A Flickering Wick

A Flickering Wick

photoIsaiah 42:1-9

by Daniel Harrell

The seasonal darkness of Advent makes light an annually welcome topic, so it’s good we’ve been shining forth these past months looking light in the Bible. It inspired a member to send this photo he took from last Sunday, which he entitled “Colonial Church in Soft Light.” It’s a beautiful take. Of course for us non-photographers who drove to church last Sunday, we remember “Colonial Church in Dense Fog,” for some, even more difficult to maneuver through than the snow this morning. Most of us embrace this morning’s snow since it means a dreamy white Christmas, yet there remain others for whom the bluish fog better matches their mood. In what has become an annual tradition, churches around the country, including several here in the Twin Cities, sponsor “Blue Christmas” services (with no connection to Elvis) for people whose holidays feel neither merry nor bright. Candles are still lit and ornaments hung in these services, but rather than decking the halls, the candles are lit for remembrance and the ornaments hung are inscribed with names of those who suffer this season through hardships of personal loss, grief and despondency. Christmas merriment piles on the sadness for so many during December that having a place to hang your sorrows helps.

Blogging blue about Christmas myself this week, I wrote how ironic that yuletide expectations of peace and joy dominate given that the Christmas story itself is such a downer–what with all of its scandal, exile, homelessness, rejection, oppression, not to mention raging infanticide. Sure, the angels pronounce “peace of earth,” but that’s been such a long time coming that it really only works on greeting cards, for anybody who still uses the mail. To read the Christmas story straight up is to paint any Christmas service unavoidably blue. Attending a Blue Christmas Service several years back, I got so depressed that I had to run right to the mall afterwards so to reconnect with the real reason for the season.

The Christmas story’s depressing downside feeds off ancient Israel’s sad history. Chosen as God’s own and then dramatically rescued from an oppressive enslavement to Pharaoh’s Egypt–led out of captivity by a pillar of fire, on dry land as waters parted around them, their enemies drowned, their mouths fed with bread from heaven, all their prayers answered and a bright future secured–these people somehow preferred to abide in a fog of unfaithfulness, rejecting God’s grace and thus obstructing their travel plans for the next forty years.

The Old Testament reads like a broken record—for those of you who still remember records. Love and its rejection leading to sin and its repercussions, followed by grace and comfort, and then comfort and a complacency, skipping back into sin once more. We see this no more vividly than with the prophet Isaiah. Comfortably ensconced in their Promised Land, it was just too hard to stay faithful. Warned by the prophet to trust in the Lord, Israel demurred, deciding instead to cozy up to mighty Babylon with all of its enticing power and wealth. They being chosen with being entitled; they deserved whatever they could get. Israel got greedy and tried to assert its own wish list, and the Lord let them have it, giving them over to their Babylonian Santas, who proved in the end to be nothing but Grinches with intolerably hot coal for their stockings.

Babylon crushed Jerusalem, trashed Israel’s Temple and enslaved the people anew. That Babylon succeeded in smashing the House of the Lord, it was assumed that they had defeated God himself. But the Lord had already left that building; allowing Babylon to serve Israel its just desserts with a cruel ferocity. The Lord had allowed it–sin has its repercussions–but the ferocity with which Babylon acted was a blatant abuse of their power. Therefore the Lord, whose justice ultimately aims at restoration rather than destruction, sends Isaiah with tidings of comfort and joy.  The Servant of the Lord was coming to town, to rebuild their city and their Temple and bring forth his justice against tyranny. Unleashing the Persian King Cyrus, his army thundered in from the east and routed the Babylonians as if on cue. King Cyrus ordered the rebuilding of the Temple and the city and brought Israel back from their exile. It was a mighty move of grace, and arrived with the expectation that God’s people, their candles relit, would finally shine as a light for redemption, visible evidence of God’s love for all people. They had never been chosen solely for their own sake. Like the church, the idea was for Israel to be the light of the world, serving and caring and wooing all nations into the Lord’s everlasting radiance.

