Wednesday, December 3, 2014

road to joy

“In times of great change, we can be mourners of the past or midwives of the future.”— 

If nothing else is certain, we know that Isaiah, and Jesus, lived in times of great change. And so Handel’s oratorio Messiah, which many may take as a symbol of triumphalism, actually communicates a response to uncertainty – and insecurity.

Composed, perhaps, or compiled, from 22 August to 14 September 1741, the oratorio came during a period of consolidation of British royal power. The union with Scotland was new but the hegemony over Ireland – where Messiah had its premiere 13 April 1742 – was by now old.

So as we look at the Scriptures selected for the libretto – the book – the words and phrases of this work, we look at something both eternal and unstable – and new.

A new age now begins – Isaiah proclaims, the gospels proclaim – for God who was absent from our lives is now present right in the midst of them. In his first context the prophet Isaiah anticipated the removal of the people from Jerusalem, the Holy City of Judah, and by the 40th chapter of the book of Isaiah that exile is an accomplished fact – but one about ready to be turned over. In the prophecies beginning “Comfort ye my people” the return of the people to the promised land is just over the horizon – and with confidence the passages we read today (Isaiah 40:1-11) look forward to that deliverance. It is a vindication, not of the people, but of their God.

In the 8th century before our era, the king of Judah, the southern of the two kingdoms of the Jews, had been under siege from two allied kings: the king of Syria or Aram (Damascus) and – get this – the king of Ephraim, that is, the northern kingdom of Israel. Besieged, he appealed for help to the great power of the north – the Assyrian empire – and as a matter of course became their vassal. (The northern kingdom fell in 721 BCE and its people were deported, enslaved, and dispersed.) In 701 BCE the Assyrian king Sennacherib nearly destroyed Judah. But Assyria faded and the empire of Babylon took its place. In 586 the southern kingdom fell and the Babylonian captivity of the people of Judah began. It was only in 539 that they were able to anticipate returning home. And they anticipated a return of Glory – that is, of the presence of God shining in their midst as of old.

The prophets of the book of Isaiah took a bold stance. They proclaimed that Cyrus II (“the Great”) of Persia would be the instrument of their deliverance. He – a foreigner, an unbeliever; a non-Jew – would be God’s anointed one, chosen for this task. And anointed one means Messiah. Sure enough Cyrus proved tolerant (for the time) and as Persia conquered Babylon he allowed the subject peoples of the empire of the Middle East to return to their home territories. The Jews anticipated a great awakening of faith, a joyful triumph, a procession of mirth and confidence, through the desert wastes of (modern) Iraq and Syria, from Mesopotamia (the land between the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates) right across the hills to Judea, and the recovery of all that they had lost.

It was not so simple, as later sources say: there was much to rebuild. But the point is: God was at work in the world restoring his people to right relationship with himself, and in doing so, establishing a new order of the ages, where God would dwell in their midst and the divine reign of justice and peace would begin.

This all seemed so far away by Jesus’ time. There the kingdom of the north, Assyria, of the east, Babylon – or, following, Persia – and the kingdom of the south, Egypt, had all been swept away, and new powers, of Greece and Rome, had taken their place. Israel – Judah – again was under the boot-heel of a foreign power – and the people again cried out for deliverance.

Some of them even cried out to God. (While others trusted in the strength of their own arms – or the hope of alliance with yet another foreign power.)

The hope that responds to loss and grief was still there, in competition with despair. And some looked for a savior. Now this savior figure could be a nation – or a person. And in the person of various false messiahs they thought they’d found the answer. They expected a deliverer to be a Son of David, political – and military. What they got was a Son of David, obedient, and a shepherd. But we anticipate. What we know today from today’s lesson (Isaiah 40) is that the season of expectation has begun – a season of preparation, of joyful expectation, one in which to make a highway for our God.

Let’s look at the passage as chosen and organized by Handel’s librettist Charles Jennens.

What questions confront us from the text?

How is our own time a time of expectation – and fulfillment?

How are we preparing the way for the Advent of God’s anointed – his change agent – in our own lives?

What does it mean to have a real, deep, grounded faith as opposed to a superficial understanding? Does it mean simply that we have begun to go deeper in our understanding of what was always there – or have we begun to see (God at work in the world) in new ways?

How can we bring this new reality into production in our lives? – as a people, a congregation, a community; as individual persons?

So – what is the good news for us? How is the expectation of Isaiah 40 a message of hope for us?

How can we share it?

Can we see as far as Isaiah saw, that even the most unlikely human could be made an instrument of God’s returning glory?

What does it mean to have GOD WITH US?

A highway for our God: do we make it? do we walk on it? or is it God alone – or his anointed – who travels the way?

How could God allow exile? abandonment? Is it false to hope for salvation?

Does God’s arrival redeem the time?

What do you look for as signs of hope? 


Herbert O’Driscoll – January 31, 2010 (sermon at St Alban's Episcopal Church, Edmonds, Wash.)

Union of Scotland and England

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