December 11, 2011 Great Expectations!
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Psalm 126 1 Thes. 5:16-24 John 1:6-8, 19-28
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens, author who in his writing on Christmas, The Christmas Carol and others, did more to save Christmas from a neglected, little observed celebration than any person of his time. Would be interesting to hear what he would have to say about our current observance of the holiday and the excesses associated with it . . .
This time of year can seem like the best of times and the worst of times, a season of extremes, highs and lows, exacerbated by lack of sleep, excessive eating and drinking and parties. It can be both a wonderful time and terrible time depending on your life circumstances. Something about the holidays makes the highs higher and the lows lower. It also is a time of “Great Expectations” to use the title of one of Dickens’ novels.
Psalm 126 is very appropriate for this season of strong emotions. Whereas Psalm 85 encompasses past present and future, Psalm 126 embraces the whole realm of human emotion in 8 verses. As J.E. McFadyen says, the psalm passes swiftly through the “vicissitudes of human life—its laughter and tears, sorrow and joy, dejection and exaltation, exile and redemption, spring and autumn, the beautiful dream, and the cruel reality; but the sorrow of it all is swallowed up in the lovely vision with which it ends.” (Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4, p. 664)
This short, beautiful piece of poetry is from the post-exilic time, a time after the return of the exiles from Babylon in 537 BCE. Poet remembers this time as a time of wonder, an idyllic time, golden age with so much laughter and joy that unbelievers, the heathen nations, were inspired to say, “The Lord has done great things for them.” (vs. 2) Psalm is considered a lament, following the form of a lament, yet it is so full of hope and joy that it doesn’t strike me as sorrowful at all. It is meant to be studied with Psalm 85, both of which psalms were structured for liturgical use to keep hope alive in the people.
The psalm provides a beautiful image of this time of return. The destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of the countries key leaders made a tremendous impression on the Hebrew nation It was a significant turning point in their history, as significant as the Exodus experience. It forced them to change their theology, challenged their understanding of their role as God’s chosen nation and the role of the Temple. Their religion which had centered on Jerusalem and the Temple had to make a profound shift in order to survive, a shift to a focus on the law, Torah. Families had been scattered, some had died while in exile, others had been born and only knew about Jerusalem through what they had been told. When they were finally allowed to return, the psalmist describes that return as if they were walking in a dream; they could hardly believe their good fortune. Dumb with astonishment and wonder at first, then their mouths were filled with joy and laughter as they were reunited with old friends. What a welcome there must have been by those who had been left behind amidst the rubble. A wonderful occasion, as wonderful as the Exodus when God brought them to safety through the Red Sea and when God brought them into the Promised Land, an idealized time, however short lived. The Jerusalem they had returned to was not the Jerusalem they had left; there was much work to be done to rebuild the city and the Temple.
The second section of the psalm , vs. 4-6, turns from the remembrance of the past to the present, a time of unhappiness and difficulty. Poet uses image of dried up river beds, the wadi beds of the Negeb, to illustrate that Israel has become barren of life and hope. The wadi beds in this region were waterless, dry and arid most of the year until the rainy season when God sent down streams of life giving water. The people ask God to restore their fortunes like he restores the river each year. Psalm ends on a note of hope that those who sow in tears shall reap with joy, a proverb the some believe was based on a primitive belief that “one must not laugh when he sows, lest he weep when he harvests.” (Leslie, Psalms, as found in Interpreter’s Bible, p. 666.) Time of sowing was hard work; it was an anxious time for sower knew not all seed would bear fruit. People would pray for a good harvest as reward for the hard work of sowing seed. Certainly life on this earth can be hard as well with many reasons for tears, but the writer of this psalm believes in happy endings; that we are born not for tragedy but for some ultimate good. Israel was currently experiencing a time of tears, yet a joyous harvest is predicted based on God’s actions in the past. This is reason for confidence.
Note that confidence is in God and what God has done, not what people had done. Their return from exile was seen as an act of God, showing God’s goodness. In verse 3 the people echo back the words of the heathen nations saying, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.” The writer is confident that this will be the case in the future. This shows the importance of praising God when praise is due, focusing more on our blessings than our complaints. As one commentator states:
“If instead of complaints we gave praise where praise is due, there would be fewer family disagreements ending in family tragedies. If instead of taking favors for granted in national life we gave credit to leaders and public servants and remembered how much we owed to the past, there would be greater joy in adding to the common stock and less temptation to demand more than we deserve. Churches too would be transformed if they taught people in all circumstances to dwell upon the mercies they have received instead of multiplying their troubles. If God did anything for us in our early days, if he has supported us through difficult years and comforted us in bereavement, let us not be silent. Let us tell people not only by the words we speak but by the radiance of our lives. So much of the distress in the world springs from the fact that we want to tell what we have done, not what God has done for us. Afflictions we may keep to ourselves. Blessings we should share. They are neither few nor mean.” (Interpreter’s Bible, pp. 665-666)
Our passage from Isaiah is from third Isaiah; the call of a third prophet following the tradition of Isaiah. This prophet speaks during a time of reconstruction after the return from exile. While second Isaiah spoke words of comfort to people in exile, third Isaiah speaks words of encouragement to people rebuilding after the destruction of Jerusalem. His is a message of hope based on conviction that God will bring forth justice just as surely as the earth brings forth plants. This is reason for rejoicing.
Reading from Thessalonians picks up on theme of rejoicing, saying “Rejoice always . . .give thanks in all circumstances.” Surely our hope is in the Lord who turns sorrows into joy and gives us reason for rejoicing.
Gospel we hear John the Baptist’s testimony. John clearly attributes to God what belongs to God. He is clear about his identity, that he is not the Messiah but just someone who points the way to the Messiah, an important lesson for all, to recognize who we are and give to God what is rightfully God’s, not setting ourselves up as a false god as John so easily could have given his popularity.
Advent is a time of Great Expectations, highs and lows, children look forward to Christmas with expectations of toys they shall receive from Santa, as adults we may be looking forward to holiday gatherings in great expectation of a Hallmark Christmas only to be disappointed when those expectations are dashed upon the rocks of reality; when our dreams fall short. Those who are missing loved ones may find the holidays and the idyllic pictures of family gatherings very painful as they remind us of all we have lost.
In light of broken expectations and losses we may be tempted to lower our expectations out of fear of being disappointed yet again, but Advent is a time for great expectations. It isn’t a matter of lowering expectations but examining where we place those expectations. If we focus on the things of this world, even on good things like family and friends, we will undoubtedly be disappointed for all humans have feet of clay, we all have our share of disagreements, we all misunderstand and are misunderstood at times, leading to disappointment. But if we build our expectations firmly on God, trusting in God based on the good God has done in the past, we will not be disappointed. Not only that, the final reality will exceed our expectations in ways we can’t begin to imagine, beyond our wildest dreams. Then we, too, shall be like those who dream.
So, let us not be afraid to have Great Expectations this Advent for our God will not disappoint.
Robertson, copyright December 2011