God With Us: Hope Through Vulnerability (Advent #1)
God With Us: Hope Through Vulnerability (Advent Sermon #1)
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Nov 29, 2015 • Anna Hillaker, Interim Pastoral Associate for Care
Good morning! My name is Anna Hillaker, and I am the Interim Pastoral Associate for Spiritual Formation and Pastoral Care at the Vineyard. I grew up in this community, and after being away for several years, it has been such a joy to reenter this space in a new role.
If you’re like me, you were probably moved and challenged by our sermon series on Jonah that concluded last week. We dug deep to take a look at our penchant for retributive justice, our tendency to cultivate an us-versus-them mentality, and an unforgiving posture toward our enemies. We were challenged to confront God’s mercy, as well as our common humanity— the humbling fact that we are all both the oppressors and the oppressed. You may find yourself feeling how I have felt. Now what? What do we do with this knowledge that our mercy, our justice, our engagement with our neighbors falls so far short of God’s love? We have built up a pretty high degree of tension and discomfort, I think, over the past four weeks. Which is, I am afraid to say, quite fitting for this Advent season.
Today, as you may have gathered, is the first Sunday in Advent. This is a season of waiting, a season when we experience the tension between hope, celebration, and joy, and the deep and unsettling knowledge that all is not yet right with the world. We anticipate both the birth of hope, and its need for fulfillment. We wait together for the return of Jesus, when all things will be made well, and the tears of our torn world will be wiped away. Advent is also a season of repentance. This, obviously, is not what most people prefer to focus on during the holidays. Let’s focus on all that joy instead. And we will. Our sermon series over the next four weeks will walk us through the themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love. But Advent is also a time where we can examine our own complicity in the brokenness of the world. Which is why we are also taking this season to contemplate and practice forgiveness alongside our Advent themes. Lucky for you, the tension is not resolved yet. Bear with us!
So in answer to my earlier question, what do we do with our flawed sense of justice? What do we do with our inability to love those who hurt us? We learn to forgive, and to ask forgiveness of others. As a church, we will be working through The Forgiveness Challenge, written by Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho. Desmond Tutu is a retired Anglican Archbishop who played a critical role in the ending of Apartheid South Africa, particularly in the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission designed to promote sharing, forgiveness, and reconciliation in a community fraught with deep pain and misunderstanding. These two reflect profoundly on the importance of forgiveness, and how it is essential for our own wellbeing as well as the peace and stability of the world. If you join us in this challenge you will engage in a difficult but profoundly meaningful process that unleashes our capacity for hope, for love, for peace, and for joy.
“We are weak, but he is strong”: Engaging our Inherent Vulnerability
Today, we are going to examine the first of the Advent themes: hope. To do this, we are going to take a look at Isaiah 40. This chapter marks a new section in the book of Isaiah. In chapter 39, we find the Israelites in pretty dire and hopeless conditions. There is a long break in the story, and it was not a happy one. God’s people are in exile, held captive by the Babylonian empire, and it seems that they have grown quite hopeless. But then chapter 40 dawns, and with it comes a renewed sense of hope, a breath of something new in the air, the possibility that had grown distant is now once again near. The time is ripe— there is a regime change happening. The Babylonian empire is falling to Persia, and it seems like something could happen at any moment. We, too, are a people in exile. We may not live in occupied territory, or be subject to a foreign power, but we are in constant conflict with a world that is so at odds with God’s kingdom. “We are bombarded by definitions of reality that are fundamentally alien to the gospel” (Hopeful Imagination, 92). So let’s enter chapter 40 together, as God declares a shift, as hope, comfort, and love are brought to a despairing people:
1 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The imagery here is that of a grand, triumphant re-entry into the homeland. That sounds great, especially for the Israelites who have be subject to foreign rule for so long. Our enemies will be soundly defeated! We will parade out in triumph! Excellent. However, the passage doesn't end there. We couldn’t let you off that easy! There’s more tension headed your way. Here’s what comes next.
6 A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Okay, where did that hope go? How on earth is this “good news”? Congratulations! We’re all vulnerable, inconstant, and easily crushed. Isaiah goes on to tell us all about the glorious and powerful Yahweh:
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
21Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23 who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
So we’re weak. Incredibly vulnerable. We are like the grass and flowers of the field. We are like grasshoppers. Not very flattering images. And the Lord is powerful, mighty, so far beyond us. Again, how is this comforting? How is this good news? It kind of sounds like God is just showing off, impatiently listing all of the amazing divine attributes we’re missing out on. If we look closer, it becomes clear that Yahweh is systematically obliterating all of our sources of security. For some reason, it seems that understanding our vulnerability— really recognizing it, is essential to God’s message of good news.
