Thursday, December 12, 2013

Let Us Go to the Mountain of the Lord - a sermon for Advent 1, 2013

Off the coast of Italy, there is an island called Ponza. Though one might depart from a number of ports, the only way to get to the island is by boat – either ferry or hydrofoil. My friend and I decided to go to the island one weekend – just for a little adventure. We left from Anzio via hydrofoil which was a ninety minute trip, if I remember correctly. The morning that my friend and I went to Ponza the sea was like a sheet of glass and the cloud-dotted sky produced a very light breeze. It was smooth sailing, making for a very pleasant beginning to our adventure. We soaked in the sun, the breeze, and the salt air.
We had a very pleasant visit to the island. Hiking the island form end to end, exploring caves by the sea, and eating some wonderful local cuisine and drinking some magnificent wine.
When we were leaving the island three days later, however, the weather had changed. Where there was once no wind, a blustery, hurling, frothy wind now blew. Where there was once a sheet of glass, there were now white-capped waves. "È il traghetto ancora in corso?” (“Is the ferry still going?") I asked the pilot. "Si, se certo, questo è niente,” (“Oh yes, this is nothing.) he said with a chuckle. 
We held up remarkably well, my friend and I – for about 15 minutes. But before long, the pits of our stomachs swelled and our lips began to pray. The pilot took one look at my friend, saw his color, and said in simple English, "Sit down, look at the shore. Focus on it."
And so we did. And there was, far away on the rocky shore of the mainland, one point that was higher than all the others. It was a peak upon which stood a large white house. More like a compound, that’s where I focused. My friend would admit that he focused on a building closer to the marina, imagining it be a café with perhaps a little something to settle his stomach. After a few minutes, my stomach did begin to calm and my head cleared. "We’re going to make it," my friend said with new assurance. And so we did!
Isaiah lived was a choppy and chaotic world, where injustice reigned and wars ensued. Israel was a nation tossed about the storm, threatened by the powerful Assyrians to the north and menaced by the Egyptians to the south. The king and his advisors were occupied with what they needed to do to protect themselves. Events were getting out of their control.  Fear was running rampant.
Human life began to be qualified solely on the basis of wealth and material possessions. A harsh wind was blowing and the waters were being stirred. People began to sink. The neediest of the needy – the orphan and widow – were neglected. And many people just didn't seem to care. "I might as well just go with the current,” they thought. “That's just the way it is...always has been...always will be. Nothing I can do about it."
And others concentrated on building bigger and stronger armies to fight the might of Assyria or to quell the flexing of Egypt.
But out of that turmoil – out of that storm-tossed world – there was a voice that cried out. There was a voice that stood out as a voice of God's own voice which bore the vision of God's own vision. To the world that was warring and killing and groping and sinking in the angry sea, the voice of Isaiah rose up. And that voice would call out:
"Come, let us go 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.”
Isaiah called out, giving Israel that place to look: Focus there. Focus your eyes upon the mountain of the house of the Lord...that is your shore.
Now, here is the question: Was Isaiah just being a foolhardy idealist? Was Isaiah just an impractical, other-worldly thinker? Or, was Isaiah’s vision a vision of real possibility and did Isaiah’s vision penetrate deeply into the reality of God?
Isaiah was no grinning Pollyanna. He knew Israel was in the midst of a difficult time. He knew suffering was real. He knew that walking in the sight of the mountain of the house of the Lord would be a test of faith and practice of hope. He knew it might be hard.
But Isaiah had a vision. It was the same vision, if you really get into it, that God had given Israel time and time again – with Noah, with Sarah & Abraham, with Moses, with Deborah, with Judith, with Samuel & David. Israel should have had this vision and maybe they did. But the thing that separated him from the others was that he actually believed in it. Isaiah believed in the vision. Isaiah – like the prophets of old – believed in the vision that we must “walk in the light of the Lord.” Isaiah believed in the vision the sickness which overcomes us – the sickness of sin that draws us toward the myriad of our violent insecurities must be stopped!
Our future has always depended upon that remnant of people fixing their hearts, minds and souls on an alternative vision...on a landmark established by God. We are reminded of that vision in Nelson Mandela, who have our prayers as he lies near death in South Africa. Mandela had a vision of a people of great and wonderful and magnificent diversity living in equality and peace. He had a vision where justice reigned and peace lived. Others have had that vision – Gandhi, Thic Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  
And without that vision, the prophet says, the people perish.
But it’s important to remember that Isaiah wasn’t simply pointing to the future. He was envisioning the possible. But, the possible is possible NOW. Isaiah, more than pointing to some future day, was speaking about the present.
Did you notice how he began this prophecy? "In days to come," reads our NRSV translation. "In days to come..." But the literal Hebrew seems a bit more nuanced so that we might read "in the back of the days" or "in the midst of days."  Isaiah is suggesting that it is not the future’s promise nor the future’s place. Indeed, it is the present moment that is ripe. Or to use an appropriate Advent term, it is the present moment that is pregnant with God's justice and peace.
Now, I hope that it doesn't surprise any of you who are listening but I've never been pregnant. I remember, however, talking with a pregnant woman not too long ago about the first time she felt movement in her womb. “It was subtle, almost imperceptible,” she said. So subtle, in fact, that she almost missed it. So she tried to be very still and very quiet so that she might be sensitive to the hidden reality inside of her.
The prophet's gift is not to see magically into the future. No, the prophet’s true gift is in discerning the mystery of the present. And that mystery is our history and our present. The day when people "shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks" is nearer than we can imagine!
Do you believe that? Or is the prophet just a wild-eyed, dreamy, impractical  idealist? Jesus surely believed it. In fact, he staked his very life on it. That is the question before us this Advent season: Can we watch, be ready, and claim this vision? Can we move towards this vision, now, in the midst of the present? 
On this first Sunday in Advent, the prophet Isaiah tells us of God’s beautiful vision set before us. Along the way to living the vision, though, we have broken some things: trust, hope, joy, unconditional love, forgiveness. Sometimes we did it intentionally and sometimes we did not. But some of our relationships have been broken…in our families, our churches, our communities, our nation, and our world. And we can make it right again. It matters that we acknowledge, not only our sin, but also that we can begin to bring healing again where brokenness lies. This is what Advent is about: bringing healing and wholeness to a broken world.
If we believe the words of the prophet, then we hope for, watch for, prepare for, and work for work for God's kingdom of justice, love and peace right in the midst of time – our own time, now.
And we just might make it! For it's closer than you think.
Let us pray:  O come, O come Emmanuel. Come into our lives this Advent, a season of deep  longing for what we have learned to call the Day of our Lord – the day when you come with love and power and justice and mercy – the day when we stand up and become all that you have created us to be. So come to us, Emmanuel, in this season and on this day. May it be the day when swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. May it be the day when cold hearts melt and relationships are made whole. May it be the day when the hungry are fed, the thirsty given drink, the naked clothed, the prisoners visited, the sick comforted, and foreigner welcomed. May it be the day when there is peace. In the name of the Prince of Peace we pray.  Amen.

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