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On the Way to the Holy Night: And in His Name All Oppression Shall Cease

(a sermon for December 29, 2019, the 1st Sunday after Christmas; last in a series, based on Isaiah 63:7-9 and Matthew 2:13-23)

And so… the baby was born.

Speaking as one who’s been there three times, I can say with some assuredness that when you’re a parent awaiting the birth of a child, especially if it’s your first, you tend to be filled with this hopeful, awe-filled and all-encompassing sense of great expectation!  That is to say, everything in your life – and I do mean everything – suddenly becomes about that coming moment when that child comes into your world.  You’re checking out potential baby names, you’re getting a nursery ready, maybe you’re taking childbirth classes, and you’re daily watching and feeling for telltale kicks from within mother’s womb.  But mostly, you wait, and over those seemingly endless weeks and months of waiting you dream: about what it’s going to be like having a baby around the house, for pete’s sake (!); about who that baby’s going to look like or “take after;” and about what she or he will grow up to become.

So much anticipation (!); and yet it can’t even begin to measure up to that ultimately indescribable moment when at last the baby is born, you’re holding it in your arms and you’re quite literally enveloped with all joy and wonder at the miracle of life.

But then, after the baby is born, something else happens… simply put, you become a parent!

You bring this child home and suddenly, your lives have become all about taking care of this living, breathing little bundle – holding it, feeding it, calming it, changing it, cleaning it – and it’s everything, and nothing like you expected it to be (I remember so well that one of the most terrifying moments of my young life up till that point was the first time I gave my first born son his bath)!  I mean, you’re still filled with wonder over this child but now it’s combined with all the concerns that go along with taking care of a newborn.  Moreover, everything that was considered normal in your life radically shifts: mealtimes, sleep patterns, any semblance of time management, and most especially your own personal list of priorities.  You somehow learn how to configure the straps of a baby car seat, you find that you never go anywhere without extra diapers and a change of clothes, and you discover that the baby’s binky/blanky/luvvy/bear is not only your child’s best friend, it’s yours as well!

Mostly, though, after the baby is born you get serious, don’t you?  You start to worry about a great many things: the sound of a cough, the changing in the rhythm of breathing, or the appearance of a rash that puts you on alert and sends you to the pediatrician in the wee hours of the morning.  You become mindful to the point to the point of obsessive about “baby-proofing” every potential danger in your home and every item that ever comes into contact with your child must first be cleaned and sterilized, often more than once.  But while you’re vigilant about everything you can fix you also become acutely aware of all the real world dangers out there you can’t control, from skinned knees and hurt feelings to childhood disease and an ever-threatening and encroaching world. Yet even then you still do everything in your power to protect your child from anything and everything they inevitably will face in life.   And you do it because it’s not about you anymore, it’s all about the baby; it’s always about the baby!  And when it’s your kid in trouble, short of becoming a raving maniac, you’ll do just about anything it takes to keep them safe from harm.

It’s a lot, to be sure, and more than a little unsettling, moving from this blissful state of expectation to an anxious and ever-heightened state of preparedness; but this is what happens, you see, after the baby is born.

Even – and most especially – when the baby is Jesus.

Actually, I would agree with David Lose who says of our gospel text for this morning that “it’s too soon… it comes too soon… [because] after all, we just celebrated Christmas.”  And truly, it was just five nights ago that we were all there at the manger with Mary and Joseph, gazing with adoration at their newborn child: the Christ child, this one for whom we’d waited and watched and prepared for so long. It was an amazing, beautiful and hope-filled night, and who could blame us for wanting to tarry there at the nativity just a little longer; perchance to stand shoulder to shoulder with shepherds, or to kneel with the magi at his cradle even as the angels’ song lingers in our ears.

But sadly, Matthew will have none of that!  For no sooner do those wise men leave “for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12) everything changes.  Suddenly, an evil king – threatened by this child “born king of the Jews” (2:2) – flies off into a jealous, angry, violent rage, innocent children are being slaughtered, women throughout Bethlehem are weeping after the manner of Rachel in ancient prophecy, and the holy family – Mary, Joseph and the Christ child – are forced into the role of refugees, fleeing to Egypt for their very lives.

