Isaiah 2:1-5: Hope in the Midst of Hopelessness
Seventeen years ago, in the spring of 2002, a reporter from National Public Radio called me and wanted to know what I would be preaching on for Easter Sunday that year. When the call came, I had just come from a hospital room where a member of the church I was then serving in Barrington, RI was being treated for a vicious cancer. When I walked into her room that Holy Week, she didn’t open her eyes. I said who I was and that I was glad to see her. And in her agony, all she said was “There are no words.” So I sat with her silently for a time. And then I left. I don’t remember whether I said anything else to her, or even whether I prayed with her, though I’m guessing I did.
I looked for an online link to that interview this week. Though I found it, I would have needed additional software to play it. So while I couldn’t listen to what I said in that interview, what I remember saying is that the work of a Christian preacher, at Easter and indeed always, is to find some sort of word for those times when there appear to be no words.
Many of you have been through times when there have seemed to be no words, when desperation was all you knew, and solace seemed light years away. Maybe you’ve suffered a miscarriage when you yearned for a baby to hold and to care for. Maybe the love of your life has betrayed you and the pain was so searing and the rage so fierce that you couldn’t imagine really trusting anyone ever again. Maybe you’ve been enveloped by a fog of depression so thick and relentless you had no desire to live. Sometimes it may seem too painful to go on, and you wonder if you’ll ever again know hope or peace or joy or love. What words are there?
The last thing this preacher wants to do is pretend there are always easy words of comfort, that with just a few happy utterances, you’ll feel better and everything will be OK. I know, as do you, that there are times in life when words really can betray us with their inadequacy. Too often people in this culture simply want to brush away that pain, and not to honor it with a respectful attention. The deep ache of those we love understandably makes us uncomfortable, and we desperately want them to feel better, so we say things like, “You’ll feel better tomorrow,” or “Look at the bright side,” or, in the case of a death, “God must have needed her more than we did.”
We all understand the impulse to say such things—we don’t know what else to say; we so want to be bearers of good news; we’re looking for some way to find meaning in the suffering. And we wonder what possible words could make a real difference, could genuinely soothe.
And then we come to this first Sunday in the season of Advent. And the theme of the day, as it always is on the first Sunday of this new church year, is hope. And we hear a word from the prophet Isaiah: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord” (2:5). And maybe we think, “Really? Is it really that easy? Is it as matter-of-fact as that—just ‘walk in the light of the Lord’?” And if that really is a guiding word for the day, what might that look like in the midst of these complex, challenging lives we lead—“Walk in the light of the Lord”?
We might well say that Isaiah is the prophet of hope. During this season of Advent, over the next three weeks, we will live with the words of this larger-than-life prophet of hope. And we will listen for a word for us in the midst of the storms of life. Today that relentless word of hope calls out to us. It’s not a Pollyanna word. It’s not a too-easy, pie-in-the-sky word. It’s not a word that pretends there is no pain. No, this is a word from one who knows intense agony, and who seeks not to erase it or belittle it or paper it over, but who wants to say simply: there is something bigger and grander and more real than the sadness and fear and loneliness that may at this moment seem overwhelming. No matter how we may feel, there is a heavenly light that shines on us and points us to the skies and holds us close even when we feel as though we’re falling off the mountain.
Hope comes to us in a huge variety of ways. Sometimes, indeed, there are no words, but presence can be just the sign of light that a person craves. The great Quaker mystic and theologian Parker Palmer has gone through several bouts of depression in his life. Some of you know what that experience is like—the despair thick, the weight all but crushing. And Palmer says that too often well-meaning friends would try to talk him out of it, or give him unwanted advice, or try to lift that sense of hopelessness with artificially light words. None of it was remotely helpful, and mostly those words just made things worse.
The friend who made the most difference for Palmer was his friend Bill who came to his house every day and said almost nothing and simply massaged Palmer’s feet. The friend knew there were no magic words to lift the despair. He wanted only to accompany Palmer in the desolation. There may not have been any words, but for Palmer, that presence was a radiant sign of hope (Let Your Life Speak, pp. 62-64). What his friend Bill did was “Come, [and] walk in the light of the Lord.”
