2nd Sunday of Advent (December 7 • 2014)
‘We are Not Alone’
In March 2009, two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested in North Korea while reporting in the border between North Korea and China. The two women were accused of entering the country illegally to conduct smear campaign and were sentenced to 12 years in prison. To make thing worse, America did not have diplomatic relationship with North Korea whom they fought in the Korean War in the 50s.
The two women knew that they could be sent to the notorious North Korean hard labour camp at any time when they were called to attend a meeting. They were taken to another location where the meeting was about to be held. As they entered through the door, they saw a tall figure standing before them. It was the former US President, Bill Clinton.
When they saw the President, they were shocked, but they knew immediately in their heart that their nightmare was over. Their own country had not forgotten them. Soon, they would be released and returned to their families back in the US.
Today’s reading from Isaiah also tells us the same kind of relief and jubilation. The people of Israel had been in exile in Babylon for a generation. Now, God was coming to deliver them and take them home. It was the time no longer for judgment and punishment, bur for forgiveness and restoration.
But, unlike Laura and Euna who didn’t know that President Clinton was coming, the people of Israel knew that God was about to come. They were asked to prepare a road, a ‘highway’ in the desert to welcome God. Of course, the people were not really asked to build real highway across the desert (they may have chosen to stay in Babylon instead). The prophet spoke in metaphor. The highway was like a red carpet to welcome God.
The people of Israel were asked to herald the coming of God, just like the population of a city would celebrate the coming of their king. God, their shepherd, would come to deliver them. Their time of suffering was over! It was the time for joyful expectation.
Indeed, God had been steadfast and loyal to Israel. One generation had replaced another. One powerful kingdom had replaced another. The Persians had replaced the Babylonians as the superpower of the ancient world. Yet, God’s promise had not been replaced. The people of Israel had not been forgotten. Through the prophet’s mouth, God affirmed that God would finally come to deliver Israel.
Indeed, through hardships, the people of Israel never lost their faith in God. Yes, they got afraid when God seemed to abandon them. Yes, they got frustrated by God’s apparent inaction. But, at the end of their fear and frustration, they would always come back to God to ask for God’s mercy and deliverance.
We can see this kind of determined expectation in our Psalm reading. The psalmist knew that God’s anger would only last temporarily, but God’s steadfast love would endure forever. He knew that God’s faithfulness would finally prevail. Peace and goodness would finally be restored in the land.
During the time of Jesus, the people of Israel too had been waiting for God to deliver them from the oppression of the Roman Empire. They had waited for generations for the Messiah, their rescuer, but nothing had happened. It felt as if God had again forgotten about them.
It was in the midst of this atmosphere of hopelessness that John came to the desert to proclaim that, just like God had not forgotten the people in Exile, God had not forgotten them now. The Messiah was about to come and John was the messenger who had been called to prepare the way for him.
Yes, Jesus came to the world to bring the good news that we are not alone because our God has not forgotten about us. But, Jesus did not only bring this good news from God; he was the embodiment of this good news; he was the Good News itself.
Some of you know that I’ll be travelling to the Netherlands after Christmas this year. I’ll be visiting my elderly aunty who lives in the city of Delft, about 30 minutes away from Amsterdam by train.
Our family had lost contact with my aunty for many years. Since her divorce, she cut all communications with us for one reason or another. The distance between her and my family has only made the problem worse. No one knew what had happened to her and everyone in the family was worried about her.
Lately, our relative who lives in the city of Tilburg in the Netherlands, told me that my aunty had become so frail that the government had to move her from her house to a government accommodation. She also told me that my aunty had become so forgetful. I suspect that she must be in the early stage of dementia.
I passed on the information to my mother. My mother, understandably, was so worried about my auntie that she asked me to go the Netherlands to visit her.
One day, my relative visited my aunty and made some arrangements so that I could speak with her through Skype. The last time I spoke with her was when I was still in Junior High School (not so long ago), so she didn’t know who I was.
I reminded her that I was her nephew, Toby. She still couldn’t remember me, but she immediately expressed her anger to me, telling me that her family had forgotten about her. I reassured her that we had not forgotten about her and that I was coming to see her soon.
Indeed, I have only one mission in the Netherlands: to show to my aunty that our family still cares about her. She may or may not remember me. She may not even welcome me. I may or may not be able to help her with her situation. But, they don’t matter. The main purpose of my visit is to show her that her family is still there for her and cares about her situation.
Christ too has come into our midst so that we know that God cares about us; that the problems we face in our personal life, or our life as a community, are not signs of God’s abandonment. There is still a bigger story, God’s story, waiting for its conclusion.
No, Christmas is not the end of our problems. Today, there is this kind of utopian expectation of Christmas in our culture. People somehow expect that all of their problems will cease to exist on Christmas Day. People think that Christmas season has some kind of magic that will cure all illnesses in the world.
One of my favourites songs during Christmas is the song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. I love the song. The tune of the song lends itself to different kinds of musical interpretations. I especially like the jazzy version of the song.
They lyrics themselves, however, are quite sentimental and fall into the category of lyrics that romanticise Christmas. Hear the two first verses of the song:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
our troubles will be miles away.
This kind of expectation will only disappoint us. Christmas Day does not take our troubles out of sight or miles away. We will realise that our problems do not disappear on Christmas Day. We will soon realise that, unlike our Christmas decoration, we can’t put all our problems into boxes and leave them in shelves.
No, the promise of Christmas is not that our problems will be solved forever on Christmas Day. The message of Christmas is that God still cares about us. God cares about us in whatever kind of life in exile that we now live.
As Christians, we are not to succumb to this popular Christmas’ idealism. Christmas is a reminder that the One who owns the universe still cares about us. And we are called to prepare our hearts and mind to welcome the One whom God has sent into our life and our midst.
Friends, God had already come in Christ Jesus. We are not like the people of Israel in exile who were still waiting for God to come or the people in the time of John the Baptist who were still waiting for the Messiah to come. God, in Jesus Christ, had come to live amongst us.
It is up to us whether to be open to Christ’s presence amongst us today or to ignore it. It is up to us whether to shut the door and keep our heart empty, or to welcome him into our life.
No, Christ doesn’t come to take our troubles away. Christ comes into our life so that we know that the God of the universe still cares about us and we are not alone on this journey towards Christmas and beyond.