4-9-17 Sermon “The Day is Coming: We Are One” by Rev. Jay Anderson
(Cheering) We’re #1! We’re #1!
When you’re on top of the world, especially in the sports world, that’s what you get to cheer, right? The University of North Carolina men’s basketball team and the University of South Carolina women’s team can both legitimately declare, “We’re #1!” And at every level of sport, from Little League to the the professional leagues, all around the world, teams vie for the right to claim, “We’re #1!” or, as Frank Sinatra liked to croon, we’re “king of the hill, top of the heap.” Queen’s classic hit song, “We Are the Champions” will ring out, over and over again, in each sport’s championship events, ad nauseam.
Being #1 means being set apart from the competition, set above, better than - at least on a given day - any of your competitors. Saying, “we are one,” as our message title suggests today in light of our scripture readings, seems less like “We Are the Champions,” and more like “Kum Bah Yah” doesn’t it? In our closing hymn today we sing, “we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” That’s a completely different message than the one we so often hear in our society, in marketing, in politics, in sports, anywhere. We proclaim our #1 status on billboards and bumper stickers. We rank everything in life in order to determine not only who is the best, but also who is not; from best place to work, best restaurants, best new cars, best new performer, you name it and we rank it. And even in competitions where teamwork is celebrated, we’re still compelled to single out one member of that team, as the “most valuable player.” We just can’t help ourselves. We like winners, we also like to make sure somebody, anybody but us, is also clearly the loser. Our claims of being #1 always, always, come at the expense of another. Put another way, as it has been famously, or infamously, offered, in our society, finishing #2 just makes you the first loser.
“We are one,” though, is a message of unity, of togetherness, of cooperation, not of competition. It offers a sense of camaraderie, of teamwork that can perhaps result in becoming #1 at something, but that doesn’t necessarily require vanquishing all comers as the goal or the measure of success. Oneness can be success in and of itself.
Let’s consider that through the lens our scripture passages today, starting with Isaiah 35. The passage from last week, Isaiah 58, took place after the people of Jerusalem had returned from exile to their broken and devastated city. Whatever positive things you might say about Jerusalem, “We’re #1!” would not be one of them. But our passage today is located among writings that depict the people of Judah while still in exile, still strangers in a foreign land. They’re on the outside looking in.
So, the chapter before today’s reading, Isaiah 34, paints a devastating picture in which the heavens disappear, the land is ruined, streams and soil are poisoned, and only a few animals and fruitless plants abound. Isaiah 34 paints a vivid verbal portrait of despair. And chapter 36, after today’s reading, continues in that same vein, but in between we encounter chapter 35, a vision of hope that seems totally out of place.
Isaiah 35:1 inaugurates a completely different vision than what comes before and what follows. Here, what was a landscape of despair blossoms as suddenly as spring crocus from newly thawed ground. Divine majesty is glimpsed in the wild places as water springs up in the desert. Courage shows itself in the strengthening of weak hands, knees, and hearts. Restored bodies mirror the healing landscape, as blind eyes open, deaf ears hear, the lame leap up, and the speechless sing. Chapter 35 sounds more like the later chapters of Isaiah, describing Judah’s return from exile to rebuild broken Jerusalem. This story of Judah’s historic resurrection is central to Christian and Jewish faith. Neither Jews nor Christians would exist today had this not occurred.
But events as deeply woven into our faith history as Jerusalem’s restoration take on for us an air of inevitability. Yet they cannot be taken for granted. Other nations destroyed by great empires -- including Aram, Moab, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel -- were never to reestablish after their crises had passed. We have Judah’s story only because it survived destruction. Every time our scripture reading brings us to Jerusalem’s phoenix-like restoration 2500 years ago is a moment to stop for gratitude and wonder. As Isaiah 34 and 35 vividly show, reversal of fortune isn’t guaranteed. But it is possible. Judah’s success story sets a precedent for hope, showing that happy endings have occurred in the past and can occur again.
In literature, underdog accounts such as these satisfy our thirst for poetic justice. We love the underdog tale, in literature, in sports, in film, in life. What would be the point of a story in which conditions for the lowly went from bad to worse without a dramatic “happily ever after”? Why read detective or adventure novels in which the mystery is never solved, larger perspectives never appear, and the honorable are never vindicated? We read literature not so much for whether poetic justice will prevail, but how it will do so, which twist or turn will come in the nick of time to bring the satisfaction we’ve waited for.
We read the Bible in much the same way.
