Sunday, December 9, 2007

(Advent 2) Turn around and look

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

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It’s not hard to figure out why we Christians love Advent.
It’s such a hopeful season.
It anticipates such wonderful things.
It makes the claim that we are on the verge,
right on the verge of God breaking into the world
with salvation, and healing, and restoration.
It’s no wonder that Christians mark time with Advent.
Advent always begins a new year in the worship calendar.
In fact, in the 3-year cycle of scripture readings,
called the lectionary,
we’re at the very beginning now.
Last Sunday we started Year A, Advent 1.

Advent carries a message welcomed by a world
longing for the fulfillment of God’s salvation.
Advent is a promise that we’ve not been forgotten by God,
that God is with us.

Our challenge is how to hold this Advent message of hope,
and at the same time, face life in this world, the way it is now.
That’s not an easy task.
And it’s seems to me it’s getting harder every year.
I thought it wouldn’t get any harder than it was six years ago, in 2001,
when we began the same scripture cycle, Year A, Advent 1,
less than 3 months after the Sept. 11 catastrophe.

Then, as now, we were given these texts from Isaiah,
full of hope and confidence that God is about to intervene,
and put everything right.
Last Sunday, our text from Isaiah talked about
the nations of the world beating their swords into plowshares,
and no longer studying war.
Next Sunday,
Isaiah will wax poetic about the desert pouring forth water,
and the drab wilderness bursting into bloom with flowers.
And today, we probably have the most amazing word picture of all,
a true utopia,
the peaceable kingdom Ross talked about to the children
Where the wolf will lie down with the lamb.
Where the calf and lion will be led by a child.

Sounds pretty inviting, doesn’t it?
Especially in a week of more saber-rattling
between the leaders of the U.S. and Iran,
another mass murder and suicide by a troubled young man,
this time in a shopping mall packed with Christmas shoppers.
a massive oil spill in South Korea,
and in Iraq, another 4 U.S. service personnel killed last week,
along with 117 Iraqi civilians.

It’s age old question of human existence,
“How do we live in a world overflowing with suffering?”
When there is more than enough suffering to go around;
when there is pain and poverty,
loneliness and hatred,
violence and disaster everywhere we turn,
what does it mean to “live well” and how do we do it?

That question is a lot more complicated these days.
Used to be, in my grandparents’ day,
you weren’t all that aware of suffering in the world,
unless the suffering was your own, or your neighbors,
or someone told you about it personally.
In their small towns and rural communities,
it was normal to not know.
Pictures of the latest war, or typhoon, or famine,
could only be seen at the downtown movie theater
on grainy black & white news reels once a week or so.

Today, all the horrific and bloody and gut-wrenching
sights and sounds of suffering are in our face
instantly, and constantly—
in our living rooms, and bedrooms,
and on our office computer screens.
A plane crashes in a fiery inferno somewhere in Japan.
Within minutes, on cable TV or the internet,
we can see the flames and hear the sirens,
and listen to the anguished crying of relatives.
A hurricane bears down on the Gulf Coast,
and we can watch it happen live,
can see houses, cars, and bodies float away, in real time.
Interesting experience a couple weeks ago.
Irene and I and daughter Sharon were on a big ferry,
crossing the Irish Sea toward Dublin.
Out in the middle of the sea, TVs in the passenger lounge
were showing BBC news, live.
And there was a rescue operation in progress
in waters north of where we were.
A ferry was sinking, and hundreds of passengers in life boats
were being rescued by a cruise ship.
We, and the other passengers on our ferry,
were sipping our tea, and watching this happen.

I imagine most everyone here can remember where they were
on the morning of September 11, 2001.
Some of you here probably watched, and saw,
the towers crumbling to the ground,
taking thousands of lives with them.
You actually saw it happen, in real time,
and so did millions of other people, all over the world.

I have to wonder about the social, and spiritual, impact
of all this instant and constant availability
of the sights and sounds of human suffering.
I think we scarcely realize what this does to us, as a society.

So what does faithful, Christian living look like, in such a world?
Is there a way to live fully and joyfully and meaningfully,
in the face of such suffering?

