Passage: Isaiah 2:2-5; Matthew 24:26-44
Date: December 02, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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The prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem prophesied during the reign of four Judean kings. He began about 738 BCE, and continued his work for the next forty or so years. Isaiah was a man of the city, perhaps having grown up in privileged circles. He was steeped in deep affection for Jerusalem. First and foremost, it was the place of the temple of Yahweh, God. Second, the throne of King David and his successors abided there. And third, the city held many sacred memories for that tiny nation. Other prophets like Amos and Hosea were nurtured in the wilderness traditions, in the theology of the exodus. Isaiah's theology matured in the relationship between Yahweh, God, and the Davidic dynasty. It is no wonder that his words reflect the expectation that the future Messiah who would come from the line of David. This Advent, Christmas, and into Epiphany, Isaiah's words are very present in our lectionary readings.
In the book of Isaiah, the first five chapters are oracles against his own people. Consider how difficult, painful, even dangerous that might be. Chapter 1 blasts away at the people of Judah, especially its leaders. Words of coming judgment ricochet off the city walls. Chapter 2 stands in sharp contrast. Its first five verses appear almost verbatim in Micah 4. In this season of hope, listen for the word of God. (Read)
The first gospel reading for Advent never begins where we think it should. It comes from the far end of the Jesus story, not near the beginning. Twenty-four chapters into Matthew are Jesus' words of warning. Matthew's congregation was urban, like Isaiah's. It had been some time since Jesus had died and risen. But he had not returned, as expected. I suspect there were questions about that, even taunts, and surely doubts. Hadn't he said he'd be returning soon? Well, soon was a long time ago. Today's reading is part of Matthew's response. It concerns how we are to live between the birth, that first coming, and the second. Listen for God's word. (Read)
Yup, it is Advent for sure. 146 million Americans went shopping the weekend after Thanksgiving. And millions more joined on Monday with online specials. On second thought, maybe it is not Advent for sure at all. Our culture does not do Advent. We do holiday celebration and Christmas preparation, Christmas and the day after Christmas, fun and wonderful, frantic and painful, and expensive. For people of faith, Advent weasels its way in in stark contrast. It demands that we step back from our shallow instant gratification culture. Did you see that furniture store ad where they promise no payments and no interest until January of 2010?! Grating words of prophet and Jesus call us to wait, to imagine. What God points us to is not about us and our wish lists and our ideas of happiness and joy. Isaiah and Jesus shout: "Imagine with God. This is about God."
In early October, I spent a week in Jerusalem, controlled by the Israeli government, rent with conflicts, beloved with holy zeal. Within a tiny area in the Old City, probably less than four city blocks, three revered sites beckon the faithful. Islam's third holiest shrine rests on the Temple Mount. Down below, butting up against the base of the Mount, a line of large foundational stone blocks form the Wailing Wall, dating from the Second Temple period of Judaism. And just over a stone's throw away, Christianity's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the primary revered site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial. Profoundly holy places for the world's three great monotheistic, Abrahamic religions, crowded together and painfully in tension. I could not help but envision that scene as I listened to Isaiah's Advent words about God's holy mountain.
Current power arrangements there, and in our nation, in fact in much of the world, current power arrangements flourish in an atmosphere of fear, anxiety, division, exploitation and violence. Listen carefully to our presidential candidates, Democrat and Republican. Hear how often their words play on our fears, our insecurities, our polarizations. All of their handlers know that fear wins more votes than does hope. And not just in our country.
Clashing dramatically with those are images from Isaiah. The vision shifts to wholeness, to international unity, to peaceful arbitration by the One all can trust, to non-violent living, and to great care for the earth and its people. Imagine. In so doing, Isaiah exposes our current practices, the ways we live together as pathological, destructive, and contrary to God. Inside our souls, we know that. How at odds with God's vision we are. One scholar says, "This text makes a claim on us that violates our rationality and jeopardizes our current patterns of security." (Texts for Preaching, year A, p. 1) Indeed. To be captured by this God's priorities would threaten much of what holds the world and our lives together. How tragic. How tragic to know that justice and peace and human well-being are so threatening. I long for such a world as imagined here, and deep inside, I also hear its threat, its danger.
The word on Advent I jolts people of faith to imagine a new future, from God. Advent I jolts us to remember that contrary to much current evidence, God is ultimately in charge. How freeing that is. Advent I jolts us to walk as if God's future were now.
Ted Wardlaw tells of a prominent African-American pastor who served a large and powerful church in Harlem. From its gothic spire, one could see blocks of burned out buildings, shabby little pawn shops, boarded-up storefronts and roach infested grocery stores. In their shadows, prostitutes and drug dealers plied their trades. While many had left, the church just stayed-watching, keeping alert, as if every moment mattered. They organized a locally owned bank so there would be at least one in the neighborhood. They set up programs for children, neighborhood redevelopment agencies, Bible studies in slum high rises, and more.
A newspaper reporter once interviewed this pastor. "Sure," he said, "you're doing great stuff. But it's hard to see what difference any of that is making. What enables you and your folks to keep going?" The pastor responded, "We read the Bible, and we know how it ends. We aren't at the end yet," he went on, "but we know how it ends, and that's what makes all the difference." (Journal for Preachers, Advent 2007, p. 4)
One could ask the same question about last week's short conference in Annapolis between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and many of Israel's Arab neighbors. "Why bother? They have all failed before. And hasn't there been conflict there forever?" Why bother? Because wonderfully, incessantly, people of faith are reminded by God to imagine God's new future. The present is not all there is. It is Advent.
As we come to the communion table, we dare to hope. We quote scripture: "People will come from east and west, north and south to sit at table together in the realm of God." Isaiah exhorts the faith community to put one foot in front of the other, to walk as if the future were now. Yes, Christ's future now. Dare, dare to hope, dare to hope for a time when God's "will will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Seems a whole lot foolhardy to imagine that, to hope that, unless you know how it ends. Amen.