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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