Joel 2:15-17, 21-27
Luke 1: 26-28
December 3, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Dorothy Delay was a violin teacher who taught many famous violinists, including Itzhak Perlman, and she was celebrated for her ability to look at her students, evaluate their personalities, and know how best to help them grow musically. She didn’t follow a prescribed method but adapted her instruction to the unique qualities of each student: she encouraged the shy students, challenged the arrogant ones, drilled those weak in technique, and refined the ear of others. Delay could understand her students’ personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, and hone in on what each student needed to help that student fulfill his or her potential but there was one hurdle that Delay found was common to every student, no matter their personality, and that was the voice inside their heads that would say, “I can’t do this. It’s impossible.”
Delay’s approach to a student’s mental block was to change their way of thinking. “Whenever a student [said] to her, ‘Miss DeLay, [this piece is] so difficult,’ she would reply: ‘It’s not difficult, sweetie, its time-consuming!’” 1
Those of you who are musicians are familiar with that voice of despair that says, “I can’t do this. This piece is too difficult. I will never be able to play this;” but I bet it’s not just the musicians among us that recognize that voice. Artists have heard it when a painting or sculpture isn’t working out. Writers feel it every time they stare at a blank piece of paper. And the despair of feeling that you are simply not up to the challenges you face can also affect teachers, engineers, doctors, baseball players, parents, social justice advocates, and the list could go on and on. Despair is the certainty of failure. Despair is the anxiety that one’s strengths and resources are too small and the challenge too large. Despair is the absence of hope. Dorothy Delay was able to help her students push through their despair and have hope again by reframing their future: There is always light at the end of the tunnel, she said, and if you can’t see, it is just that some tunnels are longer than others. There is no such thing as impossible, she said. What looks impossible is really just time consuming.
In the book of Joel, the prophet is speaking to a people who are experiencing terrible despair. To understand the people’s despair and the hope Joel proclaims, we have to turn back the clock a little to see how Israel came to this moment. In 586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire had swept over Israel, devastating the land and taking the people into exile. Although indications are that their physical lives in Babylon weren’t terrible for the exiles, it was a time of a great identity crisis for them. Where once they had been God’s people, now they had become no people. Although the covenant between Israel and God had gone through some rough times over the couple of thousand years since its beginning in Abraham and Sarah, never during those times had Israel felt completely abandoned until the time of the Exile. The 59 years in which the Jews were in Exile was as much a blow to the collective psyche of the Israelites as the Holocaust is to modern day Jews. In 539 BCE, however, Babylon itself was conquered by the Persians and the Persian Emperor Cyrus told the Jews they could go home. Now, it would seem that their return home would have lifted their despair but any initial blush of excitement they had faded when they saw the seemingly impossible task that lay before them. Much of Jerusalem was a pile of rubble. The fields which had once been lush with the fruits of the earth were barren, deliberately salted by the Babylonians. The Temple was destroyed. No one even knew who was in charge. The people of Israel may have returned but the state of Israel had ceased to exist because they were now under Persian rule. Everything that had made them who they believed themselves to be was gone, and the task of rebuilding an identity felt overwhelming; even impossible.
We light the first candle of Advent as a symbol of hope but we cannot really understand the miracle of hope unless we first understand the reality of absolute despair.
Not all of us know what it is to feel absolute despair. We have all known blue times or sad days but sadness is not the same as despair. Sadness is when you are depressed about your current situation and you want to curl up in a quiet place to escape your reality for a little bit. Sadness is when you sigh and play somber music, or when you are tired of the struggle and emotionally need a break for a bit. In the midst of sadness, however, there still lingers the possibility of goodness and joy. You have not given up on your belief that there are resources out there that will help you meet the challenges you face; you just don’t have any of those resources on the premises right now and don’t have the energy to go looking for them at this moment. Sadness, however, hasn’t given up on tomorrow. Despair, on the other hand, is when you have plunged into an alternate state of the soul where you simply cannot see any possibilities for a new tomorrow. You dwell in a place of no goodness, no joy, no resources, no way to change what is before you. Your whole life has become absence and you cannot see beyond the darkness. Despair is the bleak night of the soul when isolation feels absolute.
