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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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From Holiday to Holy Day… and Beyond: Live As If

peaceable-kingdom

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” by Edward Hicks (1833)

(a sermon for December 4, 2016, the 2nd Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on  Isaiah 11:1-11 and Romans 15:4-13)

While we are not known in our New England congregational tradition for venerating the names of the saints, I have no doubt that you are familiar with that of St. Francis of Assisi, if only for that wonderful prayer that he composed, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”  But St. Francis was in fact a thirteenth century Roman Catholic friar and preacher, and the founder of the Franciscan monastic order; a man who, it was said, dedicated himself “to imitate the life, and carry out the work of Christ, in Christ’s own way.” He is also credited with creating the first known nativity scene at Christmas – complete with live animals (!) – so that “worshipers could contemplate the birth of the child Jesus in a direct way.”

Francis remains one of the most revered religious figures in history, but like another saint of our acquaintance – one by the name of Nicholas – a great many stories and legends have grown up around St. Francis; the most prominent among them being that because of his great love and care for all of God’s creatures, Francis had the ability to actually speak with animals.

In fact, there’s one story that tells of Francis’ visit to the Italian village of Gubbio: a proud community that was being terrorized by a ferocious wolf lurking in the nearby woods.  Many of the townspeople had already been killed; and even a group of young men dispatched by the town to hunt down the animal were themselves attacked. Of course, the townspeople were agonizing over what they were going to do about this marauding predator; but finally one of the children (!) of the community came forward and suggested that they consult with this holy man who lived in the nearby village of Assisi, and who was rumored to speak with animals; perhaps he could convince the wolf to take pity on the townspeople!

Well, according to legend Francis does journey into the forest where the wolf was said to be lurking; all the while calling out, “Brother Wolf! Brother Wolf! Come out where I can speak to you!”  And wonder of wonders, the wolf appears (!)… and he and Francis begin a conversation that ends with a pact.  Seems that the wolf’s aggression is based not on anger, but on hunger; and so, Francis tells them, if the townspeople will agree to feed the wolf, then “Brother Wolf” will agree never to attack another villager!  Needless to say, the villagers are skeptical about this; but each day, even amidst their considerable far and doubt, they do bring the wolf food… and sure enough, the wolf never again attacks.

But that’s not all: what also happens as a result of this pact is that the town itself begins a miraculous transformation. Because the wolf is no longer a threat, instead of an atmosphere of terror and mistrust there’s a growing attitude of peace, and even love shared amongst all the families of the village.  Over time, you see, “feeding the wolf” becomes less of a requirement of the people than a cherished responsibility; the villagers begin to see themselves as caretakers of the wolf.  And what’s more, that same kind of care begins to extend to the ways that they treat one another and their children.  And how fitting is that; after all, it was the little child that led them in their search for safety and peace!

It’s a wonderful story; one that I really do hope is, in some fashion, a true story! Because, friends, when the easiest and most tempting response to an act of violence is to repay evil for evil, what a wonderful thing it is when best solution turns out to be that which overcomes evil with good, and creates an atmosphere of peace. It’s also a reminder that as with anything in this life that’s meaningful and loving, there’s always going to be a certain of faith involved; faith in the sense of “the assurance of things hoped for, [and] the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 1:11) In other words, sometimes despite any and all lingering doubt, you nonetheless go forward and “live as if” it were true… until it is!

I suppose that’s the essence of the vision that Isaiah sets before us in this morning’s text: of persons, and peoples, and nations – those who would appear to exist at continual odds with one another – now living together in what scripture describes as shalom, the whole peace of God.  It’s the “peaceable kingdom” and the wolf figures prominently in this vision as well: “The wolf shall live with the lamb,” and while we’re on the subject, “the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  Cows and bears grazing in the same pasture, lions and oxen eating straw together, nursing children playing nearby the place where poisonous snakes dwell: “They will not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain,” says the Lord.

