Sunday, December 7, 2008

Endings and Beginnings

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent
RCL, Year B: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a, 18; Mark 1:1-8

We are living in a season of endings and beginnings. By marking the ending of one liturgical calendar year and the beginning of another one, Advent pushes us to look forward not only to Christmas, but also to the end or fulfillment of history with Christ’s return and the beginning of God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven. In Advent we also look back to mark the end or fulfillment of the Old Covenant with the coming of John the Baptist and the beginning of a New Covenant with the coming of Jesus Christ.

Endings and beginnings …

On the one hand, there’s excitement and expectation about what lies ahead. But at the same time, there may be fear and anxiety about the unknown and grief over what gets left behind. These feelings can be quite intense, and especially when we go through endings and beginnings that challenge our identity or upset our faith in God.

Our Jewish ancestors knew this all too well. The 40th chapter of Isaiah – of which we hear an excerpt this morning – marks one of the most pivotal times of ending and beginning in the history of Israel. After 70 years, the exile in Babylon is almost over.

You may recall the tragic story.

The year was 587 B.C. when King Nebucadnezzar’s armies marched into Jerusalem, killed scores of people, burned down the city, razed the Temple to the ground, and carried off Israel’s best and brightest into pagan exile. By destroying the primary carriers of cultural and religious identity, the exile threatened to annihilate Judaism from the face of the earth. And so the exile hammered a stake into the heart of Jewish faith and identity.

God promised that the Davidic king would reign for ever. Now he was languishing in a Babylonian prison. Living in the Promised Land had always been the sign that God’s favor rested on His people. Now the land belonged to pagan idolaters. The Jerusalem Temple was the focal point of Jewish religious life. It was the outward and visible sign of God’s presence with His people. It was where the priests offered sacrifices to atone for the people’s sins. It housed the Ark of the Covenant containing the two tablets of the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Now the Temple was a pile of rubble.

It was widely believed at that time that every nation was protected by its patron god. Yahweh was the patron deity of Israel. It was Yahweh’s power that protected the Jews. So Nebucadnezzar’s victory could only mean that Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, was stronger than Yahweh. And if that was true, then everything the Jews believed about God, about the Covenant and the Law, and about themselves – well, maybe it was all a big lie.

This was more than a military defeat. It was more than loss of turf. The Babylonian exile was the ending of everything that gave Jewish life a sense of direction, meaning, and purpose.

Watching Jerusalem burn while being carried off in chains to a hostile land, not knowing what fate awaited them, we can just imagine the kinds of questions that tormented the minds and souls of the Jews. Is God really powerful? Is God really faithful? Is hope just a pipe dream?

Today’s reading from Isaiah starts answering these questions. Babylon’s power is coming to an end and the Persians are rising as the new superpower of the region. And in contrast to the Babylonians, the Persians had a more hospitable colonial policy. It was looking more and more like the Jews were going to return to the Promised Land. This is why Isaiah proclaims good news. Instead of words of judgment, God speaks words of comfort. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” the Lord says to Isaiah, “and cry to her that she has served her term …” (Is. 40:2).

The suffering is almost over. The dawn is about to break. And so Isaiah says, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Is. 40:11). It’s the ending of exile and a new beginning for God’s people.

And as with all endings and beginnings, nothing will ever be quite the same. The Jews will never regain all that they lost during the time of exile. But even when they thought God was absent, it turned out that God was still there. In ways not always easy to perceive, God was present, sustaining and helping His people adapt, adjust, and survive.

True, the Jews lost the provincial kingship of the Davidic dynasty. But they gained the universal kingship of God. And while they lost Temple worship and animal sacrifice, they gained Sabbath worship in synagogues and the study of Torah, two facets of Judaism that deeply shaped the faith and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and that also laid the groundwork for Christian worship.

Out of the ashes of exile, God raised His people to new life. God gave them a new identity with a renewed faith that could meet the challenges of a changing world. And raised from exile, the Jewish people helped shape the subsequent course of world history and paved the way for the coming of the Savior of the world.

This story of exile and return, of death and resurrection, endings and beginnings, is not just ancient history. It’s not just a story about God’s people long ago. It’s a story about God’s people today. And it’s a story that includes you and me.

All of us gathered here this morning are living through times of transition. Certainly, there are big changes, like markets at home and abroad in upheaval, and one presidential administration coming to an end while a new one begins. But there are also personal changes. Maybe there’s a new baby on the way, or one has already been born. Or perhaps it’s the challenge of coming to terms with a medical diagnosis or struggling to regain strength after a surgery or a prolonged illness. Maybe it’s the death of a friend or family member. Maybe the change involves losing a job or being afraid of losing a job that always seemed stable. Maybe we’re grappling with issues of faith and we’re no longer sure what to believe or why. Or maybe we find ourselves hearing God’s call to embark on a new spiritual path that will take us we know not where.

Regardless of what form the endings and beginnings take, regardless of whether we find ourselves buoyed up by excitement or sucked down into fear and anxiety, Scripture reminds us of a fundamental truth: exile, and even crucifixion, cannot extinguish the light of hope for God’s people.

By focusing on endings and beginnings, the season of Advent reassures us that “the Christian faith is a journey that starts somewhere and goes somewhere.”[1] It’s a journey that begins in the waters of baptism. And it’s a journey that ends with the peace, justice, and beauty of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. That journey will take us to places we may not always want to go. There will be gains and losses along the way. And there won’t always be easy answers or quick fixes. But for we who belong to Christ, the One who is the Alpha and the Omega, every ending is also a new beginning.

[1] Maggi Dawn, Beginnings and Endings (and What Happens in Between): Daily Bible Readings from Advent to Epiphany (no publisher: no date), p. 7.

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