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