We’ve said before that Matthew’s version of the nativity story is much more cut and dried than that of Luke, and certainly much more somber in tone. And yet, I dare say that Matthew manages to move us – quite dramatically, in fact – from the anticipation of Advent and the revelry of Christmas to the real world that the Christ Child came to save!   The baby’s been born, that is true, and it is glorious; but the world into which Jesus has been born is one filled with pain and suffering: a world where terrible things happen every day; a world of evil where palaces are often the places of corrupt power; where the righteous cower in fear and the innocents suffer… a world, when you think about it, not all that different from today. Truly, the weeping and wailing so prevalent in this morning’s scripture clashes with the songs of glory love we’ve been singing all throughout this season, but then again, even as we were gathered for our Christmas Eve rituals of worship, song and candlelight we were acutely aware that sadness and suffering was even at that moment in our world rearing its ugly head.  Evil, you see, is a hard and fast reality in a sin-filled, broken world; such was the case at the time of Jesus’ birth, and so it continues now.

For you see, to quote pastor and self-described online “homilist” Bass Mitchell, even though as indicated in this morning’s reading, Herod did die, the fact is, Herod’s spirit lives on, “still haunting every little town of Bethlehem, every city, every nation… for Herod is not just a long dead king, but represents the very real presence of evil in our world, evil that still seeks the destruction of innocents, of goodness, of light…”

“Herod,” Mitchell goes on to say, “is alive and well in the violence and crime that each year does untold harm to children… each time a child is physically and sexually abused… every time hunger and disease claim yet another innocent… Herod lives.”

One thing we need to understand about this horrific story of the slaughter of innocent children in the region around Bethlehem is that it represents a much larger story of evil and of death, and of how the seat of power in the world fights against God’s intention that peace and justice is to rule in the hearts and lives of the people.  It’s a story that’s as old as time; indeed, innocents have been dying since the dawn of history and corrupt power continues to run rampant even unto our own time.

So given that hard core reality of life, friends, how is it, then, that we can be so bold as to sing those words of the carol, “And in His name all oppression shall cease?”

Well, that, dear friends, is where the good news of the gospel enters in; this incredible good news that after the baby was born, the story didn’t end.

For what we find in this passage and throughout the gospel story is that whatever atrocities the Herods of this world might commit, God is ultimately in charge; that whatever discord and evil surrounds us in this life God does provide for our needs.  It’s all there in the story of the Holy Birth and its aftermath: in a dream, God motivated the magi not to return to Herod but depart to their own country by another route.  And it’s an angel of God who not only inspires Joseph to take Mary as his wife and raise the child as his own, but also in that moment of impending danger motivates Joseph to rise up and get them all out of town!  And even after the death of Herod, God continues to lead the family of Jesus to the place where they would be safe, to where Jesus would grow “and become strong, filled with wisdom… and the favor of God,” (Luke 2:40) eventually beginning a public ministry along the Jordan River and the Galilee seaside.  From the very beginning, you see, God had a greater purpose in mind; and not even the evil of this world could vanquish it.  Even many years later, when on a cross, it seemed as though a hurting and hurtful world had finally brought darkness back into the world and defeated all of what was ever good, even then evil could not conquer the Son God, the one whom by dying rose to new life!

God, you see, will not give up; God will not give up on the love he has for his creation, God will not give up on the world as he has envisioned it, and God will not give up on you and me.  In spite of the evil of this world and despite our own burgeoning faithlessness, friends, God is faithful.  It might involve a warning to get up and flee the danger at hand or it might be the clear directive to stand our ground; but God will always seek to guide us to exactly where we need to be, nudging us towards the places of living where we can be of the most use to God’s purpose for us and for the world.  Even as the world and its evil seeks to vanquish our spirit – even in those times when for whatever reason we let it happen – God’s not giving up.  Because with God, it’s always been about us… just like a new parent would do anything to preserve and protect and to love that new baby in her arms… that’s how God embraces us… and that infinite love begins and abides and triumphs… in Jesus.

