Sermon Live in Heavenly Peace Advent Week 1: December 1, 2019
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 God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2:1-4
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined… For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon His shoulders; and He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and His kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. Isaiah 9:2, 6-7
Yesterday morning I drove way up Coombsville Road, looking for the place where Mimi was housesitting, and noticed a big locked gate across one of the driveways, with a stork and blue decorations, indications of a new baby boy at this address. I wondered if was the family or the friends who’d had decorated this gate in anticipation of the baby coming home. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, this sacred season of waiting for a baby to come. Advent means “coming” and each of the four Sundays has its own candle to be lit, its own signs and words, and its own colors, all of them indications of the coming baby. Advent paraments are both blue like the night sky when Christ was born, and purple, the color of royalty. Today’s candle is for peace, and today’s sign is light, and today’s words are about the coming of a baby in a time of deep darkness; a baby who would be known as the Prince of Peace.
At its best scriptural exegesis includes historical context, and what’s relevant for our lives today, and a prophetic message of hope for the future. Isaiah spoke to the Israelites, who’d been conquered by the Assyrians and were living in captivity, and they yearned for freedom and light. In Isaiah’s poetic prophecy he imagined – he saw with the eyes of the heart and with confidence in God – swords beat into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. He saw a great light indicating and revealing the presence of God. Prophets listen closely to God. In the Godly Play curriculum, it’s said of Moses that he came so close to God, and God came so close to him, that Moses knew what God wanted him to do. Prophets may see with the eyes of the heart, but they also spend time with God, spend time looking for and listening to God. So this lesson is both historical context and relevant for us, because if we want prophetic imagination (I’m not suggesting that we aspire to become Isaiah-like prophets) but to have prophetic imagination, to see as Isaiah did with love and faith and confidence that God’s kingdom is being birthed into the world (instead looking with cynicism and despair at the ugliness and meanness in the world) then we need to spend time with God… time looking for God and listening for God. Maybe it will be true of us, as was said of Moses, that we come so close to God, and God comes so close to us, that we know what God wants us to do.
The theme this Advent is based on the song, Silent Night, which celebrated its 200th anniversary last year. Every week we’ll sing this song, and listen to the promise in the words: “All is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin mother and Child. Holy infant so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” This is the quintessential Christmas Eve song. Our bodies may be in church on Christmas Eve but our minds tell us there’s food waiting to be eaten, gifts waiting to be wrapped, and family waiting to be visited. Or maybe we’re exhausted and we doze off in the pew during the telling of the Christmas story. But when we light the candles and turn out the lights and stand and sing together, for a few minutes, our faces lit with the glow of candlelight, somehow it’s possible to believe in heavenly peace. The question is can we live in heavenly peace? Can we live the words of Silent Night?
Advent invites us into a time of tension, of holding the realities of our world alongside the prophetic hope of God’s Kingdom coming. One of those realities is our cultural tolerance of gun violence, something that flies in the face of Isaiah’s prophecy of God’s Kingdom: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” This year alone in our country there have been 370 mass shootings, over 1400 people were injured, and more than 400 died. Thousands of years after Isaiah’s prophecy we are still the people “living in a land of deep darkness.” (As an aside, it seems that I am always preaching to the choir. That’s what happens when you try to convince people of something they already believe.) The tension in Advent is that it’s not enough to wait for for the Prince of Peace to come, and for God’s Kingdom to come; we have to work with God, we have to help birth peace on earth. Fortunately Methodist spirituality prepares us to live with tension. Methodist spirituality is faith as well as work. It is salvation (healing, restoration, and abundant life) here and now as well as in the life to come. It is the absolute and undeserved assurance of God’s love for you as well as your responsibility to tend your relationship with God. It is depending scripture to inform our life choices as well as to depending on experience, reason, and tradition. It is individual spirituality as well as corporate spirituality. It is belief as well as practice.
This is Advent, a sacred season that invites quiet contemplation and preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ-child, as well as our noisy activism in preparing the world for His coming. Hence the tension. Waiting and working. What spiritual practice during Advent could address gun violence? Some of my own tension in asking this question is the knowledge (and my own experience) that we want this time of year to be a happy one. “You know, Santa Claus and Ho-ho-ho, and deck the halls” said Lucy Van Pelt in A Charlie Brown Christmas. But Isaiah has come to us this first Sunday of Advent, and he invites us:“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” Peace is the path of God, and today’s Advent word.
