Jesus: God’s Mercy Revealed
In 1977 NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to explore the galaxy. A golden record called The Sounds of Earth was attached to each of the twin spacecrafts – a message from earth to anyone out there in the universe who might be listening. It contained both music and the sound of a human heartbeat.
Over thirty years later, Annie Druyan, who served as the creative director of NASA’s famous Voyager Interstellar Message (VIM) Project, reflected on what she chose to include on that record – The Sounds of Earth:
The first thing I found myself thinking of was a piece by Beethoven from Opus 130, something called the Cavatina Movement … When I [first] heard this piece of music … I thought … Beethoven, how can I ever repay you? What can I ever do for you that would be commensurate with what you’ve just given me? And so, as soon as [my colleague] said, “[This message is] going to last a thousand million years,” I thought of … this great, beautiful, sad piece of music, on which Beethoven had written in the margin … the word sehnsucht, which is German for “longing.” Part of what we wanted to capture in the Voyager message was this great longing we feel.
So in the end, NASA chose a great song of human longing and launched it into space. It’s as if NASA’s scientists were saying to the rest of the universe: “This is who and what we are as human beings: creatures of longing.” And hidden in that basic “introduction to who we are” there are implicit questions for possible extraterrestrials: Do you feel this too? Are we the only ones? Are we crazy?
Of all of the emotions we consider common to humanity around the world – anger, sadness, joy, love – the emotion chosen to define life on earth for the rest of the galaxy to hear is longing.
What does longing feel like to you? When I think of longing, I think back to my childhood. Sometime in October or November, the Sears and J.C. Penny Christmas catalogues would arrive at Grandma and Grandpa’s house on the lake, and every Saturday when we went to see them my Brad and Sarah and I would fight over the catalogues. They had a massive toy section in the back and every week leading up to Christmas we’d turn to the pages that had our favorite potential gifts. Week after week, for hours we’d sit there and stare at those pages … hoping, wishing, dreaming … longing.
To be honest, we had expensive taste, so Christmas morning was usually a mix of incredible excitement and joy, with maybe just a little disappointment mixed in too. Don’t worry, we were raised well. We were always so very grateful and loved every gift we got. But there was always that one gift that we knew was just a touch out of reach, and it always proved to be just that. Longing.
As we got older, our longing changed and in some ways, it grew. I can remember picturing myself cruising around town in a midnight blue Camaro. My first car was the 1984 Chrysler LeBaron my grandparents drove. No, it wasn’t the convertible version. It was the grandma’s version. And again, I was so grateful. Honestly. But it wasn’t a Camaro. Or a Mustang. Funny thing about longing though. Those who, in terms of material things, get everything they ever wanted and more than they could ever have dreamed of still report the same sense of longing. Longing for … something.
The great author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, in his classic Mere Christianity, a book every human being should read, said: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah gave voice to the same sense of longing, a longing he knew well, and pointed us toward the answer. If you’ve been joining us for worship this Advent season, either here in person or on-line, you know that we’ve been walking together through some of Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming of one who would pave the way for every human being to find that unnamed something that target of their longing – one who could only be called Messiah, Savior – Jesus, the Christ. Turn with me to Isaiah 63:15-16.
Words of longing. Longing to be loved, as a father loves his children. Sadly, even the best of fathers, and mothers, fall short time and again. If you’re a parent, whether your children are grown or still in the cradle, you know this all too well. Moments haunt you. Moments when you know that your love fell short. Short of … something. Perfect love, perhaps. There are times when your love fell short, just as the love of your parents fell short. Because we all fall short. And we all long for a love that doesn’t fall short.
A 2017 Craigslist ad gained internet fame after a group of friends in their twenties posted a request for a “generic” dad to barbecue burgers and hot dogs at an outdoor party. The ad listed several “dad-like” activities as desirable, including “grilling hamburgers and hotdogs … refer[ing] to all attendees as ‘Big Guy,’ ‘Chief,’ ‘Sport,’ ‘Champ,’ etc.” and “talk[ing] about dad things, like lawnmowers, building your own deck, Jimmy Buffet, etc.” Additional requirements included a minimum of 18 years’ experience as a father, 10 years’ experience grilling, and a preferred name of Bill, Randy, or Dave. Yeah, it’s funny. But it’s also sad, because the fact that those young men put an ad like that on Craigslist means that none of them had a dad in their lives who could be the grillmaster at the party they were planning.