Think about it: stories beginning with barrenness end in fruitfulness. Childless couples are suddenly “with child.” A nation suffering oppression under a powerful and brutal empire is led to freedom on a “highway” through the sea. Heroes descend before they ascend: sold into Egypt, threatened with famine, subjected to evil edicts, surrounded by Assyrian forces. They are pursued by rulers, abandoned by supporters, thrown into cisterns, shipwrecked, beaten, and even crucified, dead and buried. But the Bible rarely leaves innocents in such straits. Like other literature, Scripture employs reversals to encourage hope.
Yet we know that real life doesn’t always offer us such carefully constructed happy endings. Happily ever after isn’t inevitable. Reversals cannot necessarily be counted on. When it is our lives in the balance - here and now - and not those of others that we simply read about, then the stories are much more complex.
On television, we know with some degree of certainty that MacGyger, Agent Gibbs, Magnum, P.I., Wonder Woman, Nurse Jackie, or whoever our title character hero or heroine is will reliably survive whatever predicament they find themselves in, regardless of how dire their situation may appear. Good will triumph.
If we could reliably expect poetic justice in life, of course, all suffering would be as harmless for us as well.
But the real life possibility of our own failure and the inevitability of our own death demand much from us, forcing us to grow in endurance as we hope against hope, as we strengthen spiritual muscles of generosity, patience, and virtue. Some people’s stories end well.
But sometimes, through no fault of their own, others may lose, or even yield to despair.
Because real life differs from literature in this way, readers may be tempted to dismiss passages like Isaiah 35 as unrealistic, the miraculous relegated to a fantasy world.
It’s this kind of understanding that makes some believe that Isaiah 35 is just fantasy, hallucination, mere mirage in the midst of desolation. Readers of Isaiah don’t expect this passage to be where it is. Some scholars believe it’s location here is due to an editorial miscue, that because it reflects the prophets view of events that take place in the historical record found in 2 Kings, that this passage should have been placed somewhere after chapter 40, when Isaiah turns to that post-exilic period.
But what if that’s not the case? What if maybe, just maybe, the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture and who inspired those who put the canon of Scripture together, inspired this placement as well? Maybe this oasis of new life and new hope is located here in order to provide a mustard seed of hope to those who are most desperately seeking something, anything, in these darkest and direst of times. Because if it’s true that hope that is seen is not really hope, it’s also true that hope that is left unseen, that is not dared, is not hope either. It’s true that presuming every blind eye will open - whether literally or metaphorically - is a presumptuous mistake. But so is expecting no blind eyes to open. There’s a middle way: In faith, we can approach scripture not out of presumption, whether positive or negative, but out of openness to the future, out of expectancy for the nearly unimaginable good that God can indeed accomplish at any moment.
We can understand, though, why the people of Isaiah’s time might balk at this idea. The exile was a horrific period in the life of first Israel and then Judah. The country we know as Israel divides in two after King Solomon dies, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. In 722 BCE Israel is conquered and exiled by the Assyrian empire. In 587 BCE Assyria is then conquered by Babylon, along with all of its empire that includes the former Israel, as well as the southern kingdom of Judah. Most of the people are shipped off to Babylon where they remain for 50 years before they’re allowed to return after the Persian Empire defeats Babylon. This passage is placed during the exile, not after it. At this point there is no sign of hope, there is no present hope of return. Life for the exiled Jewish people is as dire, dreary, and dystopian as the wilderness described in the previous chapter.
But then we’re told that there would be a highway - a Holy Way, Isaiah calls it. The Lord’s ransomed ones, he says, the exiles of Judah will return and enter Jerusalem with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away. Their vision, their understanding of this passage, is that God will return with them, and that even nature, all of creation, will rejoice in the presence of God. All will be restored, creation will be restored, the deserts will become fertile ground, the grasslands will become filled with life as wetlands, just as the physically disabled will be restored so will all of creation in the midst of God’s restorative justice.
All will be one with God and with creation.
And this vision of light in the midst of darkness, healing in the midst of illness and disease, water flowing and flowers blooming in the lifelessness of the desert, and a high way, a Holy Way through the desolation that will lead to restoration with and in God, is placed this week alongside the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
The desolation of Jesus’ day is as plain as the desolation of Isaiah’s, the only difference being the people are in the reconstituted, post-exilic Israel. They’re still a captive nation, the empire of record being Roman instead of Assyrian, Babylonian, or Persian. They are oppressed under Caesar and his minions, Pilate and Herod. That is the situation Jesus has encountered and challenged in his short ministry.
After nibbling around the edges, going from small town to small town, in the wilderness areas of Judea, Jesus now turns toward the center of power, Jerusalem. And he rides into the city in a parade intended to mock the parade of the Roman governor. The people throw their cloaks on the ground to make a way, a highway if you will, for this prophet, Jesus. They wave palm branches the way the emperor’s entry would be accompanied by the waving of flags.
