Sunday, December 1, 2019
First Sunday in Advent Year A
Choose to Wait
Unexpected God, your advent alarms us. Wake us from drowsy worship, from the sleep that neglects love, and the sedative of misdirected frenzy. Awaken us now to your coming, and bend our angers into your peace. Amen.
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths."
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
All readings for this Sunday:
1. What is your role, your church's role, the wider church's role, in bringing in the great day described by the prophet Isaiah?
2. In what ways have we constructed our lives to protect what we have, as individuals, communities, and nations?
3. What would the dream of peace look like in today's world?
4. In what ways do we need to imagine that our interactions with others might change?
5. How might we hear the voice of God through the voices of others, especially those who are "not like" us?
by Kate Matthews
The great biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has compared this week's beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah to the "I have a dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but, alas, most days our lived reality is still a long, long way from either prophet's vision of healing, justice, and peace.
This year, we close our eyes and listen to the words of this dream with heavy hearts, thinking of the conflicts and war that flare and threaten to flare all over the world, from Syria to Central America...and in our cities and neighborhoods, as well, our homes and workplaces, our relationships with one another (the political and the personal, too), whether in our families or within the walls of our congregations.
What does "no peace" feel like?
We've come to understand the absence of peace in other ways, too: in the threat of terrorism that makes even "peaceful" days feel ominous and "secure" places unsafe, in the growing anger of the dispossessed that threatens to explode, in the damage to the earth that we will leave as a tragic legacy to our grandchildren, and to theirs as well.
Melting glaciers, superstorms, masses of plastic in the ocean, earthquakes (in eastern Ohio!), "sunny day floods," one wildfire after another in California, animal species facing extinction: we have to wonder if nature itself is at war with us--not that we could blame it if it were.
Burned and battered but still listening
Perhaps we can begin to imagine, then, how the people of Israel must have felt over the centuries in the face of threat, destruction, and exile by one empire after another. More than 500 years before the time of Jesus, they listened to Isaiah's dream, this vision of God's intentions, and then they looked around them at their once-beautiful city, Jerusalem, burned and battered by powers that must have appeared unstoppable.
Still, they chose to cling to their trust in the promises of One more powerful than any empire or any destructive force; this week's passage is Isaiah's recitation of God's promise of a "world" very different from what was visible just then.
Words of critique, words of hope
Scholars note that there are two beginnings to this book of Isaiah: chapter one looks back in harsh judgment on the people, but our reading begins again, with a vision filled with hope. "This is a dream about a new age, pregnant with possibility and rich with promise," R. Michael Sanders writes. While we may hold dear other Advent images like the lion and the lamb, here the central image is a great mountain that invites the people to a whole new way of life, a life of peace.
Who wouldn't want to ascend such a mountain, no matter the cost, no matter how arduous the journey, if peace is at the end? On this mountain, Sanders writes, "the peoples of the world can learn Yahweh's ways, the instruction, the word of the Lord. Yahweh will judge and settle the disputes of the nations."
We note the expansiveness of this vision, which includes "the peoples of the world": weapons will be transformed so that, instead of fighting one another, all of God's children will, according to Sanders, "once again work in the fields, bringing in the bountiful harvest that God will provide for them." That is the dream of peace.
A grace-filled image for all
Isaiah's prophetic words are so graceful, so haunting, so expressive of our deepest yearnings that we even use them in our public life as a vision for all of God's children: James Limburg tells us that these words are engraved on a wall near the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City, where they inspire the work of many nations, many different peoples who yearn to live together in justice and peace.
What a beautiful and grace-filled image to hold in our hearts during these cold and difficult days!
Waiting and hoping in a new season
We hear these lovely words from Isaiah not only in a time mired in conflict and contention, anxiety and war, but in a new season at the beginning of a new church year: Advent, the time of waiting, and so much more. Again, Brueggemann: "Advent is an abrupt disruption in our 'ordinary time'…an utterly new year, new time, new life."
While the culture around us wraps up another year hoping for increased consumer spending during the holidays and waiting for final reports on the past year's profits, the church has already stepped forward into a new time, to begin a season of hoping and waiting for something of much greater significance than profits or spending, for a dream more wonderful than anything the news is reporting.
Raising our hopes
Indeed, "Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations," Brueggemann writes, "to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give." Or as David A. Davis, writes, "Advent is a season boldly to lean into God's future unafraid."
At the beginning of this new church year, we remember who is really in charge of everything, and set our hearts on being part of this One's plan. But as lovely as these verses are, they also paint a very clear picture: while God is the One who brings this dream to reality, there's work for us to do, too, in re-shaping the instruments of war, violence, and destruction into instruments of peace and provision for all.
Have your expectations of such wonders become "domesticated," as Brueggemann says? Are we simply enduring the conditions around us, feeling too "numb" to hope for them to change?
Comfort, promise and a call
So, there are words of comfort and of promise about what God is going to do in the midst of so much suffering, so much longing, but between the lines, there's also a call for us to participate in bringing that beautiful dream of God to reality.
