In Exile: Here Is Your God
Dec 06, 2020
Second Sunday of Advent
Text: Isaiah 40:1-11
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Exile; it's a word we do not use much in 2020. Exile is prolonged, enforced stay away from one's own community or home and way of life. Today's first reading is set in Exile, but in order to fully grasp its significance, we must know what occurs in the 39 chapters before Isaiah 40.
Prior to Chapter 40, the Prophet Isaiah speaks judgment in God's name. The people of Israel, God's people, have rebelled against God and have put their own desires above others' needs. Therefore, punishment will descend upon them, the Prophet announces; Jerusalem will be destroyed, and the people will go into Exile in far-away Babylon. There is that word again, Exile.
But Chapter 40 signals a change; it has been nearly 50 years since the Exile began and the time has come for a new word, not of judgment but of comfort. Quoting commentator Michael Chan, "This text is a word of tenderness after a very long dark night of judgment. The text is clear about one thing, though. What happened to Jerusalem happened because of the city's sin: 'she has received from the Lord's hand double because of all her sins.'" In that verse the "double punishment" likely refers to excessive violence on the part of the Babylonians. (1)
The people in Exile have suffered, but their lives are about to change. The distance between Babylon and Judea will be traversed. There will be a way in the wilderness (which is a biblical location of evil), a highway in the desert. God will construct a way – the way.
Just as was the case when Moses led Israel out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, God will act on their behalf now. That watershed event in their history (the Exodus), makes it obvious that God has the power to clear the way, to lift up the valleys, and lower the mountains and hills to create a smooth road home. People may be like grass, thriving one day and withering the next, but not God. God is constant, reliable, able to stand forever.
Jerusalem (Zion) will rise from its rubble and proclaim Good News, not lament, because here is a God in whom there is hope. God is powerful and gentle, able to comfort and defend – a Shepherd, just what the Exiles need. All this is the Prophet's message.
It is interesting … the Israelites had experienced long-term trauma; they likely questioned God's love for them, don't you think? Yet, Isaiah's strong message, "Here is your God!", restored hope.
Perhaps what we need to hear in our times of Exile is the unshakable message, "Here is your God!" I do not suppose many of us have experienced an Exile like that of the people of Israel. Still, it is not a completely foreign concept. We know what it means to experience an enforced, prolonged absence from that which is comfortable for various reasons – illness, loss, financial challenges, broken relationships. In fact, in his just-published book, God and the Pandemic, Bishop N.T. Wright notes that the present moment – the pandemic - could be viewed as a time of Exile, as people long for what was comfortable, usual.
He writes: "We find ourselves 'by the waters of Babylon', thoroughly confused and grieving for the loss of our normal life. 'How can I sing the Lord's song in a strange land,' as in Psalm 37, translates quite easily into, 'how can I know the joy of the Eucharist (Holy Communion) sitting in front of the computer.'" (2) Lament is an important and appropriate response to our current Exile, says Bishop Wright. But it is also significant that Christians have a history of responding to times of Exile by proclaiming, "Here is our God," with their words and their lives, even in the midst of fears and doubts.
Bishop Wright notes that in the first centuries of our era when serious sickness would strike a town or city, the well-to-do would run for the hills. Christians would stay and nurse people. Sometimes they caught the disease and died. People were astonished. What was that about? They replied that as followers of Jesus, who loved them sacrificially, they love sacrificially as well.
That, and their strong belief in God's promise of life beyond the grave, enabled them to be cheerful in the face of death and go to the aid of sufferers who had been abandoned for fear of the disease. At least one historian, Rodney Stark, writes that how Christians reacted in the great plagues was a significant factor in contributing to the spread of the faith. (3)
Now, Bishop Wright is not suggesting that we should rush into places where people are ill with Covid-19 and put ourselves – and others - at risk. We commend all the healthcare workers who are doing so, careful in following protocols. I am sure many are making those sacrifices because they are followers of Jesus and feel called to care for those who are ill and suffering.
However, what we can all take from this is that even while in Exile, there are ways to bring hope with words and actions that proclaim: "Here is your God!" For example, Bishop Wright notes that early in the pandemic in the United Kingdom, the government asked for volunteers to help the National Health Service with all the extra urgent non-specialist tasks. Half a million people signed up almost at once – so many that it was hard to find appropriate tasks for them all. (4)
The challenge is, of course, to maintain that willingness to act as the months passed. We are fatigued, and yet the need to be conveyors of hope is perhaps greater than ever. Here is your God is the message of our lives.
There are opportunities to make that known, like volunteering in our community: at the Food Bank, for example; or through supporting outreach, like the Angel Tree and Gift Card projects mentioned earlier; or making phone calls or sending notes to those who are isolated. Recently, the SJ/SP Endowment Fund determined that funding was available to offer DLM and OPEN M grants for their food ministries, which have experienced high demand since March. When the option of submitting a grant request was shared with them, there were tears and the proclamation that the opportunity was an answer to prayer. You see … in Exile, here is your God!
I was thinking as I wrote this sermon that I should have preached it in April. However, I have a feeling that our Pandemic Exile will continue for a while yet. Besides, such challenging times will be repeated in various ways throughout our lives. Then we can imagine Jesus, inserted in Isaiah's poetic promise, making a way where there is no way, a smooth road in the wilderness, offering us comfort and strength. Here – in the midst of it all – is our God. AMEN
(1) Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11, Second Sunday in Advent, by Michael Chan, www.workingpreacher.com
(2) God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavisur and its Aftermath by N.T. Wright, 2020 Zondervan Reflective, pg. 70.
(3) Same as #2, pg. 3 and 61
(4) Same as #2, pg. 3