Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent 1A

Isaiah 2:1–5

 

HOPING ONE STEP AT A TIME

 

Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.

 

Happy New Year! The First Sunday in Advent marks the beginning of the New Church Year. We tend to enter a new year with high hopes. But what happens in the new year often does not live up to our hopes and dreams.

 

Advent is a season of hope. The word “Advent” means “coming” or “arrival.” As we look forward to our celebration of the first coming of Jesus on Christmas and anticipate his second coming, we are filled with hope. Recognizing that all is not well in our world, we cling to the hope that the coming of Jesus will set things right.

 

Last Sunday afternoon I had a pleasant time with Eric and Jan Luttrell in San Antonio, Texas. Eric and Jan are members of St. Andrew who spend their winters in San Antonio to be closer to their daughters and their families. I was in San Antonio for the Annual meeting of the Bonhoeffer Society and for the American Academy of Religion. At one point Jan mentioned that several of her friends had commented on the violent protests in Portland. The right to protest peacefully is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. These protests in Portland may have been intended to be peaceful, but some who joined the protests wanted to turn them violent. The message most protestors sought to convey tended to get lost in the violence.

 

To counteract violent images of Portland projected around the nation and world, Mayor Charlie Hales organized a “March of Hope.” The announcement for the march stated: “Portland Mayor Charlie Hales invites you to join civic, community and faith leaders on Tuesday, November 22nd at 3 pm for a March of Hope . . . As our city and nation work to move forward after last week’s election, the most important thing that we can do, as Portlanders, is to come together and reach out to each other and stand against hate.”

 

I was coming back into town on Monday evening, so I planned on participating in the March. My intention was to share with you this morning my reflections on how the march went. It seemed like a hopeful way to begin the season of Advent.

 

But then Mayor Hales canceled the “March of Hope” after hearing of a planned counter protest. His goal had been to bring community leaders together in unity and to share a message of hope. Competing protests would more likely have communicated chaos and disunity. More violence could have ensued.

 

Mayor Hales issued this statement: "Canceling this event does not mean our community is canceling hope. I encourage everyone to continue to reach out to each other and stand against hate. Reach out to our immigrants and refugees who moved here because they believed this was a good and safe place. Reach out to people of color, the LGBTQ community, those with disabilities, and to everyone who needs reassurance in their everyday lives that their civil liberties will remain protected, and say that Portland is a safe place for all and that we will work to keep it that way."

 

Our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 2:1–5, is a message of hope addressed to the people of God in Jerusalem and Judah. Isaiah 1 gives us an inkling of the violence and social degeneration that the people of God had experienced. Verses 7 and 8 describe the devastation inflicted on Judah by the Assyrian army of King Sennacherib: “Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.” Verses 21–23 reveal how the city of Jerusalem has brought social disorder and injustice upon itself: “How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her— but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.”

 

In response to this disheartening situation the prophet Isaiah offers a word of hope. Isaiah 2:1 speaks of the word Isaiah saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. So it is actually a vision. He envisions Mt. Zion, where the Temple was located, being established as the highest of the mountains; and peoples from all over the world streaming to it. At 2,510 feet Mt. Zion was less than one-fourth the height of Mt. Hood and one-tenth the height of Mt. Everest. It was not even the highest mountain in the vicinity of Jerusalem. In what sense could have Mt. Zion been considered the highest of the mountains? Isaiah 2:3 gives us a clue: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” It is the presence of the Lord in the Temple and the word of the Lord heard there that make Mt. Zion the highest of the mountains. On Mt. Zion people will receive a message of hope from God and learn how to walk in the light of that hope.

 

Isaiah proclaims that “the Lord shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples.” He announces the end of violent conflict: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” This was a powerful message of hope to a people devastated by war and violence.

 

Some may dismiss Isaiah’s vision as unrealistic. In the 17th century Thomas Hobbes asserted that human beings are in a constant state of war. War has certainly not disappeared in our own time. Apparently not much has changed from the time of Isaiah.

 

But a closer look at Isaiah’s vision reveals that he may not have been as unrealistic as it may at first appear. In verse 5, immediately following the affirmation that they shall learn war no more, Isaiah writes: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” In our culture we have a propensity to look for a quick fix to whatever ails us. Isaiah does not offer a quick fix. He exhorts the people of God to walk in the light of the Lord. He anticipates that his vision of hope will be fulfilled one step at a time. And he knows that the path will not be straight. The history of the people of God suggests that at times it may be two steps forward and one step back, and then one step forward and two steps back.

 

What is important is to keep Isaiah’s vision alive in every generation. What is the light that we are to walk in? Nothing less than God’s reign of peace. The Hebrew word is shalom. It refers to an absence of war and violence. But it also entails well-being of heart, mind, soul, and body and well-being in all our relationships to God, our fellow human beings, and all our fellow creatures. When God’s peace reigns, there will be harmony in our neighborhoods, communities, nations, and world. Social and ecological justice will be established.

 

We are to walk in the light of God’s reign of peace, therefore, one step at a time. Walking in the way of peace involves using our mind and all our God-given abilities to their fullest. But as Proverbs 16:9 reminds us, “the human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs our steps.” Those who walk in God’s light become beacons of light, signs of hope in our world. Walking in the light of God’s peace can be as simple as providing a Thanksgiving box for a family in need or buying a gift for a Giving Tree family. Such acts of kindness are visible signs of hope.

 

Sponsoring a Muslim Syrian refugee family has been challenging and could get still more challenging; nonetheless, it has been a sign of hope, a beacon of light in our troubled world.

 

Two of our young people, Amanda Bollman and Molly Hartshorn, have gone to Standing Rock to join the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Hundreds of veterans plan to “deploy” to Standing Rock on December 4 as an unarmed militia in protest against the pipeline. The 1,172-mile crude oil pipeline has been an object of controversy for months. Protestors argue that construction of the pipeline would threaten local water supplies and desecrate culturally sacred sites. Since Standing Rock is happening on President Obama’s watch, he is under pressure to address the grievances being voiced.

 

Whether you fully support the protest or not, the protestors concern for social, ecological, and religious justice is a sign of hope. The protest has drawn international attention. It is amazing to see the diversity of people who have streamed to Standing Rock to join Native Americans who live there. They have been marching in hope. For a time Standing Rock has become a high mountain. Protestors keep on hoping one step at a time that justice will be done.

 

In President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address, he stated that “we spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined." President-Elect Trump has stated that he intends to make America great again. He has indicated that the military needs to be improved. Isaiah’s vision of peace suggests that the way to greatness for America would be to turn weapons of destruction into implements of peace and healing. A shrinking military budget could be a sign of true American greatness. What we need in our time is a dose of prophetic imagination. Imagine freeing up billions of dollars to address our most pressing economic, social, and ecological issues. That would be a bright beacon of hope.

 

Come, people of God, during this Advent season, let us walk in the light of the Lord! Let us hope for God’s reign of peace one step at a time.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.