Seems to me that we’ve sort of decided
we cannot look head-on into the suffering of this world,
and still live fully and joyfully, so we’ve found ways to avoid it.

Ironically, one of the ways of escaping it, I think,
is by watching it all the time on CNN and the internet.
After hundreds of hours of watching bombs fall, and buildings burn,
and planes crash, and children starve, and parents cry,
it soon starts to seem like just the way life is.
It’s normal.
We stop being shocked by it.
We have no intense reaction at all—no outrage, no anguish, no grief,
no determination to fight against the suffering.
Obviously, we can’t go through life
in a constant state of outrage and anguish.
We would die from emotional exhaustion.
But most of us could probably handle more than a raised eyebrow.
That’s about all the response some people can muster,
after watching it night after night on TV,
with a full plate of food in front of them.

When our God-given senses have become dulled,
when we no longer are moved by suffering,
we fail to be fully human.
God is a passionate God. God feels...deeply.
God is moved, to joy, to sadness, to anger, to love.
And we are created in the image of God.
If we fail to be moved,
we are shutting out part of the image of God within us.

There are also plenty of ways we’ve learned
to escape the suffering that’s right in our own back yard.
Some of these ways are not only encouraged by our culture,
they are put into law.
City and county planners regulate property use in such a way,
that if I am living a comfortable, stable,
and safe middle-class lifestyle,
I need not ever worry
about having to rub shoulders with the poor.
Residential neighborhoods are developed,
that don’t allow houses less than a certain square-footage,
and don’t put in sidewalks,
and don’t allow businesses to locate there.
So when I move there,
I’m guaranteed never to have, as a close neighbor,
someone who can’t afford a house like mine,
or can’t afford a car.
Poor people won’t even have a reason to
visit my neighborhood to conduct business.

We make sure all the poor people
live together in the same general part of town.
We plan our streets and major roads so that we don’t even
have to drive through a blighted neighborhood
to get to our favorite restaurants and shopping centers.
We create an illusion that the kind of life I live,
is the way everyone lives.
I don’t blame the planners.
We elect them.
And they do what we want them to do.
We want them to protect us
from having to face the suffering of others.
If they did anything else, they’d get thrown out of office.

But we can also err the other direction
when it comes to living in a world of suffering.
We can become so immersed in the suffering of others,
and of ourselves,
that we succumb to outright despair and hopelessness.
We can focus our energy so intently on the darkness of this world,
that we drown ourselves in it.
There are those who see all the oppression and violence
in our world,
in our cities,
in the middle east,
in the war on terror,
in the violent clash of religious dogma...
and they drown.
They literally drown emotionally.
They lose the ability to breathe in life and joy and hope.
And they sink into a state of despair and hopelessness.

Both those responses to a world of suffering are sorely lacking.
They need the good news which the scripture proclaims
on this second Sunday of Advent.

In Isaiah 11,
the prophet looks, and sees, a vision of a peaceable kingdom,
with wolves resting beside lambs,
and leopards and goats and lions and calves,
all grazing peacefully, with children playing nearby.
It was not a picture of the real and present life for him or his people.
Not by a long shot.
The Israelites were basically slaves of King Sennacherib
and the Assyrian army.
Isaiah’s people were suffering, deeply.
So I wonder what they thought of Isaiah’s vision?
Were they truly encouraged by it?
Or did they laugh it off? “Yeah, Isaiah, in your dreams!”

But Isaiah persisted.
He kept proclaiming peace.
He kept painting these word pictures
of swords into plowshares,
of rivers in the desert,
of lions that ate straw like an ox.
In spite of the reality all around him.
In spite of the ridicule he probably got from his neighbors.
He held up this picture of hope, and said,
“Look here! See what God is doing!”

Over 200 years ago a preacher from Berks County, Pennsylvania,
did something very similar.
Inspired by this very chapter in Isaiah,
Edward Hicks picked up a paintbrush,
and put Isaiah’s vision on canvas.
And then he did it again. And again.
Over 100 different versions of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom,
were painted by preacher Hicks,
including the one that Ross showed the children,
and which is on the back of the bulletin.

