(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on November 27, 2016)
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains–where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
Those words from Psalm 121 have often been an encouragement to me when I need them. And yet…they do sort of beg some questions: what will God’s help look like, and how will I recognize it when I see it?
We’ve been working our way through the Old Testament, looking at how God’s heart has always had a connection with those on the outside, those who are oppressed, those who are hurting. Two weeks ago, after looking at Micah and Amos, Jeremiah and Pentecost, I said we needed to listen to those who are angry and scared, because people on the margins are the ones whom God draws close to, who see God’s perspective in ways we at the center sometimes miss.
Today, the first Sunday of Advent, we join the prophet Isaiah with the first turn toward looking for the Savior, the one we believe to be incarnated in Jesus Christ. Isaiah tells us where to look for help, for salvation. He tells us it will come on the margins, in the hinterlands, in the place you will not expect: Galilee of the nations, Galilee the defeated… Galilee, the place at ground zero of clashing empires.
Turn with me to Isaiah 9.
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan–
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as soldiers rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:1-7, TNIV)
Isaiah was speaking to people in Jerusalem, people at the center, people who were seeing their threat for the first time.
Isaiah tells them where to look for their hope. And he tells them to look toward the place that’s already ravaged, already defeated, that you already look down on. Look to Galilee of the nations. We need to get a picture, a visual for what Galilee was like on a world scale at that time.
The major empires of the world at that time (and actually, for a long time before and after) seemed to constantly be clashing around Galilee. It was the hot spot of conflict for world empires. When David and Solomon ruled the united kingdom of Israel, they held all this area in peace. But that was a short 80 year period, and as Israel divided into northern Israel and southern Judah, Galilee was at risk up at the northern tip of the northern kingdom.
There was a major road east of Israel and Judah, and from time to time Egypt would come north, skirting around Judah and Israel, and clashing with Assyria or Persia right in the Galilee region. Long before Israel as a whole was conquered, Galilee was ravaged by competing empires who left their “foreign” people there in charge…that’s why Isaiah calls it “Galilee of the nations.”
This map makes it more clear how precarious Galilee is. Isaiah is speaking to Jerusalem and Judah down there after Israel has been conquered. Look how Galilee is surrounded by empires and kingdoms. They are ground zero for conflict.
Isaiah reminds everyone this area was once part of the people of Israel-two of the twelve tribes of Israel were given land around the Sea of Galilee, which Isaiah brings to mind when he names those tribes: Zebulun and Naphtali. These were, long before, God’s people. But they’ve been conquered over and over again, and they are now broken, the first ones defeated, losing their heritage by the foreign settlers who’ve taken over.
Isaiah tells people at the center–the people of Jerusalem and the still somewhat faithful kingdom of Judah–he tells the people at the center to look for their hope to come in the area on the margin, the area that was first conquered and first compromised.
When the Psalmist encourages us to lift our eyes to the mountains and see God’s help, it’s a symbol of looking to the strong places for God’s help. But Isaiah, in this consistent prophetic message, points us not to the strong places but to the weak. It’s there that God’s hope and help will come from.
There are other clear places in Isaiah’s words of hope that point us to God’s work through weakness and the margins. In verse 4, there’s this phrase with a reference: “For as in the days of Midian’s defeat…” What is this Midian defeat? Isaiah is reminding them of Gideon, who overcame all odds with only 300 people defeating Midian’s far larger army.
THIS IS WHAT GOD DOES!
God finds the overmatched and beat up ones, and figures out how to turn it into a win. It’s the beat up ones who know their need. Gideon knew he didn’t stand a chance. Galilee knew how dangerous the world was. God, Isaiah reminds, doesn’t forget about those who are facing defeat and destruction…that’s where God’s hope shows up.
But it’s so counter to how most of us usually look for hope. One of the kings of Judah who lived at the same time as Isaiah was King Hezekiah. Assyria was the obvious threat to Judah’s existence, and Hezekiah tried a couple of power moves to try to make his own hope: he bribed the King of Assyria; he trusted in the power of Egypt to protect Judah, or at least to distract Assyria.
I think these examples from Judah’s history demonstrate something we still see today. When people at the center of power finally realize the threat that those on the margins have known for awhile, people at the center tend to look toward power and control to fix things. God through the prophets, God through history, God in Jesus shows us a different way.
John Oswalt, writing about the Isaiah 9 passage we are looking at today, clearly articulates this different way:
“This…underlies the central paradox in Isaiah’s conception of Yahweh’s deliverance of his people. How will God deliver from arrogance, war, oppression and coercion? By being MORE arrogant, more warlike, more oppressive, and more coercive? Surely the book of Isaiah indicates frequently that God was powerful enough to destroy his enemies in an instant, yet again and again, when the prophet comes to the heart of the means of deliverance, a childlike face peers out at us. God is strong enough to overcome his enemies by becoming vulnerable, transparent, and humble-the only hope, in fact, for turning enmity into friendship.”
