Horrible things are happening.
They’re happening all the time, really, in every place. But sometimes, a people sits up and takes notice of the horrible things and says, no more. And that is happening here right now. Sometimes the horrible things that are happening get the attention of many people at once, and get under our collective skin – past the worries and the habits and the routines of our day, they get all of our attention at once and we take notice and we say, no more.
And that can be a powerful moment – an important and clarifying moment, when a people takes notice of the horrible things and says together, no more.
And for a moment, when that happens, the veil is lifted and the way of fear is exposed. The way of fear tells me that there are good guys and bad guys and life is a struggle between the two. The way of fear teaches me that suspicion, distrust, cynicism and tribalism are the best way to deal with those different than myself.
These years the way of fear tells me that life should be lived in a state of emergency, urgency and threat. And in this state, it’s ok to react instead of think, it’s ok to dismiss instead of engage, and everyone else is most likely a risk to your own security in some way or another and it’s ok to do whatever it takes to protect yourself. Security, by the way, is what matters most. Security – of my future, my home, our nation, status, property, bank accounts, identity, and reputation. Achieve and maintain security, no matter the cost. And it costs some way more than others. The way of fear is usually an airtight status quo that keeps enough of us just content enough, and just scared enough, to stay put and leave everything as is.
But suddenly, in our nation, the false security is punctured, the light is blasting in, and a people is saying, no more, to some of the horrible things.
Nowadays when something important happens, we plug ourselves into the screens and put the sound bites in our ears and feed ourselves on a steady diet of passion and politics and a never-ending stream of input, because we feel like if we are not paying constant, vigilant attention, if we turn our focus away, even for a moment, we are letting down those who are grieving, or missing out on something vital, or somehow not doing our part. And the urgency is like a drug we can’t get off of, and before we know it we have absorbed the moment of clarity and self-awareness right into way of fear.
Because when we’re giving constant vigilant attention like this, things just seem to get louder and faster and some people get sharper and smarter but more of us eventually get meaner and judgier and more divided and desperate, and confused and hopeless until we weary ourselves of the whole mess and stumble off the merry go round and try to steady ourselves in normal life and feel a little ashamed and also a little relieved because, who can sustain that intensity?
And still, horrible things are happening.
And we’re not seeing a lot of them. We can only look one place at a time, for crying outloud. So the refugees streaming from war-torn countries or the still-missing kidnapped girls, or the multiplying ebola victims or the heartbreaking poverty in our own city have their turn as the blip front and center and then fade away again or never even get noticed because it is not possible to hold it all at once. We are simply not capable. How can we be responsible for it all?
And right now, so many people are noticing something that has gone unacknowledged or avoided for a long time, and they’re saying, no more. And it is so important to take notice. And praise God for a people saying, no more!
But the truth is, there will be more.
If not this, something else. There is always more.
And that is heartbreaking to me.
I wish I could turn on a different channel and soak it in for a few days. One that tells me the truth. About the horrible things, yes, but also past the pontificating and solutions– I want to turn on the station that tells me in no uncertain terms, Here is your God!"
That God is here. In the middle of it all. That we are not alone.
That God holds onto the pain and the suffering that I cannot bear, is with those we are not watching, and no one is lost. I want the channel that reminds me that the people are like grass, you and me, fickle and forgetful, and all that we’ve built up as though it is vital will crumble and blow away.
But that love, connection, shared humanity, and a strong and sure God who, like a nurturing shepherd, carries us in her bosom, remains forever. Tell me about the Kingdom of God, the Big Picture, the real reality under our fake reality, the truth that every single human life matters, each person is deeply valued and loved and delighted in, where the gifts of each person contribute to the whole and there is nobody overlooked or underfoot – all belong and all are meant to be part of the big picture.
Tell me about how we need each other and how we’re meant to trust each other and how we will help each other and receive help whenever we need it. I want to watch the channel where the stories are about strangers reaching out to others until no one is stranger, about building life together, looking out for the weak and parentless, where nobody is hungry because we all share with each other, and nobody hordes or stockpiles money, or weapons or power or food or the high opinions of others because we all share so freely that it’s is not necessary to vigilantly protect ourselves from others, or at others’ expense.
Tell me about that kind of world.
Is it coming, God? Is it here?
I catch glimpses of it in the longing of protesters and the rage of rioters - the need for solidarity, the yearning for your justice and your rightness in the world- we have a deep sense within ourselves of how things are meant to be, how they should be!
But we’re full up with pain and anger and weariness, and opinions of whose fault it is that we’re so far off from that, or who should be the one to get us to it and what kind of steps that would take, and frustration that others don’t share our aim or our agenda or our strategy, or are always telling us what to think or believe or crave or do.
