We are old hands at life. We’ve been at it too long, and sometimes too sorely, to whip up enthusiasm over cheap or easy happy-ever-afters. The former things in life that Isaiah’s poem no longer remembers still visit us – sometimes as regret, often as loss, leaving us with questions we can’t easily answer.
We’re still close enough to the sound of weeping that Isaiah no longer can hear: lately as it comes from those gathered with candles around photographs of family and friends accidentally shot down a moment after take off in Iran.
Isaiah’s words aren’t as a sedative for pain and grief. Isaiah’s words are not the equivalent of dry your eyes it’s going to be okay.
Like wise, if we tell someone to “wipe their tears; it’s all going to be alright” we need to be sure that’s not simply an expression of our discomfort at someones sadness, rather than an attempt to comfort their sorrow.
Israel understood that loss always needs to be aired as the only trusted way towards comfort -that’s why there are psalms of lament. But that’s not what Isaiah is doing here. these words aren’t a lament.
It’s a poem that works the way all good poetry does by allowing its readers to look up and see more than is obvious. Who is this poem for? Isaiah’s poem is for a particular audience:
- The disappointed…
- The long suffering…
It’s originally for folks tempted to conclude how in the end disappointment and suffering is all that’s ahead of them. Isaiah’s poem was written in years after the exiled people of Israel had returned home from Babylon. They were now free from captivity – yes –but it was a cold, hungry, messy freedom. Coming back home to Jerusalem hadn’t lived up to the long-held dream of the exiles.
Isaiah’s poem is a word to the disappointed and long suffering, a word that says there is more to your story still to come. And the source of that more is Israel’s God: YHWH:
six times Isaiah names God in this poem and each time God is doing something…
I am about to create…I am creating…I will delight…I will rejoice…I will answer… I will hear…
The poem gets to work on Israels imagination: look – far from being absent – God is working towards not just the remaking of Jerusalem but the making of a new world, a world where life has a bigger voice than death, where what you give your days to building, living, planting is never a waste of time.
Isaiah’s poem invites hope for the future: God will safeguard life, bless what they build and plant, take pleasure in the happiness they share. God will listen and answer. What they are now living is not imeaningless, it’s moving somewhere. Isaiah asks them to imagine what the arrival in that future will look like.
The move from cynicism to imagination, the move from giving up to going on, the move from just existing to living hopefully is where Isaiah’s poem wants to move the disappointed and long suffering people. It still invites us on that journey today.
What does hope taste like?
So what’s it like – living hopefully? Is it taking Monty Python’s advice, with accompanying whistle, to always looking on the bright side of life? It would be a mistake to confuse optimism with hope. Hope is far more real and meaningful than wishful thinking.
We don’t make hope for ourselves. We are given reason to hope.
For followers of the way we have reason to hope because the God Jesus reveals to us is infinitely merciful, whose goodness and love are never separated from his power. Jesus makes a way into a future where God shall be all in all.
Like Isaiah in his poem Paul writes how the whole of creation is hoping for that kind of salvation. The future is moving towards us when God will be all in all. So, Paul says we can persevere with all that happens as we anticipate the time when God will free everyone and everything from death and decay. Hope is presented here as holding onto until the time comes.
That is our hope. But is that all there is to living hopefully?
I met her through a referral from the palliative care team. A short time into our first conversation and tears began to surprise her. She found herself crying for who she was going to miss.
We got to know one another and she shared with me some of her story: The people she’d loved and lost, the worst that had happened, the dreams let go. Growing up she had wanted to become a nurse but her mother had a drink problem and circumstances did not allow for that. She did become a care giver at a nursing home where she got attached to the people she looked after. She did nurse her mother before she died.
Once I asked what she felt she’d learned about herself these past 7 months of her illness. “I’m braver than I thought I was.” She said.
I saw her the days she felt she was coping and the days she was afraid. On the afternoon she was being discharged she said to me: “I’ve decided to focus on the life I have left more than the death I’ will die.“
This wasn’t a denial of what was happening to her, it was more than that, it was someone deciding to live hopefully. Her heart would remain open to the time left to her because life wasn’t finished gifting her little things.
Living hopefully would be living well the time she had left with the people she loved. I asked if there was a window in the room she would spend most of her time in? “Yes,” she said, “it looks over the Campsie hills. I like that.”
“When I get home tonight I’m going to try and make Macaroni cheese”.
Before I left the room I offered a blessing for her: I asked the God of all hope to give her grace to live each day as best she could and to keep her hard-won courage.
What does living hopefully look like? It’s finding courage you never guessed you had, to leave open the door of your heart so that the beauty of the hills from your bedroom window can still find you, even when there is less and less of you to find. What does hope taste like? It tastes like making macaroni cheese for the people you most love in the world.
Hope isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Our human spirit needs hope, the way our hearts need blood to beat our heart and keep us going. Without hope we feel forsaken, abandoned, unreachable, trapped in despair Like a fly paralyzed in amber.
Saint Paul says hope does not disappoint us because God has poured his love into our hearts. The love of God opens us up to living hopefully. That hope is not just anticipating the future, it’s the grace to find beauty and joy in the ordinary things of any given day, even when the loss we anticipate seems overwhelming.
Hope most often finds us in the presence of others. The strength we need to live hopefully is so often given us through relationships. In the company of others we know we are not alone.
Isolation is the great enemy of hope. When we avoid others for too long it undermines our hope and tempts us to despair. But God pours his love into our hearts and hope does not disappoint.
Our church here is to be a hopeful presence for the village. In the stories we share of what we have lived, lost come through; in the way we share the love of God poured into our hearts, we become the presence of hope among our disappointed, long suffering neighbors, who are afraid what they have lived or what they have lost is all there is.