Sunday, November 29, 2020

Sermon: “Expectations Defied: Nostalgia”, Isaiah 64:1-9 (November 29, 2020)

(This is the first of five sermons in our Advent series about our expectations around the holiday season.)


So. Here we are again. Thanksgiving is over, and we’ve officially begun the Advent season. Outside of these walls, though, it’s better known as the Holiday season, or even the Christmas season. I do tend to be a stickler about not letting Christmas creep into worship early (because the Advent season of waiting is essential to understanding the joy of Christmas), but outside of the sanctuary, I’ve already had Christmas music playing since about Halloween, and every year, it’s all Nick can do to keep me from setting up the Christmas tree before Thanksgiving. Believe me; I can relate to that urgent need for the comfort and joy of Christmas as soon as socially acceptable (possibly even earlier).

This year, many of us are feeling that need even more keenly than ever before. For more than eight months now, COVID-19 has been robbing us of many things that bring us joy, so we’re desperately grasping for any hope that the holiday season can offer, even as we anticipate a very different December than we’ve ever experienced before. We’re all trying to balance health and safety with our profound hunger for authentic connection and shared community; it’s a daunting task to find our usual “Christmas Spirit” in the midst of all this.

As clergy, though, it’s *always* a challenge for me to actually feel Christmas-y. The timing is never right. I start thinking about Advent in August or September (which feels really weird) and planning begins in earnest around October. Then, I spend most of December walking that fine line between the longing of the Advent season and the celebration of the “secular” Christmas season. And never mind Christmas Eve—it’s a work day! Best case scenario, I can visit my extended family the week AFTER Christmas (although last year we managed to make it back east in time for Christmas dinner…that was a LONG day). By the time that I can actually enjoy Christmas, the rest of the world has moved on. Needless to say, I regularly spend much of December desperately seeking that sense of wonder and excitement that I used to feel pre-ordination, especially when I was a kid.

The truth is, though, that this is a rotten approach to the holidays, and inevitably winds up disappointing me. In my desire to make the holidays “special”, I relentlessly pursue my sense of nostalgia, even knowing that I’m viewing those memories through rose-tinted glasses, and I never succeed. I place all my hopes in a heavily revised version of my past instead of where my focus should be—the future.

This is part of the reason that the prophets are an important part of our faith tradition, ESPECIALLY during Advent. When things get difficult and people turn longingly to days gone by, the prophets remind us in candid and often blunt terms about what the past has REALLY been like. They insist that our memory of the past isn’t to be valued for the way it makes us feel, but for how it informs our future. While we should cherish our faith history, God’s story isn’t ultimately one of “long ago and far away”. It’s a story of the imminent Kingdom, of the already and not yet, of God’s ongoing participation in human lives. The prophets are always reminding us that our nostalgia for the past is lying to us—the best is yet to come.

Since Isaiah’s prophesies span at least a hundred years, from before the fall of Israel to after the return from exile (and since humanity apparently has a difficult time learning lessons), Isaiah (and those writing in his name) had plenty of opportunities to preach this important message. Chapter 64 was probably written after the Israelites had returned from a 70-year diaspora and were trying to get back to their collective understanding of “normal”. As they struggled to recover the way of life that they’d lost over multiple generations of exile, they became frustrated and disillusioned. They’d learned their lesson; they’d taken their punishment, so why wasn’t God restoring the kingdom to its former glory as promised? They recalled the days when God had “accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations”, when they’d truly felt like a chosen people. Those sure were the days, eh?

But Isaiah refused to let them sentimentalize their past. Yes, God had done magnificent things, but the people hadn’t always responded with piety. They’d angered God with their sin; their righteous deeds were insignificant when compared to the volume of their transgressions. They’d abandoned their relationship with God, not even bothering to call upon God’s name. Isaiah wouldn’t let them romanticize the idea of God’s past goodness without also remembering the times that they’d rejected it. I doubt Isaiah would let me get away with my fantasy of a “Currier and Ives” holiday season. He’d unapologetically remind me of the year my whole family got sick on Christmas day, or the year I cried because I hadn’t gotten what I really wanted, or the time I was dumped on Christmas Eve, or the year I experienced an episode of depression for the better part of the month.

But at the same time that he brought up of all my traumas from Christmases past, he’d also tell me that I don’t need to despair, because the past isn’t all there is. He’d remind me that even now, even as I’m mourning the loss of a December that’s likely to be lonely and subdued, God is moving and shaping the future into something sacred. He’d insist that if I take an honest inventory of the big picture—past, present, and future—I can trust that God’s plan is worth putting my faith in.

Isaiah uses the image of ceramics to reinforce his message, saying that we are the clay and God is the potter. If clay were sentient, I imagine that the molding, pinching, shaping, bending, and pressing involved in pottery would be painful. That’s the point that we’re at now. The transformation process from what has been to what will be is never easy. But clay, being the wisest of all artistic mediums, would never insist that the potter return it to its original form. It would never wistfully opine that things were so much better when it was a lump. No, in spite of its hardship, it would recognize that being a lump wasn’t really as great as it remembered, and it would trust that the potter had something wonderful in mind for it. After all, it had seen some of the potter’s past work, and knew that there was no limit to what was possible.

If we spend all our time waiting around for the world to be like what we remember nostalgically, we miss the new things God is doing right now and will continue to do. By acknowledging the past for what it really was, we can honor it and learn from it without allowing it to define us. It’s tempting to demand that the Holiday season live up to our nostalgic expectations, but if that’s our sole focus, we can’t hope to see the miraculous ways God is breaking into the world right now. God rejects our dependence on nostalgia because God knows that better things are in store. We can be better. The Kingdom of God doesn’t live in the past, but in the future that we’re building every day. Our salvation doesn’t rely solely on events that happened over 2000 years ago, but on our ongoing relationship with Christ. Christmas has never been about something that happened in the past. It’s about God’s powerful promise for the future.

This year, try to pull yourself out of the mire of wishing Christmas could be like it used to be. Enjoy your treasured memories, but know that that’s all they are—memories. They’re not a blueprint for every December for all eternity. They’re not something that’s been taken from you. They’re what was, and now the prophets are calling us to turn our faces towards what will be. It might look very different for a while; it might involve bending and molding and reshaping; it might be hard to understand or even accept. But God is faithful, and promises us a future full of peace and love—where the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and the calf and the lion will feed together. Nothing like what has ever been before…but worth waiting for.

What’s the opposite of nostalgia? What would you call a yearning and hunger for the future, rather than the past? Whatever that antonym might be, let’s practice it this Advent. Let’s spend this season of waiting looking in the right direction. God is telling an old story in brand new ways. Let’s not miss it. Amen.

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