Like Isaiah, the pictures that Edward Hicks painted
did not represent present reality.
Hicks was a Quaker.
And at the time he made those paintings,
the Quaker church was suffering a painful division.
There were two opposing camps of Quakers –
the Orthodox Quakers – headquartered in Philadelphia –
and the Hicksite Quakers –
named after Edward’s older cousin, Elias Hicks.
Even though Edward supported his cousin Elias,
this division pained him deeply.
So he used his paintings to preach to his church –
a message not only of acceptance of those who are different,
but of true affection for, appreciation of, and genuine love
toward those who would otherwise oppose us.
We have some of his actual sermons in print,
where he explained the meaning of his paintings,
and applied it directly to that conflict among Quakers.

But why do this, Mr. Hicks?
Why do this, Isaiah?
Why persist in painting unrealistic pictures of peace,
when brokenness and suffering and pain is all around?

Maybe these paintings, and these prophetic oracles,
are simply wishful dreaming,
an exercise in the power of positive thinking.
But no. That would be a gross misstatement of what’s going on.
Isaiah was not trying to conjure up some new reality,
trying to wish something into existence.
His utopian prophecy was not his imagination gone wild,
trying to get the people’s minds off of their troubles.
It wasn’t some motivational speech like some we hear today,
“if you can dream it, you can accomplish it.”

No, this was the picture of what Isaiah really saw,
when he was given a glimpse of what, in fact,
was in the heart and intentions of Yahweh, the God of Israel.
The people of Israel were being given an inside look
at God’s dream for them, and for all creation.
They were given a glimpse of the future
that God was preparing for them.
Obviously it had not yet been fully realized,
but it was a picture of what was already breaking forth.
God’s work, you realize, is all about making all things new.
The good news for Isaiah’s people, several millennia ago,
was that God was working on his dream,
right then, in the time of their suffering.
The good news for Edward Hicks’ Quakers, 200 years ago,
was the same.
The good news today is that God is still at work,
bringing forth the peaceable kingdom,
in the midst of this suffering and broken world.
In your own suffering and brokenness.

The perfect and peaceable kingdom of God is taking root now.
Look and you’ll see the signs.
Whenever and wherever God’s people
open themselves to God’s saving and healing and redeeming work.
God’s peaceable kingdom comes a little closer.

It comes when we turn around and look.
The turning around is crucial, of course.
Turning around is the attentiveness I was talking about last Sunday.
It’s turning around, from our chronic distraction,
turning around, from the sin that binds us,
turning around, from those things that keep us from seeing,
and turning toward God’s dream of a peaceable kingdom.

That’s what the Gospel reading was about today.
That’s why the story of John the Baptist is read,
on the same Sunday we read about the peaceable kingdom.
See, in Matthew 3,
John the Baptist was helping the people prepare for the kingdom,
by calling them to turn around, to repent.
That’s the definition of repentance.
Turning around, to move toward God’s dream, God’s future.
I think that’s exactly what John meant,
when he preached by the Jordan River,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

This picture of the kingdom,
painted with words by Isaiah,
and on canvas by Edward Hicks,
is what defines our lives as disciples of Jesus,
not the suffering in the world around us.
We by no means, avoid or deny the suffering.
And we by no means, drown ourselves in despair.

Rather, we acknowledge it, we see it, we allow it to move us.
And then we turn toward God’s dream,
we turn around and look at another equally truthful reality,
the reality that is in the heart and intentions of God,
the reality that shows what God is up to, even now,
and we orient our lives around that reality.

This orientation is captured well, I think,
in a song we sang this past summer
at General Assembly in San Jose.
You’ll find it in your insert.
Music by Jim Croegart, words adapted from the poet David Adam.
Let me read the words, before we sing it.

Our hearts are empty without you
Barren and cold, but for the bold
Hope that you yourself planted within
In the mighty name of God
In the saving name of Jesus
In the strong name of the Spirit
We come. We cry. We watch. We wait. We look.
We long for you.

Sometimes we look for the morning,
For a refrain from etchings in pain,
But our loneliness draws us to you.
In the mighty name of God
In the saving name of Jesus
In the strong name of the Spirit
We come. We cry. We watch. We wait. We look.
We long for you.

--Phil Kniss, Dec. 9, 2007

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