This week’s readings seem to have a lot to say about the meaning of “promise”. About having a long view of things. We’re always in need of hope. Present struggles. Wondering what the future holds. There are lots of “get rich quick” schemes, self-help books, and all sorts of things that offer us a promise, but how dependable is it? At what cost? Can we get there from here? They’re tempting because we want to see results now. What if real strength and serenity we seek, lie in something else?
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. – Isaiah 61:11
This is such a hopeful verse, with something like new life slowly emerging into being. It makes me think of those time-lapse films that you might have seen in school. Where the seed has been planted, and you see the tiny shoot poke its way through soil, to air and sunlight. Or maybe you’ve seen film of a bud popping open, revealing its inner flower. But you know, those movies are a bunch of still frames, shot over a long period of time, and compressed into a quick movie. It’s fantastic to see things happen so quickly, when daily, the changes are almost invisible.
The exiles returned from Babylon to find harsh, rough ground. Where the Temple once stood, now remained only ruins and faded memories of glory and holiness. “But they’ll rebuild! Go read Nehemiah.” Sure, we’re blessed to have the fullness of scripture as a history of our ancestors in faith. But, try to see things through their eyes. How do we build again? Why even bother? And Nehemiah wept, all the same….
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendents shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; – from Isaiah 61:4-9
We reap hope by compressing the history. Much like God’s time and our time, we get to glide over Israel’s struggle to rebuild, and their re-establishment in the promised land. And isn’t it funny how God’s promise is about the descendants? Abraham would have many descendants. David, blessed by God, promises similar to Solomon. The Israelite view must certainly be the long view. I’m not a parent, so I don’t know what it’s like to pin my hopes and dreams on my children, but I’m guessing it’s not unrelated. Anyway, it’s kind of like time-lapse – the sprout will pierce the soil and grow into a strong shoot, but I have only faith to help me cling to God’s promise.
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. – Isaiah 61:1-3
But, Israel did have Third Isaiah – their own present-day prophets to paint the picture for them, to give them that mind-movie of the blessings to come. Slow in coming, but a grand vision to cling to, with the prophets’ conviction to make it all believeable. Did it work? Surely not fully. But how like us, when we just can’t seem to stop mistrusting God in the midst of the ruins of our own lives. Yet, the promise continues to stand, beckoning us to hear it.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. – from 1 Thessalonians 1:16-22
St. Paul builds up our own hopes as he writes to the Thessalonians. Do not despise the words of prophets. With this theme of delayed gratification, it’s so easy to be angry when you hurt, and someone tells you it will be all better. Or better yet, “maybe this is a part of God’s plan.” A fat lot of good it does me now! Without getting into what “God’s plan” is supposedly about, haven’t we had this kind of experience at least once in our lives?
Of course, I wrote that, then browsed through some commentaries on the web. That little bit about “test everything” kind of sticks out like a sore thumb. We want a word of hope in the midst of our trials, and it just happens that there are lots of people who would be more than happy to give it. But, even if it sees us through right now, it’s not necessarily the word of hope that we really need. Surely we’re better served to cling to the true Word of hope, and not grope for the easy word that just makes it all go away right now.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. – 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
Thank you, Paul, for this commendation to us, that there might be peace between our faithful God and us, to sanctify us, and to cleanse our hurting spirits. Though our own faithfulness ebbs and flows, God’s faithfulness stands firm in all days and hours. So, our faith is tested. Not an intentional test. Crap happens. But, what would it mean to reap strength and serenity from a promise that we won’t neccesarily see or feel?
John 1:6-8, 19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. – John 1:6-8
Prophets. We started with Isaiah’s prophesy, rooted in a future that we can’t see with our own eyes. Then, Paul warns us to test prophesies, when we’re sorely in need of a Word of hope. And now we have John the Baptist, prophesying and giving testimony to the priests and Levites. Kind of like a televangelist? He seemed pretty magnetic, despite the hair shirt, locusts, and general smelliness. But yet, here he takes great pains to point things heavenward, away from himself. And his prophesy is rooted in the future.
They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. – John 1:25-28
Maybe we’ve learned something crucial in these readings. Some insight into what prophesy and promise are all about. We believe in a God of promise. If you think about it, doesn’t a “promise” have to always mean the “not yet?” Otherwise, it’s already happened – it’s no longer a promise. Perhaps we gain more strength and consolation for today, if we let our hopes alight on the wings of the unseen future, when this present time will seem but only a moment. Much like those time-lapse movies I thought of earlier – sprouts and flowers that barely change today.
And prophesy. Seems like prophesy means proclaiming a promise. Like the Word of hope needing to be rooted in promise and the “not yet,” for it to truly be our Word of hope, as our examples seem to demonstrate. And what is John’s Word of hope? Jesus. Just as much our own Word of hope, as for those who actually heard him with their own ears. Jesus who came among us, and who still goes before us. What is the “not yet” of Jesus? That in our last day, we will stand blameless, clean, and righteous – He grants us assurance to comfort us now, when we might otherwise torment ourselves with questions we cannot answer.
May this week be a time to reflect on how God’s promises can comfort us right now, in the challenges of each day. Maybe it seems a stretch, but what if….. if we could only cling in faith. If we can only see beyond right now, when things seem static and stuck. Our ancestors in faith lived with a long view. Perhaps we can do the same.