Sermon: “Weary, Not Cheery” (Isaiah 40:21-31)

This time of year, if you go to the mall and the conditions are right, you can encounter one version of what the Christmas story is—and it’s done beautifully.

Years ago, right around now, I was in the Williams-Sonoma at the Westchester Mall, and I heard a young man turn to the young woman he was with and say, “Don’t you wish we could just have Christmas here? Right in the store? Sitting at that table? With those plates and those napkins and stuff?”

I found myself trying to picture that, actually. Or what it would be like if we could open one of the beautiful catalogues and just sort of climb in to the alluring and unhurried world they teach us to hunger for.

Because whether it’s the windows at the mall, or the pictures in a catalogue, there is a picture perfect quality to those places that tells one version of the Christmas story, and of our hopes for what Christmas might be.

There’s power in that story. Power in cheerfulness, and gathering, and giving—in pushing through the weariness and the dreariness and standing for something else—power in remembering how magical snow is when you aren’t worrying about anyone driving in it, power in being together with those we love.

The cheeriness of Christmas is a great comfort to some, and with good reason.

But it’s important to note that throughout history, the Church has used these weeks before Christmas to tell a very different kind of Christmas story – and to position Christmas differently in our lives.

And it’s fair to say that, in the imagination of the Church, there is more of an emotional arc to the season, and that the festivity comes only at the end.

But we know in our hearts that the story of Christmas doesn’t begin with Williams-Sonoma.

In fact, as the Church tells it, the story of Christmas doesn’t even begin in Bethlehem or Nazareth or with angelic hosts proclaiming, or with the Spirit whispering to Mary that she would be God’s favored one.

The vision of that group around the manger at the first Christmas party, that remarkable assembly of all kinds of people–rich and poor, Jews and gentiles, angels and humans and animals, brought together to worship the newborn king—that’s actually the culmination of a whole story, even as it is the beginning of another.

Mindful of that coming culmination, the Church begins to tell the story of Christmas well before that, by invoking the memory of a world grown weary with waiting for its deliverance.

We begin the season of Advent, the season of waiting for the One who is to come, by remembering the words of the prophet Isaiah—words that were originally written in Babylon, among a people in exile.

And the fact is, Isaiah’s people are weary.

With their world, and with our own in mind this week, I’ve also been remembering the words of the famous Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who famously summed up so much of her own experience as a Mississippi sharecropper by saying, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Because that’s a fair approximation of how things stood for God’s people in the foreign city of Babylon, at the time when this morning’s passage from the prophet Isaiah was written.

They were sick and tired of being sick and tired.

By the time this morning’s reading from Isaiah was written, the people would have been captives in Babylon for 150 years. Jerusalem had been invaded, and essentially destroyed, and much of its population had been carried off into slavery.

But by this point, all that had happened a long, long time ago.

It was an important, and precarious time in their life as a people.

It was in these days when much of the Old Testament appears to have been written, or at least, written down, because it was in Babylon that it suddenly seemed very possible that the stories and the traditions of Israel could be lost forever.

Those stories were a source of identity and hope – and those stories were, in the end, almost the only thing they still had.

With that in mind, no wonder, then, why the story of Moses and the exodus from slavery in Egypt had become such a foundational story for Israel—that was one that they kept coming back to during those days in Babylon. That was one they needed to tell themselves again and again.

It was part of how they reminded themselves that their God was a liberating God – the God who had led their ancestors through the wilderness at least once before…and might again.

And yet, in this part of the Book of Isaiah, the people enslaved in Babylon have been telling each other that story for generations, and hope is running thin.

So indeed, they are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Have you ever been at the bedside of someone in the hospital where there are a lot of machines, and you can actually hear their heartbeat slowing down…the time between the beats getting longer and longer?

Maybe that’s how it was – this sense that it had been so long, and there had been no word from God, and that Israel’s heartbeat was slowing down, and that the silence between the beats was getting deeper and deeper….

But then something happens.

Because a new word gets through.

Isaiah offers words of comfort that God has given him to proclaim to the people.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Isaiah asks. “Has it not been told to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”

“It is he who sits above the circle of the earth…who brings the princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”

What he’s saying of course is, “Hear me, Babylon: our God brings your princes to naught….our God makes the rulers of the earth—here in Babylon, and there in Egypt, and everywhere else—God makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”

Isaiah continues, “ ‘To whom will you compare me, or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. ‘Lift up your eyes on high and see.’”

Don’t believe who it is they say you are.

Don’t believe what it is they say is possible.

Don’t believe that the world you see is the only world there is, for you and for your children.

Lift up your eyes on high and see.

Much later, these are words that Jesus would have grown up with, and words that his contemporaries would have grown up with.

And so much of Jesus’ ministry was about affirming those same ancient promises, and about inviting people to find at last, in him, the source of strength and hope and identity as God’s people.

Jesus promises that, in him, they will find a way to hold onto the liberating truths that princes of the world were trying yet again to take away, first by discrediting them, and finally by making God’s people discard and forget them.

And that’s why it’s so important for us now, whatever our circumstances may be, and whatever our outlook on the world may be…whatever the future looks like to us—that’s why it’s so important that we begin to prepare for Christmas by remembering what it is to be weary.

Because the most corrosive thing for genuine faith is not grief, or despair, or even a great anger against God. Rather, it’s a kind of dull, unexpectant acceptance of the way things are, and of whom the world tells us we are.

That’s why it’s so important to remember, if perhaps we have forgotten, what it is to be sick and tired of being sick and tired.

So many of us don’t need any reminding.

So many of us are here at the brink of this season, wondering what good this Christmas could possibly hold.

There is so much personal grief, and so much worry that can cut even more deeply at this time of year.

And the world itself seems weary, too. Weary of its own divisions and its own bitter disagreements about justice and fairness and accountability, and about the persistence of challenges that just won’t go away.

I don’t know about your family, but mine is famous for epic political discussions around the Thanksgiving dinner table. By way of preparation, people bone up on the issues for weeks ahead of time.

This year we just didn’t have it in us.

But Christmas is a reminder, and Isaiah’s words this morning are a reminder, that God has made promises to the world, and that God intends to keep them.

And Christmas seeks to remind us, also, that you and I can live in the light of those promises even now, and build a world that waits expectantly for the day when at last, they will be fulfilled.

Just when we think we don’t have it in us, Isaiah shoots back that it’s in there, somewhere. That person God knows is in there, somewhere. That conscience God hears is in there, somewhere. That people God needs to help create the future—they’re in us, somewhere.

We may not be there yet, you and I. We may be many Christmases into our journey and still waiting. Or maybe life has made us question the truths we used to believe with such innocence and trust, and here we find ourselves, unsure of what Christmas or Christ ought to mean for us now.

And so we begin this season—we begin preparing for Christmas—by remembering what it is to wait for a new word, a fresh communication from God.

For some of us, that might be a stretch. For others, it may take no great effort at all.

But Christmas begins with learning to hope and dream again, because out of the capacity to hope and to dream come the capacity to work and to pray.

In learning to hope and dream again, we learn what it is to live into the promises of God, and to make a place for Jesus in our hearts once again.

In remembering what it is to be sick and tired, a new word gets through, and we begin to reclaim what it might be to be healed and renewed.

We learn what it is to set out for Bethlehem, seeking tidings of great joy, at the feet of the word at last made flesh.

Lift your eyes on high and see.

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