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“Christmas and Common Birth,” Anne Ridler
Our Hope: Isaiah 64
Good morning, everyone, and welcome to advent. I’m going to be preaching through Isaiah, chapter 64, which we’ve just read, but you’ll probably want a bible as we go through it more closely. You can raise your hand if you want to use one of ours and someone will bring a bible to you. And if you’ll read it, please keep it.
Isaiah, chapter 64. Advent always has me reading old sermons and reflecting on my time pastoring here at Vieux Carré, because I started here around this time of the year four years ago. Four years. That’s the amount of time it takes to get most degrees. It’s one year longer than the average tenure of a pastor; the average tenure is three years, which is wild, because I feel like we’re just getting started. It’s two years longer than the average social worker. And, you know, in my reckoning, I think I get at least one extra year for my first year being 2020. I took a picture of my favorite Christmas ornament from that year, I had forgotten about it til we were putting up our tree this week.
But I reread my advent sermon from that first year. Traditionally, the first week of advent is centered on hope, and on the third of the three advents of Christ in each of our lives. The first is when he came incarnate to earth, born of a virgin, the Lord of Lords born in a stable because his parents were not welcomed into the inn or into anyone’s home. The second advent of Christ is in each of our lives when he first comes to us in our lives and saves us. I remember for me, knowing Christ was like seeing for the first time, or like color and depth opening up all around me when I assumed the world was gray and superficial. The third advent of Christ in each of our lives is when he comes again to judge the quick and the dead, and to dwell with his people in an earth he has healed and restored. This first week is about that third advent, the advent already and not yet come.
The hope of Christianity is a hope for advent—just as salvation is found in Christ coming to live among us, just as redemption is found as he comes into our lives, so hope is found in his return. I’ll read a poem here in just a moment talking about this, a favorite I’ve quoted many times before, by Anne Ridler, she starts it by saying those of us who celebrate Christmas in the midwinter—Americans, Europeans—we might wish otherwise. Maybe we could learn hope better in the spring, when life is springing up from the dirt.
Then there’s this glorious moment in the poem where she pauses and says, “yet if you think again,” it’s good we learn to hope for rebirth at this dark time of the year, when we most long for light and life, because, this is her reason, she says: “any birth makes an inconvenient demand, like all holy things.” Hope in Christianity is not a well wish for a better new year, it’s not a resolution. Hope is a longing for new birth in recognition of our deep need. We are desperately in need of Christ to come in peace and justice, both.
Pray with me, briefly.
We’ll start here: Hope, in Christianity, has nothing to do with what we are able to accomplish. In the starkest language, in the strongest terms, Isaiah says, your works only make you unclean. The image is so strong, it’s even a bit awkward to talk about. I’m glad the kids go upstairs for the sermons, but AJ would love this. He’s very into me telling him Bible stories right now, but specifically stories that are entirely inappropriate for his age, and yet he knows I will gladly sit and tell him because I want him to know the Bible. They don’t put this part of Isaiah in the kids Bibles.
In v.6, Isaiah says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” The image, again, so stark as to be a bit awkward, he says our righteousness is like rags used for some sort of discharge, like today we would use gauze, diapers, and tampons. The word invokes someone dealing with involuntary discharge of any sort. The image goes back to the cleanliness laws given to Israel through Moses, which I feel a need to go into it a little bit just so we can understand what Isaiah is saying.
Most people think if you’re clean, you’re good, and if you’re unclean you should be ashamed of yourself. To be fair, most people think this because we are more used to the New Testament than the Old, and in the New Testament the Pharisees kind of treat cleanliness laws that way. They look down on those who are unclean, the Levite passes by on the other side of the road of his brother who is bruised and beaten so as not to make himself unclean, but that’s not regarding the heart of God in the law, and that’s not the way it was from the beginning.
In ancient Israel, clean and unclean meant just that, they were laws surrounding sanitation and gathering. If you were unclean, it just meant you got to stay home from school and church. Think about when you were a kid. AJ got sick the other day, he’s wheezing, he feels terrible, Annie walks in and says, “Well, you can’t go to school today. Looks like we’re staying here and watching movies.” And AJ, as terrible as he felt, smiled.
In Isaiah’s day, if you were unclean, you got to stay home. Specific to this image, if you have a stomach bug, you get to stay home. You don’t have to go to the dinner, or the thing at church, you get a pass. We don’t want your stomach bug, sir. No thank you. You stay home, please. Isaiah is saying, even our righteous deeds are like that. Even the good things we do are like filthy rags. Even at our best, on a good day, we are unable to approach God, approach our families, our churches, from a place of pride. When you’re sick you don’t ask people to watch what you’re doing, you ask for help, and our father who always answers us when we knock is eager to take you into his arms.
