In just a few weeks, the Armenian Church will celebrate the feast of the prophet Isaiah, on July 15th. Often unnoticed during the slower days of summer, we would do well to heed the words of this special prophet to the Armenian Church tradition. In fact, we do heed Isaiah’s words more than any other prophet. Our lectionary assigns readings from the book of Isaiah more than any other book of the Old Testament. Pay attention to these readings and you will see why Isaiah has had special resonance with Armenians over the centuries. This prophet was a prophet in exile from his homeland, trying to make sense of the tragedies which befell his people, and look with hope to God for restoration. One biblical translation of the heading for the fifty-second chapter of Isaiah sums up the situation of God’s people in exile, then and now; ‘God Is Leading You Out of Here.’ In these verses, Isaiah exhorts God’s people to wake up, throw off their chains and remember who they are. ‘God Is Leading You Out of Here.’ What a great theme for us all as we journey into the first weeks of a newly emerging post-pandemic reality. Until last year, I suspect many of us wouldn’t think we needed God’s help to lead us out of here. But in this past year of pandemic, isolation and disruption-along with the devastation of war and unrest in Armenia-many of us are grasping for God’s help to lead us out of here and into a more hopeful place.
Well our scriptures and our Armenian Church tradition bring us timely wisdom and grace to endure and triumph over years such as these. They remind us that anything new-new beginnings, new hopes and new blessings- usually happen when old things fall apart. A lot of us have been strained and many things fell apart this past year, because the pandemic aggravated whatever was already weakened. This past year I saw several relationships broken in divorce or estrangement, but perhaps all of us have often felt stuck and strained in old patterns of relating. This past year, some people lost jobs and their businesses fell apart, but lots of us have felt strained at work, trying to be effective with one hand tied behind our backs. This past year, I made hospital visits and did several funerals of those who succumbed to Covid, but probably all of us have felt overwhelmed and stuck in the lingering anxiety, isolation and disorientation left in its wake.
Well wherever you may be strained or stuck, like God’s people in today’s reading, our scriptures and centuries old Armenian Christian witness give us real hope. Our hope is not based on our triumphs or our trials, for these change from year to year. Our hope is not in our own abilities or understanding, because these are passing and partial. Our hope is that, regardless of outward appearances, God is always leading you and I into a better place. The problem is that so often we fail to see it. The problem is that often our expectations and hope of some place better, are based in something other than God.
Maybe this is why God allows trials, why he allows for our lives to take us in a different direction, and seemingly worse direction, than we’d hoped for. Perhaps we need this training so that in time we grow to see our ups and our downs with the eyes of God. This is not the work of one sermon, this is the work of a lifetime. But one illustration that I have found helpful in learning to reorient my hope, is from a book called Welcome to Holland. It is a book about one mother’s struggle and blessing in raising a special needs child. The author gives us this metaphor. When you are going to have a baby, it is like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy guidebooks and plan out your visit, you even learn a couple Italian phrases; all very exciting! Finally, the day of your trip arrives, you board the plane and after 8 hours the stewardess announces, ‘Welcome to Holland.’ Holland you say, what do you mean Holland, all my life I dreamed of going to Italy! They say that there has been a change in plans; we landed in Holland and here you must stay. The author goes on to say that the important thing to note is you haven’t been taken to a horrible place, just a different place. You will have to get new guidebooks and learn a new language. Sure it’s slower paced than Italy and less flashy, but when you catch your breath and lean on your faith, you begin to see that Holland has windmills and tulips. It even has Rembrandt! So while you can live your life regretting that you never got to Italy-if you do-you’ll never be free to enjoy the very special blessings of Holland.
Welcome to Holland is about the surprising trials and grace involved in raising a special needs child, but it may as well be a life phrase for all of us whose hopes and dreams have not turned out like we expected-but nevertheless-can be re-imagined with God’s grace. So, ‘welcome to Holland!’ all of you whose plans for the past year were derailed and taken in a different direction. ‘Welcome to Holland!’ all of you who lost a dream, a friend, or a parent, and lost some sense of well-being this past year. ‘Welcome to Holland!’ all of us who walk this earth, because our hopes fade and we lose our way. But at the same time, if we listen carefully, we might hear the words of the prophet in exile; ‘God is leading you out of here.’ God is leading you and I into some place better, but more so leading us to become someone better; whose hope is in Christ alone, now and always; amen.