December 17th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28
FAITH. The first Sunday of Advent I invited you to think about the word ‘expectancy’. Today I want you to take a moment to think about the word ‘faith’. What comes to your mind? A definition? Maybe a person? A memory from your past, perhaps the moment you came to faith? How have you experienced ‘faith’ in this past year? If ‘faith’ could be represented by an object, what would it look like? Can you picture it in your mind? Would it be something strong like an anchor, or solid like the rock face of a mountain? Or would it be something less tangible, wispy, like the morning fog? Would it be hard to grab hold of like falling flakes of snow, or water that slips through fingers? What has ‘faith’ felt like to you?
There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. In fact, you may have experienced ‘faith’ in all these ways, at different times in your life. There may have been times when faith seemed to hover just out of reach, and other times when you felt faith wrap around you as sure as a cozy throw blanket on a cold evening.
The Hall of Faith in the book of Hebrews comes to my mind when I think of faith, along with its definition: faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the certainty of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1. Faith is confidence in what we hope for, assurance about what we do not see… yet. Not yet.
Advent is a season of “not yet” – Joseph and Mary are not yet to Bethlehem; angels not yet singing to the shepherds; the star not yet over the stable; Jesus not yet born. We spend these weeks and days living in faith that God will arrive as promised – the long-awaited Savior, our living Hope.
John the Baptist fulfilled his call in a time of ‘not yet.’ He announced in faith that the Messiah was coming: One who would be greater, One who would baptize with the Spirit, One who would be the Light for the world.
Do you feel like you are in a ‘not yet’ time? Not yet done with the preparations for Christmas. Not yet done with school. Not yet achieved the career goals you hoped for. Not yet found the best friend and companion you long for. Not yet reconciled with the family member who hurt you. Not yet in the home you hope for, or with the car you hope for, or with the health and strength you hope for. Not yet home with God. Not yet.
The Isaiah passage contains promises for those who are in a ‘not yet’ time and place. It is an announcement of good news for those who are experiencing ‘not yet’: the poor, the broken-hearted, captives and prisoners, the oppressed, those who are grieving, those in despair, the ruined, the devastated. It is about hanging onto faith in the ‘not yet,’ that God will bring justice; about singing and rejoicing because we have confidence that God is faithful in the ‘not yet.’
At the time that Isaiah offered these assurances, the people he was speaking to were the people of Israel who had been displaced as a result of invasions and wars in their homeland. They had been taken away as prisoners of war, family members had died, their homes had been ruined and their land had been devastated. They are the poor and oppressed, the broken-hearted, the grieving, the captives, the ruined and devastated. They are the ones who are given good news: their broken hearts will be healed, they will know comfort and joy, they will be restored and rebuilt and renewed and rewarded, they will be given justice, they will laugh and sing.
As I read this text and meditated on it this week, I began to wonder, who are the people in our world today who are experiencing ‘not yet.’ Who does Isaiah speak to today?
Poor – those in the homeless shelters, the ones sleeping on a friend’s sofa, who rely on the food pantries and the food provided at school/backpacks, only access to healthcare is free clinics
Oppressed – Rohingya people and Christian tribal peoples in the country of Myanmar, oppressed by the military government forces where rape and brutality are used as weapons
Broken-hearted – betrayed, broken promises, children abandoned by adults due to drug addiction, those going through divorce
Captives – those caught in the web of human trafficking, women and children whose bodies are bought and sold.
Prisoners – those facing long sentences, especially the innocent, imprisoned under false charges and without access to legal aid.
Mourning – those who have lost loved ones, widows, the parents watching their children die from cholera and starvation in Yemen
Ruined – Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, bombed out cities in Syria,
Devastated – those who have lost homes in California fires
The next thing I wondered as I meditated on this bible passage was who is the ‘me’ in verse 1? The most obvious answer is that it is the prophet who is writing these assurances down, Isaiah or another prophet that came after, following in his footsteps. That prophet was the one who received God’s anointing to share these words of assurance with the Israelites as they returned from exile.
But this is a passage of the Bible that is multilayered with meaning, for Jesus also identified himself as the ‘me’. Just as he was beginning his adult ministry, beginning to preach and teach, Luke tells us that Jesus went back to his hometown, Nazareth, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day for worship. Jesus stood up for the reading from the scriptures and was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He turned to Isaiah 61 and began to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he said to those gathered, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. It has come true right here, right now.” Those promises of healing and comfort and restoration were for those who suffered under Roman occupation and oppression in Jesus’ day.
But as disciples of Jesus Christ today, we hear another layer of meaning to this passage. It applies to us, too. Jesus continues to assure us of these promises even in our day. We are to have faith that Jesus will bring us comfort and turn our mourning into joy, that the captives of our day will be set free, and devastated land will be restored.
