Sermon Seeds December 10, 2017

Sermon Seeds December 10, 2017

Second Sunday of Advent Year B color_blue.jpgcolor_purple.jpg

Lectionary citations:
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Isaiah 40:1-11

Focus Theme:
God's Way of Love Lasts Forever

2017 Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews Kate_2017_a.jpeg

Imagine an ordination service for a prophet, except that church officials in robes are replaced by God on a throne, and the congregation by a host of angels and heavenly messengers. (The music in this service would be particularly good.) The prophet Isaiah is charged to deliver a message from God to the people of God, the people of Israel in captivity in Babylon.

The people of sixth-century B.C.E Israel had lost their temple, their great city Jerusalem and all that it symbolized, and their land as well, their leaders carried off into exile in Babylon. However, even before this disaster, their system (like any system) had never really known exactly what to do with a true prophet.

So we assume that the ordination service for Second Isaiah was experienced as a call from God to speak a word to the people, and it's that call, that service, that message, that are described by our text on this Second Sunday in Advent, more than twenty-five centuries later.

God's faithfulness is great in every age

For the first thirty-nine chapters of the book of the Prophet Isaiah, the prophet scholars call "First Isaiah" delivered a word of warning, threats of God's judgment, to the people of 8th century B.C.E. Jerusalem. Two hundred years later, as Second Isaiah answers his call to speak, much has happened: First Isaiah spoke of the threat of the mighty empire of Assyria, but in Second Isaiah's time, the Babylonian Empire has destroyed Jerusalem and carried the people off to captivity.

The disaster has, like all disasters, provoked theological reflection and much lamentation. In fact, Walter Brueggemann says that the Book of Lamentations "sits" between First and Second Isaiah, a book full of grief over the exile, with "only one moment of hope...:'The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, [God's] mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness…therefore I will hope in [God]'(3:21-24)" (The Word that Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship).

All about hope

Only one word of hope amid all that long grief, but then, Second Isaiah comes along (thanks to God's great compassion) to cry comfort to the people, release and forgiveness, the promise of restoration and a great homecoming. Second Isaiah is all about hope, a hope rooted not in the people's strength or wits or goodness, but in the faithfulness of God. It's a surprising, unexpected word of hope, and a challenging one as well.

Many of the Jewish people must have wondered where God had gone. They felt cut off, far away, from God. We know that people in every age have felt that distance caused by sin and guilt, and struggled to reach across it, but God will not forget God's people or the covenant God has with them.

"The Hebrew word for 'beauty' in verse 6 is hesed, which has the connotation of 'covenant faithfulness and love,'" Elizabeth Achtemeier writes. While God is persistent, faithful, and dependable, our response is inconsistent, fleeting, and undependable, no matter what we promise or intend; despite "our moments of dedication," Achtemeier writes, "our faithfulness is like the flower of the field, beautiful at the moment but rapidly failing when trouble and distraction come upon us" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

God's "anyway" love

Nevertheless, the prophet reassures us of God's "anyway" love for us: we sin, but we can always count on God's faithfulness, on the Word of God that "will stand forever" (v. 80). The God we meet in the Old Testament has commonly been described as a God of fear and threat, while the God of the New Testament, it has been said, is all about love and tenderness. Second Isaiah paints a fuller portrait of God. Yes, "the God who comes" (like ancient deities, including the gods of their captors, Babylon) is mighty and glorious and powerful. But the God of Israel is also a gentle shepherd who feeds the flock, gathers up lambs and holds them close.

The people, then, are urged to make way for this good news in their lives, a transformation of their situation. The powers that be, in this case the fearsome empire of Babylon, have been overturned. The mighty have fallen, and the "little" ones--so close to God's heart--can dance with joy.

Speaking to the heart and the head

All of this is good news and the stuff of joy, but it's also unbelievable while you're still sunk in despair under the heel of the oppressor. At his "ordination," Second Isaiah is told to "speak tenderly to Jerusalem" (v. 2): "The Hebrew actually reads 'speak to the heart,'" Dianne Bergant writes. "Since the heart was considered the organ of thought, the phrase means 'convince Jerusalem' rather than 'be tender toward her'" (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B).

So in this season of Advent reflection in the church (a season that once was a penitential season of preparation), while the world has already started its celebration in decorations, parties, music, and shopping, our heads have some work to do before our hearts are carried away by holiday joy. When you preach this Advent, how will you be addressing both hearts and minds to "convince" your congregation that there is reason to hope? Will this image help as you convince the people that God's call, God's way of love, is for us today, not just for people thousands of years ago? What speaks to your heart and mind in a convincing way?

