Singing Songs of Hope in Exile

We don’t know many Advent songs.  Most know “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” but beyond that, nothing doing. Their trademark is the hopeful expectation, the recognition that even in the dark times we can trust something better is on the way.  That you can once again find home.

A sermon based on Isaiah 12 — the First Song of Isaiah.

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beall via Compfight cc

This past week I looked up my childhood home on Google maps.  I’m not sure what drove the desire to check in on the only home I knew in my childhood, I suspect it’s the holidays and the wonderings about the past as time marches on.  I’ve been thinking of my parents as we celebrate the many events of this month, Noah’s birthday and Christmas and our 20th wedding Anniversary.  Partly it’s in response to the instability we all feel in the midst of our world with the bombastic rhetoric from demagogues ratcheting up the fear in our country to DEFCON 5. 

With Google’s arial view I saw the tree that I used to climb, and the one my mom and brother dug up out of the back ditch and re-planted in our yard much too close to the house.  I saw the old barn style shed we had, and the more I looked the more memories flooded my mind.  Like the frog I’d discovered near our house one day.  I carried him around with me only to lose him in the back in the car.  We rediscovered him a couple of years later flatter than you could ever imagine.  I thought about the games of kick the can, played with a playground ball as the can was deemed too dangerous.  I remembered the many celebrations and swimming in the pool and our black cockapoo who would sit on the top of the couch looking out the large picture window as life meandered by.

Home.  According to Zillow the place has changed hands twice in the dozen years since my parents retired.  I wonder if the people who’ve moved in have kids and if they discovered the secret hiding spots I used to put toy cars and action figures in.  I can’t remember if I left any in those places so many years ago.

When we live in a difficult time or in a strange land or in the shadow of fear, we try to remember, to hearken back, to recall the times and places when our lives felt a bit more stable.  The Israelites would sing songs to help them do this, and the one that we read this morning—the First Song of Isaiah—does just that.  These verses from Isaiah 12 were likely inserted in after the fact by the prophet scholars call “Second Isaiah.”  This prophet preached not in Jerusalem like his predecessor, but from along the rivers of Babylon some years later.  He and his congregation now lived in exile, taken off after the Babylonians came in to Jerusalem.  All that they had known and love had become a flickering shadow, a phantom likely to be carried off by a strong desert wind.  So the prophet would encourage the singing of songs when they gathered to worship so that they could hold on to the wisps of home and of God’s goodness.

“Surely it is God who saves me, I will trust in him and not be afraid.  For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior,” they’d sing together.  Trust, fear not for there is one who is stronger, there is one who saves.  Their times were just as distressing as our own, their days filled with anxiety and displacement.  Their world had careened off center.  “Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation. And on the day you shall say, ‘Give thanks to the Lord, and call upon his Name; Make his deeds known among the peoples; see that they remember that his Name is exalted.’”

The problem lies in the fact that we live in a culture suffering from amnesia.  We live among a people and at a time when memories of the Lord’s deeds are fleeting, and they trail off from our minds until we question if they had been only figments of an overactive imagination.

“Remember!” Isaiah says to his people.  “Wake up!” the voice of the prophets cry.  “Don’t be so overcome with fear that you no longer recognize the goodness of God.”  “Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, and this is known in all the world.  Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”

We too live in times of exile, in a time and place that does not readily remember the works of God.  When the president of the largest Christian university in our country encourages his students to arm themselves, we live in times of great fear.  We live in a state of amnesia of the goodness of God.  We live in exile and in captivity.

Which is why we sing that most well known of Advent hymns: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel who mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.”  Come to us Emmanuel  in this place of exile, in this place of cultural amnesia, because we mourn and are lonely, like those exiles from long ago.   But notice in this hymn each verse ends confidently with those words of comfort, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel will come to thee O Israel.” God will not forget. Don’t lose heart. Hope.

When we traveled to London a couple of summers ago, we saw the stunning theatrical adaptation of the Lion King.  The costumes were exquisite as actors and dancers played the roles of all those animals on the savannah from those who became giraffes walking on stilts to the the puppeteering of the red-billed horn bird, Zazu. We watched as the awful Scar bullied the young cub Simba into running away in fear after the horrible stampede that took his father Mufasa’s life.  We laughed as Simba meets Pumbaa and Timon and grows up in that place so far from home.  And then before the climax of the story, the now grown Simba comes out by himself on stage with stars twinkling all around and sings a powerful Advent song.

“Where has the starlight gone?  Dark is the day.  How can I find my way home?     Home is an empty dream.  Lost to the night      Father, I feel so alone.”

He continues, “You promised you’d be there Whenever I needed you Whenever I call your name You’re not anywhere. I’m trying to hold on Just waiting to hear your voice One word, just a word will do To end this nightmare”

And then the lights come up every so slightly—three candle’s worth of light at the most—at the edge of the horizon and a whole community of voices from off stage begins to quietly sing, “I know that the night must end And that the sun will rise And that the sun will rise I know that the clouds must clear And that the sun will shine  And that the sun will shine.”

Then Simba’s voice rises over the others, his hope gaining strength the more he sings, “I know  Yes, I know  The sun will rise Yes, I know I know The clouds must clear  I know that the night must end I know that the sun will rise And I’ll hear your voice deep inside.  I know that the night must end And that the clouds must clear The sun The sun will rise.”

In this season of waiting for the Son of righteousness to be born once again, we are called to remember even in the midst of the darkness.  God calls us to make God’s deeds known among the peoples.  Because God has acted in the past, and God will act again.  God protected Noah and his family from the waves of the flood.  God rescued our forebears from the slavery they endured in Egypt.  God did bring those Babylonian exiles back home to Jerusalem.  The Lord fed those five thousand when they needed some lunch. He healed a blind man and touched some lepers and awakened the dead.  And then in the darkest of nights, when his followers had given up any hope whatsoever, at the first sliver of light, the power of God cracked open the grave, overcoming death forever, and he was resurrected. 

“Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, and this is known in all the world.  Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”

That is why we rejoice on this third Sunday of Advent. We sing together with those who’ve gone before claiming that the last word will not be fear but love.  That God will not leave us in exile forever, that Emmanuel will come to us again.  Let us never forget.  Let us hold on to the power of that love so that even when the night seems endless and when the clouds roll in, we may know with hope and certainty that the sun will rise, and we will once again find our home in the presence of the Holy One.  Amen.