Human love has always fallen short. Even in Scripture we see examples of poor parenting and marriages that have fallen apart. Heck, in the life of King David we see both. And yet there is within every human heart a longing to be loved with an unfading, undying love. A love that is real and present. A love that we can see and touch. Isaiah continues in Isaiah 63:17-64:1.
I love that word, “Oh!” In the Hebrew language these words were originally penned in, the first 2 verses of chapter 64 are on long, disjointed sentence. It doesn’t flow as smoothly as it appears to in English translations. Why? That little word, “Oh,” clues us in. It’s almost a cry. It comes from the gut. Isaiah is agitated and desperate. Isaiah is giving voice to the prayers of the people of Israel, who are living in exile. And he is feeling their pain, and the distance they feel from God, deeply. He is feeling their longing – longing for love, longing for the presence of God in their lives.
“I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” This is the opening line from a book titled Nothing to Be Afraid Of by award-winning British writer, Julian Barnes. Barnes, who describes himself as an agnostic, writes, “I was never baptized, never sent to Sunday school. I have never been to a normal church service in my life.” And yet this agnostic intellectual still feels haunted by the beauty of Christian art and music and by what he calls the “wake up call to morality.” “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” Longing. Longing for the presence of God. Longing for a perfect love that doesn’t fall short, the way human love so often does.
If there is a pervasive longing in the human heart, there is with that longing a feeling of being unworthy of the love and presence we seek. That feeling we call shame. And when we feel shame, we lash out. We blame others. We deflect. And that is exactly what the people of Israel do, those people whose cry of desperation Isaiah gives voice to here. Look back at Isaiah 63:17.
They blame God for the distance from him that they sense, the unworthiness and shame that they feel. “Why did YOU MAKE US wander from your ways?” Now, if we were to take these verses out of context, we might read them as saying that God is responsible for our sin. We have to remember that Isaiah is giving voice to the people’s lament here – their cry of desperation and longing. He isn’t saying they’re right. Because if we skip ahead to God’s reply in Isaiah 65, we find God saying, “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that was not called by my name. I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually.” God says, “Hey, I haven’t gone anywhere. YOU have created the distance. I am right here, and you won’t listen. You can’t see.”
We sense this longing for God’s love and presence, and yet we know that we can’t get to it. There is something in us that drives us away from God, makes us turn our backs on God. If there is a way into God’s presence, into his loving embrace, God has to provide it. We cannot. Look down at Vv. 2-4. The people are longing for God to break through their own stubbornness and hard-heartedness. Isaiah is longing for God to break through. We are longing for God to break through. And in Jesus, that is exactly what he does.
Back in one of the early chapters of Isaiah, chapter 7, the prophet says, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Fast forward a few centuries to a small, backwater town called Nazareth, where a man named Joseph has an encounter with an angel. “behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).” Immanuel, God with us. Jesus means “the Lord is salvation.” Jesus didn’t just bring God’s salvation. He embodied it.
And so tonight our attention turns to a baby in a manger in Bethlehem, his birth announced by angels – God breaking through. Announced by angels to whom? To shepherds. Course, rough men and women who had experienced more of the bad this world has to offer than most. Immanuel – God with us. Jesus, the Lord is salvation. Love, presence. The touch of God. God creating a way, bridging the chasm our shame tells us is there, bringing hope, bringing his presence. Bringing the love that we long for at last.
The prayer of the people is that God would break through, would bridge the chasm, defeating shame. That his love and presence would ignite a flame in their hearts just as fire burns dry wood and brings water to a boil. That is what Jesus does.
So in a few moments we are going to light candles. I will light my candle from the center candle of the advent wreath – the Christ candle. And the ushers will light their candles from mine and then pass the flame down the rows and through the sanctuary. You know, fire doesn’t just provide light. It also provides heat. Warmth. As the flame passes through the sanctuary this evening, may the flame of Christ’s love for you melt the coldness of shame in your heart, and may you sense his welcoming embrace and find there the satisfaction of all of your longings. Let us pray.