We are just two days past the Feast of Christmas on which we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world as a tiny babe in Bethlehem. The familiar stories bring comfort and hope: the young girl and her husband searching for a safe place for the birth to take place, the shepherds in their fields surprised by choirs of angels in the heavens; the wise men guided by a mysterious star. Each story bears a promise, a promise from God.
To Mary God’s messenger proclaimed a son, to be named Jesus, which means “savior.” He would be great, the Son of the Most High, and would receive from God the throne of his ancestor David. He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
To the shepherds the angel announced “good news of great joy for all the people,” namely that the child born this day in the city of David would be “a Savior… the Messiah, the Lord.” “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” the choir of angels sang, “and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:8-14)
And to the Magi, who had traveled far in search of the new king and had been led to the city of David, was the revelation that from Bethlehem would come “a ruler who [was] to shepherd [God’s] people Israel.”
And so it was.
Or was it? Did his coming make a difference? Has the Savior actually saved us? If the Messiah has come, and if he now reigns, why is there still such suffering and chaos in the world? If he was to bring “peace to God’s people on earth,” as the angels promised, why do the peoples of the world, including the people of our own country, find it so hard to cooperate with one another and to live together peaceably? Why do the greedy and powerful still oppress the weak, and why do we continue to pollute and destroy the earth, which is our home? We say we have a Savior, but it often appears that we still need one.
There are people who say, “If a God of Love rules all things, how can there be so much suffering in the world?” or “When the Church or Christians themselves do evil, how can we be expected to believe their message of love?” Perhaps you’ve been asked questions like these, or perhaps you’ve asked them yourself. How are we to reconcile the promises of God with our real lived experience?
Our reading today from the book of the prophet Isaiah, I think, helps us to recognize and appreciate the tension that often exists between the “already” and the “not yet.” Isaiah writes just after the return of the Jews from their exile in Babylon.
Isaiah rejoices in what God has accomplished by liberating the people of Israel from their captivity. They have been set free from oppression and have been allowed to return to their homeland. They have been encouraged to rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and to reconstruct the Temple, the dwelling place of their God. And so there is great rejoicing among the people. God has acted to liberate his captive people and to bring them home!!
And yet, their home was not as they left it. In fact, it was in shambles. Jerusalem was completely destroyed; its walls and buildings torn down; there was little left. The prophets Ezra and Nehemiah testify to the devastation. The work of restoration would take years, if it could be accomplished at all.
So, here, five centuries before the birth of Christ, we see a vivid example of the tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” This tension permeates our reading: there is rejoicing, but it is accompanied by the sober realization that Jerusalem is a heap of rubble, and there is so much that still needs to be done.
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,” the writer exclaims, “my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isa. 61:10,11) Notice that these words are spoken in the past tense; this hasbeen accomplished! God has acted!
But in the next lines the writer acknowledges that the fulfillment of God’s promise is “not yet.” There is work to be done, and he cannot rest. “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” (Isa. 62:1). Israel has not yet been vindicated, nor has she been completely saved; these lie still in the future. “The nations shall see your vindication,” the writer promises, “and all the kings your glory.” There is more to come, more to be seen, more to be accomplished.
The writer believes wholeheartedly in the promise; he knows that it will someday come to be. But for now, he must be realistic even as he rejoices. He will continue to pray and to work with all his might to realize the vision. “I will not rest,” he says, “until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”
We share the reality of this tension with these, our ancestors in faith. We rejoice in the birth of our Savior and exult in what God has done, but we recognize that the story is still being written, the vision is still being realized. When Jesus is presented in the Temple for circumcision, the righteous and devout Simeon proclaims, “…my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32) He has seen God’s salvation in the face of this child, but the promise is not yetrealized. It has not come in its fullness, yet. The child has yet to grow and to fulfill his mission on earth.
And so it is with us. There is nothing extraordinary about this tension of “already, but not yet.” We have all known it and encounter it regularly in life.
A young couple is married, and yet it will be years before they become ‘one flesh.’ A wedding does not a marriage make; there is work ahead.
A man or woman is ordained a priest, and yet it will require years of experience and hard work for them to become the priest God intends them to be.
A nation is born – there is cause for rejoicing – and yet whether and when that nation and people will grow into the fullness of their calling cannot yet be determined.
In the same way, a Savior has been born, and yes, there is cause for rejoicing. God has done great things! We testify to the fact that our lives have been transformed; we have been given a new identity – beloved children of God – and a new purpose and direction in life – to know, love and serve God. The old has passed away and we have been made new creatures in Christ. And yet, and yet, there is much that still needs to be accomplished. We have been saved, says Paul, and yet we are still being sanctified; we have been redeemed but are not yet glorified. The Kingdom of God is among us, here and now, the Gospels declare, yet we must still pray and work with all our might for God’s will to be done “on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Today we testify to what God has done. And we give witness to what God is doing and will do. We live and pray and work in faith, joining our will to God’s will, expecting and believing that God’s dream for the earth will one day be realized. In this we are confident, and to this end we offer ourselves wholeheartedly. Amen. So be it.
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