Our readings for this morning remind us that birth, however joyful, also involves pain; that freedom costs, and that the struggle with that which is evil in our world goes on.  But we are also assured that God has promised to take care of us; that God is a God of love who shows us what love is most about, and does so in the life of Jesus Christ our Lord.  What is it that we read in Isaiah’s prophesy this morning?  “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  It’s that same presence that continues to carry us today.

Alas, our time at the manger is nearly at an end for another year and we go back to the world with all its uncertainty and danger.  But the good news of this Christmastide and always is that we are not left to return to “life as usual” alone, but carried and strengthened by God’s own presence in Jesus, who is truly our Emmanuel; that’s important for each of us to remember as we move forward.  In fact, I would suggest to you this morning that maybe the best thing we can do in this new year – and new decade (!) – ahead is to purposefully open our ears and our hearts to hear those heavenly words of warning and leading that might just be offered us, so that we might claim the power of Jesus Christ himself in order to overcome whatever evil and discord may surround us, and speaking both as persons and as a people, we can rejoice in the assurance that “in his name, all oppression shall cease.”

May you have a happy and blessed new year, my dear friends…

…and may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2019 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Life, Sermon Series

 

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On the Way to the Holy Night: For Yonder Breaks a New and Glorious Morn

(a sermon for December 22, 2019, the 4th Sunday of Advent; 3rd in a series, based on Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25)

If it could ever be said that there’s a “forgotten” cast member of the story of Christmas, I think that it would also have to be said that that role easily belongs to Joseph.

Not long ago I came across the work of a clergy colleague on-line who did a survey of all the words contained within the Advent and Christmas hymns included in his congregation’s hymnal.  And what he discovered is that in those songs there were, as one might expect, 309 references made to the Christ Child; also 48 mentions of angels, 31 references to Mary and 23 words about shepherds.  But quite interestingly, he found that in this particular hymnal was no reference at all made to Joseph; not a one!  Well, of course, that piqued my curiosity, so I did a very quick search of our “Chalice Hymnal” and found… only one mention of Joseph (it’s from “Angels We Have Heard on High,” by the way: “See within a manger laid, Christ whom choirs of angels praise; Mary, Joseph, lend your aid, while our hearts in love we raise.”); and even there, Joseph’s sort of an “add on” to the larger story!

Now, granted, if you dig a little deeper into the wealth of Christian hymnody there’s some wonderful music to be found in which Joseph figures prominently – “The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” for instance – and there’s also some wonderful contemporary music out there (“Joseph’s Lullaby” comes to mind) that beautifully seeks to tell the story from Joseph’s perspective.  But by and large, the music of this season tends to cast Joseph in much the same way we see him in the crèche: as a quiet, ever stalwart presence kneeling at the manger even as he’s overshadowed by the likes of shepherds, wise men and farm animals; just another supporting player in the nativity drama dwelling in the shadows of holy light.

And yet… I would submit to you that despite this, shall we say, subdued presence in the Christmas story, it is Joseph, this adoptive father of Jesus, who not only brings Mary and by extension, us, to the manger, but who also by his very example leads us “yonder” to what is beautifully sung in “O Holy Night” as “a new and glorious morn.”  Joseph, you see, is perhaps the singular figure within the nativity story who quite literally takes us to Bethlehem… and beyond!

Now, to understand this, we need to remember that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, from which our text this morning is drawn, in terms of both narrative and tone, is most definitely different from that of Luke.  Luke’s story is filled with singing angels, adoring shepherds and the baby Jesus born in a stable.  Matthew’s version of events, however, is much more cut and dried, remarkably brief and arguably a far more somber account of things: to wit, after an entire first chapter listing off a genealogy that connects Abraham to Jesus, Matthew begins by simply saying, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”  No shepherds or angels on high, no “no room in the inn,” no manger, no swaddling clothes – in fact, the wise men don’t even show up until the second chapter – but what follows is, in fact, one of the most essential parts of the story and isn’t it interesting; it’s told from Joseph’s perspective.  And as such, if I might quote pastor and biblical scholar David Lose here, it’s not so much “a story of wonder [as it is] as story of heartache.”

