Princeton University Religious Life

The Thoughts of Our Hearts

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
December 14, 2014
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55

Almost 3,000 years ago, a bedraggled group of refugees returned to their war-torn home. Today, millions wish that they could have that good luck - that they could go home even to rubble, to ruins - that they could simply go home to what remains of neighborhoods in Syria, Israel, and Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rakhine state in Burma, Tibet, North Korea, tribal lands in the United States, villages in Somalia, South Sudan, Congo, parts of Finland that now are Russia - and so many more. Refuges want to go home to a place, however altered, that they can again call home.

Belonging! The Judean exiles in Babylon are freed to go home, to go back to where they know they belong. They had spent several generations in exile, and the youngest of the exiles knows of no other life. They had built a real life for themselves there in Babylon, but emancipation by Cyrus of Persia was sending them home. If the forced march from Jerusalem to Babylon was deadly for their grandparents and great-grandparents, the longed-for required march back couldn’t have been much less dangerous. They straggled into Jerusalem, prayers answered for a return to Zion, the holy mountain, and what did they find?

They found a native population in disarray. They were both joyfully welcomed but received as a challenge. What to do with thousands of new, needy refugees to a city that was already hungry and in ruins? Welcome… home…

The government of Jerusalem was a series of major quarrels, ineffective, divided, and divisive. The holy Temple, the seat of God’s presence on earth, was still in ruins, even several generations after its sacking. This was the home they’d longed for? This was restoration? There were huge problems amongst the people who had remained - who had not been exiled - and there was no reason to think that a wonderful new future might ever be possible. And to these returned refugees, the Prophet Isaiah of God has the temerity to say:

          Wow! Hooray! God’s new day is dawning! All who are oppressed or brokenhearted are about to be completely restored! Are you sick or infirm? You are about to be healed! Are you deeply in debt? The debts will all be forgiven. Are you someone’s slave? You are about to be freed! Are you shackled to worry, to loneliness, to pain, to addiction, to regret, to self-doubt? You are about to be released! You are about to be freed to a brand new and limitless life, in this world and in the next!

And the refugees then, as now, said, “Oh really?”

With so much evidence around us that testifies to a negation of God’s world of fairness and loving support, how are we to live with God’s promises of just such a world - one of justice and an end to all oppressions, one of restoration from every calamity, whether personal or societal? How do we tell – today - the people amongst us who’ve got a very challenging diagnosis that their world is going to be ok? How do we tell the people of Syria that they will go home one day and that their lives there will be ones of blessing? We can only do so if we have faith that God is God and is keeping all of God’s promises of salvation, restoration, and healing, even if those outcomes aren’t in the exact form we had asked for.

That was true of the Judeans - if they were going home to Jerusalem they expected it to be a city of vital faith, commerce, politics, and civics. And it was none of that. It was still a wasteland. And yet, God’s promises, as declared by Isaiah, were already coming true. The very return of the exiles was a massive miracle! All of God’s promises of restoration had already been - and were to be - fulfilled!

Let’s fast-forward some 700 years to a pre-teen in Nazareth who is minding her own p’s and q’s, when an angel arrives to tell her that she will be a single-mother, and that the co-progenitor of her child is the Holy Spirit. She takes the news like a trooper… As she bursts into prophecy that Isaiah would recognize: Whoa! Life has been so hard for me, and my people, but God is changing that right now! I could look at this as a really crappy deal - I could see myself as an unwed mother at a time when such women and girls are sent away at best or killed at worst, or I could decide that this is, as an angel said to me, the beginning of God’s new age! I’m going to trust that God will support and save me and decide for that - I am going to be that person that God needs in this day and time to inhabit the Good News. The world is hard and violent. The good news is beautiful. Who will be the bridge between those two realities? It will be… Mary. Me.

That’s what a little girl says - probably 12 years of age. She doesn’t just say it; she goes on to live it. She lives in a benighted time when people are terribly oppressed, when Roman soldiers can stop anyone on the street or intrude into any house, and reorder anything in people’s lives. Can you imagine being on your way home from work or class and having someone pull you aside and send you to another district, while your family wonders for days, weeks, or years what happened to you?

Mary lives with such vulnerability, such randomness. Many of us feel that we do as well -from the police that enforce streets in Ferguson or Staten Island, or from protesters that enforce streets in Ferguson or Staten Island, or military or police deployments abroad or in this country, either our own forces or others. So many of us feel that we live and move at the behest of others. Mary was completely powerless, and yet she had the faith to say, like Isaiah:

God has already done - and is doing - amazing things! The promises of the Almighty are already true and are also still to be realized! God is so present, so real, God has always been, and is today, and always will be, the ruler of the lives of those who believe in God. We struggle, yearn, and hunger for a world in which God’s mercy will rule the day - that mercy is already our guiding ethic and is yet to be always our ethic. When we need God, the very strength of the Holy One will be present, as it is already - lifting, moving, reordering every obstacle before us and making the path before us a plain - a highway empty of any obstacles.

God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of our hearts. Is that us – you - me? I’ll tell you it is me, not because I think a lot of myself but because I’m proud of what I think I get right. We all think we get things right. But do we? Is Christ’s gospel in the center of it? The Jerusalem exiles and Mary had every right to think that God’s rebuilding of the world and of the universe could not start with them, but we are certain what special servants they were. Where are the thoughts of our hearts this Advent?

They deserve to be on believing ourselves to be participants in God’s new order. This Advent, the world may be as unjust as in the days of Isaiah and of Mary. But they had no excuse not to believe in and to testify to God’s inbreaking realm, and neither do we. Where are the thoughts of our hearts? Are they scattered by God, because we are proud and self-absorbed? Or are they focused on the scene right before us - beautiful or benighted or bungled?

Life is so hard, always. Who are we called to be for God in our day and time? Where are the thoughts of our hearts right now? Are they on what we want for ourselves, or are they set upon the inbreaking realm of God which, like Isaiah and Mary, might seem absolutely ludicrous, but actually is coming to pass before any eyes that are able to see? Are we ready to proclaim that the holy world of our yearning is actually beginning right now in the middle of the broken, hurting world that surrounds us? Are we ready to proclaim the reversals of all the unfairness we see, the vindication of everyone who has ever been taken advantage of, unjustly accused, and treated with contempt? Like Mary and Isaiah, the world around us shows no signs of suddenly righting itself. Where are the thoughts of our hearts? Let us place them on the certain promises of our God that the day of our yearning for wholeness, justice, righteousness, fullness, mercy, freedom, comfort, restoration, release, and healing is our inheritance right now!


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