Sunday, December 22, 2019

Phil Kniss: Putting fear (and love) back into Christmas

Advent 4: Worth the wait
Psalm 80; Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

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As we get close to Christmas,
it’s time for a little counter-cultural protest.
And no, I’m not going to say, put Christ back into Christmas.

I’m really glad this sanctuary does not have
little red “heresy alert” buttons installed in the pews.
Because you’d all reach for them right now.
Brace yourself.

If we’re talking about our cultural celebrations of Christmas,
I say, let’s keep Christ out of it.
I think Jesus Christ,
and our typical cultural Christmas traditions are both better off
when they keep their distance from each other.

Yes, we all like to say, and it’s true:
“Jesus is the reason for the season.”
But hear me out.
Don’t push the red button . . . yet.

Christ, on the one hand,
and our cultural Christmas holiday celebrations on the other,
are both inherently good, in and of themselves.
But they both get compromised,
and lose their punch,
when they get all mixed up with each other.

And for the moment,
let’s put the whole over-commercialization of Christmas
on the sidelines.
That’s not what I’m talking about here.

Let’s not make Christmas consumerism the bad guy.
Consumerism is with us 365 days a year
in every aspect of our culture, including in the church.
It is the water we all swim in.

Even if we could take consumerism out of Christmas,
it wouldn’t go away.
That’s like attacking a tall thistle growing in our yard,
by wacking off the top two inches.
Yeah, that’ll get it!

All cultural celebrations have been commercialized.
Easter, Mothers Day, July 4, Back-to-School,
Halloween, Thanksgiving, you name it.
Even birthdays and weddings!
Whole industries depend on us buying our way into happiness,
all year long.
Christmas isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom.
So . . . end of commentary on Christmas and consumerism.

Here’s my real point.
I actually like our secular cultural celebration of Christmas.
I like it a lot.
I participate in it. Happily. And without guilt.
The carols, the cheesy movies, the over-the-top decorations,
the food, the gift-giving.
Our secular Christmas produces a lot of good, positive,
emotionally-rich social capital.
Think of all the joy and beauty and wonder and whimsy and
goodwill and generosity
that get pumped into our communities at this time of year.

Nobody can attend Harrisonburg’s downtown Christmas parade,
and go away feeling pessimistic about this community.
It’s just a positive and uplifting community festival.
Our cultural Christmas is a gift and opportunity
we should all celebrate without hesitation.
“Santa Claus is coming to town!”—and we should welcome him.
There. I said it.
Push the red button.

Christians who get on a moral high horse—and I used to be one—
who object because Santa Claus is more visible than Baby Jesus
are missing something important.
Their objection is well-intended, even noble, but misguided.
Secular celebrations are good for society,
there’s no reason for us to go all Scrooge about it
for religious reasons.

I saw an article in the food section
of the Washington Post on Wednesday.
It was written by an American Jew who grew up in the Soviet Union,
and she said Christmas was her favorite holiday of the year,
even beating out Hanukkah.
Because Christmas had better food.
She mentioned that the old Soviet New Year
was basically Christmas without the religion.
She grew up with a New Years Tree,
and traditional foods and festivities,
and Grandpa Frost who went around
giving gifts to all the children.
And we have variations on that theme all over the world.
More power to them all, I say.

Two unfortunate things happen
when we force baby Jesus onto
what has become a largely secular cultural celebration.

we exclude those of other religions
who are a valued part of our culture.
They start to feel this time of year is not for them.
But everyone benefits when the whole culture
celebrates joy and peace and goodwill.
We sideline religious minorities the whole rest of the year.
Why add insult to injury and
exclude them from this celebration, too?

The second reason I don’t like to impose Jesus
on what is a mostly secular holiday,
is that the only kind of Jesus the public is willing to accept—
many Christians included—
is a white-washed, sanitized, sweet and sentimental Jesus,
one that bears no resemblance to the biblical one.

So why should we committed Christians
feel like we’ve achieved some moral victory
by “putting Christ back into Christmas”
if—when it’s all said and done—
the plastic Jesus that we’ve put there
is not actually worthy of our worship?

May I say that again?
Why do we think it’s a victory for Christianity
to put Christ back into Christmas,
if after we’ve successfully done it,
the hollowed-out version of Jesus that’s there,
is not a Jesus we would lay down our lives for in worship?

