How Are We To Believe?

Readings: Psalm 124; Isaiah 54:1-10; Matthew 24:23-35

Sing, o barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!

For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the Lord.

Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen the cords and strengthen your stakes.

For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns.

Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of your widowhood you will remember no more.

For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.

For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man’s youth when she is cast off, says your God.

For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with greater compassion I will gather you.

In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.

This is like the days of Noah to me; Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you.

For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you. Isaiah 54:1-10, NRSV

Shout for joy. 

Do not fear. 

Do not be discouraged. 

These are not easy things to do.

With great compassion I will gather you. 

With everlasting love I will have compassion on you. 

My steadfast love shall not depart from you. 

These are not easy things to believe.

A world shaped by love and compassion seems far from our daily experience. Politics is divisive and becoming ever more so. Racism and homophobic prejudice, in both subtle and blatant forms, is rampant. Violence confronts us at every turn. More and more people are feeling less and less secure, both physically and financially. It seems impossible to be joyful, impossible not to fear or be discouraged. We struggle to believe that love and compassion can be real, except perhaps in a small and intimate way.

And yet, these are the words we hear in Advent. These are the proclamations of the prophet. These are the promises of God.

How are we to believe and act this way in a world that confronts us with a starkly different reality? The simple answer is we can do it if we have faith. But if it stops there it’s little more than a platitude, sounding appropriately pious, but still all but impossible to believe. We need something more than nice words. However, if words point us to something real, something that we have experienced, they begin to take on a power that makes belief and action possible.

The truth is that the words of Isaiah 54 mean very little unless they are grounded in the words of Isaiah 53.

Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases, yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:1-6, NRSV

We can believe the words of Isaiah 54 because Isaiah 53 reminds us that we have experienced the truth of these words. We know that there is a divine compassion and love that saves us from ourselves and anything the world can throw at us. Yes, the world is in a sorry state. That’s why we need a savior. And in great compassion and love God offers that savior to us. We know that because we have experienced it. So, it is possible to believe these words of hope. It is possible to act in joy, not be afraid, not be discouraged.

It is possible! That is the wonder of Advent and the miracle of the Incarnation.

Offered by Jeff Jones, child of God.

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I am a Christian educator and writer.I have worked in churches, denominational offices, and seminaries. I have a PhD in Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, with a focus on Practical Theology and educating in faith. In 2010, my book, "How the Other Half Lives: the challenges facing clergy spouses and partners," was published by Pilgrim Press. I believe that words can build doorways that lead to encounters with God through the Spirit.