Preparing the way

Bill Goettler's Advent reflection in the Christian Century (11-29-11) hears the question posed by a man who often begs at his door as expressing the dream of things made right at last: "Is this the way it's supposed to be?" Goettler admits his discomfort and the reluctance with which he gives the man money and other help, even as he's challenged by the Advent Scripture texts about all things made right: "Daring to hope for such a new creation requires the sort of self-reflection on this creation and on my life that I'm not anxious to endure."

It's so much easier to talk about the promise of a babe in a manger--or even to go ahead and sing Christmas carols during Advent; Goettler notes that we "want the good news of Christmas without the challenge....the birth narrative without the prophet....redemption without judgment." As you look around during this Advent season, where do you see "the way" being prepared for God to come into our lives? Are rough and uneven roads being made wide and smooth? Can we even hear the voice of the prophet in the midst of holiday sounds?

Opening our lives to transforming grace

Just as the people of Israel long ago were told to clear a path for God, to make a way where there appeared to be no way, the text tells us to make a way for God to come into our lives, to remove the obstacles and impediments, to tear down rather than build up walls, to clear out old animosities and grievances, to cut back the weeds of doubt and greed, not just to make a nice little bed for the newborn babe but to open up our lives to transforming grace.

In Advent, we attune our hearts and minds to the many ways that God enters our own lives and the life of the world, the holiness in the everyday reality of our lives and the momentous lives of nations in every age. The scholars writing on this text focus little on our private holiness and personal sins, and much more on the way we've collectively organized our lives, and the deep longing of the people for hope in the midst of the larger events in history (which we can't control).

However, we can't underestimate the collective effect of individuals seeking to welcome God's grace into their own lives and to encounter God each and every day, in most unexpected but wonder-filled ways. As Anne Lamott has said about this season, "in Advent, we show up when we are needed, with grit and kindness; we try to help, we prepare for an end to the despair. And we do this together."

Have we lost hope?

A new Jerusalem, a homecoming to the great city--restored--is the dream and the promise of this text. Brueggemann writes evocatively of this hope when he imagines that "the canon has gathered together all the candidates for the Martin Luther King award. They have learned to say, in distinct, harmonious tone: I have a dream, I have a dream, I have a dream…the long nightmare of loss is over." (Can you imagine what that "choir" would sound like?)

Thousands of years later, we have experienced heart-breaking loss and discouragement, too, including war, poverty, violence (too often caused by the distortion and abuse of religion itself), irreparable harm to God's beautiful creation, economic injustice, and hatred; as Brueggemann writes, "the city as we know it is defeated and failed." We have lost hope, he says, that we can fix all these problems and right all these wrongs, and perhaps that's true, "given the categories of imagination now operative" (The Word that Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship).

If Brueggemann is right, and I think he is, I wonder if Advent should be re-described: instead of the season of preparation or waiting or penitence, it could be called the season of imagination. I've been reading Sarah Vowell's book, The Wordy Shipmates, which seemed like a good read in this season, though she doesn't focus on the Pilgrims but on the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony. I'm struck by how often the image of "a city on a hill" sustained that little group of people of faith during hardship and controversy. What is the image that inspires our imagination in the midst of the challenges we face today?

Despair surrounded by splendor

The great preacher Gardner C. Taylor reads this Isaiah text through the lens of a people captive in slavery in the midst of splendor--the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the ancient wonders of the world, surrounded by colossal architecture that surely impressed upon them their own insignificance, at least in the eyes of the Babylonians and their gods: "The humble, ill-clad slaves looking at this dazzling sight must have felt a terrible despair and an aching longing for home….What could some slaves mean midst all these achievements when they had only some exotic ways of worship and an invisible God upon whom to call midst the galling yoke and heavy oppression of their captivity?"

To Gardner, verses 7-8 declare the impermanence of such glory compared to the glory and steadfast faithfulness of the God of Israel: "Isaiah took one look at all of this heathen splendor and pagan power and saw the fatal void at the heart of it all....'Never mind,' he must have mused, 'how green and lush the grass may seem. Never mind how bright and picturesque the blossoming flowers may appear'" (The Words of Gardner Taylor, Volume 1). Nothing lasts like the Word of God, he imagines the prophet saying: "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand for ever" (v. 7).

