This sermon was offered on Sunday December 8, 2013 at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church on Isaiah 11 and Romans 15, Advent 2.
American poet Carl Wendell Hines wrote this poem in 1965:
“Now that he is safely dead let us praise him,
build monuments to his glory,
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make such convenient heroes.
They cannot rise to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.”
This short, truth-filled little poem speaks of a few temptations that modern-day life succumbs to when trying to figure out the prophets in our midst:
That we create their lives into an idol.
That we would rather look back at their lives and create a monument—
something that is immovable,
a physical object rather than doing the hard work of movement-building
or looking forward
offering a real testament to the life of a prophet
and the calling their witness places on each of our lives.
Sadly, we have seen much of the same this past week with the passing of the prophet in our midst, Nelson Mandela. So many tributes, so much nostalgia. But Mandela did not live his life so that we would think fondly of him. Instead he worked and sacrificed so that a movement would be built, one against apartaid to be sure, but later a movement that was pro-education, pro-equality, pro-a cure for HIV/AIDS, pro-peace and anti-imperial and anti-war.
Like prophets of every age, we hear both positives and negatives about his life. We hear his words and his witness of direct challenge to our comfortable lives.
The beauty of his witness is an overwhelming force.
And yet as the poem states, we sometimes fall victim to the temptation
to build monuments rather than do the hard work of transforming society.
It is usually easier to go backwards rather than forward.
Tonight’s reading from the prophet Isaiah is about forward motion. Isaiah writes during a time of war, violence, defeat and despair.
An empty time.
A time of hopelessness.
Yet, despite the destruction around him Isaiah’s hope is unbroken. He still finds the strength to speak of the promises of God…that are promises of peace of justice, no matter what the day-to-day reality might be…
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
on my holy mountain.
The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive,
a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.
On that day, Jesse’s Root will be raised high,
posted as a rallying banner for the peoples.
The nations will all come to him.
His headquarters will be glorious.
Isaiah is forward-looking. He is not looking to his present-day or the days-of-the-past for guidance or hope.
The house of David is falling. Assyria will fail in the war.
But God is still there. The Spirit is never leaving.
Hope springs eternal—and it is promised.
A new leader will come forward, a leader of peace, wisdom, understanding.
Full of knowledge, full of fear of the Lord.
Equality for the poor.
Not judging by appearances but instead by the law of God.
A new prophet will come into our midst.
“God is not done with us yet”—says Isaiah. “God is never done with us!”
Perhaps this Advent Season we are asking questions like:
“How do we believe in new life when we are not sure how to pick up the pieces of our lives or of our communities that are broken?
“Do we have the strength, do we have the ability?”
And as you and I journey together towards the ending of one time in the life of this community—Isaiah’s message in this Advent Season
that God is not yet done with us,
the promises of tomorrow are always present—
our God is inviting us into a forward-looking,
future-oriented vision of ministry,
even if it might look very different from
our imaginings and actions of ministry of the past
is a welcome reminder of the faith we share.
Let us recall just a few of the ways we have lived into this Isaiah-Advent promise…
Years ago in this community of North Plainfield, like many in our country; Protestants and Catholics did not engage in ministry together. We were distrustful of each other, even though we worship the same Risen Christ. Sometimes our families were broken by these divides. Sometimes church rules hurt or broke relationships. Or we protected our “turf,” believing that we needed to “keep to our own.”
One of my greatest joys in ministry here in this place has been an emerging partnership and relationship with our sisters and brothers in Christ who are just across the street at the Catholic Community of St. Joseph. We have taken steps towards worshipping together, entering each other’s sanctuaries for worship. Father George took the bigger risk, than we did; inviting me to preach each year, breaking the “rules” of his church to practice radical, hope-filled hospitality. We partnered together in a growing ministry in our community, growing fresh food for those around us who are in need. We are breaking down barriers, we are proclaiming the Good News, that we can be in ministry together—human barriers have no place here, the past no longer binds us—we are future-oriented following Jesus together! Our ancestors here 50 or more years ago probably could not have imagined an emerging collaboration like this.
And yet this gift of ministry in this community is yours to continue….as Isaiah calls us to be together, even when others say we should be apart…
This congregation has always been a place of welcome, but over the last few years we have been emerging in telling our story in open ways. We joined Presbyterian Welcome as an intentional sign of our unconditional welcome to those who have often been pushed to the margins of or out of our congregations, our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers. In 2010 our denomination after decades of struggle removed the formal barriers around ordination for ministers, elders and deacons and we celebrated. In the past few weeks we have seen the barriers to full and legal marriage equality come to pass in our State—but this has not been the case in our church law. As a sign of our growing understanding of welcome, our Session lived into Advent hope and prophetic promise and said yes to a couple who came to us seeking hospitality and welcome. Two of our Elders accompanied me to their home where I married them a few weeks ago. That same Sunday after their wedding a member of our church stood up to celebrate the wedding of her daughter and partner that same weekend. We clapped in worship—we celebrated the future.
Advent hope. Prophetic promises.
We know that shoots of new life will come out of the brokenness of our larger church. We believe it so deeply that we are willing to live it now, even when it might involve some personal risk. The Session and I talked about how we knew that our choices were not in line with our Book of Order. And yet we decided to live into the hope and promises of Jesus—to proclaim the Isaiah hope of equity with all the people of the earth….
This is now your ministry, promise, proclamation and hope to continue to joyfully offer in this place!
Even though the time of Isaiah, the time of the birth of the Christ child were fraught with fear or worry or wonderings about if they or their faith-movements would survive, they did not give in. Instead they worked harder, experimented, and followed the prophets in their midst. This is our calling today as the people of Advent—to go forward, even when the road is windy, when we do not know what is ahead, risks are involved, and we are invited to open up a future that we do not know if we will ever see. That is the radical, life-changing, world-altering call of Advent.
“Prepare the way for the Lord!” says the prophet John the Baptist.
“They will not hurt or destroy any on my holy mountain!” says the prophet Isaiah.
“Rejoice! Praise! Hope!” says Paul.
What will our cry be this Advent Season? What proclamation will we make?
Preparing in Advent for the birthing of the Christ Child into our midst is not quiet, passive work. It requires us to be forward moving, and not looking at a former time and wanting to go backwards. Backwards is familiar, cozy, there is nothing wrong with it—but it is not where God calls us to go. God is always about movement, forward motion, taking risks, believing in the promises of new tomorrows.
This is what the Advent Season is for and about.
Preparation, getting ready.
How can we greet the Christ Child if we do not learn this spiritual lesson? How can we open our hearts to his promise if we do not believe it? How can we go to the places he invites us if we want to stay in place or move back into familiar patterns? Advent waiting is not passive, it is active, it is persistent, it defies the odds, it is prophetic.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the kid,
The calf and the lion and the fatling together,
And a little child shall lead them.
And a little child shall lead them.
May the little child full of trouble, peace, hope and promise
Lead you and me in this Season of preparation and waiting.
There is a beautiful poem I have always read as a benediction on Sundays when I have confirmed a group of youth. Confirmation, like baptism, like Advent is a time of hope, promise, uncharted futures, bright new tomorrows. Listen to it today…
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.