12/01/19 – The Work of Advent

THE WORK OF ADVENT

December 1, 2019
1st Sunday of the Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44 
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

The church calendar, the paraments in the sanctuary, the music, and the scripture texts today tell us we are preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth; and ultimately, the coming of the kingdom of God. Our text from Isaiah today contains one of the most beautiful descriptions of that kingdom. It is a vision of peace and the end of world hunger: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” It is such a life-affirming description of what God plans for the world that it appears twice in the Old Testament. It is written almost word for word in the book of Micah. Biblical scholars believe that it was part of an early liturgy in the Jewish temple. Isaiah gives a hope-filled description of the kingdom of God because to have hope, one must have a vision of what the realization of that hope will look like.

Throughout the bible, the realization of the kingdom of God is envisioned as peaceful. Also, in the book of Isaiah, you will find that the Messiah, who was prophesied to restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory, was given the title, “Prince of Peace.” In our time, when death by violence in wars, in public places and within homes is commonplace, a vision of peace strains our imaginations. Weaponry is one of the most valuable commodities traded between nations. United States soldiers defend themselves in foreign conflicts against weapons their own country sold to countries whose soldiers they are fighting against. And, far more American civilians are killed by weapons wielded by other Americans on their own soil than American soldiers in foreign lands. During the Cold War era, schools had bomb drills during which children crouched under their desks to be prepared if Russia attacked. Today school children have “active-shooter drills,” during which they hide to make themselves invisible to gunmen from their own communities armed with assault rifles designed for war. “Beating swords into plowshares” — my version of Isaiah’s famous image is the replacing of high-powered armory and weapons of mass destruction for killing and destroying with Caterpillar tractors for farming and construction machinery building homes and schools.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the word translated as “plowshares” was used as a metaphor for food, which to the Hebrew people meant economic security. When you were not engaged in fighting the enemy, you could plant crops to feed your family. You could have plenty to share with your neighbors in need. For the ancient Hebrew people, peace and being fed went hand in hand. The book of Isaiah spans the time when three different Middle Eastern nations conquered what was once the great nation, Israel. Peace and being fed were critical issues facing the Jewish people then, and they are no less critical in the world today.

The plowshares, provisions of food and economic security for the people, are in the hands of a small number of nations today. Comparing the meager budget for international humanitarian assistance to the defense department budget tells the story that desire for swords and shields far outweighs our desire for plowshares.

Most of the food the U.S. produces comes from giant agribusinesses that have profited well from the large tax cuts to corporations. Smaller, family-owned farms are struggling even more than before with the international trade wars in which our government is now embroiled. Only large government subsidies, more than twice the amount of the 2009 auto industry bailout, have saved some farms from going under. (Bloomburg News, Nov. 21, 2019)

The U.S. has the second-highest poverty rate of all industrialized nations. Compared to other industrialized nations, the U.S. has the highest level of income equality. (U.S. Poverty Rates Higher, Safety Net Weaker than in Peer Countries, Elise Gould and Hilary Wething, July 24, 2012,) Economic Policy Institute. The number of children living below the poverty level is even higher than many developing countries. Yet we have the largest economy in the world. Who has the money and how is the money being spent? These are not just political questions. For a country with a majority Christian population, these are what the Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourner’s Magazine, calls “Jesus questions.”

We have privileged people who live in this relatively free society who, disingenuously complain they are not allowed to say, “Merry Christmas.” I see what appears to be either sanctimonious admonishments to other Christians or a condemnation of secular non-Christian culture on bumper stickers that read “Put Christ back in Christmas.” The obvious retort is a sign that says: “Put Christ back in Christians.” Christianity is not under attack from other religions, we are undermining the faith from within.