That was the idea, but comfort and joy led to complacency again, skipping back into sin and its repercussions once more. The Romans rolled in as did Israel’s fog, inducing the Lord to abandon the Temple project for good and show up in person instead. But rather than ride in as a King or fly in like Superman to save the planet, God showed up as a humbly and scandalously born baby in a manger, a working class Messiah with just a few tricks up his sleeve, unjustly treated then summarily executed, effectively turning the tables on every expectation of what salvation would look like. Jesus proved exactly the sort of Servant of the Lord Isaiah foretold.

King Cyrus had been but a shadow. To read this morning’s passage is to read one of four famous servant songs from Isaiah, the most familiar being the one hear sung every Christmas in Handel’s Messiah: “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, he was wounded for our iniquities and the chastisement that brought us peace was upon him.” Though a depressing way for a Redeemer to redeem, the gospel writers never had any trouble applying it to Jesus who died for human sin on the cross.

“I have put my spirit upon him,” says the Lord in Isaiah, never more evident than in Jesus who forgave his accusers and killers even as he hung to die. “He will bring out justice,” says the Lord in Isaiah, which Jesus did by being raised from the dead, vindicating the righteousness of his cause. As a risen King, Jesus powerfully rules but without power’s abuses. He incites no rioting in the streets, insinuates no threat of chemical weapons, compels no political grandstanding nor portends any fiscal cliffs.

Indeed, he “will not cry aloud or lift up his voice to make it heard in the streets,” says the Lord in Isaiah. He’ll not run ads on television or spam any inbox. Instead, he will speak by his life, and show his power through mercy and compassion to the least and the lost. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” “He will open the eyes of the blind and rescue from prison those confined to the darkness.” And he’ll do all of this without growing faint or discouraged. “Thus says the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and life to those who walk in it: ‘I am the LORD; I have called my servant in righteousness; I will take him by the hand and keep him; I will give him as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations.” Jesus shouldered the covenant obligations Israel forsook, and bravely took up his calling. “I am the light of the world,” he declared, and went on to burn brightly for the glory of God.

Matthew, in his gospel, has no problem linking Isaiah 42 to Jesus. He cites our verses verbatim after Jesus healed a poor man with a deformed hand on the Sabbath. Religious rules prohibited any healing on the Sabbath because healing was a lot of work and only God was allowed to work on the Sabbath. Which was precisely the point: if God is the one who heals and God is the only one who works on the Sabbath, and Jesus does both, then you do the math. He’s Isaiah’s guy. The self-righteous, rule-keeping Pharisees, still playing that broken record, could never accept a Savior who didn’t look like them. So they started looking for a way to destroy him. Jesus got the hint and got out of town, and took the crowds with him, hurting people eager for anybody to help them, even if he didn’t look like much of a Savior. Jesus goes on to heal them, with the caveat that they keep it quiet, in fulfillment “what had been spoken through Isaiah the prophet” according to Matthew. The servant of the Lord would show his power through mercy and compassion to the least and the lost without any fanfare, publicity, expectation of appreciation or press conferences. His left hand wouldn’t know what his right hand was doing.

God’s grace brought comfort but then comfort brought complacency again, and before long it wasn’t enough for people to have their hurts healed. If Jesus really was the Servant Messiah, then bringing out justice meant bringing down the Romans, just like King Cyrus had brought down Babylon. When King Jesus made clear that military might was not his method, the crowds turned disappointed and then turned on him. People want their Saviors to be superheroes. It’s what we want and think we need despite reading Isaiah every Advent.