Now, I know that to suggest such a thing runs headlong up against just about every image we’ve ever had about Christmas; make no mistake, there’s heartache in abundance here! Because as Lose also reminds us, Mary and Joseph were real people – very young people, in fact, not to mention impoverished and without any semblance of earthly privilege or power. “In our imagination,” Lose writes, “Jesus never cried, Mary looked more like a blushing young bride than someone who had just given birth, and Joseph is calm, protective and paternal.” And yes, that’s how we might prefer this story to go but in fact, as Matthew begins his version of the story, the whole event is bathed in… scandal.

To begin with, we’re immediately told by Matthew that “when [Jesus’] mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  Understand that in first century Palestine, engagement was not viewed as it is today – as a romantic declaration of marital intent – but rather, engagement was considered to be “a legal contract, binding in every respect… [it] was essentially to be married with having consummated that marriage or even living together.”  So for Mary to be “with child” now would have been seen as sure and certain evidence that Mary had been unfaithful to Joseph; and, in full accordance with Jewish law, would have been punishable by Mary being dragged out to her father’s house to be publically disgraced and to face death by stoning.  And that, in and of itself, is about as disturbing a possibility as we can imagine; remember this is Mary, the mother of Jesus (!) we’re talking about here!  But even that very real and, yes, very legal possibility aside, imagine the kind of pain and anguish Joseph must certainly have felt at learning this news… once again, Mary and Joseph were real people with real feelings living in a real, not to mention harsh and judgmental world.  Mary already understood what was happening to her, that’s true; and yes, Mary must have worried about how this claim about the Holy Spirit was going to be received in and around the village of Nazareth.  But Joseph… we’ve got to imagine he’s devastated by this turn of events.

But we’re also told that Joseph is a “righteous” man.  In the Greek, the word is dikaios, which means “upright,” “virtuous,” or “just in the eyes of God;” and as such, one who sought to live wholly in accordance with the law set forth in the Torah.  In other words, once Joseph had received this news, according to the letter of the law, there could well have been a rush to judgment for Mary.  But “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” Joseph chose the second option, “to dismiss her quietly,” quickly and quietly breaking the marriage contract; in essence granting her a divorce without any public fuss.  So right away we have this new perspective on Joseph, as a man who despite what must certainly have been a deep sense of betrayal and suffering, immediately looks to what’s best for Mary… and that’s just the beginning.

Because just when Joseph is about to bring some closure to this situation, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  She’s going to have a baby boy, Joseph, and you’re to give him the name of Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins; and the reason this is all happening this way is because of Isaiah’s prophecy that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”  The upshot of all of this is that as soon as Joseph awakes from this strange yet familiar dream, he’s calmed down and we’re left to assume that he’s got some deeper sense of God’s intention with all of this.  And thanks be to God that he did: in the words of Leonard Sweet, at the moment the angel of the Lord appeared “the whole miracle of Christmas momentarily rested on Joseph’s shoulders, awaiting his freely chosen decision to either accept or reject the stunning news of an impending Messiah.”  The good news is that like Mary before him, Joseph said yes, and “did what the angel of the Lord commanded him.”

And a few months later, there’s that so-called registration in Bethlehem, which also not by coincidence was happening just about the same time as the baby was due; which meant that the city was crowded, the inns were full but maybe there’d be a stable out back… well, you know the story.  But first, to quote David Lose once more, “I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and flights of emotion..” actually not unlike the kinds of struggle we all face, baby or no, along the journey of life.

Actually, given all of this backstory, I’d like to think that Joseph spent those months getting ready.  It’s been said, you know, that when a woman is expecting (or for that matter, as we’ve seen in our own extended family this year, in the process of preparing for an adoption) her maternal instincts kick in immediately; but for the father, it sometimes takes that singular moment of holding that child in his arms that he becomes a father!  But not so with Joseph: I have a sense that in those days leading up to manger of Bethlehem Joseph was likely spending every moment surveying the landscape, so to speak, getting ready for this momentous, life-changing, world-shifting act of God, all the while trying somehow to comprehend what being the earthly father of the Son of God would actually be for him!

