Longing! Longing is a word that seems a bit old fashioned. It’s a word we don’t hear very often or a concept we don’t even think about.. I might want a day off or need more sleep or be craving some Haagen Das ice cream. Those desires don’t carry the weight that comes with a sense of longing – longing is something much deeper and more illusive than a hankering for a bowl of ice cream. Writer Huston Smith says that, “longing is built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for relief.” Those of us who have lived a bit longer than some of you will tell you, if we were to stop and think about it, that the nature of longing changes over the years. We long to be out of the house and on our own when we are 18. Then we long for a job that allows us to have a good lifestyle. The longing for children is certainly one that many of us have experienced. Those who have been unable to fulfill that longing are able to express just how deep and powerful it is. But as we get older and our basic longings are fulfilled, we are faced with the realization that we will always have within us a certain sense of longing.
Longing has about it a flavor of homesickness, or nostalgia or wistfulness. Of course advertisers would like us to believe that it is otherwise. Advertising, I read, is the fine art of making you think you have longed for something all your life that you never heard of before. But real, honest to goodness longing isn’t satisfied with the quick fix of a new car, or new job. Longing is a strong persistent yearning or desire – especially one that cannot be fulfilled. We think we know what it is we need and want in order to fill up the hole inside us or ease the restlessness we feel, and we go after it only to find, after we have what we longed for, the longing returns.
Huston Smith has more to say about longing. “There is within us,” he writes, “– in even the blithest, most lighthearted among us – a fundamental dis-ease…This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and deep in the regions of our soul. All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology and religion try to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with…entertainments, obsessions, and distractions of every sort. But …Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.”
Have you felt this longing? Perhaps that’s why some of you come here week after week. You’ve tried fending it off through success in the job, a great score on the golf course, fabulous vacations or even through your children. Regardless of what you learn or earn or accomplish, every once in a while that feeling comes sneaking through – that things aren’t quite the way they should be. As Saul Bellow says, “There is an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are and what this life is for.”
So we come here in the hope of finding that more comprehensive account of what we human beings are for and what this life is for in the story of God we read about in the Bible and the Bible is full of stories of longing. The Israelites longed to be free from Egyptian bondage and Moses led them out of Egypt. Then they longed for a King to be like other nations and God gave them David. Held in captivity in Babylon, they longed to be set free and return to Jerusalem. Undergirding all the stories of longing in the Bible is what Erskine Clark, editor of the Journal for Preachers, describes as a “sense that history is moving toward a new day, ” toward what the Bible calls the Kingdom of God. As Christians we have inherited from the Israelites a sense of longing for the day when the world will succumb to God’s care and love, and all will be well.
The Bible, according to Clarke, promises that “God will come to meet us at the end of time.” But I don’t imagine that most of us here have spent much time thinking about the concept of the end times. We have relegated this core Christian understanding of longing for Jesus’ return to a fringe group of religious radicals who have distorted it and robbed it of its power to move us and transform us. These Christian Zionists have a pessimistic view of history and wait in eager anticipation for the unfolding of a series of wars and tragedies pointing to the return of Jesus, writes Don Wagner. Their violence and pessimism don’t seem to fit with the God we want to believe in, and so we ignore those passages that talk about the day of our Lord when Jesus will return. Clarke says that it is this loss of confidence in God’s sway over the future that is at the heart of the spiritual crisis in the Western world. He sites terrorism, war, the threat of nuclear holocaust and the climate threat to our earth as the reasons that the “future seems cut off from us and human history appears devoid of purpose or direction.” In the face of all that, how could we possibly have the courage to long for anything?
Bur maybe there is some way we can begin to reclaim for ourselves the positive message of a future ruled by a good and gracious God. Perhaps we can begin to hope that the way the world is now is not the way it will always be. Perhaps if we dig deep enough we will find in ourselves a true longing for a different kind of future than we had imagined that will give us purpose and a sense of meaning.
I used to be somewhat addicted to the Learning Channel, and I especially loved the show Mission Organization. Let me describe it for those of you have never watched it. The show always starts by introducing you to a home owner whose house has gotten completely out of control. You get to see two rooms in a home that are messy almost beyond the imagination. They are so bad I’ve often wondered if the producers didn’t come into these homes and make a mess just to have rooms in which to do a dramatic makeover. Everything is taken out of these two rooms and the owners have to decide what to keep, what to sell and what to throw away. While they go through this exercise, the designer, carpenter and workers on the show completely redo the rooms and create an organized space into which they put everything the owners are keeping. The climax of the show occurs at the end of the show when everyone gets to see the final product. Everything is in its place. The owners of the house always look so stunned. They had gotten so used to the way their house was they were unable to see a way out of the mess. They had no imagination or energy to clean it up so that each room could function the way it was supposed to. But with a design idea and some professionals and lots of hard work, order is brought out of chaos.
