Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Daring to Hope". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church for the Second Sunday of Advent.

“Daring to Hope”
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

            Last weekend I saw “Catching Fire” at the movies.  It’s the film adaptation of the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy.[1]  The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen and her struggle to survive in the post-apocalyptic and totalitarian country of Panem, which is a fictionalized North America of the future.  According to the story,  war and environmental disaster destroyed the United States, and out of the remnants grew the new country of Panem. 
            This country consists of a wealthy Capitol city—the center of totalitarian power--with twelve destitute districts surrounding it.   The Capitol asserts complete control over the districts, forcing the people there to abide by strict rules and work in industries that supply the needs of the Capitol.
            The annual Hunger Games are a nationally-televised spectacle in which 2 teenagers from each district are randomly chosen to be tributes and forced to fight to the death in a huge arena.  The games are an instrument of oppression, designed to remind the people in the districts how powerless they are.  They reminded me of the way the Roman Empire used the cross as an instrument of torture and to make a spectacle of the punishment of those who resisted their occupation. 
            The Hunger Games trilogy is part of the dystopian fiction genre that has grown in popularity over the past 100 years, but especially in the past several decades.   Younger people, in particular, have been resonating with the themes of systemic evil—including imperialism, totalitarianism, devastation of the environment, growing inequality between the rich and poor, and the search for meaning and hope.
            The themes we find in our scripture texts in Advent are struggling with some of these same themes. 

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie with down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. . . .
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain…
That’s what the prophet Isaiah said 700 years before the birth of Jesus. He was probably writing in the period of the Syro-Ephramite war, when the dynasty of David seemed like a mere dead  stump compared to its enemies.  The nation had been defeated and humiliated by another national power,  Their government was weak and ineffective, and the people were dejected and demoralized.    In the midst of all that, how do you live in hope?   Isaiah’s words must have seemed terribly unrealistic—as unrealistic as Isaiah’s words seem to a lot of people today.
            As Woody Allen put it:  “The lion will lay down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.   Another time, Allen said, "On the day the lion and the lamb lie down together, only the lion is going to get back up."
            Or as someone else said, to have the wolf lie down with the lamb, we would need an inexhaustible supply of lambs.
            And yet—we are still longing for a time of righteousness and justice and peace.  The vision of harmony in these verses from Isaiah are often referred to as “the peaceable kingdom.”  For a long time, I’ve been drawn to the images painted by Edward Hicks, a Quaker preacher-artist, who was so inspired by the vision in Isaiah 11 that he painted at least 66 “peaceable kingdom” paintings.

