Sermon, 12/4/22: And What Is that Wisdom?

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2 Advent

Psalm 72:1-7, 18–19; Isaiah 11:1–10; Romans 15:4–13; Matthew 3:1-12

On him the spirit of the Lord will rest; a spirit of wisdom and understanding …. and in the fear of the Lord will be his delight.’      Isaiah 11:2-3

On this Second Sunday of Advent 2022, as we continue our journey to be at peace with the one, on whom “the spirit of the Lord will rest, a spirit of wisdom and understanding…” and for whom “the fear of the Lord will be his delight,” I put before us two questions.  And my two questions are not rhetorical ones.  Question one: Is there anyone among you, or in your family or circle of friends and acquaintances, who would enter voluntarily into slavery or forced restrictions of movement?  Question two: Is there anyone among us who would reject the offer of peace which the Prophet Isaiah described for the people of God?  I would imagine that the answer to both questions would be a resounding NO!

Only a year ago, 2 Advent 2021, we found the restrictions of COVID-19 suffocating and restrictive, although we could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.  The political discontent from then to now in our own land makes us long for peace, while countries under siege of war would imagine our situation as heaven on earth.  So, NO writ large, followed by several exclamation marks would be our response.  And, no, my two questions are not hypothetical, just as they were not for the prophet Isaiah.

Given our centuries-old liturgical tradition, it would not surprise me, however,  if you issued me the following silent criticism:  “I come to Eucharist to be fed on the spiritual bread of Christ, to hear his consoling reassurances of a new kind of existence on earth, and to hear words in this advent season which will prepare me for the beautiful celebration of the remembrance of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem of Judea.  I desire not in Advent to hear of slavery and its odious restrictions.”  That is a valid critique!  Being Anglicans, we tend to keep such thoughts to ourselves.  But I, being also Anglican, invite you step over that tradition-imposed line in our liturgical sand and to engage in a dialogue—actually, a monologue on my part—why such questions are essential to understanding how to get to Bethlehem and beyond.

The prophet Isaiah thought such questions pertinent.  It was the words of the Prophet Isaiah, just beautifully read, that gave George Friedrich Handel the inspiration for his magnificent work “The Messiah,” which debuted 1751, some 271 years ago in Dublin, Ireland.  I venture that there is hardly an individual in most churches who is not at least superficially familiar with Handel’s work.  Handel’s Messiah is tender, sweet, lyrical, spiritually uplifting.  Its message of comfort soothes our fears and anxieties, even for our time which is no less troubled by wars, political upheaval, and natural disasters.  The prophet Isaiah sought to bring comfort and a restoration of the covenant between the Biblical Hebrews and their God.  Isaiah spoke of peace.

As we listen during this period of Advent, of waiting, to the words of the prophet Isaiah, we do well to recall that Isaiah was addressing historical moments.  I ask you, as well, to consider that the historical fact that Guttenberg, the printing press and the proliferation of words on a page were not even a figment of Isaiah’s imagination.  Oral tradition held sway in Isaiah’s era.  To secure tradition and even secular history, poets wrote often in verse, and verse came to be sung. 

In our own era, Francis Scott Key, an Episcopalian and a slave owner (1779–1843), captured in two short verses the then-new nation’s struggle for political independence from the English Crown.  Key’s poem became our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.  And although no native-born American is likely to know the second verse of our national anthem—I confess that I do not—the first stanza summarizes our nation’s history and aspiration and is most assuredly more memorable that all the chapters of our history written in prose.  

So, it is this morning that I reintroduce to you the prophet Isaiah, who, instructed by God, sought to bring comfort and a restoration of the covenant between the Biblical Hebrews and their God.  It is God’s message, rendered by Isaiah a sing-song recitation, that simultaneously calms our anxieties in our own times and encourages onward us onward to Bethlehem.  Questions, questions, questions leap out at us from the pages in our Book of Record containing Isaiah’s prophecy.  The one question that we cannot ignore is this: What was the genesis of Isaiah’s prophecy of comfort and peace?