I am reminded of a story told by the Rev. Dr. Will Willimon many years ago when he was on the faculty of both Duke University and the Duke Divinity School. Willimon recounted an interesting conversation he had with a Duke freshman. This student came to talk with Willimon about a theological problem. He introduced himself as one who had attended a mainline Protestant church with his family; but, explained that church involvement was not “a big deal.” The problem, he thought, was his roommate. When Willimon asked him about the problem, the student replied: “Well, he’s a Muslim and I’m a Christian.” Willimon asked him what about that made living together difficult. The student answered: “Well, he’s started asking me all these embarrassing questions. Like after we had roomed together a few weeks, he asked me: ‘“Why do you Christians never pray?”’ “I told him we pray all the time. We just sort of keep it to ourselves.” He said: ‘” I’ll say you do. I’ve never seen you pray’” “He prays, like, a half dozen times a day on his prayer rug in our room, facing East Durham. The last straw was Saturday morning when I came in from a date…” (Notice that his Friday night date ended on Saturday morning)…”When I came in he asked me, ‘” Doesn’t your St. Paul say something about not joining your body with a prostitute? ‘” “I told him, ‘” Look. she’s not a prostitute, she’s a Tri-Delt. I told you I am not the best Christian in the world. You shouldn’t judge the Christian faith by me!’” To which Willimon asked: “Well, how should he judge the Christian faith? I ought to write your Muslim roommate a thank-you note. If that Muslim keeps working on you, he may yet make you into a real Christian.”

I had a similar enlightenment, the summer after my freshman year at college. I worked that summer at a summer camp for wealthy Jewish children from the Boston suburbs. I attended Friday night “quasi” services around a campfire with the group of 14-year girls with whom I was charged for a two-month camp. Their parents needed a place for their children, from ages 8-14, to be when school was not in session. I was appalled by the “sermons” the old man, whose family owned the camp, gave. I thought he was preaching “Jewish values.” I got very interested in reading my bible. What I began to understand is that what I was observing with both the camp owner and many of the campers was not Judaism, but secular values of wealthy parents and their spoiled children – an affliction to which Christians are no less susceptible. As much as we talk about the racial and ethnic division in this country, there is another divide that is as strong or even stronger – the division between the wealthy and the non-wealthy. I say that rather than “rich and poor” because the disparity in the accumulated wealth of the top 1% and the rest of Americans is at an all-time high.

What that college freshman Muslim roommate did for his Christian roommate was to show him that his worldview did not reflect the kingdom of God. What this Christian, whose identity with Christianity was merely ethnic and cultural, showed his Muslim roommate was his surrender to a popular culture that promotes and justifies a “you can have it your way” philosophy of life. The media ads which bombard us on television, radio and the internet alarm us with counting down the days until Christmas. Jesus sounded a different warning. You don’t know when your life will end. What are you doing with that life now matters for eternity?

The world into which Jesus, the Christ child was born, didn’t look like the kingdom of God has entered it any more than it does now. The kingdom of God and the kingdom of humanity seem to be existing in separate universes. Instead of beating our swords into plowshares, nations stockpile weapons. Our own country spends more than another country in the world. U.S. military expenditures are roughly the size of the next seven largest military budgets around the world, combined. In 2018, President Donald Trump signed a $1.3 trillion spending bill that includes a $160 billion increase in defense spending over two years. (https://dod.defense.gov › News › Special Reports; https://www.cnbc.com › 2019/04/26 › breakdown-of-718-billion-pentagon budget request, Aug 13, 2018.)

The amount of money that it would take to give back the government health insurance for children, lost since 2016, the year of the lowest number of uninsured children, is infinitesimal compared to our military budget. Just as in Jesus’ time, empire values are in direct opposition to Judeo-Christian values. Yes, we wait in hope for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth. But Jesus also warned his disciples that his second coming could not be predicted, so in the meantime, they better get busy doing the work to which he commissioned them.

 

One of my favorite poems is Howard Thurman’s “The Work of Christmas.”

The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.

Advent is a season of preparation. It is a time of hope that the goodness of God will take over the hearts and minds of a wayward humanity. Our hope begins with a vision of what God intends for the world and for us. God sent us an incarnation of that vision. God did not send the mighty sword-wielding warrior king, the people had envisioned as their savior. God knows our weaknesses and gives humanity what is needed, not what is desired. When our hopes, our visions of peace, our greatest joys and our love for God and neighbor rules our lives as it did Christ’s, we will be prepared to live in God’s kingdom. The work of Advent is to align our hopes with God’s.

Amen. May it be so.

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2019, All Rights Reserved
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