Sermon transcript for December 15, 2013
What Isaiah Saw--Everlasting Joy
Belmont UMC—December 15, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
If you are just joining us in the Advent Season, the theme for this season is “What Isaiah Saw” and we have been exploring the visions of the prophet, the visions of God for the future of creation and for all of us. We are invited to live toward these images given by the prophet.
Isaiah saw miraculous and redemptive reversals: a dry desert will blossom with flowers because there will be streams of water there, the weak hands will be strengthened, the feeble knees will be made firm, the fearful heart will be calmed, the eyes of those who are blind will be opened, the ears of those who cannot hear will be unstopped, the lame person will leap like a deer, those who are exiled will find a way home because God will create a safe highway for their passage, and sorrow and sighing will be turned to everlasting joy. (Notice this subtle reversal--that even “sighing” will flee away.)
Isaiah saw hope that God was coming and God would bring healing and redemption to a broken world. That is the message of Advent: Behold your God is coming and the God of divine reversals will turn things around. God will make a way when it appears there is no way.
Most scholars agree that there was more than one Isaiah because of the time span covered and the different writing styles found throughout this book of the Bible. Scholars think Isaiah 35 belongs to Second Isaiah or later, which would mean that the chapter has been placed earlier than it belongs. Why does it appear in this place? Barbara Lundblad imagines, “The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes: ‘Put it here,’ breathed the Spirit, ‘before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.’” (Workingpreacher.com)
Interrupt the narrative of despair. What narrative is that? Looking back to chapter 34 and we find vengeance, destruction, and environmental chaos. “Edom’s streams will be turned to pitch, its dust into sulfur, and its land will become burning pitch. Night and day won’t be extinguished; its smoke will go up forever. From generations to generation it will lay waste; no one will ever pass through it again.” (34:9-10)
Interrupt the despair with these words of hope in chapter 35: “Waters will spring in the desert and streams in the wilderness. The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.” (35:6b-7a) Interrupt the despair with these words placed out of time.
There are plenty of images of despair in our world today and you don’t need me to list them here for you. Pick up any Sunday paper and you’ll find enough despair to go around.
And here, out of place, out of order, comes a message that brims over with hope. Here, deep into Advent, comes a message that sounds like springtime after a dark winter, like Easter at the end of a long season of Lent, like the ultimate divine reversal, like resurrection!
In this season we remember that Jesus was born into a world that was bleak, as the people of Israel were living under the oppression and domination of Rome. Luke tells us that at the time of John the Baptist, the people were on tiptoe with expectation; they were on the edge of their seats, anticipating the arrival of a Messiah, the arrival of hope, the arrival of one who might interrupt their despair.
How do we live into the language of this Isaiah text? How do we live toward God’s dream of a world of reversals, of a world where those who are lame can leap like the deer, and those who are deaf are able to hear or those who are blind are made to see? We might begin to look at those who are disabled in a new way. Some use the words “differently abled” and I like those words.
Chuck Campbell taught preaching classes at Columbia Seminary in Georgia. He required students in one of his classes to lead worship at the Open Door Shelter for homeless people in downtown Atlanta. One day he was leading worship in front of the shelter, amid the noise of rush-hour traffic. After the call to worship and a song, Chuck’s plans were interrupted. He said, “I noticed one homeless man waving to me and pointing to himself. I was surprised when I saw him for the man can neither hear nor speak and is normally reserved.”
But there he was, eager to do something. He stepped into the middle of the circle, bowed his head in silence and began to sign a hymn for us. It was beautiful, like a dance. . . In that moment our notions of “abled” and “disabled” were turned upside down. The rest of us had been shouting to be heard, but the noise was no problem for our friend. . . Our worship became a token of the resurrection in the midst of the powers of death, a glimpse of God’s beloved community.” Even Isaiah couldn’t have imagined the glory of that moment in downtown Atlanta as the hands of the speechless were singing for joy.” (Charles L. Campbell, The Word before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching, 123-124)
In one church I served a family arrived with a son who suffered from a severe form of autism. He did not communicate, seemed to be in his own world, and sometimes he was a bit out of control. When he was having a bad day, he would make loud outbursts. They had not felt welcomed in the church they had previously attended because of Eric’s outbursts. I watched this community of faith as they reached out to this family with love, with offers of help and with patience.
The boy would be very calm when he came up for Holy Communion and as he received the bread and dipped it into the cup. A couple of Sunday mornings his mother called me and said, “We’re having a difficult morning. Could you take a minute to serve Eric communion in your office this morning?” I recall one Sunday morning when the mom brought Eric into my office. She was pulling the reluctant boy by the arm and he was resisting. Eric was often completely lost in whatever world he was experiencing. But when he saw the chalice and the bread on the table by my desk, he became calm and received the elements and looked me in the eye. In his eye I experienced the presence of God. It was a holy moment and I couldn’t find words to describe this experience but Isaiah did. It felt like waters breaking forth in the wilderness and like streams flowing in the desert. It felt like burning sand becoming a pool of refreshing water, and springs of water bursting out of thirsty ground.
In Isaiah this hope always comes in the midst of despair. And in Isaiah hope always looks like people being welcomed home again. It looks like the hospitality that only the beloved community can offer.
In The Bible Makes Sense, by Walter Brueggemann, he explores recurring themes of the Bible. In the chapter “From Death to Life” Brueggemann writes that the Bible’s notion of life and death are very different from ours. He writes, “Life means to be significantly involved in the community of caring, meaning, and action. Death means to be excluded from such a community or denied access to its caring, meaning, or action. (109-112)
Brueggemann notes that in the Gospel of Mark there is a story (Mark 5:2) about the man who is called Legion because he is so lost in mental illness. He is assigned to live among the tombs, among the dead, his healing comes at the hands of Jesus and what does Jesus do to complete the healing, he sends him home. His homecoming is a resurrection story; it is the ultimate divine reversal; it is like blossoms in the desert; it is everlasting joy in the face of sorrow.
Where do we hear God calling us in this Isaiah passage?
May we as a church hear the call to be a word out of place--a joyful, hopeful word that interrupts the narrative of despair in our world!
And if we consider the context of the environmental chaos of Isaiah 34, may we hear God’s call to live in ways that care for creation, that reduces our carbon footprint and be advocates for systemic changes that help recreate a healthy planet and reduce global warming!
This passage speaks to our hospitality to those who may be differently abled and calls us to we see each person as a gift from God, from whom we can learn and grow and come to know God better.
Isaiah saw people returning from exile; he saw this, “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.” (v. 8a) May we be that safe highway on which those who have felt exiled from their peoples, their home and even their churches, can find their way home. A few months back, we asked the question, “Where do you go when you can not go home?” May we, Belmont, be a home to those who have no other place to call home!
And then, my dear friends, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”
“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
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.