Tell It Again (Retell)

by James Blay; Isaiah 40.1-11

Tell it again! Tell it Again! This repetitive phrase is what we would utter once someone told a story they thought was funny, but the story fell flat. Lately I have found myself silently reciting that phrase to many different things. I have recited it to stories about history, to stories about faith, to stories about working systems. Stories have always been an integral part of human society. For a long period, the telling of stories was how we passed down information from generation to generation. 

We have heard stories about our origin as human beings, about how the world came to be. We have heard stories of our heritage as a particular people and our place in the world. Stories have been told of how our nations came to be and the sacrifices our ancestors made to make it possible. We have been told stories about our faith and about how God relates to us, what God expects of us, and how guides us. These stories for the most part have long been accepted as is without question, because those who have, or are in power tell them to us. 

The problem with a lot of these narratives is that they tend to leave out the voices and experiences of so many, especially those who have little or no access to power. As Dan Brown notes in The Da Vinci Code, “by its very nature, history is always a one-sided account.” Think about it; we just celebrated Thanksgiving, and for a long time the narrative around the history of Thanksgiving downplayed the exploitation and oppression of the Wampanoag people at the hands of early European settlers.  The more we freely accept these one-sided narratives the less likely we are to live in a truly inclusive society.

The need for reframing and retelling of stories that define us as a people and a nation cannot be overstated. This year has been a disaster on so many levels, but has also given us opportunities to pause, to reflect, and to reexamine how we are in the world. On this second Sunday of Advent we continue to remix our faith journey though retelling, you know, telling it again. 

In the narratives that are told, the voices and experiences of too many have been left out because they do not fit a particular account. History in a lot of ways has been airbrushed or whitewashed to paint a rosy picture of what was.  We need to retell these stories. We need to retell not just the stories of our society and country, but also the stories of our faith. We need to be attentive to those who have been left out, attentive to those who we continue to push out with the storylines we tell.  

Our stories must include those on the margins who are so willfully neglected. The season of Advent is about hope, about waiting with hope for something better. Now more than ever, that message of hope needs to be expansive and inclusive. Now more than ever its time to proclaim comfort and hope and peace to all people like the prophet in Second Isaiah. 

The message of Isaiah 40 comes to a people already struggling and destitute. They are living the destruction forewarned in earlier chapters by the prophet Isaiah. They are in exile in Babylon, their homes and places of worship have been destroyed. These are people who are far from their ancestral home. They have been in exile so long, some of them have settled and even prospered, some had turn their back on their faith and identity, but many still yearned and hoped for a return home to Judah and Jerusalem. But even those who hoped deeply and passionately for this return had their doubts not just about the possibility of a return, but anxiety about what they were returning to.

These disheartened Israelites who have suffered the hardship of living in exile in the midst of discrimination, needed a reminder that the God who calls for their hope and trust could in fact deliver. Hope for the people was indistinguishably bound to their recognition of the coming of God’s presence in the midst of their seemingly hopeless situation. Having lived what seemed like perpetuity in the hardship of the exiled life, recognizing or even hoping for the presence of a God who forgives and delivers is not an easy thing. 

One can even argue that these people were living their own version of 2020. They were living with uncertainty and apprehension about a future they could not wrap their minds around. Still fresh in their minds are the words of the prophet Isaiah proclaiming their doom and the devastation of their homeland. Is it even possible that there is light at the end of the tunnel for them? Is it possible that they could once again be home, returned to a familiar life and existence as a people? It is to these people living this hopeless circumstance that the prophet speaks words of hope and redemption in chapter 40 of Isaiah. 

The words of the prophet in chapter 40, marks a crossover from the message of tragedy and destruction previously prophesized in the earlier chapters in Isaiah for the people of Israel. Beginning with Chapter 40, the prophet in what is referred to as Second-Isaiah brings a message of hope and comfort from the God of Israel to the people of Israel. Ingrained in this message of hope is a retelling and reminding the people of God’s sovereign love and grace. The prophet declares from the Lord that Israel’s debt is paid and that she has served her term and it is time to return home with heads held high. 

Now we could argue with the prophet’s assertion that Israel’s exile has been a direct result of Yahweh’s punishment – and believe me I for one do make that argument – but whatever the reason, God is declaring now that it’s time to go home and not like the journey from Egypt with all its peril, time to turn the corner, time to return to life as they once knew, time to retell the story of Yahweh’s great love, time to retell the story with a new flavor that emphasizes Yahweh’s compassion, grace, and forgiveness, time for hope to come alive again for all people because the mouth of the Lord has spoken. 