Sustained by poetry

Brueggemann describes God's response to the suffering of the people as poetry that will sustain them. The surprise in his reflection is the possibility that there were those who were perhaps beginning to get comfortable there in Babylon, settling into the safety and security of "a political-military superpower....an advanced, sophisticated, winsome culture with its own theological rationale and its own moral justifications" (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World).

The empire was a system, like all systems (like all "empires"!), that worked for some (usually a few) and not for others, but you had a better chance if you knew where to place your allegiance and energy. It must have been tempting to throw in your lot with the seductive culture around you, to find ways not only to survive but to thrive, even if it meant forgetting who and whose you were.

Messages that change everything

Then a prophet comes along, Brueggemann says, changing everything with the message that "redescribes the world" as "under new management," the gracious God who would provide a home, a restored home for a restored people, freed from the burden of empire and captivity. Such poetry is so powerful that it "cannot be unsaid, for [t]he word has been uttered and the juices of alternative possibility have begun to flow" (The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word).

Perhaps this is a comforting word, but it also disturbs and may even make us a bit anxious, presumably explaining the title of Brueggeman's book; how do you describe the feeling of being "decentered"? What do even captives have to lose, if things change too much, too quickly, too "imaginatively"? (Is that what we call "radical" change, or even revolution?)

What is at the center of our lives, giving us security that may at times feel like captivity? What are the larger forces and systems that we can't control--or even choose--that we have to find our place within? For example, capitalism, with its strengths and weaknesses, and/or our dependence on a military that consumes a huge share of our resources?

Looking back and looking forward

The testimony of Israel, Brueggemann writes, remembers God's great wonders in the past, God's miracles that remind us that we're not the ones who save ourselves, even as it looks forward to an empire-free future without "violence, brutality, competitiveness, and scarcity." But today matters, too, because we live our own lives in the present, and we are presented with the possibility--the call--of caring for those around us, our "neighbors," even if "the empire" in which we live finds them "objectionable and unproductive" (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World). What is your message this year, in a time when so many of the most vulnerable among us are being labeled "illegal," "other" and "undeserving"?    

It does matter how we organize our shared life today, in the face of the obvious empires of materialism and militarism that surround us, but also the more subtle and insidious empires that may appear at first as "good" things: for example, our drivenness toward achievement and winning--"What I've amassed is all mine; I've earned it myself" or "I don't have time for Sabbath; I have too much work to do"--no matter what toll it takes, including the loss of those neighbors we should cherish above achievement or wealth or power. Brueggemann uses a term that caught my attention, "a passion for private shalom" (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World). Perhaps a sermon could wrestle with such a term as "private shalom."

Preparing for Jesus

This text is not only about return, about repentance, but also about evangelism, that is, sharing the good news of God's love and faithfulness. Knowing what we know about the Jesus for whom we wait, we can agree with Brueggemann that "it is no wonder that part of this poem is quoted in all four Gospels, a text that voices the radical newness that is to be initiated in the story of Jesus" (Texts for Preaching Year B).

To what oppressors are the people in your church captive? Indeed, do you think of yourselves as captives, or as oppressors? As you look around at our culture, what forces press in on us and on others, personally and communally? What "categories of imagination" are "operative" in your setting? Perhaps the people of your church feel far from home, exiled: if so, how do they need to be comforted and encouraged?

How does the image of a gentle shepherd speak to a world that tells us to succeed and to own and to acquire, to step on others and outlast them in order to reach our goals, to rely on military might for the nation's security and a gun in our home for our personal safety? How do faithful Christians reconcile the image of the shepherd with such a culture?

Speaking to the heart in a weaponized culture

Perhaps we are becoming numb to the news. Every few days, a mass shooting large enough to "deserve" our attention--and non-stop media coverage, at least for a little while--evokes cries of frustration, anger, grief, followed by mind-numbing inaction on the part of those who might change things...and then we go back to our lives, and hope the next tragedy doesn't touch us. North Korea fires off another frightening missile, our government "responds" but clearly not in a way that prevents the next missile being fired...and then days pass and we go back to our lives, and hope that things will settle down but in any case that nothing will "reach" us.

People are gunned down in the streets of our cities--police officers and young men of color as well as those victims of mass shooters--terrible, heart-breaking tragedies for everyone concerned, and they appall and outrage us...and then we go back to our lives, and hope and pray that our loved ones will never be in that line of fire. How do preachers step into the pulpit to address the wrenching sorrow of such loss and the violence that drenches the culture, the world in which it all unfolds? How do we speak of the rent in the fabric of our neighborhoods, our cities and towns, every community and the nation itself, and the world that grows smaller each day, the world in which we are all neighbors, all sisters and brothers, longing for peace?