So here’s what I propose instead:
Let our culture and other cultures have their Christmas,
with all the secular trappings—
the Santa Claus bits and the sentimental plastic Jesus bits.
Let’s be thankful for any generosity and goodwill,
no matter where it shows up, and why,
and let’s join in with it, not boycott it.

But . . . and here’s the kicker . . .
let us Christians also dive deeper into our biblical story,
and let’s own that story, every beautiful and earth-shaking part of it,
Let’s shape our Christian worship and Christian formation
around this vitally important and theologically essential
season of the Advent fast
that leads to the feast of God’s Incarnation,
that we call Christmas, the “Christ Mass.”

In the world all around us I don’t mind hearing Christmas carols—
even the ones about Rudolph and Santa Claus—
even if they start before Thanksgiving.
It’s good music (well . . . mostly).
And it’s good to make music and make merry,
as long as we want, starting as early as we want.
Let’s not hold that against anyone!

But . . . here, where the church gathers in worship,
as a Christian community wanting to be formed in the way of Jesus,
this is a different sort of space.
We operate on a different calendar.
We have a different purpose in mind.
Worship is serious business.
We are here to worship the God of heaven and earth
who is bringing righteous judgment to the earth,
and who will bring the false rulers and powers to their knees.
Are we up for that?

And no, I’m not saying we hide out here in a private sanctuary.
Worship can and should be public,
we worship before a watching world.
But, while we gather here,
we are clearly and unapologetically a Christian community
shaped by Jesus, and shaped by the cross of Christ.

So here we will sing and tell stories in a different frame of mind.
The reason we sing Advent and Christmas carols here
is not because they remind us of good old days
sitting by the fireplace at Grandma’s house.
This is not an exercise in sentimentalism.
This is about the earth-shaking and fear-inducing
Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And sometimes the Gospel is hard to understand,
and hard to accept.

This is especially true on the fourth Sunday of Advent,
where we light the candle with a prayer for love to show up.
In our calendar, we are still in the fast.
The feast is three days away.
We are still waiting.
Still asking questions of God and each other.
Still wondering, “What are you waiting for?”

And today we have a story of love showing up
in a person and form outside of our control . . .
it’s a story of “Emmanuel,” God with us.
That name, Emmanuel, was given to a child awaiting birth,
in two of our scripture readings today,
in stories set in the same region, same ethnic group,
but 700 years apart.

First, in Isaiah 7,
as a sign to King Ahaz of Judah,
to his people besieged and oppressed by the Syrians.
Then in Matthew 1,
as a sign to Joseph and his people
besieged and oppressed by the Roman Empire.

Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is different than Luke.
Whereas Luke gives us lots of picturesque details,
about shepherds and stables and heavenly choirs and such,
Matthew is spare with words.
It mentions almost in passing that Mary bore a son,
and he was named Jesus.
But Matthew uses lots of ink in the verses leading up to that,
to tell us of Joseph’s fearsome dilemma.

Without going into details of first-century Jewish laws
about engagement and marriage,
suffice it to say, the news that Mary was having a baby was,
for Joseph, a moral crisis of huge proportions.
It put Joseph’s reputation at risk,
but even worse, it would cause Mary—
a vulnerable teenage woman—
to suffer an even worse fate:
public disgrace and (probably) a lifetime of poverty.
So Joseph decided to do the honorable thing,
really, a courageous thing,
since Joseph believed Mary was being unfaithful.
He planned not to shame her, but break the engagement quietly.
But an angel appears in a dream to Joseph,
and says, “Don’t be afraid.
Take Mary as your wife.
She was conceived of the Holy Spirit.”
So Joseph takes an even greater risk,
steps into the great unknown,
and completes the marriage arrangements as directed.

This is the hard and costly road of faithfulness
that Jesus would later teach his disciples about.
But here it was being modeled by his earthly father-to-be.
Joseph was willing to act,
without his questions being answered.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes,
a United Methodist pastor and poet and blogger in Massachusetts,
just posted a poem he wrote about Joseph a few days ago.
Thanks to Ken Nafziger for pointing me toward it.
Here is the poem, titled, simply, “Joseph.”

Listen to it not only as a word to Joseph.
Listen to it as words to us who are also asked to take leaps of faith
in times of darkness and dread and uncertainty.

The question is not whether you love her.
The question is whether you will marry her.

