Looking for a Pony in the Manure
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT NOVEMBER 29TH, 2020 ISAIAH 64:1-9
There were once two identical twins. They were alike in every way but one. One was a hope-filled optimist who only ever saw the bright side of life. The other was a gloomy pessimist, who could only ever see the downside of every situation.
Their parents were so worried about the extremes of optimism and pessimism in their twins they sought advice from a parenting specialist. She suggested a plan to develop each child’s shadow side. “On their next birthday give the pessimist a shiny new bike, but give the optimist a pile of manure.”
It seemed an extreme strategy, but the parents agreed. So, it’s the twins’ birthday and here comes the pessimist to unwrap the most expensive, top of the range bike a child has ever owned. But when he saw the bike his first words were, “Thanks, but I’ll probably just crash and break my leg. So please take it back to the shop.”
Now it’s the optimist’s turn to behold her present. Her parents tell her to close her eyes, and lead her into the backyard, where stands a ten-foot pile of manure. She opens her eyes and squeals with delight. She rushes to the pile and climbs and digs into it, giggling and whooping. “Yay”, she shouts, “I just know there’s a pony in here somewhere.”
There are thirty-two days left of 2020. How are you feeling? It’s Advent. What’s you’re frame of mind? Which twin are you – the one who is so focused on the sacrifices, the losses, the suffering that you can’t see the shiny new bike that stares you in the face? Or are you laughing yourself silly as you excitedly dig through the manure? Yes, it stinks, of course, it does. It’s manure. But will you, this Advent Sunday, find the pony?
Life stinks for the prophet Isaiah, too. He, and his people are in exile. They have been overwhelmed and defeated by the regional superpower at that time – the Babylonians. Most of the population, those with skills and education whose talents could be used to grow the Babylonian Empire were hauled away to exile. What humiliation for a nation that was founded on God’s promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. Here they now were, wailing by the waters of Babylon, missing their homeland, feeling their shame, doubting their God. And here’s God’s prophet standing in the gap – speaking the words of God to his fellow-exiles, and now screaming to God the despair of his people. There he is staring into the sky, yearning for cosmic events, pleading for divine action. His cry, almost 600 years before the birth of Jesus, echoes down the centuries, it reverberates in our bones. The stench sticks in the nostrils. His rawness tears at our hearts, his passion shocks us. “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down! Mountains would quake before you like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies, the nations would tremble in your presence. When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations; when you came down, mountains quaked before you.”
O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down. O, that you would do something, God. O, that you would look at this mad, sad, bad world and act. Do you not care, Lord? Is that it? Or is it our sins – have we offended you? O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down like you used to do. We remember when you did miracles for us, you stepped into our conflicts and pains and healed us. You answered our prayers, gave us good gifts, poured out your love. O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.
The message of Advent is a message of hope. Now, that word hope for us in modern English is a weak word. When we use it we usually mean that we wish for something. I hope I get what I want for Christmas; I hope my team wins the tournament; I hope we get a reliable and widely available vaccine by Easter so we can worship as normal and I can travel to see my children next summer. I hope for these things. But hope – hope according the Bible and Christian theology – isn’t this weak. What I really what I mean use hope like that is I wish – I’d like it to be – I want things to happen. But the Advent hope is stronger than that. It’s resilient because it comes from God, it’s robust because it takes root in our hearts, it is solid because it is built on the foundation of God’s faithfulness rather than our feeble hands and fickle passions. The Advent hope is more of an expectation than a wish. This Advent Sunday, we expect God to tear open the heavens and come down. We expect that one day Christ will return to establish peace, justice and union with God. Yes, we expect things to be smelly until then, but we expect to find a pony in the middle of it.
But let’s be certain we are expecting a glorious future, for the right reasons. I sense that there’s some quiet optimism in the air because of the good news we’ve had about vaccines. There’s a new feeling that we hardly dare mention, that by the summer people will have stopped catching the virus and death will end. But, if there’s anything that human history tells us it is that we must not place our hopes in human efforts, no matter how worthy and well-motivated they are. We can’t afford to place our hopes in human actions because we know that humans fail, that our best efforts are only temporary. No, our hope must be not in human governments, scientists. They can do tremendous good, of course they can, but they cannot bring in God’s kingdom. This Advent, this week, this afternoon you and I can collaborate with God to do magnificent things – believe it. But the Advent hope is not built upon our hard work and innovation; it is built on the assurance that one day God will fulfil his promise of perfection.
The Jesuit writer Daniel Berrigan puts it like this.
It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given all authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world.
It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.
It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history—
This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.
The folk band Passenger sings about the disillusionment that comes from placing our hope in human actions like this:
“One went out at a bus stop in Edinburgh,
One went out in an English park,
One went out in a nightclub when I was fifteen,
Little lights in my heart.
One went out when I lied to my mother,
Said the cigarettes she found were not mine,
One went out within me. Now I smoke like a chimney,
It’s getting dark in this heart of mine.
One went out in the backstreets of Manchester,
One went out in an airport in Spain,
One went out, I’ve no doubt, when I grew up and moved out,
Of the place where the boy used to play.
One went out when Uncle Ben got his tumor,
We used to fish, and I fish no more.
We’re born with millions of little lights shining in our hearts.
And they die along the way,
Till we’re old and we’re cold
And lying in the dark,
Cos they’ll all burn out one day.”
I have two reactions to that song. I say, “yes, I know that feeling. Many of my lights have flickered and died. The flame has dimmed as my enthusiasm for God has dwindled, my passion faded, and my courage waned. I know it, and it hurts to remember it.” But, you want to say something else to the poet, don’t you? It’s not as hopeless as he thinks. Our lights will not all burn out one day. For today, we can experience the renewal of our fire.
And so we wait. Waiting is hard. We have become weary of waiting for the pandemic to end, and it’s only been nine months. The Church has been waiting for Christ for 2,000 years, we could be forgiven for losing hope, for giving up looking for his return, to conclude that this is all there is, for ever. But waiting is a gift. It keeps us humble, it makes us realize that our plans are unpredictable, it grows patience and perseverance, which are vital qualities of the Jesus-follower. And waiting does one more thing- it makes us appreciate just what can be done between now and the thing we’re waiting for. Waiting is a call to action. We can’t make God’s kingdom come, we can’t force Christ to return, but can love our neighbor, work for reconciliation, serve under-resourced people, pray for our communities, and speak for truth, justice, holiness, and God. After starting with twins, let me finish with twins – the twin challenges of our day: waiting with hope, but serving with love.