There’s this wonderful moment in the film “The Nativity Story” in which Mary and Joseph are talking to each other about the same things that all new parents talk about: what it’ll be like to have this baby, and how they’ll manage to do everything that needs to be done with a baby; to take care of it, and feed it and clothe it and change it and bathe it.  And Joseph, at one point in this conversation, says, “I just wonder if I can teach him anything.”  That’s perfect, and might I add, a very legitimate fear; and yet, as this incredible story begins to unfold what we discover is that not only was Joseph prepared for the day of his birth he was ready for the next day as well.

In fact, I have to say that these days, when I think of Joseph, it’s not so much the “silent, holy night” in the manger that I envision… in truth, I’m thinking about the next morning as the sun is rising.  I mean, in those moments after the birth itself, after the infant Jesus was wrapped in those swaddling clothes and lying asleep in the manger; when the shepherds had come and gone and Mary was silently pondering in her heart all that happened that night; and when the animals had grown weary of all the excitement and had opted to get some sleep themselves.  I like to think that in those moments after the bright star of that holy night had begun to fade and a new day was beginning, there was Joseph, standing at the gateway of the stable and watching the sun rise over the streets of Bethlehem; just the same way it had done on countless days before, but now in a way unlike ever before in the history of God’s creation.

“A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

There would be more to come:  the arrival, at some point soon, of magi from the East bringing expensive and very prophetic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; the news that Herod wanted to “pay homage” to the new born king even as his minions were seeking to slaughter any and all newborns that might fit the profile and provide a threat to his power; and then, yes, another angel’s message in a dream telling Joseph to get up and take the child and his mother to Egypt to keep them safe.

In other words, the story was just beginning; but in these wee hours of the morning, Joseph was ready for what was to come.

You see, that’s the thing about Christmas: so often, especially given that it comes at the end of a long Advent season of waiting and watch, we assume that the manger of Bethlehem represents the end of the story, when in fact it’s just the beginning of the story of Christ’s coming into the world… the story of light piercing through the darkness of life… of redeeming hope in a culture that seemingly thrives on the threat of hopelessness… of joy unending and triumphant… and of our lives, yours and mine, beloved, changing forever because of this one holy child who grew up to save us all from our sin.

So Merry Christmas, friends… and I hope and pray that it’s everything it should be for you and yours.  But remember this… after it’s all done, our time at the manger, that’s when the work of Christmas and faith really begins:  to, like Joseph before us, walk into the new and glorious morn of Jesus’ birth, and by his counsel start to change this world for the better, making our fervent hope of peace on earth and goodwill a reality for our lives and living here and now.

And in doing so, making sure that…

…our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2019 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Old Testament, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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On the Way to the Holy Night: A Gospel of Peace

(a sermon for December 8, 2019, the 2nd Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Romans 15:4-13)

Along the edge of our backyard at the parsonage is a fairly straight row of four or five very small pine trees.

Now, I don’t know if those trees had been intentionally planted there, either by our neighbor or perhaps one of the previous residents of our home, or if they’re there simply by virtue of nature’s own gracious silviculture; but I have to tell you that those little pine trees have long been an endless source of fascination for me.  For you see, when we moved in to the parsonage seven-plus years ago now, those pine trees were just the tiniest of saplings barely poking out of the soil; and I’ve been watching them grow ever since.

And the thing is, by my reckoning not a single one of those trees should even exist, much less continue, as it has, to grow taller and stronger from year to year!  To begin with, the soil isn’t all that great out there, and that particular spot doesn’t get a whole lot of sunshine; we’re barely able to make grass grow because it’s usually overrun by moss, not to mention surrounded by a fair number of other trees and the random incursion of an invasive plant species.  Moreover, whenever it rains to excess around here, especially when snow melts in the spring, that whole area floods quickly and easily; and I can personally vouch for the fact that over the years those trees have, however unintentionally, have nonetheless pretty much been mowed, raked and leaf-blown to within an inch of their very lives!  Simply put, there’s not a single reason that any of those little pine trees should even have survived (!) this long given everything they’ve been through; but in fact, they’ve thrived and much to my surprise little by little they just keep right on growing! And yes, I must confess here that I do find myself wondering what those trees might look like in another, say, 10 or 20 or even 50 years or so; because if those trees are growing this well now even as they’ve been forced push their way through all manner of environmental adversity, just imagine how tall and strong they’re going to be when in fullness they become all that God has created them to be… I mean, life being what it is I might not see it come to pass, but someone will; and when it happens, won’t it be amazing?