Paul repeats this idea in his writing, in his letter to the Philippians, saying he has every reason to place his hope in what he’s been able to accomplish—like Isaiah, he’s from a good family, studied at the best schools, had a great job, was passionate about his faith, and in looking back on his life, all of the good things he’s done, the things his parents would have been proud of, the diplomas on his wall, from prison he writes “I count it all loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.” Isaiah, Paul, these are people whose lives I would admire, call heroes of the faith, and hear me, neither of them are playing down good works—neither of them are saying to stop doing justice or loving kindness, keeping yourself unstained from the world. What they’re saying is, none of those accomplishments or good deeds are worthy of our hope.
In the starkest language, in the strongest terms, Isaiah says hope in Christianity has nothing to do with what we are able to accomplish. Our hope is in God, in Jesus, and in what Christ is able to do. Without Christ our lives are always winter, and never Christmas. Our hope is in his advent, his coming into the world, into our lives, his coming to redeem and restore us to himself. That’s our hope. Compared to him, what we’ve done with our lives is disposable.
Placing your hope in Christ is easier to say than to do. To quote Jon Foreman, “I don’t like to admit when I need gifts of forgiveness instead of applause.” It’s easy to think your real hope for next year rests in getting a job, or a promotion, or a relationship. I talk to so many people who seem to think marriage, a job, and a child will fix their issues. Y’all, trust me, marriage, kids, and work don’t fix issues, they bring more people into contact with you and all of your issues. You have to let your kids live in your house—where you live. I checked, there are laws. They place their hope in family, and then I’ve seen people start placing their hope in things their kids will do, which tears families apart. Kids can’t carry that.
The temptation next year will be to place your hope for the healing of our society in a politician or party. Flee that temptation in whatever way you need to—get off social media, limit your news intake. If you want to have political conversations to work out your decisions, have them in person, and always remember, “righteousness exalts a nation,” and our hope is in Christ. Maybe next year you’re hoping to get sober. Lose weight. Get ahead on your assignments this semester. Call your parents more. Serve with the church, really show anyone who may be watching that you’re bright and passionate and you get it.
None of these are bad things, but when you hope that way—listen—when you hope in things you can accomplish, or in things other people can give you, you start living your life in the future tense. You hope for what’s next, and it robs you of enjoyment of the mercies of God in your life in the past and present. Quoting Lewis, “The future is, of all things, the least like eternity,” because the past and present are filled with the Lord’s work. The futures we imagine are built entirely on our own. I’m going to say that again, because I needed this, this week, and you probably do, too. I would encourage you to be ruthless in your discipline of keeping your eyes fixed on the the work of the Lord in your present, past, and future. Hoping in what you will do, or in what someone else will do for you, you wind up in what Dr. Seuss calls the waiting place, where everything you’re hoping for is something that hasn’t happened yet.
Admit to yourself that your future is entirely unknown—entirely unknown. You may die tomorrow, your fortunes may drastically change. Hoping in yourself is completely insane, utterly foolish. I know, the trend is, signs say, the budget is—but you don’t know. Make plans, dream dreams, but hope in Christ. Hope God will move and work in your life in the future just as he has in the past, just as he is in the present. I have all kinds of plans for our church, but my hope is in the movement of the Holy Spirit in this place, and if that is our hope, to God be the glory. If you are hoping in your own accomplishments, or in others to recognize your worth, you will either be self-righteous and proud of what you have done, or you will be filled with regret at what you weren’t able to accomplish. If you hope in what God is able to do, you’ll live a life filled with awe and wonder at a God who plants your good works like a seed in the ground to grow and bear fruit, and who takes even your worst mistakes, your deepest wounds, and weaves them into a beautiful story of grace, salvation, and forgiveness.
Hope, in Christianity, has nothing to do with what we are able to accomplish. Hope instead in Christ, the healer, who was always willing to approach and touch those who were unclean, those in filthy rags, and make them clean again.
Hope, in Christianity, has nothing to do with what we are able to accomplish, but hope, itself, does accomplish a lot in our minds and hearts. We already talked about how hoping in your own accomplishments produces either pride or despair and forces you to live your life in the future tense, but hoping in Christ has an effect on your life, too. Hope does something, to each and every person who carries it with him or her. Mainly, in our passage, we see, hope brings us into confession, change, and through both of those things, family.
Christian hope leads us to confession, because to have hope, Christian hope, you have to admit what we have now isn’t what we’ve been longing for. This life you’re leading now is not the life you were created to live. Our society, the world as it is now is not what it one day will be. Not that we have to go around scowling because our lives and our world are broken, but it means we have to admit we aren’t yet where we are hoping to live. We are and always will be exiles in this world. Hope does that. Hope creates in us a longing for a world in which peace and justice reign, without sickness, death, or time to separate us from the people we love, and so we begin to confess in various ways as we practice our faith, this world is not our home.
