung by captured Africans in their exile. Like the words of Isaiah, the words of the spirituals are both comforting and mournful: “Deep river … my home is over Jordan,”  “Steal away to Jesus,” and “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”

The Jewish exiles in Babylon needed comfort, for they knew all too well that human flesh was as weak and frail as the grass and flowers that briefly flourished on the Judean hillsides before being blasted and withered by the hot, dry winds. Like the scorching sirocco they had seen the Babylonian chariots sweep down on them. They had seen Jerusalem and Solomon’s great temple burn like so much dry grass. And like dry straw scattered in the wind they had been scattered; some of them had gone into exile in Egypt, most had been taken by the enemy to Babylon. What they had not yet seen was this “comfort” of which Isaiah spoke.

Advent reminds us that we, too, are exiles. The exiles in Babylon looked back to the days when they lived peacefully in their own lands and looked forward to their return. Like the exiles in Babylon, we live between the times, looking back to God’s coming among us in the babe of Bethlehem and to his coming again “in power and great glory”. Like the Jewish exiles and like African captives brought to America, we need songs to sustain us. We need songs to lift our spirits, because we also know that “all people are grass,” that human flesh is as insubstantial as a flower in the desert.

Interestingly, the word Isaiah used for breath, ruach, is also the word for wind and spirit. God sends the sirocco from the desert and the breath in our lungs and the spirit that sustains our being. The sirocco withers the grass; the body dies when the breath is withdrawn; and the spirit is God’s to send or withdraw as God pleases. Just as we fill our lungs with air to sing our songs of exile, so God’s Spirit fills our beings.

The familiar songs of Advent are often songs of longing and exile: “O come, O come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel that waits in lonely exile here.” But Advent points us toward a future when we will be given a new song to sing, not a song of exile but a song of triumphant redemption. For we journey through a world and a time when there is often little sign of God’s presence. The spirit or wind that touches our lives seems too often to be the hot, dry desert wind that withers the flowers of the field. But we journey on with God’s song on our lips and God’s breath in our lungs and God’s spirit sustaining us. We journey on toward a world and a time when the grass and the flowers will flourish, the trees will clap their hands, and all of God’s creation will sing joyously, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Even so, quickly come, Lord Jesus.

 

— The Rev. Dr. J. Barry Vaughn, has preached at Harvard University’s Memorial Church, Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution. More than 50 of his sermons have been published. He holds degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. Presently, he teaches history at the University of Alabama.