At the time of Isaiah’s prophecy, Assyria had conquered much of Syria and Israel, and the kings of Damascus and Samaria had unsuccessfully invited the Jerusalem king to join them in resisting the Assyrian empire. But most of Israel was captured, and the Israelites deported and held in captivity by their Assyrian conquers. Like God hearing the cries of the Israelites living under the cruel Pharaoh’s oppression, Isaiah too heard their yearning for freedom and light. Into this gloom, this time of “deep darkness,” Isaiah brought forth a word of hope about the coming of a child, a new king, who would bring about a radical transformation of life and transform darkness into light, oppression into freedom, sadness into celebration, war into peace, and the presence of the Lord would be revealed. (Interestingly some of these images and words from Isaiah’s prophecy were also used to describe Queen Victoria’s reign.)
Much later than Isaiah, Jesus’ mother Mary, would be visited by an angel who announced to her that she would birth the One anticipated since the time of Isaiah’s prophecy, the One who would be called the Prince of Peace. “How can this be?” Mary asked the angel. I’m sure she asked herself that question, and we continue to ask it. How can this be? At this time in human history, not so different from Isaiah’s time of social and political unrest, and now divisions have become not right or wrong but right or evil, and now with rising incivility and intolerance, how can it be that we still look for and look forward to the coming of the Prince of Peace? Advent asks us to believe and to act.
Last week I read some responses to a friend’s Facebook post quoting that radical Baptist and former American president, Jimmy Carter. “Homosexuality was well known in the ancient world well before Christ was born, and Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. In all of His teachings about multiple things – He never said that gay people should be condemned.” This post included a picture of the 90-year-old Jimmy Carter and the words (that are not his) “This is what a real Christian sounds like.” I posted: “I love you, Jimmy Carter.” And others posted about the Jimmy Carter quote. One wrote, “I’m really tired of people using Jesus to support their ideology. The bible does not support homosexuality, in fact the bible declares homosexuality to be an abomination. Jesus never said a word about it because it didn’t exist in Israel. Homosexuals in the Middle East were in the closet or executed.” Others posted strongly opinions of rebuttal but this person continued: “Homosexuals were usually killed immediately if they were discovered. Christianity has never supported homosexuality or any other forms of sexual perversion. I used to support [them] but now I do not. They are bullying society to accept them, and society is responding by distancing themselves, which is how it should be.” I was sickened and angry by these posts, and in my imagination I consigned the person who wrote them to the fires of hell (which I don’t believe in but I like to imagine them in case an intolerant and stupid person needs somewhere to go.) The friend who posted the Jimmy Carter quote (who has given me permission to share this story) posted her response. “Let me pray over the words to share here tomorrow as I fall asleep. In the meantime, would you kindly be specific where I should look, book, chapter, and verses in the bible, both old and new testaments? I’d like to learn where your beliefs are written.” The next day my friend posted, “I’m still praying over my words! Love is something if you give it away… you’ll end up having more.” And then she posted, “Help us listen to each other.” And then, “I wish you peace.” My own self-righteousness was smacked upside the head, as I realized that my thoughts had been an act of war, and my friend’s words were an act of peace, of heavenly peace, of God’s peace.
Yesterday when I drove up Coombsville Road and noticed the gate with the cardboard stork and blue decorations, and I understood the symbolism welcoming a new baby boy. In that decorated gate, I saw how simple it is to symbolically welcome the Prince of Peace (with words and decorations) and how hard it is to make the world an open place of welcome for Him (in my heart and in my actions). Good thing I’m a Methodist and I can live with tension. Advent, and Isaiah, and Silent Night – they all tell me that there’s no heavenly peace for us unless there’s heavenly peace for everyone. They tell me that not just others’ guns but my own instruments of hated, war, and intolerance that must be beaten into plowshares to till the earth and feed the hungry. They tell us that in spite of the evidence that we are a people living in a land of deep darkness, light has shined (not will shine, but has already shined!) on us, and that the One who has come, and is to come, and will come again (Jesus, the Christ) will be named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting, Prince of Peace” and He will invite us to live in heavenly peace. God is always calling us into something new. Isaiah and all the prophets attest to this. This week, in this sacred season of Advent, God is calling us to practice peace: not just a truce to offer others, like the one practiced on Christmas Eve in 1917, but a welcoming place at the table and recognition that there’s room for all of us in God’s Kingdom. This week’s practice is peace, heavenly peace that includes all the earth and all creation. How will you and I beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks? How will we live in the tension between a time of deep darkness and heavenly peace? This is what Isaiah tells us: Peace, heavenly peace, is our work to do, and as well… it’s all dependent on the love and faithfulness of our God. Amen.