Catholic writer Max Lindeman calls it the “Advent Trap.” He fell into it one Christmas after getting mugged. Left alone on the street bereft of his stuff—his wallet, his cellphone and credit cards—he knew he had to get in touch with his bank right away, or the crooks were going to hit the nearest convenience store ATM and max out his overdraft. Max got mugged the week after losing his job as an airline baggage-handler. A disgruntled white-collar guy, he’d taken this job “in a quest for blue-collar authenticity,” but ended up driving his belt-loader into the fuselage of an 319 Airbus. Twice. His car had quit on him too, of course. His computer’s hard drive had crashed. And he’d broken up with a girlfriend. It was a dismal holiday season.

Unfortunately his local parish didn’t sponsor a Blue Christmas Service (I think this is mostly a Lutheran and Calvinist thing), but his parish was still doing Advent. Max’s ex-girlfriend was seriously devout and now, stripped of all his worldly possessions, he figured he might as well check out her church (hoping, perhaps, to bump into her again too). It was, he learned when he got there, the second Sunday of Advent and the gospel reading included those verses where Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a slow-flowering mustard seed. Jesus was born as a baby and had to grow up. He promised to bring the Kingdom of God, but then he died. He rose from the dead to get things started, but then he left again, assuring everybody he’s be back later to fix everything for good. In the meantime, the Holy Spirit would serve as a placeholder so that everybody could see that Jesus was still at work in the world even if he was long way from being finished. Even for the Lord, these things take time. For Max, patience and waiting were the sermon takeaways, perfectly appropriate for Advent. He wrote, “I’ve always preferred the term ‘late bloomer’ to ‘complete failure,’ so it was a source of great comfort to note I shared this status with the Son of God.”

Advent’s promise of new light and eventual bloom got Max through the New Year, during which time a number of strange and wonderful miracles occurred. He convinced the hiring manager of a security firm that his feet constituted “reliable transportation.” He’d barely broken into that job when he got offered him a much comfier bank job. He won $50 from a Lottery ticket, all of which he took as a sign of God’s favor, evidence of his chosenness and of being on the right track to his own personal promised land.

But then the new job turned demanding and stressful. A new car brought new car troubles. He made some bad investments. He lost another cell phone. His enthusiasm at finding God gave way to disappointment once his prayers weren’t answered like he thought they should be. He’d fallen into the Advent Trap—that false sense of having turned a corner, of having taken an irrevocable step upward. “Seen without the proper perspective,” Max wrote, “Advent can look like a big, fat bait-and-switch. Think about it: it’s the beginning of winter. It’s cold. Night falls earlier every day. Then a few candles and a splash of violet appear around the altar, signaling that it’ll all be over soon. Except it isn’t. After four weeks of anticipation, Christmas comes and goes, leaving you to face the January chills and the February blahs. And then, if things weren’t grim enough, Lent starts.”

Jews of the first century, those who, if they’d looked, would have seen the star above the manger. They would have been able to relate. To date, they’d waited six centuries for their Savior. And when He finally arrived, he was in a state unfit to do much of anything but drive the local tyrant into his infanticidal panic. And then, 30 years later, when His hour finally came, did the Messiah take down the corrupt government walls or lead anyone to a new Promised Land? No. He just died his painful, degraded death and — resurrection notwithstanding — left His followers to the swords of their persecutors. Such disappointment. We all want their Saviors to be superheroes, or at least Santa Clauses. Jesus was neither. Sigh. Welcome to Colonial’s Blue Christmas service. I’m sure the malls will be open after church.

And yet better than that, this is the word of the Lord: “who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and life to those who walk in it. He will open the eyes of the blind and release prisoners from their dungeons of darkness. New things I will bring and light I will shine.” But this too is the word of the Lord, light shines out of darkness and resurrection requires dying. Promised Lands lie on the other side of deserts and grace forgives sin. winter and summer, springtime and harvest, good jobs and bad, sickness and health, brokenness and redemption, life and death and new life, blue Christmas and white: the Advent Candle burns as our pillar of fire, shining the presence of God even as we wait for the Lord. To some this may just look like fog, but to those who hope in the Lord, it is a soft light that pulls us ever forward, ever leading us on.