We suspect that Dr. King expected us not just to sit around appreciating the elegance of his words and waiting for that great day of peace and justice to arrive, but to work, actively work, as we wait for its fulfillment. Isaiah too wants us to loosen the grip on our swords and our instruments of war, and to take up the things of peace, to "walk in the light of the Lord."
There's always a catch
It all sounds really, really nice, but Brueggemann says there is, of course, a catch: "God wills for the world...a center of justice and righteousness that will get our minds off our petty agenda and our penchant to protect our little investments. I find that vision overwhelming--and not very welcome, because the things I value most I am reluctant to lose or risk, and even more reluctant to share."
The things of war between nations are also things that we struggle with, each one of us, individually, even our great theologians and scholars, if they are brave enough to admit it, as Brueggemann does so honestly here.
Opening our own hearts
In fact, the hardest call for us to answer may be in each individual heart, rather than focusing only on the larger world of politics and nations (not that those aren't important, especially now). It is so easy, so human, for our hearts to grow entangled with petty resentments and even larger hatreds, born of frustration and disillusionment.
We find it a tremendous challenge to move through times of discouragement and even oppression without losing our souls to such terrible wrongs, such powerful impediments to peace. And we have to ask, what are the "little investments" we so jealously protect?
"Delighting in God, Engaged in God's Purpose"
We might claim that the nations, alas, can't beat their swords and spears into the things of peace just yet, much as they might want to, because there are still so many situations in which those weapons are needed. After all, that's how we (ironically) have to settle conflicts, that's how we (ironically) keep a "kind" of peace, at least until a better one is possible.
However, Isaiah promises a day when, in Brueggemann's words, "The nations will not only delight in God's person, they will be engaged in God's purpose." By the way, that would would be a great mission statement for a congregation: "Delighting in God, Engaged in God's Purpose"! Or, as Bruce C. Birch puts it, "In God's reign these implements of conflict will be transformed into tools of community." What a beautiful Advent image!
Taking the longer view
Isaiah actually promises a time when God's ways will fully shape how all of us live, every single person--"all the nations...many peoples" streaming toward the bright light of peace, and enough, for all.
It may not look like that right now, but Advent is about taking the long view of things. In the meantime, James Limburg reminds us that God invites us not just to imagine and dream but to make peacemaking a priority in our everyday lives.
Peace through justice
Many people may doubt that seeking peace through justice will prove effective in turning back the dogs of war, but, as Mary Hinkle Shore claims, "even skeptics have to admit that justice, safety, and widespread prosperity have a better chance of resulting in peace than injustice, danger, and disparity of wealth."
And yet, even in a world overflowing with God's abundance, even in a nation where "excess" seems to define our culture, there is massive and unnecessary suffering because of our refusal to share and our anxiety about losing what we have. For example, how many children will go to bed hungry tonight?
Wealth moves upward
The columnist Bob Herbert wrote movingly--and disturbingly--of the dramatically growing disparity of wealth in the United States in recent years, even during an economic recovery that still leaves many out in the cold, economically ("Fast Track to Inequality" NYT 11-1-10).
Nearly a decade later, the middle class continues to erode and disproportionate wealth continues to move upward to a small segment at the top of the economic ladder, with little relief in sight. We can't bear to imagine what happens to those at the bottom, who have little voice and no power.
Ancient texts, post-modern challenges
Perhaps the post-modern texts of columnists and social scientists could be read alongside the ancient one, in order to hear the challenge of the prophet and the call of God to respond. Will budgets, deficits and national debt be addressed in the light of justice for all?
Will the guiding question--the benchmark of decision-making--be the one that Francis of Assisi and so many other great spiritual leaders have asked, "How will this affect the poor, the outsider, and those on the edges of our community?"
How can we re-arrange things?
If Isaiah and Dr. King could dream of peace and lift up that vision for us, we too can dream the dream of peace and re-arrange our individual lives and the life of our communities, large and small, to be peace-making communities of generosity, justice and joy.
We can become communities of listening, of self-examination, of acceptance, of change--even if that change is not easy or fast. We can't do this on our own, but God makes it possible, grace enables us to accomplish so much more than we can imagine, because it is God "who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20).
Lives shaped by God's Word
This is the hope, the message, that all humanity longs for. Bruce C. Birch notes this deep human need: "Every generation needs assurance that the powers of the world--whether the Romans of Jesus' time or the principalities and powers of our own age--do not determine the future."
But that means a different way of life than the one we too often choose. God's Word, Birch writes, "counters the alternatives that tempt our allegiance in the world. The ways of this world are self-centered and idolatrous. This verse reorients the faithful to the alternative world created by covenant partnership with God."
The beautiful images of Advent, of swords beaten into plowshares, of a lion lying down with a lamb, of a mountain of peace and justice and learning and hope, represent this promise of God, this "alternative world" we are invited to inhabit.
Are we willing to move?
Leanne Van Dyk addresses the "considerable movement in this text: the mountain will be raised up; people go upward; God's word extends downward; the nations will beat their swords and spears into agricultural tools." We may think we're busy during the Christmas season, but this passage about a mountain of peace has its own movement and motion, with people "going up" and "going forth," and "God's blessings cascade down to all nations. The images suggest flow and abundance."