Can we imagine peace?

When I read and listen to the news, along with the argumentative social media threads in which many of us struggle to make sense of it all, offering our reactions and suggestions along with our anger and grief, placing blame and holding accountable various individuals rather than all of us for the un-neighborly things that are happening every day, everywhere, my mind and heart grow so weary that I am almost numb, almost immobilized.

And I find myself longing even more deeply for that word of comfort, for that larger shalom that we imagine and lean toward during this Advent season, the promise of peace and healing and reconciliation and no more war, no more violence, no more threats, no more fear, no more heartache. Can we even imagine such a time? Is it just too tempting to hope for, and work for, a "private shalom" that seems more "achievable," more "reasonable," even if its blessings never touch the rest of our neighbors?

Peace in the midst of war

I love the video (a commercial, ironically) on the Internet, telling the story of World War I soldiers who came out of their trenches on Christmas in a truce to share Christmas greetings, to play soccer and exchange small gifts, to engage one another as real persons, as their neighbors, their brothers, not as enemies. It is almost unbearable to watch, as they shake hands and recognize the bitter reality of having to return to their trenches and resume the effort to kill one another for some unknown and unworthy reason. (And again, the long threads of biting commentary exchanged in comments sections below the video are disheartening).

It seems as if, for one moment, peace broke through all the violence and enmity and destruction. I don't know how any parent--or any preacher--can shake that image from our hearts and minds as we speak so freely of "peace on earth" this December, while our culture continues to send our children off to such violence.

Seeking signs of God's promise

We step into the pulpit in the midst of our own "Babylons," our own overwhelming brokenness, and seek to find the signs of God's promise that lifts our spirits and our eyes to the hidden reality of shalom, breaking forth in spite of our best, or rather worst, efforts to keep it buried deep, below our fragile and under-exercised faculties of hope and imagination. Can we see those signs, that shalom, even so, in this present hour, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite the massive structures of despair and domination around us that try to tell us that we, or at least some of us, are not precious in the eyes of God?

In this season of Advent, what are you preparing for? What sort of road "broad and smooth" needs to be cleared in your heart in preparation for the coming of the One who shepherds us? Is it easier to believe in God when you're in captivity than it is to believe that the captivity is really over? What are the signs that things are about to change? Are you courageous enough to hope for such a thing to happen, that we might ourselves see A Just World for All?

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired last year after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Joan Baez, 20th century
"Peace might sell, but who's buying?"

E.F. Schumacher, 20th century
"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."

Richard Rohr, 21st century, in Falling Upward
"We need to unlearn a lot, it seems, to get back to that foundational life which is 'hidden in God' (Colossians 3:3). Yes, transformation is often more about unlearning than learning, which is why the religious traditions call it 'conversion' or 'repentance.'"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
"Wonderfully secured by a mighty power, we await with confidence whatever may come. God is with us - in the evening, in the morning, and entirely certain on each new day."

Edward Hays, A Pilgrim's Almanac
"Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace."

Finley Peter Dunne, 20th century
"Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 20th century
"Sorrow is one of the vibrations that proves the fact of living."

German proverb
"Joy and sorrow are next-door neighbors."


Lectionary texts

Isaiah 40: 1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
   says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and cry to her
that she has served her term,
   that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
   double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

A voice says, "Cry out!"
   And I said, "What shall I cry?"
All people are grass,
   their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
   when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
   surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
   but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
   O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
   O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
   lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
   "Here is your God!"
See, the Lord God comes with might,
   and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
   and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
   he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
   and gently lead the mother sheep.

Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13

O God, you were favorable
  to your land;
you restored the fortunes
  of Jacob.

You forgave the iniquity
  of your people;
you pardoned all their sin.
        
Let me hear what God the Sovereign
  will speak,
for God will speak peace
  to the people.

God will speak
  to the faithful,
to those who turn to God
  in their hearts.

Surely God's salvation
  is at hand
for those who fear God,
that God's glory may dwell
  in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness
  will meet;
righteousness and peace
  will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up
  from the ground,
and righteousness will look down
  from the sky.

God will give
  what is good,
and our land will yield
  its increase.

Righteousness will go
  before God,
and will make a path
  for God's steps.

2 Peter 3:8-15a

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of person ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   'Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight,'"
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
    
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!

Additional note on Advent and Christmas:

The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ's return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. White is also used for Easter and Sundays following. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.)