It’s bad enough that we’re told we’re incredibly vulnerable. But the chapter goes on to detail how each and every one of our sources of security and strength are nothing. You think you’re physically strong? God's breath that gave us life can be snuffed out just as quickly. You think you’re intelligent? God created intelligence! Verses 13-14 read: “Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice? Who taught him knowledge and understanding?” Is your nation powerful and seemingly indestructible? “Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales; see he takes up the isles like fine dust (v.15).” Do you have a superior political system? The Lord “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble (v. 23-24).” What about other gods or idols? According to v. 19-20, we try to find safety in wood that will not rot, in statues that will not topple. We try to make these idols pretty, substantial, and difficult to destroy, but at the end of the day this source of security is literally constructed by human hands, frail, sightless, and completely without power compared to the Creator of the universe.
Are you feeling vulnerable yet? The style of poetry used in this section utilizes rational debate— a common way of determining truth in the ANE (Newsome, 143). The goal here is to get to the heart of the matter, to try to rationally demonstrate the truth. According to Walter Brueggemann, whose work I found incredibly useful in preparing this sermon, “The poet intends that listening exiles, upon hearing, should have the emotional experience of having their established “plausibility structures” diminished and nullified (Brueggemann, 25)” In other words, the truth is, the things that we think protect us really don’t. What we think is strong, substantive, and secure is really not. They are dust, grass, and dead wood.
At the heart of all of this is a posture of fear and self-preservation. We all do this, don’t we? Against the chaos and pain of the world we build walls, we construct methods of fooling ourselves into feeling safe. And we do a pretty good job, for the most part. We feel fairly secure in the world, until our strong bodies become fraught with illness. Until our political system is revealed to be deeply flawed and unjust. Until our intellectual frameworks are proven insufficient in the face of grief, or our advanced educations don’t result in meaningful work. Until our nations find themselves enmeshed in war and violence. Until our false gods are shown to be constructions of our own making. But— God is strong. Yahweh doesn’t need the strength of Israel, and our God does not fear the strength of Babylon. The God of Israel, the faithful God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, needs nothing to save Israel from the crushing grip of its deserved exile. See, the thing is, when we deny the reality of the situation, when we refuse to engage our essential vulnerability, when we are unwilling to confront our pain, we close out hope. We shut out joy.
Brene Brown, in her wonderful book The Gifts of Imperfection, writes “Joy is as thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions. To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees— these are the risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. When we lose tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy (p. 73).”
Comfort, Comfort: God-With-Us
See, the thing is, we have difficulty understanding power. More specifically, it is incredibly difficult for us to understand a healthy, selfless approach to complete, unparalleled power. So we find ourselves surprised, when the God who has spent all this time reminding us how weak we on our own, how much we rely on the power of the one who creates and sustains us, uses power for love. “Do not fear!” We are told. “Here is your God!” And this, this, is where the hope comes in:
9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;[a]
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,[b]
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Is the Lord mighty? Yes. But the Lord “feeds his flock like a shepherd” and “gathers the lambs in his arms.” The NIV beautifully translates that as “He gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them close to his heart.” And here’s the kicker: when we are able to acknowledge our weakness, we are also enabled to take refuge in the arms of the only one who can truly keep us safe. Ironically, our only safety lies in our weakness.
The word ‘good tidings’ or ‘good news’ in this section is the first intentional use of the term gospel, the same good news that we hear proclaimed in the New Testament. And the good news is this: it isn’t about our weakness, or our vulnerability, or or complete inability to save or secure ourselves. The gospel is the proclamation in v. 9. “Do not fear… Here is your God!” The good news is the character of this powerful Creator God, this God of might who cares tenderly, attentively, sweetly, for us. This God loves the tiny grasshoppers of humanity. God’s salvation is simply a further demonstration of Yahweh’s fidelity. Now we can see why this passage begins “comfort, comfort.” Now we can see why these words are tender words, spoken in love to a crushed people.
This chapter not only begins, but also ends with words of gentle, powerful love:
27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
You are NOT alone, these verses insist. Rather, God is with you. The mighty Lord who sits enthroned above the circle of the world sees your needs and meets you with profound love. What’s more, the Creator God, filled with power, does not cling to that power, but instead shares it with the vulnerable. “He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” This is not the model of power we usually see at work in the world. This is power married with love, this is authority that is invested in those who are in need of an advocate. We cry out “My way is hidden from the Lord,” when we are troubled or hurt. But have you not known, have you not heard? There is a source of energy, a well of care available to us. Yahweh does see our needs, and the God of great power shows up.
The Cross-Shaped Life: Entering Intentional Vulnerability
And this God who does not grasp and hoard power is made manifest most profoundly in the person of Jesus Christ. Our plight was so dire, our world so broken, that the only way for us to be reconciled to God was for God’s very self to enter our vulnerability as a helpless infant. And that vulnerability finds its pinnacle in Jesus’ willingness to suffer torture and death in an act of entirely aware, profoundly loving vulnerability. This is the God we follow,
6“who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
And this is how our vulnerability can become generative, can become a source of meaning and fruitfulness in our lives. When we engage our vulnerability, when we acknowledge our pain, our grief, our weakness, our ephemeral nature, we also open ourselves to receive from the God who takes on our vulnerability and then shares with us divine power. Desmond Tutu points out in The Book of Forgiving that Jesus was resurrected with scars, and he showed them to his disciples as signs of his identity. Tutu points out that “He must… have been able to obliterate the signs of torture and death he endured (24).” But he did not. These signs actually became linked with Jesus’ identity as Savior.