Perhaps the theme of joy might intertwine here with the image of peace, for this is an active kind of peace (peace in motion), and joy lifts our hearts and moves us, makes us feel like dancing and celebrating, makes us want to sing God's praise. In any case, this is no "sit and wait" kind of anticipation in Advent; we are to be a people who act and move and participate even as we anticipate the promises of God.
Can we bear to live in hope?
If this text were not so comforting and full of hope, it would be painful to read. Indeed, how our hearts long for a time--the time--of peace in the world! Perhaps the most powerful affirmation in the text, however, is that history belongs to God and will surely unfold as God sees fit.
What then, is your role, your church's role, the wider church's role, in bringing in the great day described by the prophet Isaiah? How do the ministry of your church, and the spiritual lives and practices of its members, point to, anticipate, and participate in the in-breaking of this day, this dream of God?
As we steep ourselves in Advent observance and look forward as much as backward in time for inspiration and hope, we consider quietly what we truly long for in our lives, and the price we are willing to pay for it. Looking at our lives, we reflect on how we have constructed them to protect what we have, as individuals, communities, and nations: haven't we often beaten our personal and communal pruning hooks into spears in order to protect what we claim as our own?
Christmas cards and concrete steps
In the coming weeks, for example, as we write our Christmas cards and sing Christmas carols, with their lovely messages of serenity, grace, and good wishes, we hear a call, deep in our souls, to pursue peace in our lives and in the world around us, not just to talk about it as if it were a sweet but unattainable idea.
During this season of Advent, for the sake of peace, we can take real, concrete steps to heal division, alienation, and broken relationship in our family, our community, and the world, if we have the courage to do so. Beginning with just one step, one relationship, perhaps one apology or offer of peace, we need to believe that we can be part of God's dream.
Living in the meantime
One of the challenges of being a Christian is living in the meantime, which requires the gift of waiting with grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them."
I don't remember being taught that I needed to "carry restlessness around with" me (I was actually taught to be meek and mild, although that didn't turn out well); what a wonderful image for us during this Advent season of waiting and hoping. How do Bonhoeffer's words speak to you?
An invitation, not a lecture
Paul Simpson Duke suggests a most gracious tone for hearing this text, not as command or exhortation but as invitation, for "Isaiah's vision....does not scold or admonish; it lifts a gleaming promise of what God will do in days to come." Indeed, we share with our ancient ancestors that deep longing for "the dreams and promises of God for the world."
After all, this text, this season, are about hope - and isn't hope an invitation to experience the world in a different way?
Honesty, realism and hope
We look around at the world in which we live this faith: in some ways, it already seems "too" festive, often prompting a well-meaning criticism from those of us who would prefer a truly "Advent approach" to these weeks of waiting and preparation and hope--hope not just for presents, but for the greatest gift of all.
However, Stacy Simpson Duke is sensitive to what is often underneath our holiday busyness, "the deep, true needs of people who are longing for something Big." We can critique the culture around us, but she wisely suggests its "messages are so powerful [because] our human yearning is so real, and so profound."
That's why the invitation to move toward that mountain, to hear the promises and to trust in the One who offers them, is so powerful. "Isaiah," Duke writes, "holds up a vision of the true. He takes us to a mountain and shows us what our hearts are actually tuned for."
What a beautiful image, to consider that are hearts are "tuned for" for what is good and right and just, not for brokenness, greed and violence. No wonder our longings for peace are so deep and persistent in every age: peace is what our hearts "are tuned for."
Raising our vision, respecting the hurt
Our congregations, like the world around them, are full of people who are hurting, each in our own way: grief, loss, discouragement and fear may even make it hurt to hear such beautiful words of promise and hope when reality, every day, is so different. Duke advises us "to be honest about realities and attentive to the fact that happy visions of hope can make old wounds throb."
Nevertheless, she writes, "a new and long-for reality will take hold some day," and as we wait and live in hope, "there is a power in walking in God's light now, one step at a time."
The call to peace
How can people of faith transcend our differences and speak with one voice about the call to peace given by a God who, today, loves each one of us? What can we share in common--our care for our children, for the earth, for the future--that brings us together in recognition that we, and our lives, belong to the same God and therefore find our common ground in peace, not war?
What ways do we need to imagine for our interactions to change? How might we deepen our respect for one another? How might we listen to one another, and in the listening, hear the voice of the God, calling to us in this new day?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Jo Hudson, 21st century:
"There is a world of hurt out there that needs the word of hope in here."
Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
"The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all God’s children."
Fred Rogers, 20th century
"When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed."
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995
"Dad, how do soldiers killing each other solve the world's problems?"
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 20th century
"Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed--but hate these things in yourself, not in another."
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 19th century
"Peace is always beautiful."
Albert Schweitzer, 20th century
"Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace."
Aristotle, 4th century B.C.E.
"It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace."
Pythagoras, 6th century B.C.E.
"Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.”
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, 20th century
"How come we play war and not peace?"
"Too few role models."
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"There is no 'way to peace,' there is only 'peace.'"
Marianne Williamson, 21st century
"The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world."
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Choose to Wait
Sunday, December 1, 2019