When we are afraid…when we are at risk…when even being at the center of things still seems scary and brings gloom…God is offering risky hope.
For Isaiah, it was a future hope. He told people to look for it where they least expected it, to the already conquered, overwhelmed, occupied territory of Galilee. Look for hope where it is most oppressed, most invaded, most diverse… and even Gentile. That’s where I’m going to bring hope.
For us who believe in Jesus, we see that when God became a human being, God went right to this at-risk area. God’s presence showed up where it seems God always is, with the oppressed and overlooked. Jesus is there in Galilee, born in poverty, born into the scandal of illegitimacy, born on the margins in an area where world empires kept overrunning.
Why wouldn’t God still be acting the same way today? When we are afraid, at risk…when things seem scary and bring gloom, why wouldn’t we assume God is still doing the same: avoiding the power places, the control places, and instead bringing God’s presence right where it has always been, with the overwhelmed people on the margins?
I think that is exactly where God’s presence still shows up. God’s hope is to come live in the people and places that are the most beat up, and show up there with beautiful life. God is with people of color who are afraid. God is with people in small town middle America with no jobs and no hope. God is with the war-torn people of Syria, with refugees around the world. God still shows up in the pain!
What does this look like in a practical way?
I want to give a few examples from people I’ve walked with over the last few weeks. I’ll have to be a bit vague, because I haven’t asked their permission to share, but I think it can still be helpful for us to see how this kind of God-hope might show up in our places of struggle today.
I had the chance to listen to one person’s severe doubts…doubts about things they had always been taught growing up in the church, doubts even about God’s very existence, doubts that were causing much struggle and fear. This person asked me to share my own experience of doubts and how I wrestle with some of these questions. I think the hope was that I would have the magic words, the power to control and suppress those doubts once and for all.
But that isn’t how it has worked in my life, so I couldn’t share that. I could identify with the fear of realizing there’s no way to be absolutely sure that what I had always believed was true beyond a shadow of a doubt. I could identify with looking for some undoubtable answer.
But what I had to share was that my questions and doubts are at times overwhelming…and what has held me together is the realization that God’s presence at certain times in my life has been undeniable. Peter’s words in the book of John are ones that I cling to: “To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life”. In my scariest and darkest moments, the presence of God has been the real thing.
Sometimes the realization of God’s presence comes with a thought from outside myself. Sometimes it comes in a tangible prayer for sleep or peace that is answered. Sometimes it comes in the strength and courage to do what God asks no matter what the response or the result. Those are all ways that God has showed up for me, and it’s in the midst of my struggle and fear and doubts.
What I’m praying for this person (and what I told them I’m praying) is for God to show up in their doubts and fears and struggles, show up in a tangible way that makes sense to them. I’m not praying for God to overwhelm or convince them; I’m not looking for a power that can kill all doubt.
I’m praying for God to show up in their struggle. Show up in a tangible way, because that seems to be the very thing God does best. God shows up on the margins and in the struggle and brings hope.
With someone else, I’m praying the same thing in their struggle with self-doubt and failure, praying regularly for God to show up in a way they can understand.
With another friend, there’s a need for me to listen and validate how much pain my friend has experienced.
As we stop minimizing that pain, but acknowledge the healing that is needed, we together pray for God to bring healing and hope there. The solution isn’t found in ignoring it, or trying to “medicate” the pain through distractions or abusing substances.
Just like Isaiah promised that hope would show up in broken Galilee, just like Jesus showed up in a manger and not a palace, God’s hope and God’s presence and God’s Spirit today come in our broken places.
I’m reading a book my friend Jeremy Huwe bought me.
It’s called The Road to Character by David Brooks. The book looks at people from history, and shows how difficult circumstances shaped character in powerful ways. Reading the book has reminded me of this characteristic of God, how God shows up and transforms us in those times and places where we feel broken, oppressed, overwhelmed.
I’ve been reminded of Romans 5, verses 3-5, a section that shows us God’s hope has always come not through power and everything going great…God’s hope comes to people in times and places of struggle:
“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5, TNIV)
The hope for us all is in God’s love and presence. It is a gift when we are beyond our resources. It is grace. God’s hope isn’t found in the places of power and strength, but rather God’s hope and power and strength are built in us, transform us in and through our dark places. Our true faith lies in something outside ourselves…in the real Creator God who shows up in pain and struggle and fear.
This is our hope! This is the advent we still wait for, for God’s hope and presence to be found in us. Come, Lord Jesus!