Often, as with Palmer’s friend, the light of hope is shined less in words than in action. The way toward hope is paved with held hands or a gentle hug or a hand-delivered pot of soup. Hope has a more public face, as well. When I was in seminary, I had a theology professor named Leon Watts. Watts was African American, and had lived and fought for civil rights during the struggles of the 1950s and 60s. I have a vivid memory of Watts talking about those struggles, and comparing two different approaches to civil rights, summed up in two popular slogans. The first approach to that struggle for equality was summed up in the phrase, “We shall overcome,” which became a guiding anthem for a generation. It was an expression of resolve and of a willingness to keep working toward a more just society, no matter what. My memory of that seminary class was that Prof. Watts did not disapprove of that song.
What Watts made clear, though, was that, from a Christian standpoint, it was an inadequate way of thinking about the struggles in which African Americans were engaged. What Watts thought was a more appropriate way to sum up the endeavors of the movement was the radiant line at the end of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington in August of 1963. Remember how King ended that speech? “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
And of course, as Prof. Watts said, African Americans weren’t free. The shackles of racism still contorted the lives of countless people in this country. “Free at last”? Why in the world would you say that when it clearly wasn’t true. And what Prof. Watts said was that Dr. King was acting as if the hoped-for state-of-being were already true. If we’re free, this is how we act. If we’re free, this is what society looks like. If we’re free, we no longer kowtow, we no longer genuflect, we no longer act in any way subservient. We act as though we belong at the table. We act as though we matter. If we are free—and we are—we act as though God’s will is already being done.
“Let us walk in the light of the Lord,” says Isaiah. Let us walk as God would have us walk, trusting that the world God seeks is in the process of being made. That may mean not cowering in fear at a spouse who controls a marriage with a cruel, cold power. It may mean refusing to believe the nasty inner voice telling us we’re no good, we shouldn’t have been born, we have nothing to offer. It may mean standing tall when a workplace expects lack of integrity or dangerous short-cuts. Walk in the light of the Lord. Act as though God’s just world is already here. Because God is in the process of bringing that world to fruition. And we are the ones who, working with God, beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We are the gardeners who till the soil of justice and peace. And in the process, sustained and inspired by God, we light the world with hope. All of this as we walk in the light of the Lord.
Sometimes the light of the Lord appears in silence, with a gesture or a gift. Sometimes it appears when we act as though the richness of Christ’s presence is already here in our midst. And sometimes a simple word of grace conveys light and beauty in such a way that a room is made new. David Long-Higgins is the Conference Minister of our denomination in the state of Ohio, a conference recently renamed from the Ohio Conference to the Heartland Conference of the UCC. David’s father just died, and he wrote this week about what it was like to be with his father in those last days of his father’s life. He shared a photograph of himself at age two sitting on his father’s lap in a church social hall in the 1950s. His father, also a minister, is in a suit typical of the times, and he’s obviously at work. And, at the same time, he is so present with his toddler son.
“You may have noticed,” writes David, “that life, if we are fortunate, has a strange reversal of roles along the way in which the one once held has the privilege of holding the one who once balanced the small child on his knee. So it has been for . . . me in these recent days and months. Yet, even when life as we know it begins to fade, there is still the power of blessing that can sometimes break through from the elder.
“So it was during my last visit with my dad . . . in Lincoln, Nebraska. Each day there were fewer and fewer words, each word an effort of heavy lifting like some weight that resisted being raised. On the last day of my visit, the weight of words seemed especially heavy as if there was not enough breath to raise from his heart that which yearned to be named out loud. But alas, finally the words did come with a Herculean effort: ‘You are precious to me. I love you’” (Heartland Conference message, November 27, 2019).
With a sometimes wordless presence; with a confident passion for justice fueled by God’s relentless inclusion and welcome and fairness; with an enduring and heartfelt blessing of each other in life and in death: this is how hope lives in and among us. May we be grace-filled purveyors of that hope, in the name of that Jesus who is both long-expected and right here with us in this very moment.