That’s quite a vision; basically one that takes everything we’ve ever known about the natural order and turns it completely upside down!  But as beautiful as that imagery is – the stuff of many a Christmas card – it isn’t exactly true to life, is it; as one commentator I came across has put it, the truth is that “when the wolf lives with the lamb, the lamb usually disappears around lunchtime!”  Well, likewise we live in a violent world that’s far removed from a peaceable kingdom: 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.  Truth is, it’s hard for us to bask very long in the warmth of Isaiah’s vision when it seems that all around us anger and violence prevails!  What’s that verse from Longfellow that we sing in the carol?  “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”   Isaiah’s vision of “the earth [being] full of the knowledge of the Lord” is as hopeful as it is glorious, but you and I know it just doesn’t exist in our reality; or at least not yet.

But then, maybe that’s the point of the vision!

Remember that the season of Advent is about waiting, watching and preparing for the coming of Christ; to ready our hearts for the indwelling of the sacred.  So it is indeed about HOPE, this inner knowledge that the reality we are experiencing all around us is not the final reality; and that there is a promised vision that will come to fruition and bring forth a new and radically different reality.  In other words, in FAITH we await its coming to pass!  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.  We proclaim, boldly and joyfully, that the final word belongs to God in the persons our Lord Jesus Christ.  It’s our “sure and certain promise,” and it’s there in the our reading this morning from Romans, in which Paul assures the early church, and you and me as well, that all our hope is grounded in Christ: in the birth, life, death and resurrection of the one who comes to us and brings us a new vision, a new reality.  In Christ, God comes to live among us, showing us what life might be, could be if we were to let God’s own shalom live in our own hearts.

It’s sort of like what’s revealed in the candles we light on these Sundays of Advent: among other things, it’s meant to symbolize light flickering even amidst the gloom of darkness.  In the coming of Christ, you see, suddenly we have that flicker of hope in the midst of seeming hopelessness: we begin to experience how the old reality gives way to a living vision, a marvelous and miraculous foretaste of how the future will be in God’s plan. That makes every bit of difference as to how we move forward; we begin to “live as if” it’s already come to pass… until it does!  As Paul 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.”

You see, when the vision truly lives within you, then you begin to live that vision.

I remember once several Christmases ago as I was out shopping, an admittedly tired cashier greatly undercharged me for an item I was purchasing.  I was just trying to be honest… so I very politely and very gently told her about the error.  Well, let me tell you, friends, this woman was not amused!  As I recall, her fingers banged the buttons on that cash register in a way I had not previously thought possible; she thrust the money in my hand and very coolly sent me on my way with the words, “Thank you… Merry Christmas!”  And the woman behind me is watching all this, and she says, “You should have just taken the discount!”

I never forgot that; and I’ve often thought that it would have been a whole lot easier to “take the discount,” and certainly more pleasant an experience than the “bah-humbug” I ended up receiving.   But here’s the thing: that’s not how I expect the world to be, and so I’m not going to live in that reality!  Well, likewise I’m not going to submit to the attitude that kindness is not necessary any more than I will subscribe to the notion that faith is irrelevant; that the church and its values are antiquated in this world; or that “peace on earth and goodwill toward all people” is nothing but a story !  Yes, it’s all too easy to become cynical about this world, and to allow our behavior to reflect that cynicism; the wolves that lurk on the edges of life may well come after us in all their many guises, but as believers we don’t kill them; rather, we feed them!  We don’t prey on the weak; we live with them, and we do everything we can to strengthen them; and while the rest of the world tends to dismiss them out of hand, we let the children lead!

Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom is not our reality; at least not yet.  But we “live as if” that kingdom has already has come to pass, because we know it will be.  We know this because Isaiah’ vision also includes a shoot that has grown up from the stump of Jesse; new life emerging from that which was thought to be all but dead.  God will bring a promised Messiah; and “the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him, the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.”

This is our Advent promise, and it will be fulfilled; that God will come to us as a light shining into darkness.  And in the meantime, we live “as if” it’s already come in its fullness. Right here and now you and I are called to embrace that notion of justice, that idea of peace, that expression of joy and of love.  We are sent forth today and always to live unto this vision as in this season we move from holiday to Holy Day… and beyond!

And beloved, as you and I continue on that journey, may the God of hope fill each of us with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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