Monday, November 29, 2010

On What Could Be

(Forgive me for posting a sermon text. I try to post something longer each week, in addition to a couple of smaller pieces. But charge conference is tonight and I am tied up in meetings all week. Here is a sermon for the first Sunday in Advent, preached yesterday. I heard the DS say today, at a district meeting, that we ought to be more positive about our economic circumstances. Having slogged through this particular sermon yesterday, the point is well taken.)

Text: Isaiah 2:1-5
Title: What Could Be

I was here two years ago and it is a real pleasure to be back, especially on this first Sunday of Advent. Advent is sort of a strange season—we are waiting for something that has already come, expecting a child that was born two thousand years ago. Advent is a distinctively different kind of season—it is a church season, which means that like a lot of other things in the church, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but we do it anyway.

But I love the Advent season. There is something about waiting for Christmas that reminds me of waiting for the birth of a child, that sense of anticipation, those preparations, and Advent helps make Christmas mean more to me than ripping open presents and eating half a honey banked ham and passing out on the couch. You need that sense of expectation, I think, to make the day worth it, and in some ways we need it now more than ever. I don’t have to tell you. These are uneasy days, and the days have been uneasy for some time. When I preached here last, things had just turned south, and we were in it, but I think we all figured that this time, like most periods of down times, this time it would quickly pass. We would batten down the hatches and weather the storm, and then we’d go on like we always had.

But this time has been different, of course. It is hard to have hope when all around you seems to be falling away, and you wonder whether your next step is going to fall on solid ground or on a trap door where you find yourself in a hole with a tiger. These are uneasy days.

So, I don’t know about you, but I have been especially looking forward to Advent this year, because even if things are tough, at least I get the small piece of chocolate every day when I open the little door in my Advent calendar. When times are tough, you hold on to any little piece of happiness, any little piece of hope you can get your hands on, but lately I almost feel as if I don’t want to have hope. Now, I know that is a strange thing to say, but I almost really do feel like I don’t want to have hope, because I worry that I will just end up disappointed. Every time I feel like the world is getting ready to come out of this nonsense, we dive back in, and there’s always something to keep you disappointed, if that is what you are looking for. There’s always a new piece of economic news to disappoint you, or more awful sales figures at work, or another exhausted, hopeless look at the end of the day from your spouse. There just does not seem to be much to hope for—we are in so deep that you almost want to give up. And the worst part—the worst part—is that we seem to have lost control of the situation. So much of this is out of our control—I will venture to guess that there are no Wall Street bankers or members of Congress in the room—so much is out of our control that you wonder if we will ever feel like we’re walking on solid ground.

So let the record show that times are rough, but before you give up on me let me tell you that the kind of period we find ourselves in today is quite similar to the situation that the Israelites found themselves in, in this chapter of the Book of Isaiah. Their fate seemed to shift with the wind. One day, Egypt dominated them, and the next it was Assyria, or Babylon, or someplace else, but it didn’t really matter who it was. It felt like nobody was in charge, and because things changed so quickly, there really wasn’t anybody in charge, at least for long. It felt like nobody was in charge, least of all God, and when you start to feel like even God is not in charge, it is easy to lose sight of God’s vision for the world, because there are always, it seems, more pressing concerns, more immediate problems.

I say that you start to lose sight of God’s vision for the world, because in a lot of ways, that’s what hope is: hanging on to God’s vision for the world, trusting that God is still God. That’s what hope is, I think: believing that God is still God.

The Israelites had lost sight of God, and started to trust only in themselves, and this happens more than you might think. A nation loses its way, and of course you start to blame God, because if God is in charge and things are bad, then the natural extension is that God made things bad. Or you lose a job or a loved one, and if God is in charge, and you lost something, it must have been God who took it from you, and who wants to trust a God who does something like that? Oh, nobody really believes that, you might think, but how many times have you heard someone at a funeral say, “I guess God must have wanted another angel?”

These kinds of formulations work just fine, if you assume that God really does control everything, really does everything independent of human actions—if we are just pawns in some divine game of chess between God and the devil. It sounds ridiculous, but until something truly awful happens, it is of course much easier to think this way: to think that you are successful because God wanted you to be successful, blessed financially because God wanted you to be blessed, that all you are and all you have are who you are and what you have because God wanted it to be that way. And while I do not deny that God works in our lives, it is only a short skip and a jump from this kind of understanding of God to creating God in our own image instead of the other way around. It is just a short hop to a belief system where everything we do is justified just because it happened, and God would not have let it happen if God did not want it to happen that way.

Do you hear what I am saying? We self-justify and then stamp God’s name on it, like a knock-off pair of sunglasses or a purse with a designer label sewn into it, because self-justifying and attributing our actions to God’s will is easier than asking hard questions about what God’s true vision is for the world, and how we as God’s people fit into that vision.

