Isaiah 40: 1-11
The world collapses around us. Somali pirates take over tanker ships. Hundreds die in a terrorist attack in Mumbai, and hundreds more are injured, as a lone two year old weeps, orphaned in the arms of his Indian nurse. Financial markets are in utter disarray, and worried retirees sign on as greeters at WalMart, only to risk being trampled in the Black Friday rush. Milk is tainted with melamine. Nameless prisoners sit in Guantanamo, sweating in the heat, without due process, without even a sense of who they are anymore. Soldiers who went to fight the war on terror come home with missing limbs and broken minds to military hospitals without the resources to give them the help they need.
Our world collapses around us, and we sit at the foot of the wreckage, immobilized by the relentless images of brokenness. In the moment, our eyes cast about us. We ponder our options. But our choices seem impotent. What other option do we have but to look up, to ask God what the future might bring? We want to see the future. We want to know what is going to happen next. We want to be creatures of hope. When we are at bottom, we instinctively look up, because we want to search and see a future that’s better than where we are.
Sometimes, though, that search is neither rational nor spiritual. If you doubt me, I have just four words for you:
Miss Cleo’s Psychic Hotline.
You remember Miss Cleo, don’t you? Late night infomercials, with a woman with a calypso voice, gold hoops on her ears, a scarf around her head, a crystal ball on the table before her.
Miss Cleo promised you a glimpse of your future, if your credit card was functional. You could call up an 800 number and speak to one of her circle of renowned psychics and find out what would happen in your love life, what would happen in your job, what would happen in the next lottery drawing.
Miss Cleo was so outrageous that she eventually became the object of jokes on Leno and Letterman, and finally was sued by the states of Connecticut and Florida for fraud. The companies for which she fronted reached a settlement, giving back several hundred thousand dollars in customer fees. Here’s the irony of the thing, though: the settlement came about because customers were not told they were being switched form the 800 number to a high-priced 900 line. Nothing in the suit was said about the efficacy or accuracy of the predictions folks were given. Even within the court system, there may have been a tiny segment who wanted to believe the psychic “gifts” of those on the phone. Those who are at the bottom struggle to look upward, struggle to see the future, because they so desperately want something better.
It’s a funny story, and we shake our heads at the ignorance of people who think some woman with an accent and a crystal ball can tell the future. We’re smart. We don’t think that way.
And yet, that desire for knowledge of what is to come is in all of us. You and I know this in our own much smaller way right now at Saint Middle School, as we prepare for Pastor J’s departure and the interim time before we call a new vicar. We’re looking upward with questions: what will happen next? Who will our new vicar be? Will Saint Middle School change in ways we cannot anticipate? Even when the pile is not wreckage, but simply change and confusion, we still look upward, wanting to see the future. And when things are not just confused, but are really bad, that desire becomes even more visceral.
We think the hope for mysterious insights into the future are limited to the uneducated, but the other day in an article in the New York Times, there was a piece about stock traders consulting psychics in the roller-coaster of today’s economy. Thomas Taccetta, a trader in Boca Raton, is quoted as saying “There is no rhyme or reason to the way the market is trading…When conditions are this volatile, consulting a psychic can be as good a strategy as any other.”
Even the so-called educated class are struggling in hard times to look upward, to find out what the future might bring.
This is nothing new, though. That upward glance, that hope that something of the future will be revealed, has been a part of human history from its earliest days. Ancient stories of oracles, reading of goat entrails, of special dice called the urim and thumim that high priests tossed to determine the will of God, all of these were a part of the upward glance. When people are at the bottom of the pile of wreckage, they grab whatever ways they can to look upward to see the future.
Our bad times, that whole Grand Guignol with which I started this sermon, are an eerie repetition of the plight of the people of Israel in the time of our reading today from Isaiah. This particular passage is a marker point, the end of the recounting of all the bad things that happened to God’s people during the time of the Assyrian kings because the Israelites failed to maintain their covenant with God. It is an ending to the story of the Israelites’ exile during the Babylonian captivity, so poignantly told in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept.” It is a turning away from the bad, a turning of the face upward toward the future. What does Isaiah say? “Comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” Thirty-nine chapters of the prophet Isaiah telling Israel how she has failed and how the Lord has meted punishment upon her, and now, suddenly, instead of looking backward at failure, at degradation, at anger, Israel’s face is turned upward, to the possibility of a very different future. Here is a future with a new beginning, with God redeeming his people, telling them to get ready: “Prepare the way of the LORD. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”
Now there’s an upward glance.
The time of punishment is past and a new future becomes possible. It is a seismic shift, from God’s wrath to God’s plans for his people…and it is a moment of seeing the future, not in details like lottery numbers or tall, dark strangers across a crowded room. Isaiah shows it to us in metaphor, in emotion, in loving promise. The passage continues:
“Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" …He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
God has not abandoned Israel. God is there, comforting, guiding, forgiving, making a new beginning. The upward glance is a glorious one.
It would be a lovely thing to think that history does not repeat itself, that God’s people don’t find themselves at the bottom of the pile of wreckage, but the fact of the matter is that the Bible is replete with stories of the pain of God’s people. In fact, our Gospel today with its story of John the Baptizer is set squarely in another time when God’s people were in dire straits. The Jews were oppressed by the Roman Empire, and by the Jewish leaders who served as intermediaries between Rome and the Jewish people. The Jewish people survived – barely – only because it was in the interest of those in power to keep them around. It is no coincidence that Mark used the exact words from Isaiah, 600 years later, telling of a change coming. “Get ready. Look up. Watch. Something – someone – different is coming.” Again, the change wasn’t spelled out in graphic detail, it was about the intimation of a promise.
In deeply troubled times, God’s people look upward to see the future.
And here’s the gift we receive when we lift our eyes upward: it is something more, something richer and deeper than a glimpse of the future. It is a view of the perfection that union with God can offer. It is that moment where we finally understand that God is with us, guiding us, even through the times that seem to make no sense, into a new place where all the pain that has risen up before us is leveled by a loving God who forgives and cares for us.
The lesson of Advent, the message that Isaiah tells us, is that in the midst of the incomprehensible, when we are so mired in the question of “why” that we cannot grasp the “what next,” there is a God who is coming to show us that possibility, and it cannot be reduced to mere words. It is loving kindness. It is love at its purest. It is a future that exists because God exists, and because our relationship with him is precious.
We look up from the bottom of the pile of wreckage, and suddenly the smell of decay is replaced with the clear crispness of a winter night, and the darkness is no longer frightening, but a deep velvet cloth around us. We see the possibility because we sense God’s love, and it lifts us from the place where we were mired. It lifts us into that love and bids us give it back and beyond us. That is the future that Advent holds. That is the upward glance to the one who is beyond time. That is our hope, and our joy.
 LaFerla, Ruth, “Psychic Open: Love, Jobs and 401Ks”, The New York Times, November 23, 2008, p ST1.