Advent 3 – Keep going, keep hoping, keep caring…

Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11

With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands,
    and encourage those who have weak knees.
Say to those with fearful hearts,
    “Be strong, and do not fear.

Gaudete!

I wonder how many of you are weary?  Some of you will simply be weary as a result of the endless Christmas preparations.  Advent began two weeks ago, but the festive hype has been going on for months.  But for some the sense of weariness is more profound. Some of you will be weary for personal reasons: relentless work pressures, heart-aching family troubles, worry about your health or money situation.  All these things take a huge toll. 

And then there is a political weariness.  As a country, we have lived through nine years of austerity following the financial crash, with devastating consequences for the most vulnerable in our society, and almost four years of conflict over Brexit.  Depending on how you voted on Thursday, you can choose the beginning to my next sentence: In spite of – or perhaps because of – the General Election result, I don’t see an end to any of this soon.  It is a wearying, worrying time for so many people on so many levels.  How do we find the energy to keep on caring, keep on helping, keep on hoping?

And so, in the bleak midwinter, I turn for solace to our old friend, Isaiah.  Isaiah too wrote in difficult and testing times.  His community had been in the spiritual wilderness, drifting far from the values and laws of God; and now they were in a political wilderness: their country invaded, their temple destroyed, many of their people carried off into exile.  Isaiah is no romantic – elsewhere in his prophecies there are searing descriptions of the pain and violence and evil of this time.  He knows just how hard things are.  But it is into this wilderness, spiritual and practical, that Isaiah proclaims the words of hope from our first reading: the wilderness will be glad, life will be restored and there will be joy again.

He goes on with the words I want any who are weary today to hear:

With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands,
    and encourage those who have weak knees.
Say to those with fearful hearts,
    “Be strong, and do not fear.

It is not always going to be like this.  To those who are facing grief or heartache, there will be comfort. To those who work and pray for justice and healing and peace in our society, have hope, keep going.  One day it WILL be different.  We may have to work for a future we will not live to see but it matters that we try.  Those who will build on any good we achieve need us to try and not give up.  So, hear God’s word to you, those who have tired hands and weak knees, those with fearful hearts: Be strong and do not fear.  The good you do matters.  What you value may not always be valued by those in power, or even some of those neighbours around you, but it is valued by God.  Keep going, keep hoping, keep caring…

In our Gospel, John, like many of us, was weary.  He had played his part – bravely and with searing honesty, he had pointed his community back to God.  His clear-sighted faith meant that when others saw another non-descript Galilean pilgrim coming to join his movement on the banks of the Jordan, he saw the Messiah, the promise of God.  He proclaimed the hope and then – well, nothing much happened.  The Romans were still oppressing them, the religious elites were still completely missing the point, the powerful like Herod were still throwing their weight around with no regard for justice and truth – and as a consequence, John was now languishing in prison.  If ever someone was allowed to be weary, if ever someone was allowed to ask “Was I even on the right track?  Was any of my effort worth it?”  It was John.

Jesus gets his message, and doesn’t tell him off for his doubts and fears. He just sends back a message – it is happening, John.  It is happening. Maybe not quite as you expected, or quite as you hope, but God is at work.  You weren’t wrong.  It is worth it.

And perhaps one way of managing the weariness of these times is to stop and notice where God is at work, where human beings are being kind, being selfless, being noble and hopeful and kind.  Inspired by the Spirit of God, they in glimpses and small actions are proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands,
    and encourage those who have weak knees.
Say to those with fearful hearts,
    “Be strong, and do not fear.

It will not always be this hard.  Keep trying, keep hoping, keep loving.  Love your neighbour as a political act. God is with you.

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