Comfort, O comfort my people is what God says. God declares that our iniquity is pardoned. Now it is time to proclaim from the high mountains and be heralds of good tidings, to lift up our voice with strength and not fear and say to all people, God has not abandoned us. God is here. This story of hope and redemption for all is a story we must retell faithfully this season of Advent.       

This year has given us more than enough reasons to lament. So many people have lost their livelihood and in others cases, their lives. The division in the country has been highlighted at so many levels. Families have been torn apart, teachers and students are forced to teach and learn in stressful new environments, healthcare workers are in constant danger daily, zoom fatigue is now a thing, oh yeah and the pandemic rages on. Where will hope come from this Advent Season? This yearning for hope is the mystery and the expectation.

As we wait in these chaotic and uncertain times, let us examine the stories we are told, and consider the voices of those left out. As we wait this Season of Advent, let us strive to retell stories of welcome, stories of inclusion, stories of a God who waits with us, who loves us, a God who accepts us as we are, a God who is not interested in pushing us away, a God who says we are enough. As we wait, let us retell stories of our history acknowledging systems of oppression and the oppressed, especially people of color who continue to suffer at the hands of these systems. Let us retell stories about immigrants and all the ways the have sacrificed to make this country work. Let us retell stories about people in prisons, especially those who are there because the system failed them. As we wait, let us retell stories about the LGBTQ+ plus community and repent for all the ways we have caused and continue to cause them pain and distress. As we wait this Advent let us retell stories of the possibility of a better society, stories of a more inclusive church, stories of an unimaginably loving God. We find hope in the retelling of these stories.

As with all change, attempting to retell stories that threatened the power structure faces staunch opposition. When Moses tried to retell the story of a freed people, Pharaoh resisted. When Joseph tried to retell his story of leadership to his brothers, he got sold into slavery. When Jesus retold the story of the Kingdom of Heaven thereby threatening the religious and state power, he was crucified. This list goes on and on. I can tell you about so many others who tried to retell stories for the better of all, I can tell you about Ghandi, about Martin Luther King Jr., about Billie Holliday, about Rosa Parks, about Susan B. Anthony, about Nelson Mandela, about the Black Lives Matter Movement, I could tell you about activists across the spectrum, but I think you get it.

Trying to retell stories in any meaningful way to bring change and spread the message of hope is a hard and dangerous undertaking. But is this not what we are called to do? Is this not what following Christ entails? Is this not the cross we are called to bear? If we are to live faithfully in the world, than like the prophet in Second-Isaiah we too must be heralds of good tidings.

So here is my challenge to you today. When you hear stories that amplify division and push us to hate each other, say, tell it again!

When you hear stories that ignore justice and glorify unjust laws and systems, say, tell it again!

When you hear stories that speak only of God’s judgment and not of God’s unconditional love, say, tell it again!

When you hear stories that dehumanize people because of their gender, ethnicity, economic status, or sexuality, say, tell it again!

When you hear stories spreading falsehoods claiming them as truth, say, tell it again!

By retelling we inspire hope, we allow ourselves to imagine the possibility of a better world where we all belong. By retelling we inspire the fight for justice, and equality. By retelling we paint beautiful pictures of not just what can be, but what should be. I hope today you will draw strength, hope and inspiration from the possibility of retelling narratives this Advent. Our people are yearning for hope, and we have a task to retell stories that remind them that even in the mystery and expectations of Advent, hope is alive and we must tell it again, and again, and again. 

The comfort and peace the prophet proclaimed as the word from the Lord was not for the religious or political elite, it was for the people, especially the forgotten on the margins of society. It was a message for the voiceless, those who had been oppressed by abusive systems and empires. Our message, the stories we retell must also speak to these marginalized people, in fact we must do all we can to allow them retell their stories based on their experiences and truths. We must seek to amplify their voices and let them participate in the reimagining and retelling of stories that give them hope and meaning. 

As we continue on our journey through Advent, let us together retell stories that uplift rather than bring down, stories that heal rather than hurt, stories that redeem rather than shackle, stories that welcome rather than shut out. For it is in the retelling of these stories that we reveal the glory of God for all people to see it together.