Sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44 for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A, November 27, 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5

“The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-2-39-11-pm
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
   shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
   all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
   “Come, let us go up 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.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come,
   let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Matthew 24:36-44

[Jesus said:]
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

At Thanksgiving we had a lot of family around our table from Michelle’s side.  It was a img_7790great time for all of them to be with her father, whose heath is fragile.  He was able to be at the table with us, maybe for the last time at such a gathering – although who knows the future, right?

After he went to bed there were some conversations about end-of-life issues.  The conversation drifted from considering his end-of-life to our own.  One day we will all be there.

I have some pretty clear ideas about those days, and I’m sure you do too.  Not the specifics, but characteristics.  I know I want to get to those days, knowing that I have loved as best I can, and I want to know that I have been loved.

At the end of my life I also want to be able to say that whatever came of my life, good or bad, successes or failures, I lived authentically; that I was true to myself and my values.  I know I do not want to get to those days with unsettled regrets.

None of that happens by accident.  In order to have those positive elements characterize the end of our days, we intentionally set ourselves to live in certain ways that will produce those outcomes, and to not live in ways that produce opposite outcomes.

Nothing about this is by chance, any more than being in good health or being an accomplished musician happens by chance.  You have heard of the 10,000 hours of practice that it takes to become an expert – the same principle holds for the spiritual life as well.

This is why we believe and teach the importance of the regular practices of a Christian.  Practices like daily prayer and meditation, regular gathering for worship and fellowship, regularly giving of ourselves and our resources for others.  These are the normal and indispensable practices that, over time, produce the outcome of the life we want to have lived.

We just celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving.  Giving thanks, being people of gratitude is another intentional, regular practice of a Christian.  We recognize that everything is a gift of God, our Creator.  Every breath, every bite of food, every smile, and hug and expression of love and respect is a gift of God.  We do not take any of them for granted.  We are people of gratitude.

Advent: Waiting and Hope

So, this is the first Sunday in Advent.  Advent is the first Sunday in the Christian year.  Advent means “coming”.  It is the four week season during which we wait for the coming of Christ at Christmas.

The text from the Gospel According to Matthew is about waiting for an event that Jesus called the “coming of the Son of Man.”  In some sense, a Christian community is always a community in waiting.  That means we are always a community of hope.  Hope is a necessary part of waiting.  In fact in Hebrew, the same word is used for both.  To wait is to hope.

But we are not just waiting for the end of our lives to roll around.  We are waiting with a vision of what our lives are, and what to hope for, what to wait for.  This vision, too, is something to give thanks for.  We do not believe in blind fate.  We do not believe we are left alone in the universe to work it our as best we can.  We Christians have a vision of the world as it should be, and we believe that we are called to cooperate with God, who intends a very specific kind of world.

The Hopeful Vision

The vision we have of the world we are hoping for, waiting to see accomplished, and working towards, by means of our daily Christian practices, is given for us in places like the beautiful text we read from Isaiah.  screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-12-54-45-pm

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
   shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
   all the nations shall stream to it.”

Our vision is of a reconciled world in which all the nations come together in common purpose.  We refuse to accept the inevitability of division between peoples.  We notice that this vision is not that all the people will dissolve their differences.  Not at all.  It is that all the nations, with all their differences, will seek a common good.  With all their different languages, customs, cultures, and all their different perspectives, they will all come together in a common quest.

Now, we are not naive children.  We do not take such poetic visions as literal description.  We do not believe in a fantasy world in which Isis and Taliban leaders stream to Israel to learn Jewish Torah.

But we believe in a vision of a world in which Muslims of good will and Christians of good will can live together, sharing a common planet, even sharing a nation and a local community, in a spirit of mutual respect and appreciation.

That vision calls us to live every day in such a way that the end result we wait for, and hope for, becomes more likely instead of less likely.  So, for example, we practice meditation because we know that the long term effect is to open our hearts to people who are different from us.  Our daily Christian practices, in these days of waiting, are helping us to get to the end we imagine; the end that our vision calls us to.

Isaiah’s vision for the future gets even better:screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-1-05-28-pm

“they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.”

This is a vision of the weapons of destruction becoming tools of productivity and fruitfulness.  Instruments meant for killing become implements for growing food; for sustaining life.  Not only will fighting cease, in this vision, even learning the art of war comes to and end.  It would be as archaic as learning to light a fire by striking rocks together.

We live into this vision of peace.  We are on the side of life.  We do not participate in a culture of death.  We believe that every life is sacred, so we live in such a way as to make peace more likely than war.  We refuse to scapegoat people of other nations or other religions.  We reject false binary narratives of either-or, of all or nothing, of “us” versus “them.”  These are the narratives of our ancient human ancestors on the Savannah, with their sharp spears and animal skin clothing, but we do not live in those barbaric days.

This too is something we can be grateful for every day; that we have a positive, hopeful vision of a reconciled peaceful world to live for and work for.  As we wait, in Advent, we wait as people of hope that we can be a part of God’s dream of a world at peace, where war is a distant memory.

Other Visions of Hope

As I started reflecting on this great vision of Isaiah, feeling so thankful that we have this screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-1-09-50-pmgift with which to direct our lives, I began to think of the other parts of the Christian vision we affirm that give us hope and joy, even as we wait.

I immediately thought of our Reformed traditions.  How we have been blessed by those who struggled 500 years ago to free us from the darkness of medieval theology.  We no longer believe that a priest stands between us and God.

We no longer believe that God is angry with us, looking for reasons to smite us, and threatening us with eternal conscious torment in hell.  We no longer believe in an original curse that makes us all guilty and shame-based.

Rather, we believe in an original blessing.  We believe that God is for us, with us, loving us, and luring us to embrace a vision of life at peace with God and with our neighbors.

We rejoice that we can be a part of that great Reformation motto: “the church Reformed, always reforming” always responding to our new contexts with a fresh reading of our ancient scriptures, open to the Spirit of God teaching us things, as Jesus told his disciples, that we could not have previously been able to hear.

The Community and our Vision

We believe that God has given us each other in this community to help us embrace and live into this hopeful vision.  Granted, this vision is an alternative to the dominate narratives of our day, that accept violence and division as inevitable.

Therefore, we need each other to encourage and strengthen our practices of this screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-1-11-18-pmalternative way.  Just as a log burns brightly, as long as it is in the fireplace or the fire pit with the others, but goes out quickly when pulled out, so we need each other in this community to keep this vision’s fire burning.

That is why, as an authentic community, we practice authentic generosity.  That is why we pledge to one another our mutual support.  We resolve to practice the Christian practice of first-fruits giving, not out of our left-overs, but from the top, because we make commitments to ensure that this community can be sustained in its vision and mission.

I am so thankful for this community.  I am so thankful to be a part of this forward-thinking, open-hearted body.  I am so thankful for all of the people who have been faithful in the past to bring us to this day.

And I am so thankful for the many many people that we touch; the ones who are blessed by our open doors, who use our building, from the Christian Service Center to the Gulf Coast Arts Council to the many yoga classes and vegan dinners we host here.  I am so thankful for the music that fills this space when we gather. I am thankful for the challenges we receive as we study and discuss faith and life together.   I am thankful for all of you.

Let us begin this new year for the church on this first Sunday of Advent, with joyful gratitude for the beautiful vision of life that we have been called to live into.

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