Sermon offered on the Second Sunday of Advent
December 9, 2007
Ravensworth Baptist Church, Annandale, Virginia
Advent. What does it mean? We celebrate an arrival, an event that changed the world. And in so doing, we willingly enter into a mystery. In believing, we suspend our disbelief. In marking a moment in time, we leave time and immerse ourselves in the eternal. This past summer I traveled in Palestine and Israel with a wonderful man, Ray McGovern. Ray is a 30-year veteran CIA analyst who now crisscrosses the country challenging our government’s war policies and working for peace, and a man of deep faith. One morning we stood outside the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Over the entrance to the Church engraved in stone are the words: et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis. Ray translated for me: God took on human form, and dwelt among us. Ray pointed out to me that the Greek that the Latin translators were working with uses a tense for the phrase “dwelled with us” that doesn’t exist in Latin, or, for that matter, in English, a tense that connotes an action that begins in the past and continues right up through the present. So, Ray explained to me, what John really wrote was: “God pitched his tent with us, and never left.”
Our experience of God is not about remembering a time of revelation, teaching, or even revolution. Our experience of God continues, as our experience of wrestling with the mystery of existence continues. As we continue our journey through the weeks of Advent, entering into this period of reflection, expectation, and new beginnings, we ask ourselves: what happened 2000 years ago? What does it mean, what was it about? And our scripture for today takes us directly, in a deep dive, into that question and that mystery.
In the Epistle for this second Sunday of Advent, Paul in his letter to the Romans proclaims:
And again Isaiah says:
"The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope."
In quoting from Isaiah, Paul takes the event of Jesus’ time on earth and pulls it out of time, into a greater cosmic meaning: Jesus was always going to come, Paul is saying to the Christians of Rome, and now he has, and it was foretold in the Jewish scriptures. In effect, Paul takes Jesus’ coming and stretches out in time: 8th century BCE to first century CE. In reading this verse today, we bring it into our own time, the – 21st century CE. But to begin, let’s look at the historical frame of the scripture:
Both Isaiah and Jesus were dealing with the question of how to deal with Empire. For Isaiah it’s Assyria. The Northern Kingdom of Israel has already been overtaken and occupied, the people exiled. The Kings of the southern kingdom of Judea were working on maintaining an alliance with Assyria, and playing it against the other great power, Egypt. For Jesus, of course, it’s Rome. Both Isaiah and Jesus were preaching on the folly of Empire, and in favor of true leadership with justice as its core and its object. Isaiah was talking not only to the people but to the kings, warning of the danger of alliances with superpowers. Return to God, says Isaiah, trust in him. If you do, God himself will lay waste the Assyrias and the Egypts, and he will do it through the agency of his people, Israel. So Jerusalem has to turn to God, and then she will be triumphant. In the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, God’s plan for history converges on Zion. My people may be exiled, but a saving remnant will return, and re-establish God’s kingdom.
Paul’s message, however, was different. Jesus had no use for the kings or the priestly power structure. His message is not of return to a land and re-establishment of a kingdom, albeit more Godly, that the one that was destroyed. Rather, it is about a new world, a world that transcends kingdoms and national boundaries, a world no longer tribal but universal.
But something is going on here with these two texts that at first glance look alike:
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal – in Hebrew, flag, banner -- to all peoples [amim]; the nations [goyim] shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
And Isaiah says: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who comes to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
Well, Paul is certainly quoting from Isaiah, but it sure is different, isn’t it? Paul, of course interpreted the Old Testament according the spirit of the day and the message that he wanted to convey. What we really have here are two sermons, each advancing an idea about the relationship of God to humankind. Isaiah, speaking to the Jews of his time, uses two words: amim and goyim, both words mean “the other nations” the peoples surrounding us, the non-Jews, those who are different than us. Paul takes these two words and renders them with one word: Gentiles. In the Christian frame of the day, this really means everyone, the whole world. And he has left out the part about raising the flag. What’s the vision here? Paul is saying that the New Covenant has come to replace the Old, the one made with God’s chosen tribe, “the root of Jesse.”.
We see this going on all the time in Christian liturgy, especially around Christmas. We In Handel’s Oratorio Messiah we hear the beautiful aria on the words: And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. We’re singing here about God, right? Wrong. If you go to Isaiah 60, look at the quote in its context, you see that that the prophet is referring not to God, but to Israel. It reads, on the day that God’s light shines upon you, Israel, on that day, the nations will flock to you to bask in your light. It’s about Israel and its role as a beacon of light to the nations. In Paul’s fashioning of the new faith, the House of Israel has now been brought into the service of all humankind. Christianity, fulfilling the message of Jesus, has totally transformed the concept of the covenant with humankind, moving from the tribal and exclusive to the universal.
Isaiah’s vision is different. It is, to be sure, a searing indictment of transgression, a powerful message of social justice and repentance. But he is speaking directly and pointedly to the people of Israel only. In Chapter I, for example he has the Lord crying out bitterly: I have reared children, brought them up, and look, they have sined against me!” Isaiah’s message is about bringing an errant people back to God, about what is true worship, in contrast to the Temple cult, the royal consciousness in Walter Brueggemann’s term. It’s powerful, it’s stirring, it’s revolutionary for its time, just as Jesus’ message was in his time, but it is not universal.
