To be quite honest, this wildfire smoke this week has really thrown me off. I lived in Berkeley California through the worst of the wildfire seasons of the last few years -- there was the day that we woke up and the sun had not risen, there was the week or two where we were on evacuation warning at the same time as we were on pandemic lock-down, there was the night that we woke up to a freak lightning storm across the entire region where 10000 lightning strikes lit hundreds of fire. I moved back to Virginia because I wanted to get away from it -- I can't do wildfires and earthquakes anymore, about some hurricanes and blizzards again. So suffice it to say I've been having some flashbacks this week that I would not have chosen for myself.
It was truly a wild time, and I remember so very acutely a moment when it was like a perfectly simultaneous heat wave, smoke advisory, potential evacuation warning, and pandemic quarantine. I was sitting on my bed, sweaty, hot, a little dusty, stuck in the house, and unable even to relax because they could tell me to go at any time and feeling so unbearably stuck in my circumstances. And in that moment it seemed like I was going to feel that way forever, like things were going to be that way forever, like things were going to be orange and hot and dusty and trapped and alone forever. Well, things weren't that way forever, and with the hindsight of a couple of years, I know that things weren't that way forever, but gosh in that moment it sure felt like they would be.
I know that a wildfire pandemic sharknado is not the only thing that can cause this feeling, and I would hazard a guess that many people have at least a moment or two in their lives where they might feel like they've hit a dead end. A death, a diagnosis, a loss, a rejection, a heartbreak, a sudden and unforeseen change of plans, they all can create this feeling that it's over. And it is precisely from this feeling that a not insignificant chunk of the bible is written.
I find it some measure of comfort that the perspective of the bible is so often the perspective of distress and of uncertainty, because on my worst days, I don't need happy people to tell me just to be happier, I need sad people to tell me that things are going to be alright, I need people who have been hurt too to help me to be brave, I need people who've struggled to see a way forward to help me cast a vision for the future. And that is what Isaiah is doing here.
"Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee; the people walking in darkness in darkness have seen a great light, a light has dawned on those living in the land of deep darkness."
He goes on to say that their nation will enlarge, their joy increase, their harvest increase, they will enjoy plunder and spoils, the yokes that burdens them will be broken, the boots of war stained with blood will only have use as fuel. It is a hopeful prophecy for a people who do not know what to expect from their future.
It might be a comfort for them, it might be a sweet sentiment to imagine, it might provoke skepticism, but in any case, the prophecy is what it is: things will get better, and they will not always be this way.
I will thank God that we are not living under Babylonian captivity, or that our Jerusalem is not under siege, but the prophets, this scripture written under duress, challenge us to see that hope is a Christian virtue. The hope that the future will be different and better than the present is a virtue, and resignation is not.
This is at the core of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus -- it is not just about thinking the right thoughts or staying clear of the right mistakes. It is about believing that a better world is possible, and acting like it. To be a disciple is to believe that better future is around the corner, and to start walking in that direction.
It's not easy work to have hope when there's wildfire smoke in the air and it hurts even to breathe, it's not easy work to have hope it feels like so many of the major pillars of our common life are fracturing -- education, the climate, the economy, politics, take your pick! It's not easy work to believe that a better future is possible, but it is our one and only job to act like it is.
You may be thinking to yourself:
Pastor Ethan, this is all very well and good but where do you get hope from? And what a great question that would be -- if it was a simpler or more obvious question, we wouldn't have a whole religion oriented towards finding it. But my hunch is also that we put a little of pressure and pretense on hope, like it is something that requires an Indiana Jones level of bravery or adventure to find or a saintly amount of faith to receive. I think its fair to say though that in addition to the consolation we get from scripture and from prayer, hope is something that we get from other people. I think we also have our little stash of it, our secret source of it, and we get to share it with one another. We get to take a cutting of hope from our friends and our neighbors, and watch it take root in our own lives.
So let me ask you: where does your hope come from? When you imagine the better future God promises for us, what do you see? What of your hope do you have to share with others, and what hope do you need shared with you?