Sunday’s sermon: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Things That Hold Us Back

Text used – Isaiah 61:1-11

  • I want to introduce you to two women this morning: Cecilia and Virginia.
    • Contemporaries who both lived and worked in the early 20th
    • Both amazing women in their respective fields
    • Both thoroughly disregarded despite their intelligence, ingenuity, determination, and jaw-dropping accomplishments … simply because they were women.
    • Cecilia Payne → astronomer and astrophysicist[1]
      • Born in England in 1900
      • Completed all coursework and requirements of an undergraduate program at the University of Cambridge but was denied a degree → Cambridge wouldn’t start conferring degrees on women for another quarter of a century[2]
      • Received a fellowship to study astronomy at Harvard in 1923 → work there changed the field of astronomy forever
        • Granted the first Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College (since Harvard itself also didn’t confer doctoral degrees on women at that time)
        • Ph.D. thesis: Stellar Atmospheres; A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars → a thesis that has been called “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”
          • Proved that the classification system already being used for stars did, in fact, correspond to the surface temperature of those stars
          • Determined that stars are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium
          • BUT was initially dissuaded of that conclusion by a male colleague
      • Remained at Harvard as a technical assistant to the director of the Harvard College Observatory
        • Convinced to shift the focus of her work to “photometry” (basically taking pictures of stars) → phase of her work which she later referred to as “sad” and “a waste of time”
        • Named a lecturer in astronomy at Harvard in 1938 … but not listed in the Harvard catalogue until after WWII
        • Finally appointed a full professor at Harvard in 1956 → became chair of the astronomy department
    • Virginia Hall → foreign agent and French resistance organizer during WWII[3]
      • Born in America in 1906[4]
      • Studied abroad in France for most of her formative years → called France her “second country” for the rest of her life
      • Applied for positions in America’s diplomatic corps numerous times but passed up time and again despite her obvious intelligence and capability (spoke 5 languages) because she was a woman
      • Suffered a firearm accident while hunting with friends in Turkey when she was 27 → resulted in amputation of her lower left leg → forever used a wooden prosthetic which she affectionately named “Cuthbert”
      • Eventually recruited by England’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1940 → trained and sent into occupied France (Lyon) → began to establish elaborate and highly successful networks of French resistance fighters
        • Carried out countless operations that chipped away at Nazi morale, disrupted supply lines, and diverted troops → e.g. – single-handedly was responsible for at least 8 German battalions being unable to reach the beaches of Normandy on D-Day
        • Coordinated numerous supply and personnel drops under the cover of darkness → secured safehouses, funds, covers, etc. for other foreign agents from Great Britain and eventually the U.S. as well
        • Broke many resistance fighters out of jail after being caught either by Nazis or by the French police collaborating with the occupying German army
        • Later trained as a radio operator (one of the most dangerous and vulnerable positions during WWII) and spent hour upon hour relaying critical messages to London via morse code
      • Evaded capture by the Germans while under cover for 3 whole years
        • Relentlessly pursued personally by Klaus Barbie, SS and Gestapo functionary known as the “Butcher of Lyon” → still never caught
        • Escaped from France into Spain for a time by trekking across the Pyrenees in the middle of winter (immensely difficult and dangerous climb in summer, let alone winter!), all the while concealing her prosthetic leg from her fellow escapees → spent short time resting up, then headed right back into enemy territory (even though the entire German army at that point had a detailed description of her and was on the lookout for her specifically)
      • Despite all of these amazing accomplishments → continually dismissed, ignored, disparaged, and even undermined by her male colleagues for being a woman
      • Returned to America after WWII → worked for the CIA until her retirement → never given the opportunities, responsibilities, or recognition that her male colleagues received, even to the point of being deliberately stymied in various positions or passed up for well-earned promotions
    • So why am I telling you about these two amazing women this morning? Because they were smart. They were ambitious. They were imaginative. They were beyond capable and infinitely qualified. But because they were women, their careers were held back in undeniable and unjust ways.
      • Last week’s sermon → God came down to dwell among us anyway even in the face of our own failings and mistakes
      • This week → recognizing that some of the struggles that we face in our life – some of the things that end up holding us back – come not from within us but from the outside … but even as we recognize and name that those struggles and hurdles exist, we also recognize and name that, indeed, God did come … has come … will come anyway, overcoming those hurdles with ease and helping us to rise above.
  • Scripture reading this morning = from Isaiah → This is significant because we have to remember that Isaiah was a prophet delivering God’s word to the people of Israel who were being held captive in Babylon or had been held captive in Babylon and had just returned to a Jerusalem unlike any they had expected.
    • 3 different parts of Isaiah = different authors of Isaiah and time period in which words of prophecy were delivered[5]
      • 1st Isaiah (chs. 1-39) = prophecies during captivity
      • 2nd and 3rd Isaiah (chs. 40-55 and chs. 56-66 respectively) = prophecies after the people had returned to what was left of Jerusalem
    • Babylonian Captivity = different from the enslavement that the people of Israel had suffered hundreds of years before at the hands of the Egyptians → In Babylon, the captive people of Israel were allowed to live similar to the way they would have in Jerusalem.
