Sermon transcript for December 8, 2013
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.
Sermon transcript for December 1, 2013
“Going Up To the Mountain of God”
Isaiah 2:1-5 Advent Theme: “What Isaiah Saw”
Belmont UMC—December 1, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
Let’s begin today with some thoughts about the theme of our Advent Season and that theme is “What Isaiah Saw!” First let me give credit for this theme to Barbara Lundblad. Several of us had the honor of hearing her speak in May of this year and she introduced the idea of focusing on the visions of Isaiah during Advent. You will note that the words of the doxology we are using throughout the season were written by Barbara Lundblad and the words change each week. She has given us permission to use these words.
The text today begins with these words, “The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. . .” (verse 1) It does seem odd; the idea of seeing a word, rather than hearing a word, but the word Isaiah saw is gathered up in images and visions and ones mind has to see it to capture what it means and where it is taking us.
Throughout the season you are invited to participate by photographing images that relate to the themes of each day. Those are posted on our website and are found in the Advent guides. These images can be shared on social media sites and they will help all of us to engage in spiritual reflection.
I would also encourage you to read the texts each week and reflect on them. What do you see as hear the words that Isaiah saw? Take your time. Use lectio divina, reading each passage three times, pausing and reflecting on one image between each reading. Use this practice as a respite during this season that can become hectic and frenzied. My friends, we need Advent. We need to take our time on the way to Jesus’ birth. We need to spend some time with Isaiah in order to fully appreciate what his birth means to us.
And then, as you read these texts, ponder this idea: If this is what Isaiah saw concerning God’s vision, God’s future, where do you hear God calling you, where do we hear calling us as a church. The text today invites us to follow the vision: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord. . .” (v. 3) “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (v. 5) Are we willing to go where the visions take us?
What did Isaiah see? Isaiah saw that in God’s future there will be a mountain, a high and holy place, and all people are streaming toward it. See them making there way up the mountain, people of every nation, culture, and language—a new community being gathered there. From the mountain they are able to see what God has in store for them.
It is a place of divine instruction—the people of Isaiah’s time are in need of divine instruction and direction and tired of false teaching and false direction from their culture’s gods (sounds contemporary, doesn’t it?)
Marcus Borg suggests that one those cultural gods is individualism, the kind that that says “I am self-made!” but these images from Isaiah are images of a diverse and peaceful community moving and working together. In our culture we are tempted to climb the mountain by ourselves, go to the gift shop and buy a t-shirt that reads I CLIMBED THE MOUNTAIN OF GOD! But in God’s future it’s all about living in community. (Patheos, The Progressive Christian, blog, “The Cultural Captivity of Christianity: The Poisoning of the Church” November 19, 2013, Marcus Borg)
Even during this season we struggle to move toward God when our culture calls us to the gods the marketplace and to rampant consumerism. We are always let down by culture’s lure.
In Tennessee Williams’ play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” the Southern patriarch Big Daddy says, “A man buys and he buys and he buys and the reason he buys is because he hopes one of his purchases will be eternal, which it never is.” (from an unreliable source: my memory)
From the mountain of God we experience God’s justice, God’s arbitration, and all people are drawn toward the mountain. “And they shall beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools and nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.”
What do with do with this beautiful image of God’s future peace when we live in a different reality? These hopeful words from Isaiah are carved into the wall outside the United Nations Building, but what do they mean to us in a present world where hundreds of thousands have been killed in Syria and central Africa? Even as I speak people are falling victim to the violence of war. In chapter 1 of Isaiah there are images of violence, bribery, desolation and trampling on the poor.
Is Isaiah speaking of something that is only in the far off future, the sweet by and by? They are images of days to come, but the invitation of Isaiah is in the present. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord, now, come now. We pray for peace and justice in our world and we work toward peace and justice in our world now because God has invited to begin living toward God’s future.
During this Advent Season I would invite you to look for places where God’s vision for the future is becoming a reality. I follow Shane Claiborne on facebook and twitter. Shane is the author of The Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President and was the Belmont All Church Retreat leader a year or two before I arrived here. He posted photos from around the world of weapons, rifles and pistols, being refashioned as shovels and spades and used in agriculture. He posted images of women, mothers, whose children had been victims of senseless gun violence, using sledge hammers to beat pistols into spades.
Barbara Lundblad reminded us of the killing fields of Cambodia, where in 1996, 4,320 people were killed by land minds. Now dozens of programs are ridding the country of these minds and farmers can be seen in the fields where there are now rice paddies, green and lush.
She reminded us of the work of Marion Wright Edelman and The Children’s Defense Fund and their refusal to be quiet on the issue of gun violence in our country. (Lecture, Festival of Homiletics, May 2013) And a new group, Moms Demand Action, formed in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, seeks sensible gun laws in our country and is unrelenting in their effort to turn weapons into iron plows or into the local police stations. These groups are living toward God’s future vision.
Paul Simpson Duke reminds us, “At St. Louis University is a small Jesuit chapel that is creatively lit. The light fixtures are made of twentieth-century cannon shells, converted. Emptied of their lethal contents, they now hold light for people to pray by. In such light we pray and live. And having laid our own weapons down, we bear witness to the promise of greater transformations in the days to come.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, p.7)
What did Isaiah see? What do you see? During this Advent Season look for signs of peace in the world, glimpses of God’s future. And may we together hear God calling us, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”