The people rejoice together - they recognize the satire in the mimicry that’s going on, but they are also filled with hope; hope for so much more. This must be the one, they believe, the Messiah who will finally free them from oppression and empire, once and for all. So they’re celebrating, they’re raucous, they’re laughing and shouting and singing. A people can dream, can’t they? We can almost hear the cries of “We’re #1!” beneath the shouts of “Hosanna!”
But the Pharisees, afraid that this demonstration will stir Rome’s anger and bring even more force to bear on the people of Israel, tell Jesus to quiet his disciples. It’s already bad enough here, they believe. Pilate is in town with all of these soldiers. If the peace is disturbed then Rome will just quell the disturbance with even more violence.
“Stop your people, Jesus,” they demand, “stop them!”
But like crocus blooming, or water suddenly streaming in Isaiah’s desert, the people see the hope of God’s glory in this prophet on a donkey in their midst. They’ve seen in this man the blind made to see, the deaf made to hear, the lame made to leap. They’ve seen miracles, healings, even the dead raised to life. How can they be quiet?
And Jesus concurs. “If they were silent,” Jesus tells the Pharisees, “even the stones would cry out!”
Even the stones would cry out!
All of creation is one with God when restoration is at hand. All of creation, living and breathing, blooming and flowing, unite when God is in their midst. In Luke it is the stones who threaten to cry out, in Isaiah it is the wilderness itself that cries out in celebration. A Way, a highway, a Holy Way is laid out.
In Isaiah, the stream of God’s righteousness and justice flows through the darkest, driest places and resurrects an exiled people, just as centuries later that same stream of righteousness and justice flows into Jerusalem.
The Day is coming, we are compelled to understand. The day is coming when the sheep will lie down with the lamb. The day is coming when the swords will be beaten into plowshares. The day is coming when the healing waters of God’s restorative justice will roll down, when peace will flow like an overflowing stream. And the waters of God’s justice will flow over all of creation, not in a flood of destruction as described in Genesis, but in gentle waters, as in baptism. Water, in and of itself, is the key to life as we know it. Without water, there is no life. In the waters of baptism, we are offered new life. We’re reminded that we are one with God, one with Christ, and one with each, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
There are so many in our world who don’t feel as one, though, who suffer under exile of one kind or another.
In Syria, Sudan, the Congo and other countries innocents are being killed by ruthless governments that apparently will do anything, anything to stay in power.
Meanwhile so-called “Christian nations” around the world, including the U.S., tolerate a genocide of brown skinned people that they would never have allowed to go this far if the victims were white. In South Sudan, people are fleeing by the hundreds of thousands to escape ethnic violence and hunger. In South America hundreds have died and thousands are impacted by flooding, the result of a changing climate that is nearly universally acknowledged, except by those who stand to lose money or power by accepting the obvious. Creation cries out again, not in rejoicing, but in anguish and pain over events that choke the life out of all but the strongest, most affluent, and most privileged in the world.
On this Sunday, we remember and celebrate the physical coming of the Son of God into the City of God on another Sunday some 2000 years ago. We remember and celebrate the hope he brought then and now. And just as a way, a highway, was made for Jesus as people lay down their cloaks and palm branches on that day, a way for Jesus to bring hope into our lives and our world is made as we wave palm branches and lay down our lives before Jesus this day.
The unity, the one-ness of all of creation, the fusion of the material and Spirit is made manifest in the incarnated Christ. We are one with God and all of creation through Jesus Christ; We share in his baptism as he shares in ours. We are created in the divine image of the Triune God revealed to us in Jesus who becomes the eternal Christ. As his self-professing followers, we are called to do the same unifying work of Jesus, as the church, the body of Christ in the world today.
All of creation cries out for the body of Christ to do the work of justice that Jesus did and calls us to do in his place and his name. The world and all of creation needs the church, and specifically the people of the church, to be the hope, to be the life, to be resurrection in the world today. Because when the world sees in the church, not a reflection of itself, but the image and spirit of Jesus Christ, then it too will recognize the presence of God and rejoice.
The day is coming, Isaiah says, when all will be one. The day is coming, Jesus tells us, when death in all its forms will give way to resurrection.
The day is coming, when a stone placed on a tomb of perceived defeat will be rolled away - the stone crying out to reveal victory - God’s might YES to the work Jesus did and that he hands on to us. That unifying call makes us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.
It is when we strive to be one with Christ and with God’s creation that, as Isaiah suggested:
Waters will spring up in the desert,
and streams in the wilderness.
The burning sand will become a pool,
and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.
The day is coming when maybe, just maybe, even more stones will cry out! Amen.