I know these are hard questions. They are so hard we don’t even really ask them, in the church or otherwise. Oh, you hear all the time about God’s vision for your life. You can’t turn on the television without seeing some TV preacher with beautiful teeth telling you about God’s vision for your life. If you listen to those preachers, God’s vision for your life is for you to have gobs of money and nice cars and seventeen homes.

Even if you reject this sort of thinking that says that if you are faithful, you will be wealthy, you probably have asked yourself about what God’s vision is for your life. I think it is a perfectly reasonable question. Finding God’s vision for your life is important, I think, but it is not terribly hard to do, because it is easy to see your own role in finding God’s vision for your life. If you are like me, you have no problem thinking about yourself. I am something of an expert at thinking about myself. I pretty much do it all the time.

Asking questions about God’s vision for your life is perfectly reasonable I think, which makes it all the more surprising to learn that the prophet Isaiah could not care less about God’s vision for your life. Israel was full of people who asked about God’s vision for their lives, but what they did not do was ask about God’s vision for the world. Isaiah is talking about God’s vision for the world, and your place in it.

God’s vision for the world is really something quite different from God’s vision for your life, because thinking about God’s vision for the world require going outside of yourself: thinking about what God’s vision is—not just for you, not just for this time, but for the entire world, for the entirety of time. God’s vision for the world is bigger than any lifetime, bigger than any one person or one nation. But just because God’s vision is bigger than any one person does not mean that we as God’s people have no role in God’s vision. The world is not a cosmic chess game in which the pieces have no control over their own movements. God does not demand that we move three spaces forward and two over, and then it is the devil’s turn. That is now how this all works. The world is an active, moving place in which God is at work, yes, but the primary way that God works is through God’s people, so God’s vision for the world is less about things happening to us than it is about us making things happen.

And in the midst of all of this the prophet Isaiah gives us a pretty clear picture of God’s vision for the world: and oh, what a vision it is. Instruments of war bent into instruments of food production. Peace among all nations. Food for everyone. The study of war falls away and gives way to the worship of God. These words have so inspired the world that they are engraved on the United Nations building, and displayed outside the World Court, and celebrated on countless other monuments to peace, all over the world. With such beautiful language, and so many people claiming to take it seriously, you’d think we’d be closer to a world full of peace. I guess the reason is that these words, like so many others in the Bible, are chalked up to impossible idealism and ignored as beautiful but outdated relics of an earlier time.

It is idealistic, for sure. But it is also God’s vision. If you decide that life is too hard for God’s vision, too hard to work towards this ultimate goal of beating swords into plowshares and bending spears into pruning hooks, I suppose that is fine, but don’t try to fool yourself by pretending that you are putting your trust in God, or that you are seeking God’s vision. God’s vision is that there is war no more, and maybe that’s a politically incorrect thing to say, but it is in the Bible, so I feel pretty comfortable saying it. You can’t properly have hope, you can’t properly put your trust fully in God our Creator, without working to bring about that vision.

Look, I know we are not there yet. I may be an idealist but I am no fool. We are not there yet. I do not believe will get there before Christmas. But even though the work is hard, and heartbreaking, and just because I may not see the ultimate results of my hard work, God calls us to the work anyway. Just as we wait in Advent for that which has been and is not yet, we wait and work towards God’s original intention for the world—that which was in mind when God said, “Let there be light:” that all may live in peace with one another, that there is enough for everyone, and that we may study war no more.

So I invite you to ask yourself two questions this Advent. First, what is God’s vision for the world? This is the easy question, because the answers are in the book, and it is an open book test, after all. What is God’s vision for the world? It is here, in Isaiah, and it is all throughout the rest of the book, too, so you should not have too hard a time answering. Here’s a hint: it may just involve all the peoples of the world shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and that national shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn no more. This may just be God’s vision for the world. Isaiah seemed to think so.

The second question is much more difficult, but it is just as important: what am I doing to bring about God’s vision for the world? Not so much what is God’s vision for my life, but what am I doing to bring about God’s vision for the world?
Figure out how to answer those two questions, and I suspect that life will feel less out of control, because you will find yourself working towards God’s plan. It is hard, because God’s vision requires something of all of us, but I believe that if you take God seriously, you will find yourself among a great communion of saints, many who have gone before and many who are with us now, who are assisting God in bringing about a world without hunger and without war. I do not know what your part in this effort looks like. That is between you and God. But I suspect that God has a role for you, no matter who you are, no matter how old, how skilled, how skeptical that this vision will work.

This is difficult work, but God promises that it is indeed possible. And I know no better symbol of God’s promise that this vision is possible than a child, born in a barn, who would grow up to show us a new way. May we take him seriously this season, may we follow his example: now, and always.

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