All the Way
Isaiah 61:1-4, 10-11
of Avila was a nun who lived in the sixteenth century. Now, that doesn’t sound
like the most promising opening line for a sermon, does it? I am the first to
admit that nuns from the 1500’s don't have a lot to do with our lives in
a story about this woman, however, that connects with us.
she and some fifty other nuns were traveling on foot to a neighboring convent
during a terrible snowstorm. When they came to a dangerously unstable bridge
that provided the only way across a swollen stream, they paused to pray.
asked that the bridge might hold up until they were all safely across.
the nuns got to the middle of the bridge, it collapsed, spilling them all into
the icy water below. After they had struggled to shore, Theresa raised her eyes
to heaven and said: "Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, it
is little wonder you have so many enemies!"[i]
when I hear that prayer. I laugh with recognition that I too have prayed like
this. I laugh because if I didn't, I might cry.
laughter is a bridge that carries us over many a troubled stream. And holy
laughter, faithful laughter brings us rejoicing into the new life that God
scripture lessons that we heard this morning invite us into a life of laughter
hope there is a future.
the deep-seated human sense that all will be well. Even in the face of so much that
is wrong—including the horrible national and international news that we hear
each day—hope rises in you and in me out of what has been called “an almost
unconscious perception of the steadfast faithfulness of God.”
Polkinghorne, the physicist and Anglican priest reminds us that hope, of
course, is not the same as optimism or wishful thinking. Optimism, he says,
“springs from a calculation of how things may be expected to turn out, with the
belief that in the end it will all prove not to be too bad.” Wishful thinking,
on the other hand, doesn’t weigh the possibilities and probabilities, but
“simply sails off into the blue of ungrounded longings.”
contrast, “Christian hope is open to the unexpected character of what lies
ahead precisely because it is open to the faithfulness of a God who is always
doing new things.”[ii]
about it—we don’t do anything significant without some kind of hope. If you
start a business, you have plans to make it profitable. If you build a house,
you imagine it standing for many years. If you get married, you do so with a
vision of love that lasts and grows. Your hopes—for profit, for shelter, for
love—pull you forward, help you to take necessary risks.
plays a major part in our mental and spiritual well-being.
light, I think that our annual ritual of buying and wrapping presents is good
for our sanity. Wrapping presents and putting them under the Christmas tree
helps us look ahead. The colored paper and ribbons announce in almost biblical
cadences: “The day is coming—and soon. Be prepared! Get ready!” If nothing
else, a present with your name on it can stir up your hope.
people of Israel prayed out of their hope: “Restore our fortunes, O God.” In
difficult times they were able to hope for a life that was better than their
we remember in these final days of Advent that our preparations are for more
than the celebration of the first coming of Christ in that manger in Bethlehem.
We also prepare for what is confessed in the Apostles' Creed, that Christ “will
not a matter of timetables and grim predictions of disasters. To await in faith
and hope the Christ who will come is to constantly pose critical questions to
our society, to stay unsatisfied with what is and to look toward and work
toward a new world, to turn in new directions that heal and restore the
brokenness around us and within us. [iii]
find hope, new possibilities are open to us.
hope, there is a future.
past, there is hope.
that we find in faith is not wishful thinking. And God is not the cosmic Santa
Claus that some people seem to think—ready to receive our wish list of prayers.
finds its firm foundation in the past—in what God has done and in the promises
of what God will do.
Psalmist dares to hope and to pray for the future in which God will restore the
fortunes of the people, because of the memory of “when the Lord restored the
fortunes of Zion.” This is the memory of those times: “We were like those who
dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of
joy. . . .The Lord has done great things for us—and we rejoiced!”
fuels authentic hope.