      • Participate in city life
      • Gather with one another
      • Build relationships with their Babylonian neighbors → some even married Babylonian men and women
      • Continue their intellectual and artistic pursuits
      • However, the land they lived on wasn’t their own. The homes they inhabited weren’t their own either. And the religion they were made to observe certainly wasn’t their own. They were free … but not really.
        • Ps 137 captures the anguish and desperate longing of the people of Israel during this time of captivity: Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres up in the trees there because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy: “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said. But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil? Jerusalem! If I forget you, let my strong hand wither! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don’t remember you, if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy. LORD, remember what the Edomites did on Jerusalem’s dark day: “Rip it down, rip it down! All the way to its foundations!” they yelled. Daughter Babylon, you destroyer, a blessing on the one who pays you back the very deed you did to us! A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock! → We can hear the utter pain of captivity and forced separation in this. We can hear the yearning. We can hear the despair. We can hear the hopelessness.
    • This portion of Isaiah = written after the people had actually been allowed by King Cyrus to return to Jerusalem → return hoping to find the beautiful city from the stories their grandparents told them only to find the Temple destroyed, the walls still very much in ruins, and the city nowhere near the haven they had hoped for
      • They are beaten down
      • They are disappointed
      • They are overwhelmed
      • They are devastated
    • It was to these people – these people feeling this disconnectedness and isolation, these people feeling this pain and this hunger of the heart and soul – that Isaiah spoke God’s words of reassurance and empowerment. → [READ today’s text] → In delivering his message, Isaiah doesn’t shy away from the difficult or the painful. He doesn’t try to tell the people that things aren’t as bad as they know they are. He doesn’t try to whitewash their troubles with empty platitudes. In no way does Isaiah diminish the struggles the people of Israel are enduring or the grief that they are feeling. But still, he gives them hope.
      • HOPE: [God] has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners … to comfort all who mourn[6]
      • HOPE: They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past.[7]
      • HOPE: I surely rejoice in the LORD; my heart is joyful because of my God, because he has clothed me with clothes of victory, wrapped me in a robe of righteousness … As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the LORD God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.[8]
  • Friends, we know that there are people and circumstances in the world around us that hold us back – things that are out of our control, things that often feel utterly and disconsolately insurmountable.
    • Broken relationships
    • Financial barriers
    • Limitations places on us by others because of their own prejudice
      • Prejudice based on race
      • Prejudice based on gender/gender identity
      • Prejudice based on economic status or education level
      • Prejudice based on where we were born
      • Prejudice based on our accent or the language we speak
      • Prejudice based on the way we worship and pray
    • All of these are things that sometimes hold us back – things that we desperately wish to overcome, but despite our best efforts, we cannot find our own way over. Like Cecilia and Virginia, we are discounted, ignored, passed over. Or maybe we’re the ones doing the dismissing and the passing over. Maybe we’re the ones discounting the work and contributions of others because of barriers they face – hurdles that they are mightily struggling to get over, hurdles placed there by others … or even by us.
      • Scholar: Even amid the greenery, candles, and mangers in our sanctuaries, it is often difficult to see God’s transformation “spring[ing] up before all the nations” (v. 11). The real definition of Advent is something Isaiah challenges us to ponder … We do not need to look too far to see the injustice of poverty, abuse, hunger, oppression, and war. Yet our Christmas distractions often speak louder than Isaiah’s call for God’s transformation. … Jesus speaks the words of Isaiah again as a reminder that God’s advent is transformation that will alter our personal lives and the world in which we live.[9]
    • Hear again God’s promise through Isaiah: Instead of shame, their portion will be double; instead of disgrace, they will rejoice over their share. They will possess a double portion in their land; everlasting joy will be theirs. I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and dishonesty. I will faithfully give them their wage, and make with them an enduring covenant. Their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the LORD.[10] → To bring us reassurance and hope in the face of the things that hold us back, God came anyway. To bring us strength and courage to rise above those things that hold us back, God came anyway. To remind us that sometimes those around us are being unjustly held back, and it’s our job to make sure they can rise up, God came anyway. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cecilia-Payne-Gaposchkin.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecilia_Payne-Gaposchkin.

[3] Sonia Purnell. A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. (New York, NY: Viking Publishing), 2019.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Hall.

[5] https://www.britannica.com/topic/biblical-literature/Isaiah.

[6] Is 61:1b-2.

[7] Is 61:4.

[8] Is 61:10,11.

[9] Donald Booz. “Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 53.

[10] Is 61:7-9.

One response to “Sunday’s sermon: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Things That Hold Us Back

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Broken Dreams | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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