Sunday, December 8, 2013

Virtual Advent – Week 2

A NOTE TO THE GENTLE READER:  We didn’t have church today because of predicted ice storms.  So rather than posting a short summary as usual, I’m putting up the entire scripture texts and sermon, which would have been given in different sections throughout the service, so feel free to take a break, get a soda, and settle in – it’s a long one.

The 1st Reading 

Isaiah 11.1-9 (The Message):   A green Shoot will sprout from Jesse’s stump, from his roots a budding Branch.  The life-giving Spirit of God will hover over him, the Spirit that brings wisdom and understanding, The Spirit that gives direction and builds strength, the Spirit that instills knowledge and Fear-of-God.  Fear-of-God will be all his joy and delight.  He won’t judge by appearances, won’t decide on the basis of hearsay.  He’ll judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth’s poor with justice.  His words will bring everyone to awed attention.  A mere breath from his lips will topple the wicked.  Each morning he’ll pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.

The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid.  Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend* them.  Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent.  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.

*tend is usually translated as ‘lead’, but I like tend – how about you?


The Sermon:  A Little Child Shall Lead Them

A woman preaching to some folks in a nursing home was startled by the interruption of one of the residents, who shouted out in the middle of the sermon, “I HAVE A LOT OF QUESTIONS!!!”

Don’t we all.

In our passage today, mine begin with what will this guy that will have the Spirit of God hovering over him be like?  And more importantly, how will the particular gifts of the Spirit he has be helpful?  Isaiah tells us the Spirit will bring him: “wisdom and understanding”, “counsel and might” and “knowledge and fear of the Lord”.  Okay, so he’ll be really smart, able to do things with his hands and he’ll be a godly person.

But so what?  And so what if he comes from David’s family, which is what we’re meant to know with all the talk about shoots and stumps . . . that Jesse, David’s dad, will be this guy’s great . . . great . . . great . . . grandfather.  But again, so what?

Maybe poetess J. Janda gets it a little better for me when she writes . . .

the Father
in the Spirit
with Christ—
he began the
Compañia de Jesús

knowing wood
cut will grow

green again and
wood hath hope 

Wood hath hope.  I like that.  It helps me to remember that even when things seem darkest, even when suffering abounds, there is hope, for even tree stumps can show us signs of new life.

But I’ve still got questions.

I’m a peacenik and the next thing I read from brother Isaiah, who is, after all, a prophet of God, is that this guy who’s coming who knows when, who knows where, will be a righteous judge and the bad guys are really gonna get it, so look out . . . his very breath will kill them.  Sounds more like a video game than a king or president or savior to me.  And he doesn’t sound very peaceable either.

But wait . . . this king, this judge, will be fair to the meek and just to the poor . . . judgment isn’t all bad news after all . . . and that’s easy for me to forget . . . God does judge . . . and God’s judgment is good news for lots and lots of people . . . for there are many people in our world, far too many, who suffer injustice at the hands of their fellow human beings . . . Isaiah promises them that their unjust suffering will end and fairness will return to them. . . and there’s fair warning for the wickedness in us . . . it’s a pretty simple message, really . . . just . . . don’t . . . be . . . wicked . . . cut it out!  Stop it!  Such behavior is not acceptable. . . God could not be more clear . . .

So okay . . . I get it . . . the guy who’s coming has an important family tree and he’ll show us signs of new life just by his coming . . . and he’ll be fair, which is a warning as well as a promise . . .

But I’ve still got questions . . .

Because now we come to Isaiah’s promise of The Peaceable Kingdom . . . the place where lions and tigers and bears . . . o my!  hang out with little kids and babies and everybody gets along just fine . . .

Yeah . . . right . . .

This has got to be heaven, right?  For it sure isn’t earth, is it?  Jesus already came a long time ago . . . And so far, I don’t know too many parents letting their kids hang out in the rattlesnake den . . . and if they do, well look out, it’s time to call Social Services.

Yeah . . . it’s got to be heaven . . . because it sure isn’t here and it sure isn’t now . . . or is it?

Maybe the key to the whole thing is right there, smack dab in the middle of the passage, just waiting for us to notice . . . and a little child shall lead (tend) them . . .

Well, what do you know?  I’m betting that’s Jesus . . .

But I’ve still got questions . . .