You have been given only glorious ambiguity,
darkness marbled with starlight,
possibility breathed in silence.
You seek assurance; none is given.

Your life will not be as you wish it.
Those you love will let you down.
This world is full of flaws and disappointment.
It is also full of the Mysterious One.

Give yourself without knowing.
Betrothed, beloved, to uncertainty,
pledge your loyalty to this one you cannot know.
Do not pray to understand:
pray to be present, to be faithful, to be loving
when you cannot know what will come of it.

Do not be afraid to take this life and marry it.

Maybe that, sisters and brothers, should be our new mantra.
“Do not be afraid to take this life and marry it.”

Daily, we are asked to walk forward in life—forward—into ambiguity,
as followers of Jesus:
in our life of faith,
in our families,
in our close relationships,
in our public lives,
in our professional lives,
in our political lives as members of a divided society.
Jesus directed his disciples, and directs us,
take up your cross and follow me,
into the darkness, into uncertainty, into ambiguity.

It’s just as ambiguous as the sign given King Ahaz in Isaiah 7,
and given to Joseph and his people 700 years later in Judea.
The sign of hope is a woman with child,
a vulnerable child yet to be born named “Immanuel.”
Ambiguous, yes. But still reason to hope.
God is with us in this life.
This life.

Let me repeat the last lines of the poem . . .
Give yourself without knowing.
Betrothed, beloved, to uncertainty,
pledge your loyalty to this one you cannot know.
Do not pray to understand:
pray to be present, to be faithful, to be loving
when you cannot know what will come of it.
Do not be afraid to take this life and marry it.

I am so thankful for our hymn writers over the centuries,
who were not distracted by the plastic Jesus,
but immersed themselves
in the earth-shaking and fear-inducing Gospel story,
and wrote about it in profound poetry.
These are the songs that either
never show up on pop radio stations and shopping malls,
or they do without anyone, ever,
thinking about what the songs are saying.

I’m glad we have a place like this
that is not satisfied with sentimentalism.
A place to join our voices, and our minds,
and sing this faith that not only challenges our own complacency,
but that truly threatens
the power of politicians in Washington,
and the power of Wall Street,
and every other false and temporary power our culture bows to.

Read the words sometime of
“It came upon a midnight clear” or
“Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light” or
“My soul proclaims with wonder” that we opened with today.
Or the two we’re about to sing.
Where is our hope?
Where is the source of our peace?
What brings us joy?
Where will love show up?

In a helpless and hungry child who in Mary’s lap is sleeping.
Let’s sing, as Ken directs us.

—Phil Kniss, December 22, 2019

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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Paula Stoltzfus: Surprised by joy

Advent 3: Rejoicing as we wait
Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Luke 1:46-55

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I have a question for each of you that I’m curious about.  With a raise of hands (and don’t think about this too much), how many of you like surprises?  How many of you don’t like surprises?

Now you might say, it depends on the occasion. I would venture to say that we tend one way or the other.

I generally don’t mind surprises as long as I know the people involved.  The real risk for me is in knowing the people who are doing the surprising. If I feel that the person or people have my good will at heart, I’m okay with “come what may.” 

If I would be in a high risk situation then I believe I would feel vulnerable and afraid of what a surprise may bring.

Mary’s response to an angel’s surprise visit telling her that she has been chosen to bear God’s son, has been written to music, plays, prayers, a hymn of praise in response to what God was to do for her.  Mary seemed to receive this news graciously considering her reality in life. 

Mary was very young among our standards, 12-14, yet old enough in her culture that she was engaged to be married.  Keep in mind this is the age of our sixth through eighth graders.  She lived in a peasant family, low class, perhaps termed as poverty in our standards.  She was a woman in a highly patriarchal society and religion that predominantly disregarded a woman’s voice unless through her husband or other male figure.

On the one hand, Mary didn’t have much to lose in receiving God’s promise for her.  She didn’t have the risk of losing wealth or a huge change in social status.  She was young and innocent, you may say. She was in an early stage of faith development experiencing this concrete call with openness to be faithful trusting fully in God’s power and promise.

On the other hand, Mary had much to lose.  What status she did have would be jeopardized by her pregnancy.  The man she was engaged to, considered breaking off the marriage because of her assumed sexual unfaithfulness.  Mary risked being seen in her religious community as an outcast, an untouchable, and unavailable to be married, casting her into a category of people who were the poorest of the poor.