We live in a culture which glamorizes, worships, life on the road, life as a journey. I like the movie Up In The Air. Have you seen it? George Clooney, Anna Kendrick. It’s based on a novel, but I haven’t read it, Kallee, I’m sorry. If you haven’t seen it, that’s fine, I’m going to spoil it for you right now. Clooney plays this guy whose job is to travel constantly, a different day a different city, and he loves it. He’s always up in the air. He does motivational speeches as he travels about the joy of being unattached in life. It isn’t just a lifestyle for him, it’s a philosophy, a worldview, but the movie is a tragedy in many ways.
At one point he hits ten million miles flown, and the flight attendants makes a big deal out of it, champaign, they give him a special frequent flyer card and present it to him on the flight, but when she gives it to him, she asks him into the mic, where are you from? And he doesn’t have an answer. He tells her, sitting on the plane, “I’m from here.” The whole movie he’s in this glamorous relationship with a woman who seems to share his philosophy on life, but when he shows up at her house unannounced, she has a family and kids. She’s furious at him for coming to her home and revealing the affair, but she’s not worried about him or their relationship, she’s worried about losing her family.
The tragedy is, he’s gotten so comfortable on the road, he has no home and no people, no family of any kind, no real community. Life is not the journey. That’s fun to say when you’re twenty-something on a roadtrip, but this world is not a road trip. This world is filled with pain. We are on the road, but we are refugees. When you’re a refugee, you’re not hoping to make your journey as pleasant as it can be, you’re hoping to arrive at a home, some place to welcome you where you can find peace and a people. We were created for family, and I don’t mean a wife and kids. I mean the family of God, communion with him and with his people. Life is found in the advent of Christ, in our hope, our longing, of finally finding rest in him.
I know we pray the Lord’s prayer every week in which we call God father, but here in this passage, and leading up to it in chapter fifteen where Isaiah calls God father, this is one of the first times we see that in scripture. It’s a powerful invocation of God as ancestor, God as someone close and intimate, not removed and imperial. Isaiah says, “you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.” We were created for communion with him, to be a family with him. Our hope is to sit at his table.
The last thing I’ll say about what real hope does: hope in us allows God to form and shape us. In v.8, this image we receive of God as our potter, both here and in Jeremiah. If he looks for fault in us, it’s only to repair what it broken. If he breaks us, it’s only to build us up again into what we were meant to be in the first place. Hope confesses fault, and begins to change us in every way we most desperately need to be changed.
Advent reminds us of our true home and our true family. My prayer for you all through this season where we remember hope, peace, joy, and love, is that you will learn the sufficiency of God in these things. Tolkien in Lord of the Rings imagines a bread, which in the books represents the bread of communion we’re about to take, and Christ, himself. At the end of their journey, they run out of all other food, it’s only this bread left, and the author comments, far from growing tired of eating the same thing day after day, the more they depended solely on the bread, the most satisfying it became. May we learn to depend solely on him, to hope in him, and learn ever more as we do his goodness.
“Christmas and Common Birth,” Anne Ridler
Christmas declares the glory of the flesh:
And therefore a European might wish
To celebrate is not at midwinter but in spring,
When physical life is strong,
When the consent to live is forced even on the young,
Juice is in the soil, the leaf, the vein,
Sugar flows to movement in limbs and brain.
Also before a birth, nourishing the child
We turn again to the earth
With unusual longing—to what is rich, wild,
Substantial: scents that have been stored and strengthened
In apple lofts, the underwash of woods, and in barns;
Drawn through the lengthened root; pungent in cones
(While the fir wood stands waiting; the beech wood aspiring,
Each in a different silence), and breaking out in spring
With scent sight sound indivisible in song.
Yet if you think again
It is good that Christmas comes at the dark dream of the year
That might wish to sleep ever.
For birth is awaking, birth is effort and pain;
And now at midwinter are the hints, inklings
(Sodden primrose, honeysuckle greening)
That sleep must be broken.
To bear new life or to learn to live is an exacting joy:
The whole self must waken; you cannot predict the way
It will happen, or master the responses beforehand.
For any birth makes an inconvenient demand;
Like all holy things
It is frequently a nuisance, and its needs never end;
Freedom it brings: we should welcome release
From its long merciless rehearsal of peace.
So Christ comes
At the iron senseless time, comes
To force the glory into frozen veins:
His warmth wakes
Green life glazed in the pool, wakes
All calm and crystal trance with the living pains.
And each year
In seasonal growth is good—year
That lacking love is a stale story at best
By God’s birth
Our common birth is holy; birth
Is all at Christmas time and wholly blest.