This past Friday was World AIDS day when we remember that the fight against AIDS continues. Though we have made progress in combatting the disease, it is still devastating for those who live with it and for their families. Several years ago, one young woman shared her story of the despair that she felt at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic when her father contracted AIDS. In her community at that time, AIDS not only marked one with death but also marked one with disgrace and so for the long years of her father’s gradual dying, the young woman had to cope as well with the shameful silence surrounding his disease. Isolated, burdened with grief, suffering every pain with her father but unable to share that pain with anyone else, she sank into complete despair and finally decided that her only escape was to take her own life so that she would not have to cope with the suffering of inevitable grief. Like this young woman, people who contemplate suicide are not simply sad — they are often trapped in meaninglessness, in a place where everything good seems impossible.
Hope is that which steps into the “nothingness” and places “somethingness” back into our hands. Hope removes the hurdle of “impossible” and hold out hands full of possibility, full of love and connections to others and shows us the way to paths that were unseen. God gives us hope by revealing the falsehood at the center of our despair by saying to us, “You are not your pain. You are a person in pain but there is more to you than the suffering you are feeling right now and together we will rediscover who you are beyond this moment of darkness.”
The young woman whose father was dying of AIDS writes that in her most desolate moment as she contemplated taking her life, she picked up the phone and called a Suicide Hotline. It was that conversation, she said, that slowly brought hope back to her life because the Hotline volunteer kept her on the line for hours, slowly but surely moving her back into a reality where she understood that pain can exist side by side with possibility, where in spite of the suffering she was feeling, she still held other resources in her hands. Her suffering she saw, had not negated her but only overwhelmed her. Though she could not save her father from his inevitable death, she could save others from the suffering and the silence of AIDS she had experienced and since that time, she has devoted herself to speaking out on behalf of its victims. 2 Despair tried to convince her that she was nothing and that the darkness was impossible to overcome. Hope told her that she is someone; and that though the tunnel may be long, there is a light at the end.
The prophet Joel assured the people that even though things looked bleak right now, God would not abandon them. God would remain with them even in the darkest of times until they recognized that the darkness and despair could not completely sever them from the one who made them who they were.
“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,” God says through Joel, “and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you… You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.”
God gives us hope by taking the “not possible” out of our identities and through the promise of steadfast love and faith in us, re-makes us as people of possibility. In the gospel of Luke, God even uses our own negatives against us to open up the way for new positives. When Mary tells Gabriel that it is impossible for her to be pregnant, Gabriel tosses aside her objections by saying literally, “With God, all things are Not Impossible.” God steps right into the depth of our despair, right into the Not Possible — and throws it out by turning it around and saying, “Not Impossible! With God, all things are Not Impossible.”
Reverend Chandler Stokes says, “Here is the creed behind all other creeds: ‘All things are not impossible with God.’ And if we should say it before the manger and before the empty tomb, then, indeed, we should say it before all the frozen, broken shards of [our lives].
Not impossible — that a family torn by divorce might find unexpected healing for everyone.
Not impossible — that those who suffer terrible loss, who sow in tears might reap with shouts of joy.
Not impossible — that in a life broken by the death of a loved one, we would healing and a new way of being in the world tomorrow.
Not impossible — that the wolf will dwell with the lamb, that there might be a great turning of the human heart away from war and injustice and bigotry toward the goal of peace everlasting and peace between all people.
The tunnel may be long but not impossible for all things are not impossible with God.”
This truth has echoed down through the generations, spoken to the people who faced the task of rebuilding their identity after the exile, repeated in the words of Gabriel to a frightened young woman named Mary, and proclaimed for Christians in the light pouring out of the empty tomb: What you had thought was impossible, is not Impossible. It may be time-consuming but it is not Impossible because God enters the darkest bleakest most nothingness of our reality and reminds us that we are still God’s people and all things are not impossible with God.
2. Newsweek, “My Turn”, week of November 20, 2005