Text: Isaiah 42:1-9
It was back in 2003, and we were headed out on pre-deployment workups. We were getting underway to go to Groton, CT to do work in the navigation and tactical trainers, one of the many certifications we needed to get in order to deploy later that fall. I had duty that night before, and early that morning one of the enlisted sailors in my division, one of my second class petty officers, asked me if he could go home to grab a couple things he needed before we got underway later that day. He had duty too that night before, we weren’t getting underway until closer to noon that day, and he lived in government housing 5 minutes away. I thought, “why not?” and granted his request.
About 45 minutes later, after I was relieved from duty and headed off the submarine to grab a few things myself…..and I saw my second class petty officer coming back to the boat, nothing in hand. As I got closer, his face was blank and pale….I asked him, “You get what you needed?” And he replied, with little expression, “Nope…..it was kind of hard to think about that after I caught my wife in bed with some strange guy.” And he walked right past me back onto the boat.
The hard part was that we needed to take him underway with us, because he was a vital part of our navigation and battle stations team. That was hard for me and many of the guys onboard, because we felt it wasn’t the right decision. He should be at home getting help, fixing his marriage.
But I think the hardest part in taking him underway is that was knew he was in shock, we knew he was suffering…..and we had to see that constantly. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 500 feet below the surface, in a metal tube a 100-yards long and about 36 feet around, we couldn’t avoid it…..we couldn’t avoid him. His suffering….his numbness, his silence, the blank stares…..his despair, was right there in front of us.
Our passage from Isaiah 42 is a classical Advent passage…..a promise of a suffering servant. And most Christians interpret this person to be Jesus Christ, who does indeed suffer for the world on the cross to establish justice, peace, salvation…all that stuff. But I guess what’s caught my attention was the images in verse three. A bruised reed, a dimly burning wick. When I hear that I think about people like my second class petty officer….people who are experiencing life in such a way that it breaks them, it snuffs out any notion of goodness or hope in their lives. I think about people who are in the midst of despair.
Here’s the thing about despair: it’s more than simply feeling depressed, sad, hurt, or disappointed. It goes beyond that. For Israel, despair is the reality of exile in Babylon – the city of Jerusalem and the temple destroyed along with their homes, and being shuttled hundreds of miles away to a foreign land with no hope of return. Likewise, despair is finding your wife in bed with another man when you go home to get a toothbrush. Despair is losing a job you really needed to make ends meet. Despair is looking in the mirror and seeing a worn out, worthless piece of crap staring back at you. Despair is sitting in a hospital, seeing and hearing your loved one wail and wince in pain, being told there’s nothing to ease it – you just have to wait it out.
And I guess when I think about people experiencing despair in that way….what exactly is good news? What exactly is gospel?
This past week during our Wednesday text study, the topic of people of despair came up, and we asked each other this question: Despair….are you drawn to it, or do you try to distance yourself from it? When you come across people in their moments of despair, when it’s right there in your face, do you feel strangely drawn to them, or does it make you uncomfortable and want to distance yourself from them?
Back to that underway and my second class petty officer….throughout that underway, I grabbed a tactical manual or my laptop, sat with him and worked on tasks while he worked on things. Sometimes I’d just head down to the spaces when I knew he was working on a piece of equipment or on watch. We didn’t say a whole lot, I didn’t really ask him how he was doing, and when we did talk it was usually about duty or our upcoming certifications. But from time to time…..he’d start talking, “I just don’t understand sir, why did she do it, and was it so bad she couldn’t even wait 2 more hours until there was no doubt I was out to sea?” I’d sit there in silence, because honestly, I had no glimpse of an answer to make sense of that…..and then he’d finish with, “Thanks sir, it’s nice to know I’m not alone.”
I’m not alone.
So often, we make gospel out to be an answer, an idea: justification by grace through faith. Unconditional salvation for all. Libration and freedom for the oppressed. But for us, gospel is a person – it is Jesus Christ. It is Christ, the suffering servant who comes to the bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks….those who are in the midst of despair that brings a darkness and hell that seems never-ending……and is Emmanuel, God with us. Christ, a person, the suffering servant who does not cry or lift up his voice with unhelpful advice or meaningless cliches…..but just simply stands with us. Christ is the one who draws near to those in despair because on the cross, he bore suffering and despair himself.
Are you drawn to those in despair or do you remain distant? People’s despair is certainly uncomfortable, but I wonder if perhaps on some levels, we’re not drawn to it….drawn to stand alongside them because we know what despair is, what it feels like, how it breaks us…..and what we so desperately want is for some one to come stand alongside us.
This 3rd Sunday we light the candle of Joy – Christ is our joy this Advent season. We rejoice for Christ the suffering servant – the One who is our joy in the midst of despair. Christ, who calls us to to be suffering servants in the world – as church, as disciples…..so that all might know gospel, Emmanuel, God with us.
We are not alone. Amen.