The words of Isaiah offer to us wonderful images and the assurance that there will be a time when order will be brought out of chaos. Let me read again to you how he describes it: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; ….no more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;….the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox;…They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says they Lord.”
What a promise – peace, harmony healing, caring. But it isn’t only a promise for the future. The Bible tells us that the kingdom of God is not only a vision of life in some distant future regardless of how we live now. We can participate in the Kingdom of God here and now. Countless people who have worked to this end would tell us that this is a purpose that satisfies the deepest longings of the heart.
The Thessalonians of the New Testament and the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible longed for a new world, one in which they could experience God’s promise of a kingdom on earth as it was in heaven. Both were beleaguered communities that longed for divine intervention. The Israelites wanted the freedom to return home to Jerusalem. The Thessalonians wanted Jesus to return to usher in a new heaven and a new earth. Both communities were waiting for God to break in and miraculously rescue them. Paul wrote his second letter to those in the community at Thessalonica to encourage them. His first letter to them was written when everyone expected Jesus to return at any moment. He wrote to them saying, “But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day,” meaning the day Jesus will return, “to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day.” That assumption was gone by the writing of the second letter. Instead the 2nd letter emphasizes that, rather than sitting and waiting for the day to come, the Thessalonians are to work for God in the present. Apparently there were those who were not being responsible or contributing to the life of the Christian community because they were still so caught up in the vision of Jesus’ return. Like the members of the Heaven’s Gate community who committed suicide so that their souls could take a ride on a spaceship that they believed was hiding behind the comet carrying Jesus, these members of the church at Thessalonica hoped to escape the responsibilities of community life. Paul writes to them that he has heard that some of them were living in idleness, “mere busybodies, not doing any work,” and tells them, “Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters do not be weary in doing what is right.”
God depends on us, not only to care for our own, but to care for one another and do what is right to bring about the kingdom of God because, “God is not a chess master, moving humans around like to many rooks and pawns on a board.” [Nor is God] “a kind of professional advance man who runs around pulling together meetings and events, causing people to meet or not.” [Neither is God] “a CEO, the big guy in the front office who calls the shots,” writes Charles Reynard. “don’t think of God,” he continues, “as a producer, director, orchestrator, or even as a stage manager. For Reynard God is present. God is there in the unfolding plot.” But we are the ones who are putting on the play.
Brian McLaren, in his book The Secret Message of Jesus, records a story told to him by his friend Tony Campolo that serves as a contemporary parable for this kingdom. Compolo “was in another time zone and couldn’t sleep, so he wandered down to a doughnut shop where, it turned out, local hookers also came at the end of a night of turning tricks. There, he overheard a conversation between two of them. One, named Agnes, said, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be thirty-nine.” Her friend snapped back, “So what d’ya want from me” A birthday party” Huh? You want me to get a cake and sing happy birthday to you?” The first woman replied, “Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
When they left, Tony got an idea. He asked the shop owner if Agnes came in every night, and when he replied in the affirmative, Tony invited him into a surprise party conspiracy. …Together they arranged for a cake, candles, and typical party decorations for Agnes who was, to Tony, a complete stranger. The next night when Agnes came in, they shouted, “Surprise!” – and Agnes couldn’t believe her eyes. The doughnut shop patrons sang and he began to cry so hard she could barely blow out the candles. When the time came to cut the cake, she asked if they’d mind if she didn’t cut it, if she could bring it home – just to keep it for a while and savor the moment. So she left, carrying her cake like a treasure.”
Could it really be that working for the kingdom of God would in some deep way answer to the deepest longing of our hearts? Jesus tells us, yes! Frederick Buechner answers the question this way. “The Kingdom of God? Time after time Jesus tries to drum into our heads what he means by it. He heaps parable upon parable like a madman. He tries shouting it. He tries whispering…What he seems to be saying is that the Kingdom of God is the time, or a time beyond time, when it will no longer be humans in their lunacy who are in charge of the world but God in his mercy who will be in charge of the world. It’s the time above all else for wild rejoicing – like getting out of jail, like being cured of cancer, like finally , at long last, coming home. And it is at hand, Jesus says.” Now that’s something worth working for. That’s something worth longing for. Amen. .