November 16 Reflection

1st Sunday of Advent (November 30 2014)
Waiting in Hope

BIBLE READINGS
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-14, 19
1 Corinthians 1:1-9

REFLECTION

Earlier this year, a couple in Adelaide had to face court after being accused of neglecting their four-year-old son. The police accidentally discovered the boy after responding to report of domestic violence in the house.

In there, they had to wade knee-deep rubbish, including rotten meat, to find the boy in the bedroom. The boy was naked, surrounded by soiled nappies, plastic plates, and even his own faeces. It was alleged that the boy had been locked in the room for 12 days and was only a few days away from death.

As the result of the neglect, the boy now suffers from a series of developmental delays. He had to undergo surgery to remove a number of decaying teeth. The prosecutor said that the case was the worst case of neglect that the court had ever dealt with.[1]

That, however, was not the only extreme case of child neglect in Australia. Recently, we heard the shocking news about a newborn baby put by his parent in a storm water drain in Sydney.

Passing cyclists heard the cry of the newborn, coming from the bottom of the drain. Seven people were needed to lift the heavy concrete lid of the drain. They found the baby boy 2.5 meters down the drain. He was malnourished, but alive. Had he been left there for some more hours, he would have not survived.[2]

In our reading today from the book of Isaiah, God too was accused of being neglectful of Israel, Gods child. As the result of Gods abandonment, Israel was left in despair.

The passage was written after the return of the exile from Babylon to their homeland in Israel. Their task was to rebuild their nation, but what they discovered there was a land that had been neglected for a generation.

So the task was not an easy one. They had to start from scratch. They had to face adversaries from other inhabitants of the land who did not like what they were doing. Lawlessness ruled the land. People did what they liked and it felt as if God had neglected them; as if God had abandoned them.

We can hear their despair in the writing in Isaiah. Israel had fallen preys to their own sins, the prophet said. We all fade like dry leaves and our sins take us away, he said.

Even their good works felt like dirty clothes, which could also be translated as menstruation cloth.[3] In the Hebrew mindset at the time, menstruation blood could make someone ritually unclean (Leviticus 15:19). So the prophet said that even their best efforts could not make them feel better. They felt unclean and unworthy. It was as if God was indifferent to their life.

So our reading today is a plea for help. On behalf of the people, the prophet confessed his peoples sin and asked God to stop being angry and neglecting them. The prophet reminded God of Gods act of deliverance in the past when God came down from heaven to Mt. Sinai after God delivered the people of Egypt. The prophet asked God to come out of hiding and help Gods people.

But the prophet did not lose hope. Before he finished his writing, he reminded God that God was the potter and the people the clay. The people of Israel were Gods handiwork. Just like the potter could always remake the clay, God could also remake the people of Israel into a new people.

The theme of Gods abandonment was also central in our reading from Psalm. But the psalmist used a different metaphor to describe his feeling of Gods abandonment.

God, he said, was like a vinedresser who took Israel, his vine, from Egypt. God cleared the land and planted the vine. God put walls around the vine so that it took deep root, grew, and filled the land.

But, somehow, Israel felt as if God had abandoned Gods own vine. It felt as if God, in anger, had neglected the vine so much so that the walls surrounding it were broken and all who passed along could pluck its fruits and wild animals trampled on it.

So, just like our reading in Isaiah, this Psalm is also a cry for help. On behalf of his people, the psalmist begged God to stop being indifferent to Israel. Just like a baby or a toddler is totally dependent on his/her parent to survive, the people of Israel needed God to survive and prosper. Without God, they would only be left in despair.

As a child, I was one of those children who just couldnt lose the sight of my parent, especially my mother. I still remember my first day in the kindergarten. I cried immediately after my mother left the classroom and only stopped crying when my mother waved to me from the window, reassuring me of her presence.

My mother has always been a working mother, even since when my father was still alive. I still remember the morning when she had to go to work for the first time. As you can expect, I made the loudest cry possible, urging her to stay, trying to convince her that it was a bad idea to leave me. She didnt stay of course and I was left with my babysitter, inconsolable for a long time.

That must have been what the people of Israel felt at the thought that God had abandoned them. Their life was dependent on God who had rescued and nurtured them. Without God, they were inconsolable.

Our reading from Pauls letter to the Corinthians has a different direction however. After the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, Paul reminded the believers in Corinth that Christ did not leave them with nothing.

The believers in Corinth had been blessed with all kinds of spiritual gifts. These gifts are signs of Christs presence. Christ had not abandoned them like orphans. These spiritual gifts are like the wave that my mother gave me from that window of my classroom: a promise that she would come back to pick me up.

No, God is not like the parents, in the beginning of this reflection, who neglected their children. At times, we may feel like the people of Israel. We may feel as if God has abandoned us, leaving us like that four-year-old boy who was abandoned in the bedroom for days or that baby who was abandoned in the drain.

But God never abandons us. God has given us wisdom and knowledge and skills and strength to deal with whatever situations we are dealing with. God has given us this community of faith, this family of God, this church, as a place where we can find help and support when we are in need. We are not to overlook these gifts because they are signs of Gods presence amongst us.

These gifts may not be perfect. These gifts may never be able to fully replace Gods presence in our life, just like my mothers promise could never replace her presence. But, in the meantime, they are the next best thing that we have until God, our parent, returns to pick all of us up back to where we belong.

The theme of this first Sunday of Advent is hope. Today we are invited to have hope once again. Our world may seem bleak. We may feel as if we were stuck in a quagmire with no way of escaping. Yet, today, we are invited to look again to Gods blessings in our life: the people and things in our life from which we can draw our strength. These are Gods gifts so that we can wait not in despair, but in hope, until Christ returns.

Amen

[1] Ken McGregor, Adelaide Couple Face Court Accused of Starving Son in House of HorrorsNeglect Case, on http://www.adelaidenow.com.au (October 28, 2014)

[2] Amy McNeilage, Baby Boy Found Down Drain in Sydney: Cyclist Who Found Newborn Says Screaming Child was Distressed, on http://www.smh.com.au (November 23, 2014)

[3] Beth Scibienski, Has God Hidden?, on http://www.bethscib.com (November 25, 2014)