We started Lent by thinking about creation, about how God made the world and saw that it was good. Then last week we thought about disconnection, about how broken relationships have spoiled that goodness. And on Sunday we thought about anticipation, about our sense of waiting for that goodness to be restored. The Bible is full of anticipation, of expectation, of hope. It was what allowed the Jewish people to keep their faith through the long years of exile, and it shaped the earliest Christian communities and sustained them under persecution. So we thought a little about the importance of hope in scripture, but also about the importance of hope in our own lives.
Last week we heard from Isaiah 59, and recalled how the prophets named the sins of the people and called them to justice, but the prophets had another message too, and so on Sunday we heard from Isaiah 42, one of a number of passages that promise restoration. They speak of holy mountains, of streams bubbling up, of cities being rebuilt - and of the one who is to come. Isaiah 42 is the first of what have become known as the four servant songs, which speak of the Servant of the Lord, who is called to bring justice, is horribly abused, but is ultimately vindicated by God.
These passages have long been read by Christians as messianic prophecies relating to Christ, but it is important that while maintaining the integrity of our own reading, we also recognise and respect that Jewish tradition reads these passages differently, often understanding the servant to represent Israel not the Messiah, and certainly not Jesus. In the Jewish midrashic tradition, a valid interpretation of scripture is any which does not do violence to text, and it is perfectly acceptable to hold two opposing views as equally valid. It does not do violence to this passage to read it as speaking either of Israel or of Jesus, and so we need to hold the two together.
Either way, the passage we have heard speaks with anticipation, with expectation, with hope. It promises justice brought with gentleness and humility and determination. It promises healing and freedom and a more inclusive covenant. And it promises that new things are on their way. The book of Isaiah claims to have been written in the years preceding the exile to Babylon, although some scholars think the later chapters were written during the exile itself, but whenever these words were written, it seems likely that they accompanied the Jewish people in Babylon. How powerful those promises must have been for people dislocated from their homes and uncertain of the future.
It is no wonder that they were preserved and prized. The Hebrew scriptures seem to have taken their final form sometime in the first century, so synagogues in the time of Jesus would not have had copies of what we now call the Old Testament, but a collection of scrolls which would have included the Torah and some of the prophets. We know that the scroll of Isaiah was kept in the synagogue in Nazareth because Jesus read from it, and I imagine these promises gave much hope and comfort under Roman occupation, as they had in Babylonian captivity.
One of the wonderful things about prophecy is that, much like poetry, it can have multiple layers of meaning and significance. It can bring hope in exile and under occupation and even now. We still long for justice brought with gentleness and humility and determination. We still need freedom and healing and that more inclusive covenant. We still dream that new things are on their way. And because God’s promises endure, he still promises these things. These words were not written to us, but that does not mean they are not for us. Climate change, rising fundamentalism in all directions, Brexit...to many it feels like we are living in a hopeless time, but we are not a people without hope.
So what does it mean for us to hope? Let’s think a little more about these multiple layers of meaning and significance. This passage can speak of Israel and of Jesus and so perhaps it can also speak of the church. We are the body of Christ and so perhaps we should understand ourselves as the servant who brings forth justice in faithfulness, who does not falter and is not discouraged. What then does it mean to read this passage as saying that that our hope is not dependent on waiting for the servant to show up, but on realising that he already has, and now we are the servant who has been commissioned and empowered by God?
It means we do the work of justice. We welcome the stranger. We sign the petition. We raise awareness. We give what we can. We challenge hate. And we do it faithfully and persistently. Firmly but not aggressively. We become a light and a hope for the world. We pray “your kingdom come” and then we set out to build the kingdom, bringing about that state of affairs where God’s will is done. We anticipate the fulfilment of God’s promises by working with him to see them fulfilled. Our anticipation is not passive but active.
Why not go back and read those verses again now? But this time hear them as spoken to you, and then take some time to reflect on them, and on how you can anticipate actively by working for the fulfilment of God’s promises.
Later in the service, we heard a reading from Hebrews 11. I imagine that is a familiar passage to many. In fact I’m sure we had a cross-stitched version of the first verse on a wall in the house I grew up in. I chose it as our second reading because it speaks of faith, and faith is another way of speaking about anticipation. I’m not talking here about the content of our faith, but its essence, a sure and certain belief that there is more to come.
“Faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see.” Many people are quick to criticise faith as wishful thinking, and perhaps that verse alone does little to dispel that, but what follows is important, because this passage relates story after story of people who lived by a faith that was so much more than wishful thinking. Noah built an ark against all logic. Abraham packed up and headed into a strange country. Sarah bore an impossible child. Moses rejected his life of privilege as an adopted prince and demanded freedom for his people. Daniel disobeyed the king and shut the mouths of lions. The prophets performed crazy stunts and spoke words they knew would be hard to hear. Many suffered persecution and death.
For these men and women, faith was not a nice idea or a vague wish. It was the thing that drove them, that gave them meaning and direction. Of course we know how those stories ended, that for the most part their faith was vindicated and even rewarded, but they didn’t know the ending while they were stuck in the middle, and that is what made their faith so crucial. It was their anticipation of the fulfilment of promise that kept them going.
I’ve quoted Samwise Gamgee before, but that humble hobbit was a great philosopher. I don’t want to take for granted that everyone is as big a Tolkien nerd as the Greenwoods, but I hope it is enough to say that this passage comes at a particularly dark moment in The Lord of the Rings, when the road ahead looks impossible, and it would have been very easy to give up hope of ever destroying the One Ring and saving Middle Earth.
“It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for.”
Maybe we have lived through those stories. Maybe we feel like we’re living in one of those stories right now. Maybe there is so much darkness and danger that we feel things can never be right again. Maybe we want to turn back or just give up. But this is not the end of the story. Every shadow passes, every death is followed by resurrection, but sometimes we have to wait, and that is why hope is so important. I’ve talked before about my history of mental health. I have had really dark times, but when it feels like things are getting dark again, I don’t despair because I know that there will be an end to it. Holding onto that sure and certain hope has kept a light on and kept me going for nearly twenty years.
Every shadow passes, every death is followed by resurrection, but sometimes we have to wait, and that is why we have to take the longer view. The passage we heard from Hebrews says that these people of faith died waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promise. That may seem surprising as many promises had been fulfilled - Noah survived the flood, Moses led the people out of slavery, Daniel walked out of the lion’s den - but here there is a recognition that true fulfilment lies on the other side of eternity, in the fully realised kingdom, in the new city, in the better country. We too hope for the better country, where wrongs will be put right and wounds will be healed and relationships will be restored. Our hope takes us out of this life and into the next one.
I know heaven seems like a really long time to wait, and it may seem like small comfort at times, but I do find assurance in knowing that one day all will be made well. Having said that, waiting for heaven doesn’t mean neglecting earth, or simply accepting all that earth throws at us. We do everything we can to make life as good as it can be, we do the work of justice we talked about earlier, but when things get really tough we remember that this isn’t the end, because we have been told the end of the story and it is good. “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” That is our greatest hope, the anticipation with which we live.