Belmont UMC—December 8, 2013
What Do You Really Want?
A Sermon on Isaiah 11:1-10
Rev. Dr. Pam Hawkins
There is a story about a pastor who went on retreat to a place called the Magic Monastery. It goes like this:
There’s a monk there who will never give you advice, but only a question. I sought him out.
“I am a parish pastor,” I said. “I’m here on retreat. Could you give me a question?”
“Ah, yes,” he answered. “My question is, What do they need?”
I came away disappointed. I spent a few hours with the question, writing out answers, but finally I went back to him.
“Excuse me. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Your question has been helpful, but I wasn’t so much interested in thinking about my congregation during this retreat. Rather I wanted to think seriously about my own spiritual life. Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?”
“Ah, I see. Then my question is, What do they REALLY need?”
Let us pray:
O God of the prophets,
Of Isaiah and Jeremiah,
Of Ezekiel and Micah,
Of Deborah and Elijah,
Of Martin and Nelson,
Of those prophets among us,
For them, we give you thanks,
As beautiful as are the words of our reading today from the Book of Isaiah, at the time that the prophet speaks them, his beloved city of Jerusalem is in ugly shambles. Tensions between power-mongers of the 8th century lead from one destructive war to another. Hope is waning for a future without fear, restlessness, and anguish, because the people of Jerusalem, worn-out from years of oppression and conflict, are giving in to the ways of their oppressors.
If we were to read the chapters in Isaiah before our passage for today, we would learn that the abused are becoming the abusers right in front of Isaiah’s eyes, and in the transformation of their souls from contagious hope to contaminating despair, the people of Israel begin to lose themselves in self-interest and self-gratification.
In the past, God’s covenant people were known for their faithful, humane, and peaceful life together. But now, they are just like their aggressors – fickle, corrupt, and greedy. Once they trusted God to provide for their needs; now they distrust anything and anyone that comes between them and what they want, which may make our prophetic reading from the 11th chapter all the more relevant for us in a season when our days and nights are punctuated by the question “What do you really want for Christmas?” And we make our lists and notes, spending hours online or in line trying to pinpoint and satisfy the wants of people we know to no end.
In the background of our Advent living, God’s prophet Isaiah warns the people of Israel about the seductive power that want can have on the human spirit if “want” gets out of control. And in Jerusalem, God’s people are out of control because they want what they want no matter the cost to anyone else – especially, according to the prophet, the cost to the weak and vulnerable and expendable in the community.
What Isaiah sees before he gives us the beautiful words of today’s reading is God’s vision of the kingdom on earth coming undone, off-kilter, out of balance right before his eyes. The people are forgetting and neglecting God’s vision where the needs of every human life are to be equally valued. What Isaiah sees is a marketplace with enough for all, stripped bare by the-ones-who-can. He sees inns with room for everyone, filled up by privileged first-come, first-served. He sees children staring out from the safety of their homes at other children who are homeless. After all, we just never know what some homeless child might try to do to us.
What Isaiah sees as he looks around his beloved city of Jerusalem is heart-breaking for anyone who remembers God’s holy covenant with the people of Israel. It’s heart-breaking, and according to the prophets of the time, it’s making God angry because God will not tolerate injustice and oppression. Nor will God tolerate corruption from within the community of faith, which is exactly what unfolds around Isaiah. And so, just a few passages before our reading, as one Biblical scholar writes, Isaiah “gives expression to God’s anger, aroused by social injustice. . .” and then our prophet testifies in verse after verse that there will be “a coming judgment where accounts will be severely settled.”
Yet, it is into this messy, devastating, life-eroding circumstance that Isaiah brings another word to us. It is as though the prophet takes a big, deep breath, or flings a door wide open so that light and air can rush in to us again when all was beginning to seem hopeless and doomed for God’s people. “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; . . .” Isaiah is not giving up hope. . . “a branch will sprout from his roots,” . . . the prophet still believes that God will keep the promise of the covenant despite the infidelity of Israel. Isaiah predicts a new leader will come, a new future rooted and grounded in God’s covenant with David.
“The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD. . .” Line after hopeful line, our prophetic reading for this day unfolds. At last, the needy will be judged with righteousness. The suffering ones will finally receive equity for their losses. Wolf and lamb; leopard and goat; calf, young lion, and child – all will be at peace together. It is a beautiful, peaceable, desirable vision of a kingdom, is it not? And it has become one of the most beloved Advent messages of hope that we pass down from generation to generation, as it should be.
But beware – before we get lulled into an Advent nostalgia and romanticism about this peaceable kingdom of God – take note that for God’s kingdom to arrive in trustful rest, where even prey and predators live in peace, we, you and I, must first be “destabilized.” “God’s promises [for a new world order] constitute a deep threat to the way we have organized the world,” writes Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. For the way we have organized the world is based on what we want, rather than on what God needs.
You see, God needs to usher in a new creation, which is just what Isaiah’s prophesy describes:
God needs a new ordering of our social reality
in which privilege will attend to poverty;
in which power will submit to pain;
in which advantage will be given up for compassion;
in which old priorities will be repositioned in order to let in people long kept out of God’s beloved community as we have wanted it to be.
And for God to do this new thing in our midst, we must stop doing some of the old. We must stop using privilege to get what we want. We must stop wielding power to cause harm. We must stop taking advantage of weakness. We must stop keeping people out or down or uncertain of their place alongside us on God’s holy mountain or God’s holy sanctuary or pew or pulpit or street corner or school roster.
For God’s new creation to be fulfilled, we must stop asking for what we want and begin doing what God needs. And in this season of Advent, God needs us to help “birth a new wonder” in the world,” a new social order, a new future of hope for all people. May our response to God at and through Belmont United Methodist Church stand as a signal to the peoples that we believe in a God of timeless, endless, prophetic hope for all people on earth.
May it be so. Amen.
Adapted from Tales of a Magic Monastery by Theophane the Monk (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1981), 42.
Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 87.
Adapted from Walter Brueggemann, The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness, ed. Charles L. Campbell, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 60-61.
Brueggemann, The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness, 61.