Yearning is not a word often used these days. It’s probably a word like trivial… Anyone under 20 would have no idea what it means. I looked up a few dictionaries and a common definition would be an intense longing or eagerness for something. Often they tell us that longing isn’t easily met. Yearning isn’t a word we use often and yet I think it’s a deeply religious word. I think God is usually found in our yearning. True yearning comes from deep within, from our soul. If you are in touch with your yearning you’ll be in touch with why God breathed life into you. I need to offer a word of caution. Wanting or wishing are not yearnings. I might want a nice new car, or I might wish for a new knee for Christmas that doesn’t give me pain, but yearnings are something much deeper. We all have a host of things we might like or want in our lives but that’s just the outer shell of the onion.
Yearning comes from deeper inside. I often ask a question when I offer spiritual direction to people and that question is what do you deeply desire of God right now. That’s not a question that people answer easily and you can usually feel the a palpable deepening of mood as someone starts going deeper within themselves. Yearning is deep stuff, and after some stillness an answer might come back, “to know I’m valued”, or “help and encouragement to live out my inner calling” and if we go deeper it might change “help and encouragement for everyone to have opportunity to live out their inner calling.” I wonder what you may deeply yearn for? It’s a question we don’t ask often enough.
If we look at the story of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament you’ll discover a deep yearning that revolves around justice and security. The people yearn for a peaceful existence where there is harmony and life for all. I think there is also an even deeper yearning that doesn’t surface as often but that is about truly being a light for the nations, and modelling the true life of God. Unlike us they were a deeply communal people who were far less individualistically focused. The yearning is for their own land where they can settle and raise their families. Abraham typifies this yearning as he journeys from modern day Iraq to end up in the region we now know as Israel. But he and his family are just one of the inhabitants of the land and things don’t work out well. Abraham and Sarah’s descendants end up as slaves in Egypt. They cry out to God with a deep yearning for freedom and God hears them and leads them out of Egypt to fulfil their deep yearning to settle in their land, the Promised Land where the ideal was they would live as God’s chosen people showing the world what godly life was all about.
They finally cross the Jordan and Joshua the mighty leader sets out to subdue the occupants of the land they yearn for. There is success and roots are put down, but things go terribly wrong when they move from a tribal culture to a nationalistic culture ruled by a king. With few exceptions the kings of Judah and Israel do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. Key in that evil mix is a feathering of their own nest and a failure to act justly in their rule to ensure all the citizens have a fair slice of the cake and opportunity to participate in the working of society. There is no true peace and the proud societies of Israel and Judah are crushed by foreign powers and the story of Exile plays out. The people yearn for a homecoming and a new relationship with God and each other.
We hear of this yearning in the proclamations of the prophets of the Old Testament. There is a yearning for a different sort of king and a different kind of kingdom. There is a yearning for new leader, a promised one, who would “do justice”, “love kindness”, and “walk humbly with God”. Sometimes they expressed this great yearning in a hope for a new David, a son of David, a new shoot from the stump of David. David they remembered fondly as being a just and godly king who ruled Israel before the monarchy became opulent and exploitative. We sang about this hope in the song we just sang that is based on the words of Isaiah – come let us go up to mountain of the Lord (to Jerusalem) that we may learn of God’s ways and paths. God will rule again and people will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks and nations will study war no more. It’s an image that has fed humanity for thousands of years. Death to the arms trade, peace and harmony for all the earth.
Micah (Micah 4:1-4) has similar words but he adds “and they will sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no-one shall make them afraid”. It’s a wonderful image of every family having their own land and therefore a secure and bountiful now and a secure and bountiful future. Everyone has opportunity … not just some.
This is the world the prophets yearned for. This is the world the prophets stirred up a longing for.
The Hebrews returned from Exile to rebuild their shattered society but by the time of Jesus the Hebrews had lived under one empire after another for 500 years. There were times when things weren’t too bad for some, but overall it had been grim. In Jesus’ time over 90% of the population lived in abject poverty, scratching out an existence with no surety that their family wouldn’t go hungry. We know at the time of Jesus’ birth there were major uprisings and the Romans sent in crack troops to Galilee to take care of the Jewish rebels. Sepphoris the local big town for the people of Nazareth and possible birthplace of Mary was ransacked about the time Jesus was a youngster. Women were raped, men were slaughtered, homes burned – when the Romans sent in the troops it wasn’t pretty. I wonder how many in Jesus’ close family were killed or abused. Heavy taxes were a fact of life, imposed to fund the troops and to fund the fine palaces of the emperor and his representatives. There was a deep and yearning for something better and a deep yearning for a new leader, a Messiah to establish a new homeland where peace and harmony might flourish under the reign of God.
It’s against that background we hear the song of Mary in our gospel…(Luke 1:46-55)
God has shown strength with his arm
He has scattered the proud with the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things
And sent the rich away empty.
There is a new wind blowing. A deep yearning of the people is heard. There is a coming together of God and people in a new way and when that happens there will be change.
Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, speaks of Jesus as a mighty savior raised up from the house of David so that we might be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. By the tender mercy of God there will be a new dawn which will give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death to guide us into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68-79)
John the Baptist spoke as a voice in the wilderness of the need to see with new eyes and to repent. (Luke 3: 1-14) The person who has two shirts must share with those who have none, honesty and respect had to be at the core of our living, greed and wanting more for self had to give way to seeing a bigger picture and balancing our needs with the needs of others. Those with responsibility must use that responsibility for the common good. The yearning was for a new society, a more equitable society, a compassionate society and John like the prophets of old was stoking the fires of yearning.
The yearning of God and the yearning of the people were in harmony and when that happens there is a radical power released….
And we know what happened. A saviour was born, a new light was ignited, a radical new movement took root that changed the world forever – all based on a simple catch cry love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself.
So as we prepare for Christmas, a question; what is it you yearn for? What do you deeply desire? What is the ache at the very core of your being? Beware though, if you really start digging, if you go deep it will bring your life into focus, and it will bring you close to God. It could be scary and it certainly will be risky and challenging. It will also be fulfilling. What is your deep yearning?
I invite you to consider your yearning this week as we continue our journey of giving birth to Jesus in our beings this Christmas. One final word….our yearning is often not clearly defined. It’s not usually reduced to a simple statement, but the best we manage is often to say’ “it has something to do with…..” “Something to do with”, is a good place to start.
May God bless your yearning.
Dugald Wilson 9 Dec 2018