The shoot from the stump of the family tree reassures us that Jesus has the street cred he needs and gives us a word of hope . . . Jesus coming as a judge is good news because there are lots of people crying out that it just ain’t fair and he is the king of fair . . . and Jesus promises me a heaven of peace, where I will always be safe . . .

But to get there, I’m going to be led by a child?  Even if we see this passage as telling us about Jesus, we understand Jesus’ leadership to heaven to come when Jesus is a man, a man hanging from a cross . . . so what’s this about a child leading us?

In the Hebrew Lexicon, the word for ‘lead’ has the sense of driving, as in a flock of sheep . . . Isaiah is telling us that a little child will be our shepherd, which is not as far-fetched as it sounds . . . in the Middle East even today, shepherds are often young boys . . .

So I can understand that a child might lead the sheep . . . but if I am to be considered a sheep, I’d better have some better understanding before I follow some kid . . .

Well, what are the attributes of a child?  What is a child like?

Always hoping for more . . .

Live in a world of wonder and surprise . . .

Live in the moment

Keeps it simple

Knows to stay together

Trusts . . . everybody, whether they deserve it or not

Loves . . .  foolishly, joyously, freely

Doesn’t know to be afraid of animals

And a child banishes fear

A child banishes fear?  Really?  Well, think about it . . . 13th century theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart said this about a child’s ability to banish fear from the heart of an adult . . .
If I were alone in a desert and feeling afraid, I would want a child to be with me.  For then my fear would disappear and I would be made strong. . .
In a child’s weakness is my strength . . .

And when it comes to joy, journalist Ellen Ratner says this about children:
I have traveled the world over to know this one truth: There is no force of nature as powerful as the joy of a child. Children have the gift of being able to laugh and play through war, economic despair, natural disaster, disease and hunger. Their magical power to transform their environment has been recorded for thousands of years. As Isaiah 11:6 prophesied, "... and a little child shall lead them."
One of my own most precious memories is of a time when I had not seen a friend for a while and when she let her 5-year-old daughter out of the car, Ali came running up, calling my name, and jumped into my arms, in sheer delight just to see me . . . that, my friends, is what the welcome of God into the Peaceable Kingdom of God’s love is like . . . God is so happy to see us . . . that God jumps into our waiting arms, if we will but open them . . .

And a little child shall lead them . . .

The tending of a little child comes with a spirit filled with wonder and openness and love and joy, but perhaps it also comes with a reminder of the responsibility for the little children as well.

The Hopi Nation has a custom when it comes to any action contemplated by a member of the tribe that will affect the others.  It is called the Medicine Wheel.

The whole community sits around a circle called a Medicine Wheel.  Around that wheel are representatives of all the different aspects of the community. . .  the fool. . . the hunter. . . the creator. . . the shaman, the politician, etc.  And in the center of the circle is the children’s fire.  Next to the children’s fire sit the grandfather and grandmother.
. . . you have to enter the Medicine Wheel [asking permission for a proposed action in the form of a question, which the fool reshapes into a different question about the impact of the action on the community].  You then have to take the fool’s question . . . to everyone around the Medicine Wheel.  Each will respond . . . according to their position in the community.
The last people you must ask the question to are the grandmother and grandfather who guard the children’s fire.  If these two decide that the request is not good for the children’s fire, then the answer is ‘no’.  They are the only ones in the circle who have veto power.
The concept of the ultimate question is simple.  Does it hurt or help the children’s fire?*
Should not all our leadings in this life begin with the question of whether it will hurt or help the children’s fire?

In The Peaceable Kingdom there can be no room for putting out the fire of a child.  It would be well with us to be led by such simple truth.

I still have lots of questions . . . and I’m not entirely sure what it means to say that a little child will lead us.

But I do know that God calls into our hearts to be open to divine surprises.  God calls us to seek God as fervently as God seeks us, for God’s final word in our Isaiah text is the promise of the knowledge of God.  The question remains for us, not ‘will we find the God we seek’, but rather, will we seek the God we’re bound to find?

An experienced rabbi was once asked why so few people were finding God. He replied that people were not willing to look that low.

May we, now and always, in living out God’s peaceable kingdom in the here and the now, always and ever be looking so low.


*As heard from the elders of the Hopi Nation, quoted in Kathleen A. Guy, Welcome the Child.


