Sermon: “Reverse the Wor(l)d”

December 4, 2016: Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

Seven hundred fifteen years before Jesus was born – give or take a year or four – the prophet Isaiah felt like he was having a good day. A new king was coming to the throne after many years of struggling with the old king – and the old king before that. Those rulers had embraced foreign gods and they had abused the people to benefit themselves. Isaiah believed that the new king would be different, would be faithful not just to the worship of Israel’s God but also the standards and ethics of Israel’s God.

As it happened, Isaiah was right. King Hezekiah received high praise from the authors of the Book of Kings, and they didn’t have much nice to say about many of Hezekiah’s predecessors, or, for that matter, many of Hezekiah’s descendants.

So Isaiah was having a good day, one on which he was able to imagine a ruler who would judge the poor with righteousness, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. He could see in Hezekiah the ruler possessing the six “Gifts of the Spirit:” wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord.

Yet Isaiah had something of a strange day, because his vision didn’t stop there, where it could have. Another vision emerged, only somewhat related to the first: a vision of an unfamiliar world, in which the day-to-day violence not just of humanity but also of nature has ended. Predators eat leaves and grains. A child – not a King – leads. Snakes don’t strike. God grows closer: “And the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

All that is greater than Hezekiah. It’s beyond the power of any earthly king, or president, or legislator, or governor, or mayor. It’s a reversal of the world.

It’s a new message for the prophet Isaiah. Up until this point, his message has sounded more like this: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

If any of you were wondering where John the Baptist got his inspiration, well, you can look farther but we’d have to include Isaiah among them.

But with this vision, the one we’ve come to call the Peaceable Kingdom, Isaiah reversed his word, as his vision was one to reverse the world.

I think that to reshape the world, we may first reshape the word.

To reshape the world, reshape the word.

Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom gives something of a shape to what had been formless possibility – and it gives an extension to what had been business as usual. Justice between people gets transformed into peace for all creation. Who knows? Perhaps these words inspired King Hezekiah, and they became part of what led him to govern as faithfully as history records. Perhaps God, and Isaiah, set them before the people as a challenge for what could be.

Isaiah reshaped his word, so that he could reshape his world.

They call this the Information Age. We’ve shifted, I’m told, from an economy based on things to an economy based on knowledge. I’m not sure quite how true that is. A lot of the economic activity we measure as Gross Domestic Product consists of moving money around with less to show from it than, say, a pastor’s sermon. What I am certain of is that we move a lot of words around. We have recorded words, and written words, and televised words, and tweeted words, and texted words, and even live-spoken words. We even put words in pictures and spread the pictures around, calling them pictures when they’re pictures of words.

What do we tell each other with these words? What vision do they declare of who we are, and what we do, and what we expect? What hopes do they express? What values? What commitments?

Our daily media offers a disheartening story. Kathryn Matthews writes, “The new normal continues to mean a gauntlet of security measures just to board an airplane, press releases about the latest toxic toy (a ‘detoxified’ world would literally protect ‘the little ones’ from poisons), lawsuits over miracle drugs gone awry and statistics about opiate addiction (or here in Hawai’i, the amphetamines known as ‘ice’) ruining our small towns. We think today of the courageous protests going on at Standing Rock, a defiance of an ‘order’ that finds it acceptable to pollute the water and the sacred grounds of Native American people. All of this is so ‘normal’ that we forget who we are, as children of God who have been promised better than this.”

In fairness to the hard-working people of the media, they tell us what is “news” – that is, what is new, and different, and unusual. The headlines are the exceptions, not the rule. If they did start leading with “People Care for Each Other” above the fold in the Tribune-Herald, that’s the time to worry, because it would mean most people have stopped caring for one another.

We cannot allow the “news story” to become our story. But we also can’t let the “normal” to which we’ve acquiesced become our story either. That’s the one in which wealth and power get their way because they are wealthy and powerful. That’s the one where liberties are denied to some to provide reassurance to others. That’s the one where the homeless remain homeless, where the hopeless remain hopeless, where the outsiders remain outside.

If we’re to reverse the world, we’ll need to reverse the word.

John P. Burgess writes, “What John – and Advent – remind us is that repentance is not primarily about our standards of moral worthiness, but rather about God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life. Repentance is not so much about our guilt feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image.”

To reverse ourselves, just that part of the world, we’ll need to reverse our word.

If the Peaceable Kingdom sounds like a lofty goal, I agree with you. I do not know how to put wolves and lambs together without bloodshed. But I will not forget and I urge you not to forget: that is the goal.

If the image of a truly righteous government in power sounds like a lofty goal, well, I agree with you on that, too. Still, I’d rather work on that than on persuading the lion to eat straw.

If the image of guiding our own lives, those we live together as a church and the lives we live in our homes, and workplaces, and outreach to our neighbors, in the ways of God; if that sounds like a lofty goal, well, I agree with you on that, too. But that’s the first place to reverse the word, isn’t it? It’s the first place to tell the story about who we want to be, who we plan to be, who we strive to be.

Reverse the word. Expand the vision. Let the goals be worthy of our calling as Christians. Then we can truly reverse the world.

Because we do not do it alone. We do it with each other. We do it with other faithful people, Christians and non-Christians, people of good will who also reverse the word. And we do it with Jesus Christ, whose being fulfills these ancient words of Isaiah in ways that King Hezekiah could not.

Reverse the word. Reverse the world.

The image is a 13th century icon from the Sinai. It depicts Isaiah the prophet worshiping Mary and the child Jesus. She is depicted as “Mother of God of the Burning Bush.”

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on December 4, 2016

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