Last week, a friend of mine from college lost his wife to pancreatic cancer. She was thirty-six, and leaves behind a loving husband and four young children grieving her loss. Her funeral service is happening as I write these words, and I can't help but to wish there could be some way that I could take over some of the burden of grief for them. It just isn't right that they had to lose her in this way.
About six weeks ago, a massive typhoon hit the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people. The images of the devastation were overwhelming. Because of the speed of our media communications, every time a natural disaster hits, we can either become overwhelmed with the images of suffering on our TV and computer screens, or we can become calloused to it and attempt to shrug it off. Either way, we all have a sense that it isn't right that our world should be like this.
Those examples don't even approach the horrible things we do to each other, and since our theme for this week is the yearning of Israel that we remember during Advent, I would be remiss not to lament the suffering of the Jewish people in both ancient and modern times. The Jews are so well-acquainted with the cry of "How long can our world be like this," that we Christians should recognize that we are following their lead whenever we offer any similar prayer.
If, as I said earlier this week, we must understand the thoroughly Jewish story in which Jesus lived if we are going to have any chance of understanding him, it's also surely the case that to really grasp our longing for his return, we have to look for its framework in Israel's yearning for their true King to come. While not presuming that I can equate the griefs I have experienced in my life with the tremendous suffering of the Jewish people throughout the centuries, I think it's good for us to realize that we have inherited our "How long, O Lord?" prayer from them.
The Hebrew scriptures are full of that prayer in many different forms, and they also contain the vision of what the world will be like when God finally does set everything right. In the book of Isaiah, which we are given to read often during Advent, we read both about ancient Israel's lament of how their world was and the hope that God would make things right, and Isaiah particularly emphasizes the point that everything would be made right not only for Israel, but indeed for the whole world and all of creation. Consider these examples from some of the traditional Advent readings from Isaiah:
"He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." (2:4)
"The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom....Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water....And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." (35:1,5-7,10)
"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down...We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people." (64:6-9)
And in one of the magnificent concluding passages of the book:
"For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord." (65:17-25)
Each time that we have grieved a tragedy and wished for a different kind of world, we've participated in Israel's longing for new creation. Even if we could have never put those words around it, the sense that "this just is not right" is evidence that this yearning of God's people through the ages is deeply ingrained into us all.
Thankfully, Isaiah both acknowledges the reality of the pain and points us toward God's intervention. And as we've seen the past couple of days with Israel's longing for the Temple and the Torah, the longing for new creation which we've inherited from the Old Testament is again tied to their longing for the coming of their real King, the Messiah. N.T. Wright points to Isaiah 11's prophecy of how this descendant of Jesse and David "will bring restoration and healing to the whole world," since "this king will possess the wisdom he will need to bring God's justice to the whole world....The rule of the Messiah, then, will bring peace, justice, and a completely new harmony to the whole creation."(1)
"The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." (11:2-4a,6,9)
A Prayer for the Day:
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.*
Readings for the Week*:
*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) Wright, Simply Christian, 84.