What we are seeing here is the development of our concept of God’s relationship to humankind. Today’s scripture passage is about the Glory and power of the one God, as reflected in the recognition of all the nations of the Earth. But it is focused on the special place of Israel – as indicated by the words that Israel will “stand as a signal (flag) to the peoples.” The people of Israel are a sign of God’s power, his power is reflected in Israel, indeed their ascendancy is a signal of God’s glory. (This is directly in line with the Abrahamic blessing in Genesis 12:3, which, correctly translated goes something like: all people will be blessed through the invocation of your name.) This comes into stark focus as we continue with verse 11:
On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. 12He will raise a flag for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. They shall swoop down on the backs of the Philistines in the west, together they shall plunder the people of the east. They shall put forth their hand against Edom and Moab, and the Ammonites shall obey them. 16so there shall be a highway from Assyria for the remnant that is left of his people, as there was for Israel when they came up from the land of Egypt.
There’s that flag word again! It’s conquest, ascendancy, carrying the flag into battle, raising and planting the flag of victory. This is not a universal message.
There’s a tension here: this warlike, violent passage follows directly from the beautiful, deservedly famous passage, where “the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and child shall lead them” It’s all about the end of fighting, a return to childlike innocence, peaceful coexistence, universal harmony. So how do we explain this stark contrast, this seeming contradiction? It’s because this is a tribal vision. It may be the beginning of a new age of peace, but it’s a vision that is centered on one people. There is a chosen tribe at the center of a universe united under one God. Indeed, the Old Testament stands at the center of a mighty tension between the tribal and the universal. Israel is poised, balancing, at the brink of a fundamental transformation. Christianity comes to take it forward. Paul takes this verse, this image of the root of Jesse, and builds his transformative vision from it.
So what’s the lesson here? It’s not about one faith tradition against another. On the contrary, we each have to face God ourselves. God doesn’t want one people to have power over another, how could that be? And each group continues to struggle with that. Each tradition has been and is capable of royal consciousness or prophetic consciousness, a power versus justice orientation. It can be “Us first” or it can be the unity of all humankind.
The Bible is the story of humankind’s journey toward a peaceable kingdom built on universal love. Today, here, we continue on this journey. Each of us, if we open our eyes, is Jesus entering the Temple and, in horror realizing that it has become a den of thieves. It is the person of faith – Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, confronting the question of what to do when confronted with evil in his or her time, confronted with a House of God turned into a machine to dispossess the powerless, rob the poor, despoil nature.
Some progressive Jews make the argument that Rabbinic Judaism, faced with the loss of the Temple and the exile, made the transition from a tribal, Temple-based cult to a universalist faith not tied to a place. I think that this is true in some ways, but clearly we have not made it all the way, and we see the evidence in the State of Israel. Tribal Judaism is being enacted there. The conquest side of Isaiah’s message, not the lion lying down with the lamb but the smiting of the Philistines, is what is now dominant. Isaiah’s soaring vision of universal peace is not completely lost, there are voices, prophetic voices that are calling on it, but we have gone very far indeed down the wrong path. We need prophets now, as much as we did in Isaiah’s time, and we must not stop at Jeremiah and Isaiah. We must be as well followers of Joshua ben Yosef, aka Jesus of Nazareth. I am a Jew – loyal to my people and to my great tradition. And that is why I say that today, welcoming home Steve and Ghassan and the others from Ravensworth returning from the Holy Land, and welcoming our special guest Daoud from Bethlehem, today especially, considering the desperate crisis in the Holy Land, we need to pay special attention to the teachings of the greatest Jewish prophet of them all.
Here is what I mean:
In the Gospel of Mark, 3:31-35, we are told the story of the early days of Jesus’ preaching. Jesus was preaching in Galilee -- his old neighborhood. Jesus is driving out demons and healing the sick right and left, and before long he is being followed by crowds who won’t leave him alone. He’s a superstar. His family gets wind of this, and they go out to try get him under control, because the word is, your son and your brother has flipped out, he’s gone over the edge, and furthermore, he’s getting into real hot water with the authorities. The gospel recounts:
“Then his mother and his brothers came: and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Fast forward, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2001. Nurit Peled Elhanan is the mother of Smadar Elhanan, 13 years old when she was killed by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem in September 1997..