In many ways, Mary was the perfect person to carry out God’s plan.  She was old enough to be shaped in her faith to have trust in God to say yes.  And yet not old enough to have to consider all the ramifications of her openness. 

Mary became an example of God righting the world in the salvation story.  The lowly is lifted up.

Isaiah 35 is also a picture of the redeemed, the promise of salvation, where wrongs are made right and transformation happens.  Here salvation begins in creation, where the dry and desolate will be transformed into paradise. Much like a desert comes to colorful life at the smallest amount of rain.

Then in verse 3 the voice seems to move from creation to people, confronting fear with a promise of God’s vengeance and terrible recompense as translated in the NRSV. These are powerful words.

In doing a little digging I came to find out that the Hebrew meaning for vengeance is “retribution that brings liberation to the oppressed...freedom from a situation of need and the restoration of justice” (Anatheia Porter-Young).  In other words, God’s vengeance could be translated into our understanding of restorative justice.

The Hebrew for “God’s terrible recompense” means “God’s response or God’s dealing” (Anatheia Porter-Young). 

This picture of salvation says to people, be strong even in your feeling of weakness, for God is present, working for a just restoration. God is on the move.  Expect God’s response.

From there salvation opens to the world to heal, restore, and transform the brokenness.  Making a way where sorrow and sighing will flee, joy and gladness will spring up.

Mary seems to embody this oracle in the midst of great longing and brokenness.  The sorrow and sighing are not evident in her prayer.  Joy and gladness bubble up instead.

How did Mary do it?  This passage in Isaiah seems unrealistic in our world where those fleeing their country of origin, environmental disasters, and economic disparities are all on the rise.  How could sorrow flee and joy and gladness spring up?

It needs to be pointed out that this passage is not saying there will be no more sorrow or sighing, but simply that it will flee.

I liken it to a tightrope walker. A seemingly impossible task is possible.  I saw a picture recently of a man walking between two boulders where it was clear that if he fell in his walk he would have met his death.  This sport has a strategy. While walking on the rope one cannot look down at the feet.  The focus must be out in front, trusting the feel of the rope on the feet, the equipment and skill to reach the other side.  Distractions are overcome through focus, confidence in self, and trust.

The picture of the highway in the Isaiah passage is a bit of a tight rope walk.  The same kind of faith, trust, and focus on God is required.  If one receives God’s love, commits to follow in God’s wisdom, trusts in God in the midst of uncertainty, and focuses on the goal of loving God with one’s whole being, then the sorrows lose their weight, leaving a lighter, freer spirit. 

Mary seemed to be able to do this.  She was able to keep her eyes on God’s promise instead of the distractions of the world around her.

We have distractions. Be it financial, health, or relational fears.  We have concerns about job security, the weight of grief, the fear driven news culture, racial disparities, inequalities,and environmental degradation.  These are all realities.  But no amount of worrying about them will offer salvation.

Lest we think we are to focus intently heavenward for God’s salvation that would take us from this world, James brings us down to earth. 

James is worried about the divisions between the rich and poor. Our reading this morning comes after James condemns those with economic wealth who have mistreated their neighbor for their own gain.  Be patient, James says. It is spoken here as an alternative to a life focused on immediate gratification and exploitation of others for one’s gain.

I suppose humanity has been always at work at finding ways we can live life more efficiently, faster.  Unfortunately we haven’t learned to do it with the other’s best interest at heart. 

We live in a time where immediate self gratification is seen as a right and not a privilege.  Our grocery stores are full of as many fruits and vegetables as possible year round, irregardless of whether it is locally in season.  We rely more on electronic communication rather than traditional mail, which is now known as “snail mail.” We need cars in order to get from one place to the next as fast as possible.  We are gluttons for oil and coal which transport us, our food, and electricity. 

Technological advances can be celebrated but we also need to view the costs to our bodies, to the environment, to our societies, to our communities, where there are inequalities in the distribution of the worlds goods.

James’ word on patience includes the capacity to make different decisions based on how our neighbors will be affected rather than simply measuring our own convenience or comfort.  This is a different way to think. 

How does seeking the cheapest price for our goods affect our local businesses that attempt to offer the same goods at a fair wage?

How does buying strawberries in winter drive a food economy which encourages food inequalities?

