The Gift of Hope

There is a fascinating line in which Isaiah describes God as: (the God) “who works for those who wait for him.” What was the prophet trying to say with this notion of a God who ‘works’ for me? My guess is he was trying to impress on the worshippers that what God had done in God’s acts in the past were for their benefit – were they only able to see it. But it wasn’t for anyone for whom ‘God works’. This God works for those who wait: patiently, faithfully, expectantly for God to reveal God’s self again in the world. And it’s an important piece of our own Theology.


 

As we head into preparations for the Christmas season it seems strange that the Old Testament text with which we begin our journey is a lament.   A lament is a prayer through which we cry out to God from the midst of desperate grief, pain, or circumstances that seems out of control. It vocalizes to God the hurt we feel with the conviction, that God can and will bring relief. It is not just venting frustration. It is a profound statement of confidence in God from the point of utter human hopelessness. It is in the middle of our pain that we pray. Despite the witness of the reality swirling around us, we express the trust that God cares about our condition and our willingness to trust God with the outcome.

 

The Babylonians swept down from the north, seized Jerusalem and desecrated the Temple and now this once proud people who had understood themselves as the people blessed by God were humiliated, defeated and despairing. Those who remained in Judea were reduced to eating dogs and rats; those who left became slaves in Babylon. The people were so frightened that they doubted whether they ever had been God’s holy people. This prayer voiced by the Prophet Isaiah is were our preparations for Christmas begins.

 

Isaiah first recalls God’s acts of the past as the basis for trusting God in this new situation. He then lodges the people’s complaint about their present circumstances. Then, at the first verse of Chapter 64 Isaiah prays to God:

 

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

6We 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. 7There 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. 8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. Isaiah 64: 1-9

 

Underlying the entire Old Testament is the notion that God may be known by His actions in the world. For the Jews this idea was documented by their exodus experience. It was then that the Hebrews came into relationship with God. They knew God because God acted in history to deliver them from Egyptian slavery.

 

As a fundamental affirmation of the Israelites the Prophet says “no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you”.   Unfortunately their behaviors had witnessed the opposite. Now having to live with the consequence of their dalliance with the Canaanite gods of wood and stone, which lacked the capacity to breath let alone act in history, they wanted to resurrect their relationship with the God of their forbearers. Isaiah’s prayer that God would make God’s name known suggests that the absence of God’s dramatic actions on behalf of the Jewish people has made them vulnerable to foreign powers. The prayer is the same: God—please act again. Reveal yourself!

 

Newer translations of Isaiah show us something else—did you hear it in the reading? But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. Fascinating. They blamed God’s absence for their sinfulness. If God would have just made God’s self known on a more regular basis then they wouldn’t have been drawn into the worship of the deities of their neighbors. It’s God’s fault.

 

There is a fascinating line in which Isaiah describes God as: (the God) “who works for those who wait for him.” What was the prophet trying to say with this notion of a God who ‘works’ for me? My guess is he was trying to impress on the worshippers that what God had done in God’s acts in the past were for their benefit – were they only able to see it. But it wasn’t for anyone for whom ‘God works’. This God works for those who wait: patiently, faithfully, expectantly for God to reveal God’s self again in the world. And it’s an important piece of our own Theology.

 

The prophet calls for God to ‘come down’. As a poetic way of affirming God’s “otherness”, that is God’s holiness, he pictures God as enthroned above the earth. The troubles the people were experiencing, they believed, was a direct result of God being far away, hidden, silent or absent. Without great supernatural events they questioned whether God was really God. That problem still haunts us, doesn’t it. Many only imagine God’s activity in “miracles” or can only acknowledge God’s presence in unusual events or behavior. Heavens being rendered and mountains trembling, with accompanying lightening and thunder are ways of describing God as actively revealing God’s self in the world.

 

Though God has done, and continues to do, extraordinary things in this world, much of the Bible deals with how to live in the long gaps between God’s self revelations. Throughout history, God’s people have spent most of their time waiting. It is an expectant waiting, anticipating God’s new activity to bring justice, deliverance and the kingdom of God to the world. It is not an idle, self-centered, waiting exhibited by those who divest themselves of everything they have and then sit on a mountain waiting for God to come. Biblical waiting is an active waiting that focuses on being God’s people in this world. That kind of waiting involves both faithfulness to God and with each other. The future hope is there. Yet the focus falls clearly on our being God’s people in the present world.

 

When was the last time people felt secure? Was it before the attack on the World Trade Center? In our terror filled and anxiety driven world it has become increasingly difficult us to remain immune from feeling the kind of despair and fear that permeates our culture. Such fear drives us into self protection and causes us to disregard our higher values. The principalities and powers are quite adept at preying upon those fears. Our national obsession with Homeland Security reinforces that fear. Global economic turmoil reinforces that fear. We are told to fear even our neighbors, especially those who don’t look quite like we do. Fear dominates our economic, political, and family lives. And it’s in the middle of our despair and fear that the Christmas season arrives. As we’ve considered the exiled Israelites, as we contemplate the grizzled desert preacher who comes to ‘make straight the way of the Lord’ or imagine the stranger who visits a young girl with the news that ‘nothing is impossible with God” we just might discover that we have nothing to fear except being untrue to what we know to be the meaning of our lives and central to our calling, which is the promise and hope of God.

 

Hope doesn’t come from a better form of government or the newest self help book or the latest techno-gadget. Hope comes as a gift from the God who works in and through human anguish. To embrace hope is not to deny our despair or ignore our fears. One group of scholars said it this way: “The hope that is God’s gift to faith is therefore precisely hope—not sight, not inevitability, not finality. It must be grasped by the community of faith and by all who, from whatever sources of longing, imagination, and common grace, glimpse the possibilities for what is new. It must become hope in action.”

 

Isaiah knew that the journey from fear to hope began in remembering, recalling how God acted in the past filled a despairing people with hope. But let’s be clear, biblical memory is not to be confused with nostalgia – like the way we reminisce over Thanksgiving. Things were never as good as we nostalgically remember. One of the early saints of the church suggested that nostalgia should be numbered among the mortal sins! Could our homesickness for the good ol’ days keep us from engaging the possibilities offered to us in the future?

 

Isaiah was not just being sentimental about the bygone days. Matter of fact such recollections reopened old wounds. In the face of it, they repented. They confessed that they were in such a mess that only God could help. They remembered that they belong to God and only to God. Such remembering reminds us that our future hope for a God who will come to bring justice and make things right is based on our past knowledge that God has already come, with mercy and healing. But even more, it is grounded in our patient and expectant waiting on God’s spirit to move within and among us. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.

 

May the first gift to you of this season be the gift of hope as you too wait, expectantly, on the God who works.

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