Nurit and her husband Rami, Jewish Israelis, when faced with this evil, this crisis in their lives, responded by looking very hard at themselves and at the society that had brought this down upon them. After Smadar’s death, they opened their house of mourning to Palestinian supporters and to other bereaved parents. Years later, referring back to those days, Nurit said this in a speech in Tel Aviv:
“When my little girl was killed, a reporter asked me how I was willing to accept condolences from the other side. I replied without hesitation that I had refused to meet with the other side: When representatives of Netanyahu's government came to offer their condolences I took my leave and would not sit with them. For me, the other side, the enemy, is not the Palestinian people. For me the struggle is not between Palestinians and Israelis, nor between Jews and Arabs. The fight is between those who seek peace and those who seek war. My people are those who seek peace. My sisters are the bereaved mothers, Israeli and Palestinian, who live in Israel and in Gaza and in the refugee camps. My brothers are the fathers who try to defend their children from the cruel occupation, and are, as I was, unsuccessful in doing so. Although we were born into a different history and speak different tongues there is more that unites us than that which divides us.“
Today, we will all be privileged to hear from my brother, achoi, Daoud Nassar, who is, with his family, building the modern house of David, but this house is a house of peace, a Tent of Nations, on their farm on a hilltop just south of Bethlehem. Daoud will tell you how, faced with Jewish settlers carrying guns, he speaks to them of peace, friendship and being neighbors. Faced with people who uproot his trees, he plants more trees. Faced with a regime that tries to steal the future from his children, he brings children to his land to create mosaic art out of broken tiles from the rubbish dumped on his land by hostile settlers. Faced with a wall built to seal him and his Muslim neighbors off from Bethlehem and the rest of Palestine, he brings computer education to women in the village at the foot of his hill. Faced with a western world that wants to depict him as violent and backward, he brings international youth to his farm to teach the meaning of devotion to the land and to nonviolent resistance.
And so, in this time of Advent, we must ask: where are we going? What are we going to do? What is the way of justice, in our lives, as individual, as families, as a congregation, what’s the mission? We live in a world which, like that faced by Isaiah and then 800 years later by Jesus, gives us every reason to hunker down in our bubble of prosperity, to say we can do nothing about the juggernaut of globalization that rapaciously exploits 90% of the world’s population in order to drape the remaining 10% in luxury and to feed an obsessional pursuit of material possession and sensual stimulation. We live in a world which encourages us to define ourselves according to how different we are from others – from other cultures, other countries, other faiths. We live in a world which prompts us to be full of fear, to hold on, and to close down, rather than to let go and open up. We live in a world that is tottering on the brink. A world very like the world of first century Palestine into which walks an itinerant, charismatic, desert-dwelling holy man, attracting by the very force of his message scores of desperate souls seeking meaning, release and cleansing. A man named John.
The Gospel reading, from Matthew chapter 3:
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'"
Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
What is the connection of the Gospel reading to the other scriptures for this Sunday? Not the theme of redemption or salvation. No – the common image is that of the growing thing – the root of Jesse as it appears in Romans and in Isaiah. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. What do we do with what we have been given, what do we nurture? A tree is planted and grows in the earth. It does not say: who planted me? It does not say, what flag flies over the territory upon which I stretch out my limbs to the sun? The tree only knows who it is who gives it life-giving water, who it is who cares for it in its growing years, and who it is who harvests its fruit to feed their families, their communities, their neighbors and those far away who are in need. John the Baptist, like the prophets who came before him and the young man from Galilee who took up his mantle was delivering the message required by the times, times like our own, in which the spiritual and the political converge. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Move beyond claiming privilege from this or that ancestry, this or that lineage, this or that membership in a nation state, club, race, or religious group. The earth is littered with the dead stones of civilizations and institutions that have claimed their power by saying, “We have – fill in the blank – as our ancestor.” Advent calls us to plant, and replant, and replant again. Advent calls us to raise up the living stones.
Our scriptures for today call us to remember the prophetic vision of the universality of humankind and the divine imperative to realize this truth – our very survival and future depends on it. It is the imperative to build bridges, not walls, to plant, not to uproot, to build, not to destroy. There is a choice. It is clear to me, as a Jew, that Israel has lost its way. We brought to the world the teaching of a Universal God, a God who seizes us by the arm, binds us to his covenant, demands Justice – and we are now enacting the creed of a tribal God who commands conquest. We lay claim to our tradition of social justice and the requirement to relieve suffering, but we have left the Palestinians out of it – it is only about our suffering. We have created not a cradle of freedom, but, in Jeff Halper’s phrase, a matrix of control. We have unleashed dark forces, exemplified not only by criminal government actions but by the vicious acts of fanatics.
Blessedly, there are those among us in Israel and Palestine and here in the US – many – who shine light upon this shadow, this darkness, who are taking on the mantle of prophecy, who are the living stones. They are Daoud and his wife Jihan, his brothers and sisters who – confronted with oppression and guns drawn -- turn away from bitterness and violence and work to create a place of peace and fellowship. They are Rami and Nurit Elhanan who, brokenhearted, reach across the walls of concrete and fear to create a new community of shared grief and hope. They are Israeli soldiers forced to dehumanize others in their homes, villages and byways, and Palestinian political prisoners, who shed their army uniforms and emerge from their jail cells to embrace one another and together visit schools to bring a message of non-violence to the children of both peoples. They are the Pastors – like your own Pastor Steve Hyde and like my friend The Reverend David Good at the Congregational Church of Old Lyme in CT, who organize Living Stones pilgrimages to the Holy Land and lead their congregations in missions devoted to justice for the people of Palestine and Israel.
Today, in this season of joy and expectation, today, in our time of extremity and need, we celebrate and honor our living stones. May they continue to bear worthy fruit. May we all do so.