Sermon for November 27th – Mary Shaima
Texts: Matthew 24:36-44; Isaiah 2:1-5
Grace, peace, and light to you from the God for whom we watch and wait, and who is always with us. Amen.
One of the things you have so graciously taught me over the last few months is that I have a tendency to make assumptions. Not all the time, of course – but sometimes. So I thought it would be helpful this morning to give you some basic background as to our lessons, and not assume that this is common knowledge.
The ELCA is one of 48 Christian churches who use the Revised Common Lectionary in worship every Sunday. “Lectionary” comes from the root word lectio, which means “word.” The lectionary is the set of readings for all the days of the church year, consisting of a gospel reading, a Psalm, and lessons from the Old and/or New Testament. “Common” of course because we all hold it in common. “Revised” because the international and ecumenical group of scholars that prepared the initial lectionary later expanded it to a three-year cycle from just one.
Starting with the First Sunday in Advent, we read for twelve months from one of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, or Luke. “Synoptic” means they follow roughly the same chronological timeline. John’s gospel sits outside that timeline, so it is read at various points throughout all three years. Today we begin Year A, and we begin reading from the gospel of Matthew.
And as is so frequently the case in the season of Advent, we also begin reading from the writings of the prophet Isaiah. Many of Isaiah’s texts are considered foretellings of Jesus, and so they are paired with the fulfillment accounts in the gospels.
Well, you may have noticed that today’s lessons don’t seem to fit this mold AT ALL.
What does the first lesson from Isaiah – a beautiful, poetic text about not learning war any more – have to do with the gospel lesson from Matthew, where it sounds like the worst lottery game ever?
Actually – more than a cursory glance will reveal.
In our gospel today, a cursory glance seems more like a replay of that 60s song, “I’m in with the In Crowd.” If I know what the in crowd knows, I’ll be fine. (So how do I find out what the in crowd knows?)
It also seems tailor-made for the insomniac. Keep awake – stay alert.
But such literal readings only lead us down a series of rabbit holes that divert our attention from what I believe God is actually calling us to in these lessons.
The author of this gospel is believed by many to be the Matthew in the gospels – the tax collector. The character Matthew was a Jew. So it is important to think about this text in light of the Jewish understanding of apocalypse or end times – which is that all things are renewed, not destroyed.
And that is where the Isaiah reading begins to make a little more sense.
If all things are renewed, if God makes all things new, then perhaps this so-called “apocalypse” looks a lot like the scene Isaiah describes. The word that Isaiah saw.
Isaiah is speaking to the people of Israel when they are quite literally between a rock and a hard place – Assyria and Egypt. They have messed up mightily. They have managed to turn all that God has given them into idols, and forgotten that it is God whom they are to worship. In the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, the prophet graphically reminds them of all they’ve done wrong.
But here in Chapter 2, the prophet reminds them that God’s promises are for all time – and for all people.
“In days to come,” says Isaiah, “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills, and all nations shall stream to it.”
The text then makes an interesting point: there is work to be done both by God AND by God’s people.
God does the arbitrating, and the people engage in active peacemaking.
The word that Isaiah saw.
As I read this from my perspective of 20 years in the law, I was drawn in: God judges and arbitrates. And we expect to hear that a judge will judge between nations.
But look at the next verse: he shall arbitrate for many peoples. This is truly the arbitrator’s role: to act as the impartial third party, with a desire to achieve the best possible outcome for ALL parties, not just one or the other.
And we see what that outcome is, too. A day when war is no more. When conflict is no more, and division, and hatred, and all the -isms and phobias that are the hallmark of our living in fear.
The word that Isaiah saw.
That word was not limited to the action of God. No, it included the action of people.
Because it is the people who are reversing the implements of war. The people are a part of the transformation from a war economy – which is always transactional, in an eye-for-an-eye fashion – to an economy of grace and peace.
This is what I think Matthew’s gospel is talking about when we read words like “stay awake” and “keep alert.”
To see those words – might just be the kind of transformation and action Isaiah describes.
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 vision of weapons of war turned into agricultural tools – images of death-dealing turned into food-producing – this is a promise for “the days to come.” But biblical visions in both the Old and New Testament come to us from the future, from the heart of our loving God, longing to shape the days in which WE are living.
If you have been to the United Nations Centre in New York City, you have seen this sculpture. You have seen Isaiah’s words.
It was a gift to the UN from the Soviet Union in 1959, to represent the human wish to end all wars and turn from making implements of destruction to making implements of production. Production of food for all.
It is entitled “Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares” and is installed near the entry to the UN campus.
On a wall across the street from the UN, the words I just read from Isaiah are engraved. So the delegates to the UN pass by those words every day as they go to their important work.
The United Nations is, of course, a human institution and is therefore flawed. But its intent and hope is deeply rooted in the horror the world felt at the end of World War II, amid the realization that we had harnessed the kind of power that might destroy the planet.
This, too, is the response I believe God asks of us to the darkness that surrounds us.
Instead of succumbing to the darkness – instead of throwing in the towel and sitting afraid in the dark, God calls us to walk in the light.
Walking in the light means that we claim our Lutheran identity, forged and formed in the waters of baptism, as a named and claimed child of God who is saved by God’s grace and freed to make a difference in the world.
Freed to serve the neighbor, and freed to broadly define who my neighbor is.
Freed to hear these words of Isaiah as a call to shape the days in which we are living.
Brothers and sisters, this is what I believe Jesus means when he speaks of being ready. For if we are to lean into the coming peaceable realm of God, then by practicing our call from the prophet Isaiah AND the prophet Micah we indeed are ready. We re-form the swords of our lives into plowshares. We practice doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. And every now and then, we catch a glimpse of that peaceable realm.
We catch a glimpse when we see Christian and Muslim women in Liberia, dressed in white, pressuring the government by non-violent resistance to enter peace talks. And finally the decades-old war ends. A glimpse of the peaceable realm.
We catch a glimpse in Cambodia, where land mines used to make it impossible for anyone to farm the rice paddies. A petition from Lutheran World Relief to remove the land mines has brought their number from 4300 in 1986 – to NONE today. The fields are again producing rice, and the farmers are able to make a living. A glimpse of the peaceable realm.
We catch a glimpse in Los Angeles, where the non-profit Homeboy Industries works transformation in the lives of gang members and ex-cons through a range of social enterprises and job opportunities. They provide critical services to over 15,000 people who come to them every year seeking a better life. A glimpse of the peaceable realm.
I believe that we all have a story we can tell about catching that glimpse.
And yet, in our broken and hurting world, there are so many days when we ask ourselves if this makes any sense. If this really makes any difference.
I would gently remind us that we drop into the continuum of time for the very briefest of moments.
That brief moment is for us to contribute what we can, in partnership with God in the establishing of that peaceable realm.
We are very much a results and success-oriented people. We want to know that our hunch was right, that we guessed correctly.
Sometimes, though, we cannot see what the future holds for the efforts we contribute now. How shall we see any word, with such obscured vision?
Some years ago, I came across a poem that was written by the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan in tribute to Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. I think it captures so well the idea that we wait not passively, but actively.
A Step Along the Way: Archbishop Romero’s Prayer
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Dear friends, may it be so for us. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Amen.