I’ve been reminded of those pine trees this week as I’ve been thinking about that opening verse of our Old Testament text for this morning from the 11th chapter of Isaiah, one that’s often heard especially in these days of Advent:  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots.”

On the face of it, it’s an image not unfamiliar to those of us who dwell in this part of the world: a tiny seedling pushing out into the sunlight through the twisted rubble of blown down trees out deep in the woods; or else winding in and out of the crevices of old stone fences and glacial rocks.  Isaiah’s image of a green shoot sprouting out of an old, dead tree stump paints a perfect picture of life defiantly carrying on amidst all manner of adversity; it represents the good news of a promise made and how that promise will be, in due season, fulfilled.   But as Isaiah puts forth the vision, that’s only the beginning: Isaiah then continues on with all those beautiful and oh, so familiar images of wolves living with lambs, bears and cows eating side by side, “the calf and the lion and the fatling together, [with] a little child [leading] them;” the same child, presumably, who now can safely play around venomous snakes!

This is the vision that’s long been referred to as “the peaceable kingdom” and it’s the stuff of many a Christmas card;   but let’s be honest here: as we understand “nature’s way,” friends, it’s also a pretty unlikely vision!  Let’s face it: in this real world in which we live predators and prey generally do not co-exist all that well, lions are anything but vegetarian, and by and large there’s no toddler who has ever or would ever be allowed to “play over the hole of the asp.”  To quote the Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor and blogger out of Illinois, the truth is that in Isaiah’s vision, “the stakes are too high.  The consequence too great.  It is in the very nature of the snake to strike, the wolf to feast, the lion to enjoy a regular meal of red meat… like it or not, it is the natural order of things for the menagerie Isaiah describes.”  It’s one thing, after all, to suggest that there might be a fresh branch or two growing out of a composting stump, bringing forth at least a modicum of hope amidst adversity; but a world where life should utterly prevail against every possible peril, to say nothing of a triumph over that so-call “natural order of things” that regularly seems work against its very survival?  To live in a world so radically upended that love and care is the first order of all things…

…well, that’s just… that’s just… the Gospel (!)… which, by the very definition of the word, is good news, indeed.

Or, as it’s expressed in the words of the song, “Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace.”

Actually, there’s much more to this vision of a “peaceable kingdom” than just the idea of lions and lambs sharing the same living space; and it begins with realizing that just prior to where we started reading this morning, we’re told that God, with “terrifying power” will have cut down the tallest of trees and that “the lofty will be brought low.” (10:33) “He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax,” says Isaiah, “and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”  So immediately there’s some context for the kind of natural growth that’s described in what we’ve read today; but there’s even more happening there than just that.

Historically speaking, you see, the nation of Israel had already been split into two kingdoms; the northern kingdom, which had been captured by the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom of Judah which had been defeated by the Babylonians with the people taken into captivity.  For the most part, both Israel and Judah were now being led by ineffective and often corrupt leaders; any sense of equity or justice (if you could even call it that) was selective and arbitrary at best; and there was little conviction toward personal righteousness, nor any commitment to their faith or of worship, for the people had often and repeatedly turned from the Lord. It was for God’s people a time in which there was no true awareness of God’s shalom, that is, the whole peace of God (and by that we’re not merely referring to the absence of war but also the wholeness of life and living – health, prosperity, companionship, joy, and on and on – all of which is borne out of a deeper relationship with God.  So without that it’s most certainly a time of hopelessness and deep despair… and yet it’s in the very midst of this agony – with the nation of Judah left in ruins, the land and forests devastated and gone – that Isaiah’s vision is proclaimed: this soaring, wonderful vision of what God was about to do; a sure and certain promise of a bright future and of true peace.

