In May of 1984, Benjamin Weir was taken hostage on the streets of the city of Beirut, Lebanon, by a group of Shiite Muslim extremists. Weir, a Presbyterian minister, was a teacher at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, where he had lived for 31 years. Weir describes his experience of being taken hostage in these words:
There was only darkness. The blindfold over my eyes completely blocked out the light. I was lying on my back on a low bed. The unforgettable sound of adhesive tape being unwound from its roll filled the room. Strong hands wrapped this wide packaging tape around my head, over my forehead, eyes, and mouth, and around my neck. Only a small space over my nostrils was left open.
Next, my arms and hands were held close to my sides, and the tape was wound slowly around my whole body, starting with the legs and moving up past my shoulders. I was being totally encased. Someone forced me into a sitting position, and another layer of tape was wound around my neck, under my chin, and over the top of my head. I was a hostage bound.
Arms lifted me from the bed and carried me out. My body was pushed into a long narrow container. I heard a lid being closed and bolted over me. I could feel solid metal through my shoeless feet. I raised my head a few inches and struck a solid metal top. I moved my hips from side to side as best I could and found metal on either side. I lay there like a corpse in a coffin.
I heard an engine start, gears grind, and a metal door open. Only when it lurched forward did I suddenly realize I was on a truck. To add to my terror, I could now smell heavy exhaust fumes coming up through the floor of the truck body. I must be right over the tailpipe. Already I was breathing heavily through my nose.
God, I prayed, don't let the air passages clog!
Riding in my mummy case, my mind came back to the present crisis. The smells from the exhaust had blown away. Lord, keep me from being overcome with panic. I have fresh air, and I am still breathing.
Recounting to myself each step in my entombment made me relax and feel a bit better about the situation. I had been calm under stress, and my captors had not been especially cruel. I tried to concentrate on what lay ahead. [HOSTAGE BOUND, HOSTAGE FREE, 9, 24].
Today is the beginning of Advent. We begin to try to concentrate on what lies ahead. We come to this season under very different circumstances from those described by Ben Weir, who was held prisoner for 18 months. Weir's captors apparently intended to use him and other hostages to bargain for the release of 17 fellow extremists held captive in Kuwait. He was a man caught up in a very particular set of circumstances due to a very particular conflict that arose in his particular place and time. Yet it seems to me that Weir's story may help us to understand where we are, how we come to our point in time, and what our story is all about.
We begin the season of Advent, typically, with a recollection of certain Old Testament texts about promise and expectation and preparation, especially as we find them in Isaiah. They remind us that what we anticipate in this season is the coming of the Christ, the Messiah. Sometimes, however, we overlook the historical circumstances of those texts. The writings of Isaiah, and most of the other major and minor prophets of the Old Testament, arise out of experiences of international conflict, as well as internal political and religious strife. In some cases Israel is seen as the pawn of the superpowers--Egypt, Assyria, Babylon. In some cases Israel is regarded as the unfaithful servant or the rebellious child, on account of whose failings and in whose misfortunes the prophet discerns the judgment of God. In this morning's text, as in others that best signify the expectations of this season, the primary historical context is one of defeat, destruction, captivity, and exile.
When Judah was overrun and Jerusalem and its temple destroyed in the 6th century B.C.E., the rulers and the leading citizens and artisans of the nation were taken hostage to Babylon, never to return to their homes and their land. The prophet whom we know as Second Isaiah writes at the time when this Babylonian captivity is finally coming to an end: "Thus says the LORD: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people . . , saying to the prisoners, 'Come out,' to those who are in darkness, 'Show yourselves.' " The words are a call to celebration. They offer a message of hope. Those who have been held captive are being set free! They shall return home. They shall rebuild. Those who return shall be as "ornaments" of jewelry to be worn by the city of Jerusalem restored.
It is surely no accident that the first Christians saw a connection between God's promise to the captives in Babylon and the hope they found in God's new Messiah. They, too, were a captive people--not in exile in a strange land, but occupied and oppressed in their own land. They were the subjects of a foreign, occupying power. They were also a people fragmented by internal political and religious division. These first Christians found in Jesus a renewal of their hope, an assurance of divine forgiveness and acceptance, a promise of deliverance from political and spiritual oppression. Like their ancestors, who were taken captive to Babylon several centuries before, the people of first-century Palestine were also a captive people. They were also, in their own way and place and time, hostages to history.