And our scars, our wounds, can also become venues for God’s transforming power, and the profound work of the Holy Spirit. As 1 Corinthians chapter one says it, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” In God’s kingdom, the kingdom in which a suffering servant sits enthroned, the very quality of our weakness, of our vulnerability, is changed. Our willingness to be vulnerable unleashes true hope. We take up daily our crosses. Those who seek to be first must become the servant of all. Jesus says to us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
And one thing that we all tend to think of as in some way weak, low, or foolish, is forgiveness. To enter boldly into our own pain, all with the goal of being able to wish our enemies well, and release our vindictiveness and woundedness? Why on earth would we do that? Because, in the words of Miroslav Volf, “Forgiveness mirror the generosity of God whose ultimate goal is neither to satisfy injured pride nor apportion reward and punishment, but to free sinful humanity from evil and thereby reestablish communion with us (161).”
In order to forgive, we must be willing to be vulnerable. We must recognize the value of opening an old wound in order for it to truly heal. Telling our stories is the first step in the Fourfold Path— the first step on the road to forgiveness. In order to forgive, we must be vulnerable. “The first step in the process is not quiet, and it is not always pretty,” says Tutu. “It calls for vulnerability that can be uncomfortable at best. It will ask much of you, sometimes more than you think you can give. However, the gifts and the freedom that will be returned to you are beyond measure (Tutu, 59).”
My journey towards vulnerability began at quite a specific point in time, in the context of spiritual direction. For years, there was this knot in my heart that I wanted desperately to disappear— a tight ball of ignored emotions and avoided pain. I could almost feel them like a weight in my chest. I prayed again and again for God take these things from me, to vanish the pain and the difficulty that resided there. I simply couldn’t face it. In spiritual direction, I began to feel a different invitation. Instead of simply taking these areas of pain away from me, God wanted to explore them with me, to transform them together. I felt like he was asking me to open my clutched hands, to see together what was inside. I will admit, it was terrifying and very difficult at first. But our Redeemer is faithful and strong, and from the very midst of this pain, beautiful things have sprung up. Healing. Forgiveness. A more profound sense of the tender love of Jesus. A deeper compassion and empathy for others who are suffering. There is a short poem by Mary Oliver, a favorite writer of mine, that captures this beautifully. It is called “The Uses of Sorrow”:
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
Through telling our stories, through trusting God with the most sore, frightening, and vulnerable parts of ourselves, we can begin to turn those into our most profound witness. It doesn’t make all of our challenges and all of the unjust and painful things that have happened to us suddenly “good.” But in telling these stories, by embracing healing, and by extending forgiveness, we can encounter the gospel— God-With-Us, the mighty Creator who brings hope into our darkness. Immanuel.
The first practical tip I’d like to suggest is probably going to be pretty self-evident: consider joining The Forgiveness Challenge. The sign up for the daily emails is available on our website, annarborvineyard.org, and in the lobby. Each day you will receive an email walking you through the Fourfold Path of forgiveness, as well as some practical prompts to move you through the process. A couple words of note: Start slow. Don’t try to tackle the biggest hurt in your life right off the bat. Desmond Tutu recommends starting with something that is meaningful, but not the most painful event of your life. If you are processing something exceptionally painful, please seek the care of a trusted professional. We’d be happy to refer you to someone we trust if you’d like. Also, it is wise to go through this process with a companion you feel safe with. You won’t need a sounding board at every stage in the journey, but we do recommending having someone you can talk to. If you don’t have someone like this in your life, please get in touch with me, preferably by email and we can connect you with someone who will be happy to listen and process with you. There are journals available for the challenge if you don’t have one at home, as well as a few copies of The Book of Forgiving, which is a more detailed exploration of the process of forgiveness. This book is also available at several local bookstores.
This moves me to our next practical tip. We have an incredible team of spiritual directors here at the church. If you are interested in deepening your journey with God— becoming more aware both of your vulnerability and God’s transforming power, they are an excellent resource. It is a journey of listening and guidance geared toward deepening our awareness of God’s movements in our lives. Spiritual Direction is a way of setting aside time to notice the work of God in your life, increase your intimacy with Jesus, and improve your prayerful connection to the Lord. It is been one of the single most important factors of my spiritual growth as an adult. Directors typically meet once a month, but some may be available more frequently if needed. Please contact me or Rick Rykowski for more information about spiritual direction.
I would like to pause, and take a few moments of silence together. I invite you to move your body into a posture of openness— relaxed, perhaps with your hands open. Let us sit together in the presence of the God who loves us, wounds and all. Try, if you can to open your heart just a fraction more than you’d like to, and ask God to meet you with a comforting embrace.