Rev. Teri Peterson
14 December 2014, NL1-15, Advent 3
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
There is a moment in my favorite movie, The Princess Bride, when one of the characters, Inigo, is waiting around at the top of a cliff for the man in black to finish climbing up, so they can have a swordfight. He offers to throw down a rope, so they can move on to the fighting more quickly, but the man in black refuses, and Inigo paces around at the top, saying, “I hate waiting.”
That seems to pretty well sum up our culture. We hate waiting. It used to be that we waited for all kinds of things—to receive a letter from a pen pal or a postcard from vacationing parents, to see how the photos turned out, to watch our favorite show on Thursday night at 8, along with everyone else. In the age of social media, digital photos, and DVR, we have become even more of an on-demand culture than ever before. While we used to hate waiting, now we just don’t wait.
Except for things that are less fun. We still have to wait for the test results. We still have to wait for medicine to work. We still have to wait and see what the jury will decide.
I hate waiting.
And yet there is a whole season of the church calendar—my favorite season, strangely enough—when we wait. We put the brakes on our instant gratification and hold off on turning the lights up full blast, so we can see what kind of new beauty God is offering us in a flickering candle lit against the darkest time of year.
What are we waiting for this Advent season? It is traditionally a season when we anticipate both the Incarnation—God taking on flesh in the form of a peasant baby—and also the return of Christ, sometimes called the Second Coming.
Today, Isaiah offers us a picture of both of these, in one poem. This is what we are waiting for:
The one who will not grow weary until he has established justice.
The one who will open the eyes of the blind and bring the prisoners out of the darkness.
The one who will not break those who are already bruised, who will not put out the light flickering on the verge of hope.
The one on whom the Spirit rests, and whom God has chosen and called and gifted for the task.
Do you hear what I hear?
The prophets writings always have multiple meanings. There is a meaning for his time—a word to the Israelites in exile, wondering where God has gone in the midst of this tragedy. There is a meaning for a future time—we often interpret this passage as being about Jesus, who used this passage as his mission statement. And there is a call to us, the body of Christ, on whom the Spirit and her gifts now rest.
It’s easy for us to see how Jesus is the servant whose portrait Isaiah is painting—he establishes justice without putting out a single light, he literally opens eyes that are blind and brings prisoners out of darkness. His teaching is heard from mountains and valleys and coasts and plains. As we wait for his birth once again, we too, along with Isaiah, long for God’s tangible presence with us, God’s saving word and healing touch. Our world is at least as broken as Isaiah’s, and into the darkness, God promises to send the one who is the light of the world.
And then this very same Jesus, who is the light of the world, will turn around and say to us: you are the light of the world.
He will look at us, the Body of Christ, bruised and fragmented, uncertain and too certain, a barely flickering, dimly burning wick in the midst of the darkness, and say: You are my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon you, to bring forth justice, to open eyes that are blind, to bring prisoners out of darkness. I have given you as a light to the nations.
Surely Jesus knows how much we have on our plates at this time of year, right? And surely Jesus knows that we continue to sin and fall short of God’s vision…and that the Body of Christ is often just as broken as the rest of the world? After all, we are a people more prone to putting people in prison than bringing them out, and justice of the biblical sort is terribly inconvenient for those of us who enjoy our socio-economic status, and we are very busy between all the things we want to do, the things we think we have to do, and giving our leftover time to the things we are called to do. How can we possibly come up with the energy, or the consistency, to be a light in the darkness? The storms of life are raging around us, with a world at war, a political system fractured by ideology, an economy that requires endless consumption, and illness battering our bodies and minds. We look on as our brothers and sisters protest for their lives. We see the grief of the parents of Newtown, two years later. We watch the news of yet another typhoon. We lament the sins of favorite celebrities. All the while, our shopping lists grow and the pressure to succeed mounts. Sometimes it’s all we can do to burn our candle at both ends and wait for Jesus to come and fix it all.
And yet, honestly, we hate waiting.
Theologian Howard Thurman told a story of picking berries in the woods when he was a child. As he went into the woods, a thunderstorm also rolled in. By the time he realized that it was very dark, the rain was falling and he was running in a panic. Suddenly he remembered the instructions he’d been given—when lost, stop and stand still, look and listen. He stopped running, looked around him, and finally saw something familiar, and took a few steps at a time, looking carefully, until he found his way home.*
Of course…that approach requires knowing we are lost. It requires admitting that we cannot do this on our own. It requires being willing to follow rather than insisting on going our own way. It requires stopping our running around, and listening for a different possibility even when that seems foolish.
Luckily, the prophet tells us that God isn’t just leaving us out in the storm, nor is God expecting us to generate the light ourselves. Did you hear it? God says: “I, who created the heavens and spread out the earth, I have taken you by the hand and kept you. I have given you as a light.” The light is not our own, it is God’s—and no matter how unclear the path, God’s got us by the hand and is guiding us. If only we stop, look, and listen. If only we wait just a moment, letting go of our plans and following the one who says “I am the Lord…live to reflect my glory rather than your own. I am doing a new thing, and you’re the first to know about it.”
This Advent, God is indeed doing a new thing. As we await the birth of God in the flesh, perhaps we, the Body of Christ, are the ones we have been waiting for. May the light shine through us, and the darkness not overcome it.
*summarized from a story recounted in the lectionary reflections in the Christian Century, October 18 2011.