Wednesday, December 11, 2019

"Daring To Hope." A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent

"Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks.

"Daring to Hope"

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

Here we are, in the second week of Advent.  For a lot of people, there’s so much to do, at home, at church and everywhere else.  There are gifts to be purchased and to be and baking to do...the house to clean... and decorating to do.  

            In the background, we have the news feed of our lives.  Mass shootings. Another child accidentally shooting himself with a gun he found in the house. Thousands of migrant children separated from their families and housed in cages. A migrant teenager dying from the flu. Impeachment hearings. Environmental degradation. Huge economic disparities between the uber-rich and those who struggle to provide food and basic shelter for themselves and their families. The list could go on….

            In the midst of all of this, Advent invites us to turn our thoughts to what it means that God came and lived as one of us in our world to show us God’s way?  Advent invites us to wait… to pay attention… to prepare the way of the Lord… and to live in hope. 

           In the Hebrew scripture lesson, we heard the prophet Isaiah singing a song of hope 700 years before the birth of Jesus, in a time when things seemed hopeless.  His message must have sounded as unrealistic then as it does now.
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…

            The prophet Isaiah 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.

           Enter the Spirit of the Lord; a new shoot is coming out of the dead stump of the monarchy.  That’s what the Spirit of the Lord does—it brings life where things have been dead.  The Spirit brings forth new green shoots of life.
          Isaiah sings of a new kind of king—a king upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests.  God’s Messiah will use his gifts to serve the people with equity and righteousness. What will the reign of the Messiah will be like?  The enmity that dominates the world is transformed into peace. 
         A great theologian of the last century, Reinhold Niebuhr, once wrote: “Do you want peace in this world?  Then work for justice.”  Until there is justice for everyone, there will be no peace.  For even a defeated enemy remains an enemy.  The only hope for peace is not the building up of more power to defeat and control—but power to make our enemies our friends. 
          Advent invites us-- dares us-- to wait in hope for the coming of a different kind of King, who will use his power to “rule the world with truth and grace” and transform creation into a world in which every creature can live without fear. 
          Can you imagine a world without fear?   No fear in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen…  no fear in Bethlehem or Jerusalem…  no fear in South Sudan.  No fear in homes from an abusive parent or spouse. No fear in our neighborhoods where innocent children have died to gun violence.

           “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”   This is the promise and hope of Advent.

            But hope is a fragile and fleeting thing. 

            Fast forward 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, he says.  “Prepare the way of the LORD.  Make his paths straight.”  

            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.  

            And yet, more than 2,000 years later, amid the moral, religious, and political crises our nation and world are facing, we are still waiting and longing.   

            Every Advent John the Baptist shows up, because God loves us enough to hold us accountable to be who and whose we.  We are living in a broken, hurting world.  The people of Palestine still live under occupation in a conflict that looks hopeless to a lot of us.  Children in Flint and their families continue to deal with the long-term effects of lead poisoning.  In our own communities and communities around our nation, a parent can work 40 hours a week and still not be able to afford nutritious food and other basic necessities for their children. In our nation, consumerism and individualism rule. Our political system is broken.  The gap between the very rich and the poor continues to widen.            

            And so, we still long for a time of righteousness and justice and peace. 

            For a long time, I’ve felt drawn to the images painted by Edward Hicks, a Quaker preacher and artist, who was so inspired by the vision in Isaiah 11 that he painted at least 66 “peaceable kingdom” paintings.  

            A “peaceable kingdom.” Can you imagine it?  A time when broken creation becomes the completely harmonious creation God intended.  Predators-- wolves, leopards, lions, and bears 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.”  

            Jesus has come to live among us, full of grace and truth, and called us to follow him, living God’s way of love.    
So… how are we to live?  How are we to live as a community of faith?  Do we give in to hopelessness and despair?  

            Do we dare to hope?  Can we trust in God’s promises?  Can we imagine a better world?  Can we believe in the possibility that injustice and oppression can be overcome, with God’s help?

            Jesus came and “proclaimed the reign of God: preaching 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 sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.”[1] 

            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.  

            What Jesus proclaimed as a transforming message of hope has been spiritualized and individualized and distorted.   Jesus didn’t come to be a personal savior for individuals, but to be the way, the truth and the life, to show us all a way to live into God’s dream for all of God’s people. He taught us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven. 

            When we repentwhen 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.    As our lives are being transformed, we can no longer be content to exist under the old ways of the world.   

            Our faith teaches us that God’s intention is for us to live in Beloved Community together, in righteousness and justice.  But we look around, and we see there is still a gap between the vision and reality.  

            We wait and hope for the time when God will fully bring in the Kingdom… the kin-dom.   In the meantime, 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 it’s hard to see how things can be different… or how the little things we do can make a difference.   But sometimes new life emerges from the most unlikely places, emerging as a tiny green tendril out of a stump that looked dead. 

            We live into hope in 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.   When we shop ethically and buying locally as much as possible and stop using single-use plastics, we make a difference in peoples’ lives and the environment.  Making choices to care for the environment and giving to aid global and domestic causes all make a difference, and they witness to our hope.  

            When we engage the powers and principalities by contacting our elected officials about issues that matter, we are daring to hope that we can make a difference. When we volunteer in our local schools, when we tutor a child or teach an adult how to read, we are living into hope.

            We live into hope because the Christ’s reign is among us now as we live into God’s dream for us, working for justice and peace for all of God’s beloved people.

            In this season of waiting, God comes to us and nudges us: “Look! Look -- there on that dead-looking stump.  Do you see that green shoot growing?”

            Can you see it?

Rev. Fran Hayes
December 8, 2019

[1] “A Brief Statement of Faith” of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).