Is it too great a stretch of the imagination to suggest that we are all hostages to history? I mean by this, first of all, that we are all people of our own place and time. Who we are, what happens to us, what we do and do not do, what is possible for us and what is not possible for us, are all subject to the conditions of our history. Thus we are all subject to circumstances beyond our control. We are all caught up in the events of our times, including the conflicts that afflict our world. Sometimes we experience ourselves as pawns of forces that we can hardly identify or name or command. Other times we sense that by our own deeds and misdeeds we have brought whatever afflicts us upon ourselves. At all times we hope and pray for deliverance from the bonds that hold us captive, from the darkness that reaches out to engulf our spirits, from the powers that threaten to overwhelm and destroy us.
To be human is never to be free from the tide and time of circumstance. We cannot step outside the painful, tragic, protracted struggles of human life and history. The word that we hear and look forward to in this season is that God comes to us within history, to sustain us in our times of darkness and defeat, to deliver us from our oppressions, to save us from our sins, to bring us renewed possibilities for our life together. Our faith is not in a God who is removed from history or daily life. We do not worship One who dwells alone outside the realm of our circumstance and place and time. It is to us, as particular human beings, with particular interests and needs and desires, in all the concreteness of our existence in the world, that God promises to come. The people of God in exile wondered about this. "The LORD has forsaken me, my LORD has forgotten me," they lamented. But not so, God's prophet rejoins: "Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for a child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you." The Divine love surpasses even that of a mother for her child!
All of us are in some sense hostages to history, subject to the conditions of time and place and circumstance. We may never have known the bondage of a Ben Weir, we may never have known the exile of God's people in Babylon, we may never have known the religious and political oppressions of first-century Palestine, but each of us has surely had some occasion to hope and pray for deliverance from some bondage in which we have found ourselves. "Lord, keep me from being overcome with panic," prayed Weir, as he was being taken into captivity. How might we pray in the face of those circumstances that bear down upon us and threaten our freedom, our happiness, our very existence? "Lord, keep me from being overcome with fear, guilt, hatred, jealousy, greed, lust, doubt, suspicion, grief, anger, resentment, bitterness, cynicism, despair?"
The Christian answer to all such prayers is a word of hope. Our hope is not that we will be delivered out of the troubles of this world, but that God will come to us, and abide with us, and provide the means whereby we may see our way through and beyond the perils of these days. And this is so, not merely for our sake, but for the sake of the world. We are to hope not only for ourselves. We are to hope not only that our own lot in life will be made better. We are to hope for the whole of humanity, for all of God's children, for all peoples everywhere.
The birth that we look forward to celebrating, and the message that we proclaim at Christmas, are not intended just for us. The New Testament writers are very clear about this. Paul writes to the Romans, "For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised . . . in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy." A few lines later, he cites a verse from Isaiah 11 that declares, "in him the Gentiles shall hope." The story that Luke tells is one of "good news of great joy for all the people" [2:10]. To put all this in simplest terms, our hope is for the salvation of the whole world. The whole of human history, to which we are all subject and from which we cannot escape, stands in need of transformation. Whatever we may hope and pray for ourselves in this season of God's coming, we must hope and pray for our world.
Forty-five years ago this December, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor arrested for his resistance to Hitler, wrote from his prison cell:
For many people in this building [Christmas] will probably be a more sincere and genuine occasion than in places where nothing but the name is kept. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God from what they mean in the judgment of man, that God will approach where [people] turn away, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn--these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people; for him they really are glad tidings, and that faith gives him a part in the communion of saints . . . [LETTERS AND PAPERS FROM PRISON, 57].
Bonhoeffer did not survive the war. He was executed just days before the Allied liberation reached his final place of imprisonment. But he remained a "prisoner of hope" [cf. Zechariah 9:12].
It is a fact of our human condition that we are hostages to history. It is a fact of our Christian faith that we are also hostages to hope. We cannot give up on the world. Because we cannot give up on God, for God has not given up on us. And God will not let us give up on the world! We are bound by love to regard the world with the eye of discernment and the heart of compassion. We are bound by faith to seek God's goodness at work in the midst of all the world's tragedy and trouble. We are bound by hope to pray for ourselves and for the world, rejoicing in every evidence of its redemption and renewal, every sign of its liberation and transformation. AMEN.
BENEDICTION: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.