But what if there is yet another layer of meaning? What if this passage also serves as a prophetic call to each of us? I believe God is inviting us to be the ‘me’ that is anointed to bring this good news, to be Christ’s presence in the world in our place and time. We may want to resist that interpretation. How can we turn mourning into joy, or restore the wreckage of ruined cities, or heal the broken-hearted? That’s God’s work! You might want to say, “But my life is hard! I am one of the poor and grieving. I am imprisoned in poverty, in pain, in anxiety, in addiction. I just have enough faith to believe that God is answering my prayer and bringing me relief.” It is much easier to just be the recipients of God’s blessings. But having been given the promises, we are called to take the promises to others.
I read a post this week by Annie Dieselberg, an American Baptist missionary in Bangkok. Annie is the founder of a ministry called NightLight, that reaches out to women caught in sexual slavery. She wrote, “A floodgate has opened, and many trafficked African women are asking for help. Some have worked off their debts to traffickers, but feel stranded here in Thailand with prostitution as the only means of survival. Some have run away from traffickers, no longer able to cope with forced prostitution. Others came here knowingly, pressured by desperation back home, but have now grown weary and can’t do it anymore. They long for freedom and for home.
Many of these trafficked women are arrested on the streets for illegal work and illegal entry. Promised well-paying jobs, they come eager to work. On arrival, their passports and tickets are confiscated. They are taken to the streets the first night and told, “You are a prostitute! This is the job.” They will not get their passport back until they pay $7000. In shock they resist, but the traffickers withhold food or deprive them of sleep. They are intimidated, stranded and dependent on the trafficker. The door to freedom seems possible only by surrendering to prostitution.
Recently, there have been almost nightly police raids. Women are arrested, handcuffed, and taken to the Immigration Detention Center. They sign Thai documents, usually with no translation. Taken to court, they are charged with illegal entry. They are locked up in a holding cell, wondering if they will ever see their families again. It could be months or years. If someone buys her a ticket home, she leaves Thailand blacklisted as a criminal. Shame and suffering are piled on top of the trauma of being trafficked.
NightLight gets calls regularly from the women in the Detention Center desperate for help. We visit for one hour and can only see one woman per visit. The detainees who are fortunate to have a visitor stand together on one side behind a metal fence. The visitors stand behind another fence, about 6 feet away. The place is crowded, hot, and noisy. Men and women on both sides shout across the divide. We strain to isolate the detainee’s voice from the others in the crowd. We yell very uncomfortable questions, “Who brought you here? Did you know what you were coming to do? Did your boss take your passport? Were you beaten? Threatened? What will you do when you go home? What do you need?” Our voices wear out before the hour ends. The women stand opposite us, fingers grabbing the wire. The tears stream down their cheeks as they share their story as loudly as they can. They feel powerless and often hopeless. Our visits bring them hope. Most of them have only the outfit they were wearing when arrested. We bring them food, toiletries, and clothes. Most are Christian and ask for a Bible. Last month, we gave away 20 Bibles. We also give them beautiful coloring books with inspiring messages to encourage them while they wait for the days to pass and the door to freedom to open.
When we visit with the news they are going home, there is abundant joy. We meet them as they arrive to the airport, transported in the cage of a jail truck. When the officer unlocks the door, the women run to hug us, teary, joyful, relieved. The officers kindly allow us a few extra minutes to pray with the women, hug them, and say goodbye. The women can’t stop thanking us. Their faces are glowing with the realization that they are free and they will soon be home.
These airport runs are a favorite part of our work. This past week at the airport, a woman named Risa handed me a beautifully colored thank-you note and tearfully expressed her gratitude saying, “I don’t deserve this.” “Yes, you do,” I said, “You deserve much more than this!” I opened my bag and took out a small loaf of bread and communion cups, and there in the airport entry, we shared communion and spoke of Jesus with Risa and the other women.
We are filled with joy and gratitude. We’re grateful to God, who heard their cries and connected us to them, who made a way out for them. We are also grateful to those who contributed to the freedom of these women by providing the funds for airline tickets and legal aid. These women humble us with their strength and courage. They are survivors of tragedy, exploitation, abuse, and deep betrayal. They are women who live victoriously. Thanks to God!
Each one of us is called to be the ‘me’ in the Isaiah passage:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because the Lord has anointed you to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent you to bind up the brokenhearted, to announce freedom for captives, and pardon for prisoners. God has sent you to comfort all who mourn and to announce the year of his grace.
May each one of us have the faith to cling to these promises in this Christmas season, and have the faith to be the ones through whom God makes them come true.
as visible as stardust,
as unseen as dusk at dawn;
as strong as the force of gravity,
as vulnerable as the power of love;
you are the veil of light behind closed eyes,
the heart’s anchor beneath waves of doubt.
Come, reveal yourself like shadow to candlelight,
loom large, draw near, as we find our Advent way.
Amen. Pamela C. Hawkins, Behold!
Closing Song: “O Come, All Ye Faithful”