How do our clothing choices affect those who make them?

Thinking in this way, considers not only our well being, but the well being of our neighbors, be it  local or around the world.  James’ patience is a “matter of justice for those less fortunate” (Dirk D. Lange). He speaks to a community, expecting that the work is not just done individually but communally.  Strengthening of hearts “comes as the community lives and witnesses together” (Lange).  Keeping one another honest.  Sharing with one another in patience and hope  grounded in faith in God.

Once Mary received her promise from God, she did not stay put, but rather went to her aunt Elizabeth to live.

The patience James talks about calls for an active waiting.  Not a waiting in which one sits idly by.

Sojourner Truth is an example of this active waiting as she was an activist for racial justice.  She was of lowly estate, such as Mary.  Sojourner was a black, illiterate, low income, woman speaking to a white, rich, and educated to bring about change. 

At an anti-slavery rally in Ohio, a white man walked up to her after she spoke and said, “Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good?  Do you suppose people care what you say?  Why, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.”  Sojourner, in her wisdom, responded, “Perhaps not, but, the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.”

Sojourner spoke from an inner freedom, grounded in faith, that allowed her to be freed from the racial prejudice and inequalities that she faced.  She spoke from a joy that was not apparent in the world she lived.

Mary spoke from the inner freedom she found grounded in faith freed from the social and religious expectations, leaving her open to receiving God’s call for her.

I heard a song at the coffeehouse this weekend written by Christopher and Maria Clymer Kurtz that is going to be in the new hymnal, entitled Solemn Stillness. It seems to capture all of our passages today. Joy can reach the quiet, dry, fearful places of our lives. Hear the lyrics.

Solemn stillness weary streets strain to grasp the sound.
In the quiet breathes an anthem over dark and thorny ground.
Rocks and plains repeat the echo; splendor floods the starlit morn.
We are wonders, blessed wonders, singing joy to the world.

We are shepherds in the fields, watching in the night.
We are mortals, we are bearers, searching for a perfect light.
Hurry, hurry! Sing the glory! Bring the gold and bitter myrrh of our carols:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Singing joy to the world.

Crushing fears are met with joy; sorrow’s curse is torn.
Hear the music, fling your load down, and unbend your tired form.
These bright hours circle round us, let the gentle wings unfurl.
Swift and sweetly down the roadside, singing joy to the world.

Where are life’s crushing fears reaching you?
What load needs to be flung down?
How can we unbend our tired forms to allow our wings the freedom to unfurl? 

Mary is a bless-ed reminder of this freedom.  Giving our lives in surrender to God’s love and grace, gives us meaning, gives us focus, and in fact surprises us with a joy that this world cannot give.

Let us not rush this season.  Let us wait with patience for the in-breaking of God’s presence with us.  For it is in showing up in community, in crying out to God, watching and waiting, we express our deepest longings, ready at any moment to be surprised by God’s joy.

O God, we come, we cry, we watch, we wait, we look, we long for you.

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Sunday, December 8, 2019

Phil Kniss: How to get in line . . . or not

Advent 2: Getting ready while we wait
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

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The lectionary doesn’t make it easy on preachers during Advent.
The Gospel texts assigned to us during Advent,
sometimes require extra time to work through them,
so that we can get past our own resistance to them,
and then communicate them to everyone else
in a way that doesn’t trigger some negative reaction
in the congregation,
and make people pull out their phones
and check their Facebook
to find something more inspirational.

Last Sunday,
I tried to help you embrace, with maybe a little more positivity,
the Matthew 24 text about the rapture,
and being left behind.
If you weren’t here last week and are confused
how being left behind could have a positive spin,
well, the sermon is on our website.

And now today,
we have this other inspirational Gospel story,
in which a wild man eating insects
and wearing an itchy camel-hair robe,
is down by the Jordan River screaming at people
about being the “sons of snakes”
and being burned with unquenchable fire,
if they don’t repent.

Okay . . . where to start?

Let’s start just by admitting that repentance is not a popular idea.
Especially in this polarized world we live in today.
Our political leaders—on both sides of the aisle, mind you—
are teaching us well
that strong leaders never admit they are wrong.
Once you’ve taken a side on something controversial,
once you’ve staked out a position,
you stick with it, come hell or high water.
That’s the way you win in Washington,
and Lord knows, everyone wants to have winners leading us!
Or so we’re told.

