The Second Sunday in Advent A 2016
December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 19-19: Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
As I was being bombarded by news stories this past week, two little fragments settled into my mind and sparked a reflection on what it means to be the church in this time and place. Believe it or not, the two pieces that sparked my imagination came from–wait for it!–dictionaries!… First, Dictionary.com announced that the word of the year is “xenophobia,” which is defined as “fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers. [Xenophobia] can also refer to fear or dislike of customs, dress, and cultures of people with backgrounds different than our own….” I think it’s pretty obvious that fear and hatred of people who are seen as “other” is on the rise in our nation and around the world. It’s even happening here in our own backyard: I’m sad to say that just a couple of days ago, Willamette Week reported that Oregon has the highest per capita rate of post-election hate crimes in the nation. Not a proud moment, Oregon!… L The other piece that caught my attention this week was the Oxford Dictionaries announcement that their word of the year for 2016 is “post-truth,” which is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief….” I have to tell you, sisters and brothers, I never thought that dictionary words would rattle me, but these two words “xenophobia” and “post-truth” scare the you-know-what out of me, because when you put those two words together, they describe a world that is the polar opposite of God’s vision: a world where human beings are divided into “us” and “them,” a fearful world where we look at each other through a lens of scarcity and suspicion, a precarious world perched on the edge of a dark abyss. How very different that human vision is from the divine vision we encounter in our Scripture lessons for today!…
Clearly, there’s a great gulf between the existing reality of this world and the still-unfolding plan for the Kingdom of God!… In our first lesson, the prophet Isaiah unveils God’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom—and what a beautiful vision it is!–especially for people who find themselves feeling lost and fearful in a strange land: people like the Israelites, who were foreigners in exile far from home, and Christians like you and me, who are foreigners in a culture where we’re not truly at home…. Our psalm for today helps to flesh out God’s vision of the Kingdom, as the psalmist paints a picture of God’s ideal ruler: This perfect king will be a servant of God, who will judge the people with righteousness and justice. He will defend the poor, help the needy, and crush anyone who oppresses another. Under his rule there will be peace and plenty for all…. What a contrast to the greedy, self-centered rulers of this world both then and now!… Turning to our gospel lesson, we find no hint of the Peaceable Kingdom that was revealed in Isaiah. This may be due to the fact that, from a historical perspective, first-century Palestine was anything but peaceful, as God’s people groaned under the yoke of the Roman occupation. (Can you say “xenophobia?!”…) Yet because John the Baptist has seen God’s power at work in Jesus, he boldly declares that the kingdom of heaven has come near…. John senses the urgency of the moment, and so he pulls no punches in calling for radical repentance and speaking truth to power: When he sees the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, coming out to the River Jordan for baptism, he calls them a “brood of vipers!”—which would pretty much be the equivalent of me calling all of you a “bunch of snakes in the grass”—something I’d never do, by the way!…” (I mean nothing says “Advent” quite like “you brood of vipers,” right?!…) But John’s just getting warmed up! He then proceeds to call the religious leaders on their hypocrisy, and he commands them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance!….” Not a good way to win any popularity contests, that’s for sure…but then God’s prophets aren’t called to win popularity contests…. On the contrary, prophets are called to speak hard truth to hardhearted people: to call out those who use their power to oppress and to empower those who are oppressed. Prophets are called to do this, because only God’s truth has the power to crack the hardness of human hearts….
Speaking of hearts being cracked open, I belong to a Facebook group where I’ve read many inspiring stories these past few weeks: stories of people finding the courage to stand up and speak out when they encountered bullying, sexism, racism, and xenophobia. For example, a few people spoke of forming a protective circle around people on public transportation who were being harassed because of the color of their skin or because of their religious identity. Several women wrote about finding their voice to defend themselves or others against unwanted sexual attention from men…. Those who shared their stories have also made it clear that it was the stories shared by others that gave them the courage to speak up on their own behalf or to intervene on behalf of another vulnerable person. So, be sure to share your stories and encourage each other, sisters and brothers, because encouragement is one of the ways we grow in faith and love, along with the six other faith practices I listed for you a while back: prayer, worship, serving, giving, study, and invitation…. Here I’d like to point out that in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul calls on Christians to welcome others as Christ has welcomed them: with love that has no condition and knows no end. In addition, Paul makes it quite clear that God’s salvation is for all people, as he writes, “[L]et all the peoples praise [the Lord].” With this in mind, it’s important that you and I become more aware of what’s happening around us and that we become more intentional about reaching out to show support for our neighbors who are feeling vulnerable, because that’s an important part of who God calls us to be…. For example, you may wish to consider calling or emailing your LGBTQ or immigrant friends to let them know you have their backs…. After attending an interfaith event with about 350 people two weeks ago, I was personally very moved when a young Muslim woman smiled and said to several of us, “It was super cool when you all stood up and said that if Muslims had to register, you would register, too!….” That, my friends, is the kind of neighbor-love God calls us to: love that puts itself out there to stand with our neighbors as sisters and brothers, children of the same Creator God…..
Dear friends in Christ, holy Scripture and human history both bear witness that in every age God has raised ordinary people up to be messengers of God’s truth. Yet these courageous individuals have often met with a lot of pushback from other people of faith. This was true in Isaiah’s time, it was true in Jesus’ day, and it’s true today…. Sadly, you and I don’t have to look very far to find evidence of the church choosing either to collaborate or to cooperate with the powers-that-be, while dismissing the prophets as worry worts or crybabies or delusional kooks…. As a result, there’ve been too many times when members of the church have looked the other way and failed to stand up and speak out in the face of grave threats to our neighbors…. My friends, that is NOT what God calls us to be and to do! As members of Christ’s church, you and I ARE the Body of Christ here on earth in this time between the first and second coming of our Lord, and God has vital work for us to do today…. The church in our day cannot afford to be a “non-prophet” institution! We cannot afford to sit in silence, watching as the darkness of xenophobia and “post-truth” creep up on us…. Like it or not, you and I are the reluctant prophets who are made for this age…. In this “post-truth” time, we’re called to speak the truth—even when—especially when–it’s hard to do so! And the truth we’re called to speak is this: Our God has created all people and all things out of love and for love, so no one has the right to think he or she is better than anyone else, and no one has the right to harm or destroy anything that God has created in love…. As children of God, all human beings are part of something much greater than ourselves: We’re part of God’s great plan for the still-unfolding new creation: and THAT, dear friends, is the ultimate truth!… The Good News for today is that in this post-truth world human words don’t get the last word!… Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and his never-ending love for this whole world is the Word that will stand forever. Thanks be to God! Amen.
 Romans 15:7a.
 Romans 15:11.