Harrowing Of Hell
December 17, 2014

Advent Evening Prayer Homily: Loyalty

Preacher: Kevin Mesher

“I form light and create darkness. I make weal and create woe.” This too: The God that created the heavens and formed the earth, did not create it a chaos.

I find these words from Isaiah oddly comforting this Advent. After the year I’ve had, it’s good just to be reminded that someone is actually in charge, that there is meaning, and that suffering has an end-game.

Though Advent is a time of expectancy, hope for the new light of Christ in our midst, this new light implies a darkness from which it can emerge, and while that darkness can be liturgically symbolic, it can also be all too literal. As such, it can challenge our faith, making us question God despite God’s unyielding assurances.

Tonight’s readings are full of such questions; questions about purpose and meaning, about God’s covenant during exile, and faith in God’s methods of redemption—and like the imprisoned John the Baptist—questions even about the sovereignty of the very one who’s birth we await. Which is why I want to explore with you a hopeful word that shows up in our Psalm today.

Hesed. It is a Hebrew word that connotes one of the many positive attributes of God. It appears no less than 246 times in the Jewish Testament, and although much ink has been spent in an effort to define it, a consensus among scholars has not been reached. It can translated as “faithfulness,” as in verses 10 and 11 of Psalm 85, but it equally implies the “grace,” “righteousness” and “love” of God, among others. In the NRSV translation it reads:

“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

As you can hear, these attributes ‘meet’ and ‘kiss’ and grow toward each other in an intimate dance. This dynamic interplay is meant to recall the activity of God’s ever-lasting covenant with the Israelites even while they awaited divine intersession during their Babylonian exile.

However, I resonate with another English translation; that of God’s “loyalty.” It combines enduring obligation with kindness or favor. Meditating upon a God that is loyal to humankind—loyal to me—humbles me in a very real way. Here’s why.

Last June, after a number of months of discomfort along the right side of my body and a sudden inability to write legibly, I finally decided to see a neurologist. The Doctor inquisitively poked and scratched my body with a blue toothpick and tested my reflexes. And then, after a series of basic mobility tests, she gingerly removed her gloves and with an air of certitude, looked to her notes and said, “Yep. It looks like Parkinson’s.” Winded and mute, I took a seat next to her desk. I wasn’t expecting to hear that that morning. “You weren’t expecting to hear that this morning, were you?” she echoed. And as her question hung in the air like a wet x-ray blanket, she stood, adjusted her crisp, white coat and swiftly twinkled out of the room. Turns out she was right. An MRI and DaT Scan confirmed her suspicions and, all too quickly, I was a person living with Parkinson’s Disease. At the height of summer, I was plunged into total darkness in a sudden exile from my own body and the expectations I had for my life. Perhaps you can identify.

I have since metabolized much of this news, hard won in real time, by honoring the grief process, but I would be disingenuous if I told you I was confidently expectant this season. And I would be outright lying if I told you I haven’t, at times, lost sight of that golden thread of faith, of community, that is meant to sustain and carry one through those darkest of times. Because I don’t know what the future looks like—of course, do any of us know? I have questions. Questions, I’m sad to say, that often betray a lack of faith. Like the Judean people in exile, baffled by God’s decision to bring about their salvation by means of a foreign king, I too sometimes question God’s methods of deliverance.

But Isaiah insists, God did not create a chaos. We are being brought out of our exile. We are being restored. Listen to these provocative and generative verbs from verses 9–13 of Isaiah. In them God, “forms, works, begets, gives birth, makes, creates, and arouses.” God is cast as diligent potter, as father and as mother, always active on our behalf, bringing something new to term. Will I interrupt the artisan with my questions? “Will the pot contend with the potter, or the earthenware with the hand that shapes it?” We can only trust that God is tirelessly working to bring us home. As we fumble and grope in the dark toward Bethlehem, we must trust in God’s hesed, God’s undying loyalty to us. Is Parkinson’s Disease the worst thing that can happen? No. But we are each beset with our own burdens.

This I know: that the most dazzling and radiant blooms always begin with a heap of dirt and manure. Or as the Buddhists say quite simply, “No mud, no lotus.” But these sudden blows can often set us into a spiral of doubt. Like John the Baptist in Luke 7, we too can find ourselves in a prison of expectation, second guessing God’s promises. We too, like John, inquire, “Is this the One who is to come?” In the dark of my own prison I am met with a quiet but persistent “Yes.” God remains loyal to us through all trials. And so I ask you, in those dark, midwinter nights of the soul, when questions take up residence in your heart, and your heart is in exile, will you be loyal to God?