The 2nd Reading

Romans 15.1-12 (The Message): Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not status. Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, “How can I help?”

That’s exactly what Jesus did. He didn’t make it easy for himself by avoiding people’s troubles, but waded right in and helped out. “I took on the troubles of the troubled,” is the way Scripture puts it. Even if it was written in Scripture long ago, you can be sure it’s written for us. God wants the combination of his steady, constant calling and warm, personal counsel in Scripture to come to characterize us, keeping us alert for whatever he will do next. May our dependably steady and warmly personal God develop maturity in you so that you get along with each other as well as Jesus gets along with us all. Then we’ll be a choir—not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus!

So reach out and welcome one another to God’s glory. Jesus did it; now you do it! Jesus, staying true to God’s purposes, reached out in a special way to the Jewish insiders so that the old ancestral promises would come true for them. As a result, the non-Jewish outsiders have been able to experience mercy and to show appreciation to God. Just think of all the Scriptures that will come true in what we do! For instance:

Then I’ll join outsiders in a hymn-sing;
I’ll sing to your name!

And this one:

Outsiders and insiders, rejoice together!

And again:

People of all nations, celebrate God!
All colors and races, give hearty praise!

And Isaiah’s word:

There’s the root of our ancestor Jesse,
    breaking through the earth and growing tree tall,
Tall enough for everyone everywhere to see and take hope!


The Offering*:  Pilgrimaging Towards Peace

. . . letting our very lives sing in harmony to God . . . that’s how Paul envisions the peaceable kingdom of the here and the now . . . as something brought into being out of the motivations God plants within us that we are moved to share with others on their behalf.

The peaceable kingdom doesn’t come by wishing . . . it comes by working.

Born not of our desires or our beliefs or even our efforts, the peaceable kingdom of the here and the now, born in the imagining of God, nevertheless does not come into its fullness without us.

Why God should entrust us with such as this, I cannot say.  We hardly seem up to, let alone worthy, of the task.  Yet it is our task.

Thus will it never do for a follower of The Way to succumb to despair or the mute acceptance, “thus it has ever been, thus it shall ever be” when it comes to such things as war and violence and poverty and injustice.

Before the peaceable kingdom comes, we must (1) believe it is possible; (2) work to make it so; and (3) journey towards it.

Advent waiting is a crucial time in our church calendar for the remembering of the Father’s business we’re to always be about.  Waiting is not doing nothing.  Waiting is the preparing time. . . the making ready time . . . the wisdom-seeking time . . . the I-don’t-know-everything time . . . the running-to-greet time . . .

Henri Nouwen, in his book The Prodigal Son makes a crucial spiritual observation: as we grow into our faith, the time must come when we move from being either brother to doing . . . to acting . . . to being . . . the Father.  Yes, he proclaims, we are to step into the role of God and do the work of caring and waiting for the world.

Thus do we pray as we enter the Feast of Kept Promises and render up the offering of our very selves to the
God who gave us a life destined, pointed, aimed,
towards peace, always imagining that it can be so because God desires that it be so, never despairing, always proclaiming, never succumbing, always persevering in the race set before us.

We pilgrim people were never intended to sit still, to remain motionless like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights frozen by fear.

We pilgrim people were made to be on the move, always with a destination in mind yet never forgetting that the journey is all.  For if heaven is our destination, however we may imagine it, how can we not live as if we’re already there, already worthy for such a journey?  We cannot.  We must not.

Let us then rededicate ourselves to the work of peace . . . to the examination of our own lives to discern where we fall short . . . to the hard work of forgiveness where forgiving needs doing . . . to insisting on justice for everyone, for without justice, how can there be peace? . . . to refusing to settle for anything less than the fulfillment of God’s design as worthy of our work . . . to believing that with God, all things, even peace, are possible and living accordingly . . . to insist on truth-telling when it comes to our own actions, whether as individuals or as a nation that we may know where we have fallen short . . . to love in all things at all times just as we are and have been and will be loved in all things and at all times . . . to act as if the Gospel is our reality, because it is.


*In our services, we call the offering ‘The Feast of Kept Promises’ from Psalm 50.14 (The Message): “Spread for me a banquet of praise, serve High God a feast of kept promises.” – a wonderful image of the process of offering.

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