December 1, 2019
First Sunday of Advent
Happy New Year! I know – that’s not the greeting you expected this morning, is it – I do feel a little like Frosty the Snowman, every time he puts on Professor Hinkle’s magic hat and comes to life – “Happy New Year!” he shouts.
But that’s exactly what it is today – A New Year, according to the Christian calendar. People of faith begin the year with Advent, waiting for the Christ child to come. That’s the difference between starting the secular New Year setting resolutions for a new and improved you on January 1st, versus starting a new year in anticipation, waiting, expecting.
I know it sounds passive. Who likes to wait? Waiting in line, in the doctor’s office, for test results, for college acceptance emails, for him to change, for her to appreciate you; waiting for your birthday, for the weekend, for summer, for the long car ride to end. We don’t talk much about the waiting part of faith, but that’s what this month is all about, and this week, we wait with hope. And to keep hoping in this world takes practice, and intention, and action. How else can we hold on to the hope that there is more to this life than is available for overnight delivery from Amazon? Hope there is more to this life, much more, than the daily grind, whatever that is for you.
It takes faith to see every day: Hope that God is still at work, even when just about anywhere we look, it all just looks so sad. Hope that we are not alone. Hope that we matter. Hope that we can trust the Bible’s promises.
Now I know that the words we read in the Bible can sometimes seem, well, old-fashioned, or not very relevant, or too far removed to have much to say to us here in this o so sophisticated age. And then I remember, every age, every generation, thinks they are so sophisticated – And in many ways, now, in 2019, we are, compared with those who’ve gone before us. After all, no one is suggesting you slap a few leeches on your body to cure what ails you. But on the other hand, while I wouldn’t turn to the Bible for advice about vaccinations and MRI’s, the people we find in scripture are people just like us. Today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah, written 2500 years ago, has more in common with our current situation than you might think.
God’s people are seriously divided against each other – Okay, no red state and blue state, but north against south. An arbitrary human line drawn in the dirt, and the people and the leaders are arguing about how best to find safety and security in a very dangerous world. The folk in the north have decided to cast their hopes on a foreign country to protect them from all the other foreign countries. The folk in the south don’t think that’s such a great idea, but then, what? As the average person is waiting to see how everything will unfold, as they are watching the current king Hezekiah fall far short of all their hopes and expectations, well, now where do they look for hope?
And that’s when Isaiah says these familiar words, not just to God’s people then, but also, to us: A nation divided, wondering how best to find safety and security in a dangerous time, waiting to see how it will all unfold with our leaders and foreign powers around the world. Listen for a word from God, from Isaiah 11:1-11
A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse: A branch will sprout from his roots. The Lord’s Spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. He will delight in fearing the Lord. He won’t judge by appearance nor decide by heresy. He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land. He will strike the violent with the rod of his mouth; by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked. Righteousness will be the belt around his hips, and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them. The cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together, and a lion will eat straw like an ox. A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole, toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den. They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain. The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, just as the water covers the sea.
May God bless our hearing and our understanding of this word.
The people hearing these words: No one could figure out the way ahead, and everything seemed doomed, in this tiny nation of the people of God, desperate for a righteous, steady, competent leader. Now that Hezekiah has let them down, everything was heading toward destruction, and fear was tearing everyone apart. And Isaiah realized, the leader they needed was a long way off. But still, he had hope.
And that’s what this first week of Advent is all about: Hope. Isaiah’s imagery of new life hiding in a dead tree stump reminds me more of Lent and the hope of Easter than Advent and Christmas. We know Lent is rather dark and gloomy, but shouldn’t Advent be all sparkly and catchy tunes and bright candles in the windows? And Isaiah gives us a stump. And it’s hard to be all sparkly and full of songs and light when our own people are turned against each other, and no righteous, steady, competent leader is in sight.
The hope of this Advent Season is this: Can we see God at work in the stump? Because that’s where Isaiah points us. But also, can we put hope in the wolves threatening to devour everything in their path? In the raging lions ravaging for their next meal? Can we trust the snakes with our babies and toddlers? Because apparently, that was where Isaiah, watching his people and his nation and his leaders crumble, that’s where he saw hope. That one day none of God’s creatures would feel the need to ravage another part of God’s creation to satisfy their unsatiable hunger for more more more more. And I’m not talking about food.
And this is where I remember that some of the most viewed videos on the internet are of cute animals – Okay, I don’t know if that’s true, but when you Google “how often do people watch cute animal videos,” you get two hundred twenty-three million hits, approximately, starting with “why watching cute animal videos is good for you.” Apparently, we do love to watch cute animals, and a sub-category of “cute animals” is unusual inter-species friendships. That only offers three hundred forty-one thousand hits, but still, that’s a lot. Enough that I got sucked down the rabbit hole of youtube videos of, and this is just to name a few: a piglet and kitten nuzzling each other; an orangutan hugging a hunting dog; a tiger tolerating a puppy running over it; a raven feeding a dog a snack while a kitten watches; a baby goat kid liking a puppy’s face clean; a dog climbing on the back and riding a swimming elephant; a kitten sleeping on an iguana; a dog romping with a baby leopard, a cat putting up with a cockatiel pecking its face - maybe looking for fleas? A puppy and warthog napping together in the sun; a chimpanzee snuggling a kitten; a kitten snuggling a bunny rabbit; and a mother hen with a puppy gathered under her wings. I’ll publish the link on facebook if you too would like the 1 minute, 39 seconds of a gateway video to interspecies friendships: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0qHmBrIOV0
My point being that these videos are so popular because they take us by surprise – Predator and prey just hanging out together. And most of the time it’s a baby animal so the cuteness index is sky high. But it’s not just the cuteness. It’s that it can happen. In this world where it seems even the same homo sapien sapien species seems determined to not get along, here’s evidence that it can be done.
It reminds me of what Rev. Susan Beck, chaplain to the Jessup Prison system, said at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service at Oseh Shalom. In her worship services, inmates from all sorts of backgrounds and loyalties, affiliations and violence, fear and rage – They all come together to be the one body of Christ, worshipping the God of us all. And so, can we? she asked the Reconstructionist and Reform Jews; the Catholics and Muslims who don’t ordain women; the Protestant ministers who were predominantly women; The B’hai, the Seventh Day Adventist, the religious and the “spiritual not religious,” those born and raised in Laurel MD, those from literally across the globe making this their home; People with valid immigration papers, people with US birth certificates, people who fled persecution and violence in the hopes of finding safety here, risking life without legal papers. She said to all of us: If the prisoners in Jessup could come together, surely so could we. And she invited us to find a stranger who was not like us, and have a conversation.
And so, before we come to the communion table; before we gather as the one family of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, I invite you to turn to someone in front of you, behind you, or beside you – Someone you did not show up with today – And tell them: Where do you find hope these days. Sure, it might feel awkward – After all, isn’t that my job, to stand here and tell you where to find hope? I mean, other than cute animal videos on youtube? Yes, but sometimes we need to crowdsource. So take the next 2 minutes – That’s one minute per person – and share where you find hope in this world, or if that is too hard, where you will look for hope this Advent Season.
And now, with our connections a little stronger, and our hope a little brighter, and our waiting a little more expectant as we watch for how God will show up, now we let us come to prayer, and to communion, into Advent, together, for here is our hope: That God is with us, Immanuel. Amen.