Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
When I was a little girl, I remember going to Pilcher McBride Drugs in downtown Selma with my mother. As we walked to the entrance of the store, I noticed a man standing on a box, holding a sign that said, “The End is Near”, and preaching up a storm. I remember being mesmerized by the whole experience of it—the cadence and volume of the man’s speech as he shouted out our need for repentance, the pull of my mother’s hand as she hurried us by, the people gawking at the man, the cars honking as they passed, the dirtiness of his clothes and unkempt hair, even the blue of the sky and the brightness of the sun. It didn’t seem like the end was near, but what did I know? I was only a little kid.
I have thought about that man intermittently in the days and years that have followed. I have wondered about his sanity, whether or not he was a homeless tramp wandering across America believing himself on a mission from God, maybe a modern-day prophet delivering a message inspired by the Holy Spirit, perhaps some uber-religious fanatic. Obviously, I will never know. I never saw him again though I looked for him and from time to time would hear of “soap box preachers” standing on the corner.
Listening to that man, even for the few seconds that I could, was the first time I had ever heard anyone preach like that. It was exciting and terrifying all at the same time. I grew up Roman Catholic listening to priests who droned on and on. Fire and brimstone were not typical to their preaching voice, though Purgatory might get thrown in every so often. And because the Catholic mission church we belonged to was bent on social justice and liberation theology, we didn’t hear a lot about the end times either—at least that I remember. So, to hear this man on a soapbox preaching on a street corner about the end of the world was, at the very least, fascinating.
As a child, I didn’t really know what to do with that. If I am honest, I’m still not sure what to do with this end times theology that lures people into spiritual and self-deception. We don’t really talk about it in the Episcopal Church—we like to believe that we are more focused on the here and now and the work we are called to do in being Good News to others. As much as I wish that our faith and our action were driven by Jesus’s charge to us in The Great Commission, I’m not so sure that our beliefs haven’t been somewhat corrupted by this end times thinking so prevalent in our society.
End times thinking causes us to carry some sense of guilt and even judgment toward ours and other’s role in binding up the broken hearted and proclaiming liberty to the captives. Our work and efforts in the world are less motivated by joy and Jesus and instead are inspired by a sense of guilt or concern over judgment. The way we “love” others is actually a self-centered desire to ensure our own salvation. That is why it is easier to give money than to get one’s hands dirty—so to speak. The giving of money assuages us of our guilt and makes us feel good about ourselves and the world because we believe we have done something to help change the world.
Now don’t get me wrong. The giving of alms is one of the oldest spiritual practices and an incredible path toward transformation. It is important for us to give of our money not only as individuals but also as the body of Christ. Financial giving leads to transformation not because we are trying to assuage our guilt but because we are discovering our joy. We cannot give simply to change someone else, we give to change ourselves. And that kind of giving requires more. It requires us to move out into other people’s experiences, people who are different from us and discover what motivates them—what has caused their broken-heartedness, what they might be imprisoned by. It is only then that we can offer Good News to the poor. It is only when we are in relationship with one another that we can truly discover what it means to be set free. Until then, our expectations of the world, of other people, will never be met simply because they are not grounded in the reality of one another’s experience.
Isaiah preaches good news to the oppressed. He is preaching to his people who have been held in captivity—who lost everything to Assyria and then to Babylon. Jerusalem has been taken, their Temple destroyed, the people scattered across the Middle East—taken into captivity: maimed, murdered, and mistreated. Now Babylon, the one who has rendered them such harm is conquered by King Cyrus and the Persians. He allows the Israelites to return to their home and build up the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations and return Jerusalem to her former glory. But Isaiah does not credit King Cyrus with this inspiration and renewal, he credits the Lord.
It is the Lord who gives recompence and makes the everlasting covenant. It is the Lord who clothes us with garments of salvation and robes of righteousness. It is the Lord who will cause righteousness and praise to spring up across the nations. It is the Lord who will comfort those who mourn, release those who are imprisoned to sin and self-deceit, heal the sorrowful and suffering, and bring hope to the poor and the oppressed. Isaiah has lived through the end times and on the other side he has discovered a newness of life—a renewal of what was that has now become what is. And what is, is the perfection of the Lord. Isaiah reminds his people to trust in that; to trust in the perfection of the Lord. That is what true faith is—trust not simply belief.
Belief is rarely a call to action. Quite the contrary, it often inspires doubt or judgment. Trust is what encourages us, even strengthens us, to go out into the world and do the work of building up God’s kingdom. When our faith is built on trusting God, we don’t have to worry about getting our beliefs right—we can even allow ourselves to rest in the mysteries of God. We no longer have to worry about our eternal salvation and whether or not we will be saved. We can live as the church, as Jesus commissioned us to live and work and act on his behalf—building up the kingdom together.
Isaiah knew it was not the end and he invited the people to experience the possibility of what a new beginning might look like. He offered tidings of comfort and joy not threats to entice better behavior from a people who had been lost in darkness and despair. There is no if/then language—if you do this, then that will happen. Instead, there is God offering a faithful response to his covenanted people, trusting them to trust him so that together they can make a new beginning. “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up…” God offers that same invitation to us today.
I wonder how different the world might be if instead of fear and anxiety about the world ending, that soap box preacher on the corner of Broad Street in downtown Selma, AL had preached a message of trust; if instead of “The End is Near” his sign had read “the Beginning is Near”. To trust God is to recognize that Advent is about trusting in God’s promise of renewal and hope. It is not the time of the ending of all things, but a time of new hope, new possibility, new beginnings.