When was the last time you’ve heard a politician say clearly,
without side-stepping,
“I was wrong. And I’m sorry.”
We actually did hear those words in Washington this past week,
of all places, at the impeachment hearing.
But they were spoken by a witness.
Not by a politician, but a professor.

It is absolutely rare, almost unheard of,
for a public figure—
politician, athlete, performer, CEO, church leader,
you name it—
to come into the light,
to stand in front of a microphone and say clearly,
“I was wrong in my thinking.
I behaved badly.
I repent.
I will seek to change my ways,
and repair the damage I caused.”

More often it sounds kind[?] of like an apology, but isn’t.
“I’m sorry that what I said caused offense.”
“I’m sorry my words were taken out of context,
I should have phrased it differently.”

Our culture teaches us to aim, always, to be right.
To repent is to openly admit we aren’t.
To repent is literally, to alter our course.
To change our way of thinking.
To make a turn, and head down a different path.
Just to say sorry, and even be sincere about it, is not repentance.
It’s called remorse.
It’s not hard to be regretful or remorseful
when we make a blunder and experience a bad outcome.
But repentance is a harder pill to swallow.
It is to say, we have it wrong.
We will turn.
We will change.

This is the understanding of repentance,
that will open us to a greater appreciation
of today’s scripture readings—
both the one about John the Baptist,
and the words of Isaiah the Prophet.

Before we come back to the screaming and locust-eating prophet John,
let’s think about Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom.

Who doesn’t love the image of the peaceable kingdom,
that Isaiah described so powerfully and poetically?
This one prophetic oracle we read from Isaiah 11
has inspired poets and preachers
and composers and painters.
I’ve mentioned before my personal favorite depiction of this text,
by the Quaker preacher and painter Edward Hicks,
who painted at least 100 different versions of this biblical scene,
and purposely dropped them off everywhere,
as he traveled the country and preached,
during a period of great conflict in this country,
and a time of great division in his own Quaker church.
His paintings visualized Isaiah’s prophecy
where animals who were natural enemies,
grazed together,
lied down together,
rubbed noses.
And in the same painting
immigrant Europeans and
native Americans were reconciled.

Well, that’s a lot like what Isaiah was doing.
Painting a picture to inspire his people.
Help them imagine possibilities.

He was prophesying to the exiles in Assyria,
who were slaves of dreaded King Sennacherib.
Isaiah pictured a peaceable kingdom,
with wolves resting beside lambs,
and leopards and goats and lions and calves,
all grazing peacefully, with children playing nearby.
It was not a picture of real life for the Israelites.
It was divine imagination.
He was seeing something in the darkness,
that others could not see.
That’s why they call prophets seers.
They see what others don’t.

But did Isaiah believe it would actually happen that way?
Did he run the odds?
Maybe Isaiah put his vision out there
to basically give people an emotional boost,
to give them an elaborate coping mechanism,
something to help them get through the next day.

Or maybe Isaiah had a plan about how his people would move out
from the oppression of slavery by Assyria,
and into their new peaceable kingdom,
where predators and prey lived in peace?
In Isaiah’s vision, it was pretty obvious
who the predators and prey were.
Did Isaiah have any bright ideas
how King Sennacherib and the brutal Assyrian forces
would one day sit down and graze, so to speak,
at the same table with their Israelite slaves?

No, this picture was not a strategic maneuver.
It was not step one in overthrowing the Empire.
Isaiah was not trying to motivate the slaves to rise up
to make some peace and justice for themselves.
And, also, no, Isaiah was not practicing slick psychology,
telling his people a comforting and imaginative bedtime story,
to give them relief from their nightmares.

Prophets did not do either one of those things.
It was not their call to give personal, psychological comfort.
It was not their call to help people fix their own problems.

So why do we often read biblical prophecy
in exactly one of those two ways?
We read it as a call to human action—
as a call to make our own peace with enemies,
as a should and ought text—
that if we’re the lion, we should learn to eat straw,
and if we’re the cow, we ought to take courage
to graze with the bear.

Or, if not that, we read it simply as a utopian vision for a future age,
to comfort us through the nightmare
that is life in this broken world,
and get us safely into the next heavenly life
where all will be peace.

