Sermon: Higher Ground

September 23, 2018
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Season of Creation: Mountain Sunday
Isaiah 65:17-25, Romans 8:28-39

Seven hundred twenty-one years before Jesus – give or a take a couple years uncertainty in ancient calendars – the Assyrian army besieged Jerusalem, the capital city of the nation of Judah. It’s king, Hezekiah, was a descendant of King David and King Solomon. The situation was frankly hopeless. Judah was a small nation with limited resources. Assyria was an enormous empire with a powerful military. All Hezekiah could do was gather everyone within the walls that surrounded the Mount Zion, site of God’s temple, block up the water sources outside the city, protect the water sources that supplied Jerusalem itself, and pray.

A prophet named Isaiah ben Amoz encouraged the king and the people during this time, declaring that God would protect them. To the astonishment of everyone, the siege failed. Illness swept through the camps of the Assyrians, and the army retreated, never to return to Jerusalem.

They had been safe upon their mountain, their higher ground.

A hundred thirty years or so later – Five hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus – the situation was different. The Babylonian army entered the city of Jerusalem for the second time in ten years, as Jeremiah the prophet had first warned, and then announced. This time, the Babylonian emperor, Nebuchadnezzar, was in a vengeful mood. He ordered its walls toppled, its homes leveled, and its temple – the one built by Solomon – destroyed.

Leaders of the city and the nation made their desolated way to Babylon, seized and banished so they would not spark another rebellion against their new imperial overlords.

This time, they had not been safe upon their mountain, their higher ground.

Less than fifty years later, however, the Babylonian Empire fell itself, to Cyrus the Great, emperor of the First Persian Empire. He and his successors allowed the descendants of the exiles to return to Jerusalem, rebuild it as a city, and renew it as a self-governing province of Persia.

During this period, scholars believe, somebody wrote the words we read today, about a people, about a society, about an entire creation renewed and reformed by the blessings of God. He envisioned peace and security upon the mountain, an end to the scourge of childhood mortality and even extended life among the elders. He saw a new justice in which the poor could feed themselves, and not only the rich, which had been the pattern for centuries. He saw a new natural order in which carnivores like wolves and lions became vegetarian – perhaps he even believed that people would become vegetarian (he left that question unanswered).

He looked up at the summit of Mount Zion. Perhaps the crown of the new temple was already rising, or perhaps it was completed, or perhaps he saw it with his prophetic eye. He looked up at Mount Zion and said:

“They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

The prophet envisioned a new kind of safety, a new kind of higher ground. He imagined a day when the blessing of the mountain was not that of defense in war. That kind of safety is precarious. Even the successful resistance to the Assyrians in the first Isaiah’s day left the nation stricken with the costs and ravages of war. Much worse was the defeat of 587.

This Isaiah looked up at the mountain and saw something different than a military stronghold, a castle or a fortress. He saw a new way of living. One without war. One without the terrible levels of childhood mortality. One without the infections that carried away so many adults. One without the systemic abuse of the poor. One without children being born into hopeless futures.

That’s quite a mountain. What a vision of higher ground.

Isaiah, I regret to say, didn’t see that come to pass in his lifetime.

We have seen some of it. Infant mortality has plunged worldwide, but especially in the wealthy nations like the United States. Oddly, the U.S. has fallen behind countries with similar levels of resources and technology. In 2014, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, American families suffered 5.8 deaths within a year among 1,000 births. That’s better than it had been: in 2000, it was just under 7. But in Canada, it’s was 4.8 in 2014. In the United Kingdom and Switzerland, 3.9. In fact, the average infant mortality rate per 1,000 births for comparably developed nations was 3.4. In Japan, it was 2.1.

That rate is not evenly distributed among the population. Southeastern states in the U.S. have much higher rates, along with Indiana and Ohio. The racial disparities are chilling. Caucasians suffered a 4.8 deaths per thousand rate in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The rate for Asian Americans was 3.6. But for native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, it was 7.4. For native Americans and the First Nations peoples of Alaska, it was 9.4. For African Americans, it was 11.4.

I think that means we are not seeing a change in the abuse of the poor by the wealthy. We have not reached Isaiah’s mountain. We are not on that higher ground.

And we still hear cries of distress. We continue to send our military into harm’s way. We have not reached an era where a hundred years of life is normal. Men continue to sexually abuse and exploit women and other men. This week, Twitter rang with stories of #WhyIDidntReport after politicians argued that a woman’s story about sexual assault should only be believed if she reports it immediately.

We have not reached Isaiah’s mountain. We are not on that higher ground.

The good news is that the mountain is not Isaiah’s, or Jeremiah’s, or the earlier Isaiah’s, or even ours. The mountain is God’s, and the Apostle Paul testified to God’s faithfulness. God is for us. What does it matter that there may be, or even are, others against us? Paul even dared to contradict the Psalms. “For your sake we are being killed all day long,” it says in Psalm 44. No, replied Paul. We are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us.

Paul did not see Isaiah’s mountain either. He wrote his letter to the church in Rome in anticipation of visiting the city and its church on his way to Spain. When he arrived in Rome, he did so as a prisoner, having survived a shipwreck along the way. The Emperor Nero ordered his execution.

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I, too, am convinced. And I am convinced that neither shame, nor disregard, nor political opportunism, nor the self-justifications of the self-righteous, nor lies, nor fake outrage, nor racism, nor sexism, nor heterosexism, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The higher ground is not ours, Isaiah’s, or Paul’s. It is God’s. In God there is a love so great that it overwhelms all that would stand against it. We may not have seen this grand higher ground of justice and peace: but God has, and we will.

Now that, for me, is higher ground.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Please note that the prepared text above may not match the recording. Well, not “may not match,” exactly. The correct phrase is: “does not match.”

The photo of Mauna Kea wearing its snowy crown is by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on September 23, 2018

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