The Hebrew people could look forward with confidence
because they could look backward in awe.
us know some moment of triumph over adversity, some occasion of successfully
meeting a challenge. These are moments of joy when new possibilities seem
will hold memories of better times: when the streets were safe, when your job
was secure, when you were strong and able bodied, when you didn't seem to be
carrying the weight of responsibilities that seem so heavy today.
sense of history is weak. Without anchors in our early promises and aspirations
we are in danger of drifting and losing direction—as individuals, as a nation,
as a church.
we do well to recall what God has done in Jesus—remembering the Christmas
proclamation that the creator entered the creation as a child in Bethlehem, God
this, we mark of these days of Advent as a time to deepen our memory of God's
great deeds. In doing so we are set free to look forward with courage to the
fulfillment of time by the One who came and is still to come.[iv]
the future grows from memory of the past.
is the link between past and future.
Psalmist remembers what it was like: "Then our mouth was filled with
laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy!" These words have always come
to my grim heart as surprising and exceedingly good news.
fitting response to what God has done is laughter! Not pious, folded-hand
prayer, not earnest social action, not serious study. Maybe we'll get around to
all of that and more at some point, maybe not. But the first and fitting
response is laughter.
wonder Santa Claus laughs—along with all the saints. Recalling God's generous,
open handed giving, who wouldn’t? The divine becomes human—as a gift. The
sublime does the ridiculous. And we laugh.
the divine comedy, a reversal of fortunes for all creation. We celebrate the
restoration of the communion between God and all people. And laughing, we hope
for more—praying with the Psalmist: ‘Restore our fortunes, Lord.”
how things happen.
Thursday afternoon I was in the study here at the church, going over this
sermon. I was just at this point and this guy comes up the stairs to my door.
I’d seen him several times in recent years—usually because he was looking for
money to cover some medical expenses, to pay for some food, or something else.
Because of the giving of you, the members of this congregation, I was able to
help at times—usually with that feeling that I was just keeping his head above
the rising waters. And here he was, looking better than he had, telling me
about the job he was holding down, looking toward the future instead of
dreading it. Restore our fortunes, Lord.
that same day two homeless people whom members of the choir got to know came by
just to tell me they had found an apartment down the street. Restore our
this congregation is here, because we care for this place, because we are
committed to ministry on this corner, because we give, fortunes are restored.
Lives are changed. People who were nearly in tears in my study before returned,
sat down, leaned back and laughed.
lives laughing. And the Bible often seems to be one long joke book, a book of
laughter and remembrance, a book filled with people howling because of what God
has done, or is doing, or is about to do.
and Sarah laugh when God promises descendants. They laugh because God seemed to
believe it. They laughed because God expected them to believe it.
Jesus tells the grieving people around him that a child is not dead but
sleeping, they laugh. They laugh because they’re sure they know better about
life and death than the Author of Life who stands before them.
laugh when we hear the ridiculous good news that God has not abandoned us, that
death isn’t the end, that new life is breaking in—even into our lives, even now.
prophet Isaiah announced that God would give a garland instead of ashes, the
oil of gladness instead of mourning and that the people would repair the ruined
cities. Did the people laugh?
laugh today were someone to announce that we could put an end to the poverty in
Iowa City? Would we laugh at the news that we could bring peace to Ferguson and
New York City? Would we laugh when told that torture could cease in the dark
cells that our nation oversees and that broken bodies and lives could be made
catch those glimpses of God is at work among us, laughter will link our past
and our future.
will move from joy to joy, laughing all the way.
not all the way. Sometimes we do go
out sowing in tears. Grief is hard and weighs heavily upon us. Sometimes we'll
feel like Theresa of Avila, wondering why, with a friend like God we would need
any other enemies at all. At such times, however, a Jewish proverb encourages
us: “When you are hungry sing; when you are hurt, laugh.” We can laugh because
of the outrageous things that God has done and will do among us and through us.
all the way, hope will run to catch up with us. To our surprise, we will be
ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who promises: “Blessed are you who weep,
for you shall laugh.”
[i] Evan D. Howard, Rekindling the Hope of the Manger, Judson Press, 1992, pg. 39.
[ii] John Polkinghorne, Living with Hope, pg. 4.
[iii] Henri Nouwen, in The Lord Is Near, 1993, Creative Communications for the Parish,
Second Sunday in Advent.
[iv] ibid., First Wednesday in Advent.