I think Isaiah would be shocked,
if he knew that 2½ thousand years later,
people would be reading his words,
and thinking he was telling
Assyrians oppressors and Israelite slaves,
to be nicer, and sit down and talk out their differences.
And he would be just as shocked to learn
that people would read his words
and take him to be only talking about some future heavenly age,
and that his prophecy had no bearing on life here on this earth.

No, Isaiah the prophet was doing here what prophets always do.
Prophets attempt to get people back on track.
They call people, in no uncertain terms, to repent—
to get in line with God.

Isaiah had a strong word here that God is on the move,
that God is working God’s purposes out.
And if we want to experience true life, as God intends,
we need to repent,
to realign ourselves with God’s purposes,
to yield to God’s wisdom and God’s judgment.
It’s that simple, and that difficult.

The peaceable kingdom comes about by divine judgment.
Yes, peace comes through judgment.

We Anabaptist-Mennonite pacifist Christians
who try our best to be nice and peaceable and non-confrontational,
and who like having a God who is the same way,
might have to swallow hard,
when we read these prophets.

But Isaiah and John the Baptist aren’t exactly pulling their punches.
They are harsh!
They are letting God’s enemies have it!

Isaiah says, with righteousness God shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
God shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips God will kill the wicked.

And dear John . . . dear locust-eating John
doesn’t know much about the principles of motivational speaking.
He probably never saw an inspirational TED-talk in his life.

Because as soon as the community leaders, the influencers,
show up for his preaching, and want to be baptized,
he turns everything up a notch.
To the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism(!), he says,
“You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Don’t brag about your ties to Abraham.
God can take these stupid stones
and make children of Abraham from them.
The ax is lying at the root of the trees;
watch out, you might just get cut down
and thrown into the fire.”

To those who most needed to change their minds
about how God wanted them to live in that dark time
of Roman oppression,
to those persons he said,
“Repent. And then get in line.
Live like someone with a changed way of thinking.
Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Look what God is up to all around you,
and then turn,
and line yourself up with that.
You don’t have a tradition and an institution to protect.
You have a God on the move,
and you have to be moving in that same direction.”

Does that have something to say to us 21st-century Christians,
or not?
We do so much hand-wringing about the state of the church
in our secular world.
We do so much pining for the good old days (as if they ever existed)
when people trusted the church and its leaders,
and abided by all the rules and flourished in every way.

But we are barking up the wrong tree.
Or to use John’s words, the axe is lying at the root of that tree.

We need not despair, and dream only of some peaceable kingdom
in the sky by and by.
And we need not take this burden on ourselves,
and deceive ourselves that we can make the peaceable kingdom
come to pass by trying harder,
or going back to the mythical good old days.

So how do we get in line?
Not by finding the right rules to bring us uniformity,
and all line up behind this perfect system of rules.
No, we get in line by wisely discerning God’s agenda
and lining up behind God’s movement among us.
It makes for a messier line,
but a more life-giving one.

Our calling is to look to God, great mover and righteous judge of all,
and to observe where God is on the move in our world . . . now.
We look together for signs where we can see the
saving, healing, reconciling, and truth-telling Messiah at work.
And we line up behind that.
We line up behind the Prince of Peace.
We line up behind the One
who will bring this peaceable kingdom about.

We are not the makers of the peace that will come to this world,
or to the church, or to us.
But neither are we disinterested parties,
waiting for it to be done for us.
We are duly-commissioned agents
of the God who judges for the poor and meek of the earth,
whose burning word of truth and love
breaks down the power of darkness and evil.

The implications of that should overwhelm us.
It should take our breath away,
and cause us to inhale a new Spirit-wind.
The question of the day is,
“Are we ready, by the Spirit-wind within us,
to breath with God?
to con-spire with God?
to repent, and get in line with God?”

Do we, the church of Jesus Christ,
dare step into this prophetic stream of Spirit-inspired
discerning, judging, proclaiming, and truth-telling
that will confront violent oppressors
with God’s judgment and justice?
that will confront our own sins and shortcomings
with the saving and transforming grace offered to us?

If so, we are called to repentance,
in the very same way that John the Baptist
was calling God’s people in his time.
We are called to repent.
We are called to change our way of thinking.
We are called to line up behind God’s agenda.

God has chosen me. God has chosen you.
May we have the courage and grace to do that, together.

—Phil Kniss, December 8, 2019

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