And it’s a promise that starts with a ruler: one on whom “the spirit of the LORD shall rest,” and one who will most certainly be of the house and lineage of King David.  He will have “the spirit of wisdom and understanding… of counsel and might… of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.”   “With righteousness he shall judge the poor.”   As The Message goes on to translate it, “He’ll judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth’s poor with justice…” – and I love this – “…each morning he’ll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.”  He will be Israel’s true Messiah – the one who, as Isaiah reports elsewhere, shall be named “Immanuel,” (7:14) which means “God with us” – who alone will be the one who is able to bring forth this “impossible possibility” of a peaceable kingdom to the world. In him, says Isaiah, this vision of “the earth [being] full of the knowledge of the Lord” will in due season become reality.

What we’re told here, you see, what we’re promised, is that in the end life… and true peace… will prevail.

Of course, we’re still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled… but then, I didn’t need to tell you that, did I?  The fact is that you and I live in a world that’s far removed from the vision of a peaceable kingdom, and in a time where on any given day, there’s news of yet another shooting, another act of terror, another episode of abuse and degradation, another example of neglect for the least and lowest in the world, and yet another instance of those who would employ the rhetoric of love only to justify attitudes and behaviors that are rife with anger and hatred.  Isaiah’s vision of the world dwelling in a true and living knowledge of the Lord remains as hopeful as it is glorious, but the sad truth is that it just doesn’t exist in our reality; or at least not yet.

But then that’s kind of the point of this advent season, isn’t it: an understanding – a lamentation, if you will — that all that we hope for in this world hasn’t happened… yet… but nonetheless continuing our hope-filled proclamation that it will in due season, because the Lord has promised it will be so.  And so we wait and watch and get ready for its coming.

This is what makes us “advent people,” beloved; this inner knowledge that the reality we are experiencing all around us is not the final reality of things.  I’m reminded here of a wonderful piece from a few years back written for the Christmas season by Garrison Keillor, in which he lamented the sorry state of the world but then added that faith was now more important than ever.  “What else will do except faith in such a cynical, corrupt time?” Keillor asked. “When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect… to walk on fences and sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing they hear is not the last word.”

I love that; because as “advent people,” we faithfully affirm that the current reality we see and hear around us – all the tragic woofing of warfare, hatred and rampant injustice – is not the last word, but rather we proclaim, boldly and joyfully, that the final word belongs to God in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who has truly taught us to love one another, the one whose law is love, and whose gospel is peace.  It’s also a reminder to us, I think – as we heard in our Epistle reading this morning, from Romans – that since “by steadfastness and the encouragement of scriptures we… have hope,” it follows that we should live out of that same kind of steadfastness and encouragement, living “in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together [we] may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  In other words, if his law is love and his gospel peace, so it should also be ours as well: seeking to live our lives with the spirit of true wisdom and understanding; letting the decisions we make for ourselves and our world be girded with the benefit of good counsel and loving strength; and letting ou first priority be that we welcome one another – no matter who that “other” happens to be – as we ourselves have been welcomed: peaceably, with all the wholeness of God’s peace and of his grace, and ever and always after the manner of a child.

In one sense, I suppose, it might seem like kind of an inconsequential effort when measured against the overwhelming nature of the world’s realities.  Then again, as we’re already noticed in the advent candles, every newly lit candle adds just that m 2019  uch more light into the room.  Likewise, as you and I seek in anticipation of Christ’s coming to live unto his gospel of peace, suddenly we begin to experience how the old realities give way to a new and living vision, a marvelous and miraculous foretaste of how the future will be by God’s promise and plan. That makes all the difference as we move forward, beloved, because then we will be living “as if” it’s already come to pass… until that blessed moment of triumph when it does!

And that… will be amazing!

So, as our Advent waiting continues and we keeping making our way, ever closer, to the Holy Night of Bethlehem, let our prayer be the same as that which himself prayed as a blessing unto the Christians at Rome, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

And, always, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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