So we’re either drowning ourselves in consumerism and the false cheer of another chipper Christmas season or we’re drowning ourselves in sorrow and anger and despair over our brokenness. And right now the passion to change is at a fever pitch, but what happens when it wanes? Oh God! Let’s not let it wane! so we stoke the fires of anger and sadness in order to keep on caring intensely so that change might actually happen.
And either way we’re drowning.
Either way we are still immersed in the way of fear. It can feel so hopeless.
And there will be more.
Our text today is the word of God to a people in exile. Their homeland has been destroyed by the Babylonians and they are displaced and disoriented. Fifty years now, give or take, they’ve either made do scattered who knows where, suffering and struggling, or settled into lives in Babylon. Some are in despair and suffering. Others are getting comfortable in the empire- while Babylon isn’t their choice, and it isn’t their home, it is where they are living. And if we’re comfortably living in exile, buying into the security the empire provides, perhaps we’ve lost the pining for the homeland – which is to say, if the kingdom of security and power and self-protection, keeps us just comfortable enough, and just scared enough, that we may stop longing for the upheaval of the Kingdom of God.
So as terrible as it is, when horrible things happening come to our collective attention and we sit up and take notice and say no more, we are at least recognizing things as they truly are, and telling the truth about them, and refusing, momentarily, to be lulled into placated acceptance that this is as good as it gets.
I feel hopeful when I see people saying no more – when I see outcries for justice. Not because I have any faith in people’s good intentions, or collective voice, or any other human-centered strategy to fix what is so broken within and around us.
I feel hopeful because it is points to real reality, where we all belong to each other and we will stand side by side and not let others be dehumanized.
I feel hopeful because it is people briefly wanting to be who we were created to be, living out of our true image-of-God-ness.
And while I know we’re definitely going to blow it a few minutes later and make an enemy out of someone else or ourselves, in this moment, I am reminded that justice will prevail, that death doesn’t win, that love is stronger than evil, and that God is at work, in and through you and me and ordinary people everywhere. God, who comes with might and draws us in gently, is the real sovereign, the real authority, the maker of the Big Picture, and the rest of it will fade and wither like grass.
I once asked a Benedictine Monk about evil. Real, terrible evil that afflicts people and causes genuine suffering and terror. What is the best way to fight it? I wondered.
He looked at me and said simply, there are two ways to fight evil. One is go directly after evil. Study it, pursue it, go after it, become adept at recognizing it and dedicate yourself to eradicating it. That is one way to fight evil. The other way is to go directly after God. Immerse yourself in love and kindness, prayer and gratitude, search for points of connection and glimpses of redemption and opportunities to forgive and spend time with our maker.
Seek first the Kingdom of God. The Big Picture. Be drawn into God’s way of life. The way of hope, and draw others along with you.
Comfort my defeated people, God says. Tell them I see them. And they’ve paid way more in suffering than they ever deserved for whatever they’ve done. Speak tenderly, though, they’ve been through a lot. And they’re pretty hard on themselves. Gently, let them know they are free. Lead them into the way of hope.
With all the glaring non-stop light of our televisions and smart phones and breaking news and speeding traffic and artificial trees and neon sales and florescent malls, Advent speaks tenderly and offers Comfort. Truth. Honesty. Hope.
Advent is the time of sitting in the darkness. Sitting in the darkness but not in the fear. Sitting in the honesty of what’s really within us and between us and around us, and trusting that God is with us here in this darkness. And when Advent begins like it did for us this year, when a floodlight is shone onto our streets and into our souls and reveals ugliness and pain, suffering and struggle, the darkness of Advent is a gift.
Advent is the night shift nurse after the painful surgery, the quiet, turned-down sheets of healing sleep. There is nothing here in the darkness that isn’t out there in the light – the wounds remain and the recovery continues. But here, in the shelter of Advent, waiting for God, we can talk about the hard things and the sad things and the confusing and frustrating things, and we don’t have to be afraid. And where fear is put to rest, hope is born.
In this text, the comforted ones, those who needs tenderness and care and a gentle word of hope, are also the ones told to get to the highest mountain and declare that God is here. The broken ones are called the herald of good news.
Our only security is in the promise of God. Everything else will crumble and disappear.
The future that is coming, even now breaking in, it’s God’s future. It is not our own.
It is not our job to make it come; it is our privilege to welcome it each day.
It is not our responsibility to bring it about; it is our invitation to join in as it unfolds.
There will be more.
Horrible things will happen. There will be more evil and pain and suffering than we can bear. And God sees and holds it all. More than we ever could.
But there will also be more love and peace and joy than we can begin to fathom. And we are called to live fully and joyfully, to weep with those who weep, and dance with those who dance, and to live in the real reality, trusting in and pining for the Kingdom of God, and inviting each other, even now, to live into the day when the way of fear will be no more, and God’s way of hope will be all in all.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.
So get you up to a high mountain,
O herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to a weary and wary world,
"Here is your God!"