Creekside Church
Sermon of December 6, 2020

"Know Justice, Know Peace"
Isaiah 40:3-9

Rosanna McFadden


Good morning! We are once again dipping into the book of Isaiah to better understand how the children of Israel were anticipating their Messiah, and what that means for us as we prepare for Christmas and the birth of Jesus. The text which Anne read us from Isaiah 40 might sound familiar, even if it’s been awhile since you last read Isaiah chapter 40. If you have listened to Handel’s oratorio Messiah or read the gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John; take your pick, Isaiah 40 is quoted in each one of them -- you’ve heard an echo of this prophecy. That’s because there is a direct line -- an unmistakably connection -- between these words from Isaiah and the New Testament prophet John the Baptist, who is always the subject of the second Sunday of Advent.

There’s nothing accidental or circumstantial about this connection between the Old and New Testaments. It isn’t just the words John speaks, it’s his whole presentation which marks him as part of the long prophetic tradition: he comes out of the desert as a scrawny and scruffy wild man, dressed in animal skin and eating insects, and even more characteristically, he is telling folks to repent, or else. I have a pastoral colleague, a biblical scholar, who shared a sermon which he preached on the Old Testament prophets. I’m going to share that sermon with you now, because I memorized it: it’s three words long: Repent! Too late.

Again, there’s some irony in John the Baptist quoting Isaiah 40 and blasting the Pharisees for being a brood of vipers and such. Because Isaiah 40, verse 1 says, “Comfort, comfort O my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, her penalty has been paid.” We don’t generally think of prophets as a comforting presence -- too much scratchy animal hair and bad hygiene -- not to mention being in our face with the fact that we’re like grass and we’re going to wither and fade, and the meantime we’d better repent and straighten up. This is not a presentation which is calculated to created comfort or peace. Given the choice, I believe most of us would rather listen to an announcement from an angel that preached at by a prophet: a little less “Prepare the way of the Lord!” and a little more “Peace on earth goodwill to all!” And yet, prophets and angels -- aside from clothing and hopefully diet -- are not so different.

Angels are messengers from God. And whenever they show up, especially in the gospels, the first thing they say is . . . ? Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. Because anyone in their right mind is afraid of a messenger from God. Because at least in the Bible, God hardly ever sends an angel to say, “Just want you to know you’re doing a great job. Keep up the good work.” Angels, like prophets, more typically come with a message of, “Hey, God sent me to ask you to do this really hard thing.” And that really hard thing is the intersection of peace and prophecy. If we look around our community and our nation and our world, it’s pretty evident that things are not right. Parents are out of work, kids are out of school, families are out of food, the hospitals are out of ICU beds, half of Creekside’s congregation is out in the parking lot. I saw a T-shirt this week which said 2020, and below that had a rating of one star and the quote, “Terrible. I would not go back.” I think there’d be widespread agreement that things are not the way they should be. Of course, what it more difficult to agree about is who is responsible, and what we should do about it. Where does peace come from, and how do we get it?

I wish I had an easy answer for you. I have watched the racial unrest in this country following the death of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and heard rhetoric from and condemnation from Democrats and Republicans and anarchists and white supremacists and those who want to defend the police and those who think we should defund the police. I know that black and brown people and those who live in poverty are more likely to die of COVID 19. I do not have much confidence in our political system to address these abuses and inequality. Not because politicians are dumb or even uncaring, but because to acknowledge that we are part of a system which is unjust means we have to confess and repent. Confession and repentance are difficult for anyone -- those things are especially difficult for elected officials and people in positions of power. I believe that without confession and repentance, in our personal as well as our national life, we will never find peace.

Peace should not be a political issue, but it’s difficult to talk about justice without pointing to people in power -- the Old Testament prophets did this to the kings of Israel all the time, John the Baptist called out the Pharisees, and eventually lost his head because of his open criticism of King Herod’s infidelity. Even Mary, the mother of Jesus said the Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Of course, Mary and her son Jesus were the lowly, who would be hunted by the powerful. What this says to me is that if there is no justice, there is no peace. Peace is not simply a gift from God which wraps us up like a warm blanket if we can just light a candle sit still for 10 minutes and pray. Don’t get me wrong -- lighting a candle and praying is a fine place to start, but it’s a place to start. Justice is really hard work, and it begins with confessing and repenting of the ways which we ourselves contribute to injustice. Our participation in injustice is exactly the behavior that Isaiah and John the Baptist were calling out, and it’s the same kind of behavior that’s still going on, because people are human, and humans are greedy and self-serving.

I mentioned that I kind of went overboard on the poetry of Wendell Berry last month when I was preparing for Advent. I was arrested by a phrase in his poem Look Out from 2003. Even the title is clever; he begins with inviting us to come to the window and look outside, and then gives a warning -- look out! -- about who he calls the Lords of War. He sounds like prophet to me. Here’s a portion:

Having hate, they can have no mercy.
Their greed is the hatred of mercy.
Their pockets jingle with the small change of the poor.
Their power is their willingness to destroy
everything for knowledge which is money
which is power which is victory
which is ashes sown by the wind.

That connection with Isaiah 40 gives me the shivers.

So, sisters and brothers, we must let our light shine as a statement of peace in the darkness created by the Lords of War. I believe that justice begins simply, when we are willing to acknowledge that we have been part of the problem and we want to repent and make the crooked straight, and put the mountains and valleys on more level ground. Justice is not about political agenda, it is about acting how God demands that we behave, with integrity and righteousness and it’s about treating others how God demands that they be treated, with mercy and compassion. That should be the agenda of everyone who claims the name of Jesus Christ. That is the word of God through the prophets -- in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament. Not only John the Baptist, but the prophet who is God’s Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Justice is the only way that we will arrive at the peace proclaimed by God’s messengers -- a whole host of angels who appeared on the night of Jesus’ birth singing “Peace on earth, goodwill to all.” Know justice, know peace.

Give light this season; it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Look out and see what is happening outside, but have the courage to look inward and see where you need to change in order to align yourself with God’s mission in the world. I have had some delightful exchanges with some of you over the past week about what kind of light you think you are. I’ve learned that it’s easier to say what kind of light someone else is rather than what kind of light you see yourself to be -- but if you haven’t yet considered it, think about what kind of light you are, or maybe what kind of light God would like you to be. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me. Shine in the darkness. Amen


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