            Can you imagine it?  A time when God’s reign is finally consummated, when the Messiah—the anointed one—brings it in, when broken creation becomes the completely harmonious creation God intended?  Wolf, leopard, lion, and bear will live in harmony with the domestic animals like lambs, calves, goats, and cows.  Lions will eat straw like oxen, and a little child will play over the holes of poisonous snakes.  The earth will be filled with the “knowledge of the LORD.”  What a vision!
            It’s hard to wait.  It’s hard to hope. 
            Now fast forward from Isaiah seven hundred years or so.  Two hundred years had gone by since the people of Israel had had a prophet in their midst.   They’re living under occupation, with the Roman army enforcing the oppression of the Empire.
            Suddenly, John shows up in the wilderness, looking and sounding a lot like Elijah, who was expected to return to prepare the way for God’s coming Messiah.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” John says.  “Prepare the way of the LORD.  Make his paths straight.” The people were desperately in need of hope, so crowds were going out to him, confessing their sins.
            John’s call to repentance and preparing the way is a call to turn around and look for and hope in God’s future, which is breaking in on them.  It’s a call to commit to see our world as God’s world and our future as God’s future, because that’s what repentance is about. 
            Today, more than 2,000 years later, we are still waiting and longing.   Look at the headlines.  The City of Detroit is going through a bankruptcy, and people who worked their whole career in Detroit are worried about their pensions.  A lot of us haven’t recovered from the hardships of the recent financial and real estate crisis.  The gap between the very rich and the poor keeps widening, and the people in the middle keep losing ground. 
            Jesus has come to live among us, full of grace and truth, and called us to follow him, living God’s way of love.  We are called to live differently, but we still live in a broken world where injustice and oppression are the norm. 
            In some parts of the world, children are kidnapped and forced into sex slavery and girls risk having acid thrown in their face every time they dare to show up at schoo or challenge the patriarchy in the culture. 
            The people of Palestine live under occupation in a conflict that looks hopeless to a lot of people.  Syrians who were forced from their homes are living in terrible conditions in refugee camps in neighboring countries or are internally displaced. 
            In our own communities, a parent can work 40 hours a week and still not be able to afford nutritious food or other basic necessities for her children.
            In our own nation, consumerism and individualism rule, and for many people, having the latest toys (for children or grownups), instant gratification, fashionable clothes… our chocolate and coffee at the cheapest possible prices are more important to some of us than the lives of the people who labor to supply them.   Our political process is stuck-- an ineffective system, in which protecting  political ideologies and hoarding and accumulating personal wealth are higher priorities than feeding the hungry.  The list could go on and on.
            So… how are we to live?  Do we give in to hopelessness and despair? 
            How are we to live as a community of faith?  Do we dare to live in hope, and practice trusting in God to provide what we need to carry out the mission to which we are called?  Or do we surrender to fear… and circle the wagons and just try to survive for a while?  These are all matters of faith.
            The struggle to end oppression and build a better world is complicated…hard… messy… and scary. 
            How do we live in the time between the vision and the final fulfillment?
            Do we dare to believe in the vision?  Can we imagine a better world?  Can we believe in the possibility that injustice and oppression can be overcome, with God’s help? Do we dare to trust in God’s promises? 
            John the Baptizer came proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near, calling people to repent, and to prepare the way of the LORD.  He pointed toward God’s anointed One and said that he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
            Jesus came and “proclaimed the reign of God: preaching the good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinner, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.”[2] 
            To those living under the oppressive regime of the Roman Empire, Jesus taught and embodied a different way of being in the world that allowed even the marginalized and the poor to reclaim their identity as children of God.  To people whose identities had been shaped by centuries of living under exile and oppression of conquering empires, Jesus demonstrated that the empire doesn’t have the power to define who you are. 
            Jesus proclaimed a message of hope that has been spiritualized and distorted by some.  The gospel isn’t about a pie-in-the-sky,  escapist hope, but a way of  living into God’s dream for us and participating in God’s will being done on earth as in heaven—in the day-to-day reality of life. 
            When we repent—when we turn away from the ways of the world and the empire and turn toward God’s way of righteousness and justice and peace, we find our lives changing.  We can no longer be content to exist under the old ways of the world.  
            I believe that God means for all God’s people to live in peace with one another and with the whole creation.  God’s dream is for us to live in the way of righteousness and justice and peace.  But there is still a gap between the vision and reality. 
            And so we wait.  We wait for the time when God will fully bring in the Kingdom.  But we live into the Kingdom of heaven—the kingdom of justice and peace, as we work for a better world that more fully embodies God’s dreams.
            Sometimes we  look around and all we see are dead-looking stumps,  and we have a hard time believing in new life.  It’s hard to see how things can be different… or how the little things we do can make a difference.  We
            The past few days we’ve been remembering Nelson Mandela’s life.  As I reflected on today’s scripture texts, I thought:  back in the 1970’s, as Mandela was serving his 27-year-prison sentence and apartheid was the law of the land in South Africa, how hard it was to see the hope in the situation?  And yet by 1990 Mandela was released from prison and working toward reconciliation and a democratic government in South Africa. 
            As Jim Wallis wrote, “Nelson Mandela combined justice and reconciliation like no other political leader of his time, shaped by the spiritual formation of 27 years in prison. Mandela’s life has blessed the world with courage and hope.”[3]
            When I was in the Holy Land in 2009, we met with some Ecumenical Accompaniment workers from the World Council of Churches program, one of whom was South African.  I learned from him that South Africans have a significant commitment to the Ecumenical Accompaniment program, because they believe it’s important for them to walk with Palestinians as they work for a just peace, because, in the midst of a situation that looks hopeless,  they embody hope.
            Sometimes new life emerges from the most unlikely places, emerging as a tiny green tendril out of a stump that looked dead.
            Do we believe this?  Can we live into this hope?
            We live into hope in a variety of big and small ways when we change the life of a family by providing them with a goat or a flock of chickens with a gift to the Heifer Project.  We help schools and clinics in Palestine when we buy crafts from PalCraft Aid or fair trade Palestinian olive oil, and we let the people there know that we have not forgotten them.  It helps them to hope.
            When we buy fair trade chocolate, children in Africa and Latin America get to go to school because their families earn a fair wage.  Our purchase of fair trade coffee changes the lives of families.
            Shopping ethically and buying locally as much as possible makes a different to peoples’ lives and the environment.  When we make choices to care for the environment and support global and domestic humanitarian causes,  we make a difference.  These are some of the ways we dare to hope and live hopefully.
            We wait, living in hope, not only because God became incarnate in the Christ child, not just because Christ promises to come again.  We live into hope because the Christ’s reign is among us now as we live by God’s Spirit.  As we live into God’s dream for us, working for justice and peace for all of God’s beloved children, we are daring to hope.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse...
            What if we believe this fragile sign is God’s new beginning in this time and place?   Will we tend the seedling in our hearts and nurture it?  
            In this season of waiting, God comes to us and nudges us: “Look!   There on that old dead stump. Do you see that green shoot growing?”
            Do you see it?

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church / Dearborn, Michigan
December 8, 2013

[1] Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy.
[2] “Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church” (USA), 1990.
[3] Jim Wallis, “The Most Important Political Leader in the 20th Century: Jim Wallis on the Life of Nelson Mandela.”

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