We believe that God works in and through history.  That is to say, as people of faith we have been taught, and we believe, that we humans are the instruments by which God carries out the divine intention for creation.  If that be the case, the Bible is an excellent source of actual secular human history: good old traditional geo-political and geo-social history.  It is there, in the middle of history, that the Prophet Isaiah found himself.

In the year 539 B.C., Cyrus, the ruler of the Persians (or as we know them in 2022, the Iranians) conquered the Babylonians—or as we know them 2022 the Iraqis.  (Does that sound vaguely familiar?)  The following year, 538 B.C., as was his custom, the Persians/Iranian Cyrus allowed those Babylonian/Iraqi Jews—or as we know them now, in 2022, the Israelis—to return to Jerusalem and Judea, in order to resume their customs and traditions, provided that they recognized his authority.  Around the time of Cyrus’ decree, the prophet Isaiah wrote the words for our text today. 

Isaiah’s words were spoken to Biblical Hebrews exiled in faraway Babylon (or Iraq).  And, reading the Bible as historical document, we know how the Biblical Hebrews, the Jews, felt about their captivity.  The writer of Psalm 137 expresses feelings not limited to one religious, ethnic, or racial group: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion… For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth…How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Ps. 137:1-4). 

The Hebrews did not go voluntarily to Babylon (Iraq) but found themselves there because of poor decision-making: The Hebrews forgot their covenant with God.  They failed to set an example of putting God first and treating neighbor as self.  They had leaders who failed them, leaders who had filled their hearts and minds of the people with false hope, fake information, disinformation, leaders who furthered their own socio-political advantage at the expense of others.  To be sure, those leaders gave lip service to the Divine Covenant between Abraham and God, but other interests captured their hearts and imagination.  They had other priorities than to some ancient contract with a God whom they could not see.

I return to the first question that I posed, namely whether we would voluntarily enter into slavery or a restricted environment.  As I tried to imagine how the biblical Hebrews got themselves into this predicament, that they were no longer a free and independent nation, and that some had been carried off to Iraq, I could not imagine that the Hebrews abruptly decided to cast aside the Covenant of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and all the other religious leader and prophets who had come before.  What I imagine is a gradual slippage, an occasional forgotten prayer to Yahweh, ruler of the universe, a slippage which morphed into a new daily routine.  They came to forget where they had come from.  Prophets of yore called such attrition “worshipping other gods,” which is to say, other things became the priority.  

The Jewish exiles now in Babylon (Iraq) knew, or should have known and learned from history, the story Joseph and the years of famine where the Israelites should have, but did not, plan when they should have, but did not, treat the earth with care.  No, they did not voluntarily become slaves, the collateral of war.  They found themselves, because of policies of previous generations and continued by themselves, because previous leadership forsook the desire of God that they should be the light, the example, by which all people of the world should discern God’s desire that we should dwell in peace and harmony.  The prophet Isaiah function was to declare a different time when the people of Israel got right again with God.

And so it is that we, during this period of Advent, listen to the voice of Isaiah and reflect on our own calling as followers of God’s Messiah to get right with God, the Creator of all humankind.  Isaiah reminds us that we, too, are exiles.  Isaiah offers us courage, which fortifies our hope in the greatness of God and reminds us that imbedded in each of us, in our individual, unique DNA, is the power to seek to do good, for we are of the image of God.  

Like the exiles in Babylon, we live between the times, looking back to God’s coming among us in the child of Bethlehem and to his coming again.  We know what is at stake, as we use these days of Advent to reassess where we have unintentionally laid aside our adoration of the Ground of our being, thus allowing other truly nonessentials to gain the upper hand and direct our aims away from the image of the Babe of Bethlehem who became the Messiah of Nazareth.  That is the comfort which Isaiah offers. 

Like the Jewish exiles then and the African brought centuries ago to the Americas, we, too, in 2022 need song to sustain us.  We need songs to capture our history and songs to lift our spirits, songs of triumphant redemption through Christ already with us.  Our journey will not be without difficulty, but we would do well to remember: With God, one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day, and that so much as one step towards the source of our being, the advent of God Eternal will have begun among us.  AMEN.